July 12, 2011

Preview: Semifinal Two

Sweden (#5) vs. Japan (#4)
Frankfurt (2:45 pm eastern)

Last Meeting: Sweden 1, Japan 1 (June 23, 2011)

Coach: Thomas Dennerby
WC Matches: Defeated Colombia 1-0, Defeated Korea DPR 1-0, Defeated United States 2-1, Defeated Australia 3-1.

GK-Hedvig Lindahl (4 gms, 0.50 gaa, 2 shutouts)
DF-Annica Svensson (4 gms)
DF-Sara Larsson (4 gms)
DF-Charlotte Rohlin (4 gms)
DF-Sara Thunebro (4 gms)
MF-Linda Forsberg (4 gms)
MF-Caroline Seger (3 gms)
MF-Lisa Dahlkvist (4 gms, 3 goals)
MF-Therese Sjogran (4 gms, 1 goal, 2 assists)
FW-Lotta Schelin (4 gms, 1 goal, 2 assists)
FW-Josefine Oqvist (3 gms)

GK-Kristin Hammarstrom, Sofia Lundgren.
DF-Linda Sembrandt (1 gm), Lina Nilsson (1 gm).
MF-Nilla Fischer (4 gms, 1 goal), Sofia Jakobsson (1 gm), Antonia Goransson (1 gm), Marie Hammarstrom (1 gm).
FW-Jessica Landstrom (2 gms, 1 goal), Madelaine Edlund (2 gms).

Coach: Norio Sasaki
WC Matches: Defeated New Zealand 2-1, Defeated Mexico 4-0, Lost to England 0-2, Defeated Germany 1-0 (ot).

GK-Ayumi Kaihori (4 gms, 0.69 gaa, 2 shutouts)
DF-Yukari Kinga (4 gms, 1 assist)
DF-Azusa Iwashimizu (4 gms)
DF-Saki Kumagai (4 gms)
DF-Aya Sameshima (4 gms)
MF-Shinobu Ohno (4 gms, 1 goal, 1 assist)
MF-Mizuho Sakaguchi (4 gms)
MF-Homare Sawa (4 gms, 3 goals, 1 assist)
MF-Aya Miyama (4 gms, 1 goal, 2 assists)
FW-Yuki Nagasato (4 gms, 1 goal, 1 assist)
FW-Kozue Ando (4 gms)

GK-Nozomi Yamago, Miho Fukumoto.
DF-Kyoko Yano.
MF-Nahomi Kawasumi (2 gms), Rumi Utsugi (2 gms), Asuna Tanaka (1 gm), Megumi Kamionobe.
FW-Karina Maruyama (3 gms, 1 goal), Mana Iwabuchi (4 gms).

These two teams have already met twice this year with Japan winning 2-1 at the Algarve Cup in March and the teams playing to a 1-1 draw in a friendly right before the World Cup. They have met twice before at the World Cup, with Sweden winning 2-0 in 1995 group stage action and 8-0 in a 1991 group stage match. Amazingly, Homare Sawa started in that 1995 match against Sweden at the age of 16.

The Japanese are coming off a very draining match, going into overtime to defeat the tournament favorites, Germany. Japan's only loss in this tournament was in their final group stage match against England, by a 2-0 margin.

Sweden is the only semifinalist to have won their group. They squeaked through three one-goal victories at the group stage, before making fairly easy work of Australia, defeating the Matildas 3-1 in the only quarterfinal match not to go into overtime.

Japan will be facing one of the most physical teams at the World Cup in Sweden. Sweden has outfouled their opponents by the stunning margin of 65-22. Japan is a team not exactly known for their physical play. This will be the third straight match in which Japan will have to face a much bigger and more physical team.

One had to wonder coming into the World Cup if Ayumi Kaihori had the stuff to be a top notch World Cup goalkeeper. But she played her strongest match of the tournament when Japan needed it the most, shutting out mighty Germany 1-0. The amazing thing was that Kaihori actually seemed to get more calm as the game wore on and withstood the pressure in the closing minutes of the match like a Sunday walk in the park.

As impressive as Kaihori was in that match, Japan still has to worry about Kaihori's size when facing the tall Swedish team. At 5-7, she is one of the tallest Japanese players, but she will be amongst giants in players like Schelin, Landstrom, Seger, and Forsberg. Set pieces are likely to be a problem for Japan and Kaihori will have to be at her best in making good decisions and no errors.

Meanwhile, Hedvig Lindahl was considered to be the steady veteran heading into this World Cup. She has posted two shutouts and has played well overall, but she has been a bit adventurous, and occasionally a bit lucky as well, when she got caught out of the goal by Lisa De Vanna in the quarterfinals and Amy Rodriguez in a group stage match. Neither turned into goals.

Lindahl has good agility and can handle the ball in traffic if need be. Her experience will be a huge advantage in this match, but she needs to keep from roaming too much. She has a sturdy defense in front of her, which should make her job a lot easier.

Advantage: Sweden slightly.

Sweden's left side defense ranks among the best in this tournament. Sara Thunebro and Charlotte Rohlin are dependable defenders and will not make mistakes. Thunebro will also get forward to harass opponents on the flank. Japan will find attacking this side to be a formidable task and would probably do better attacking the Swedish right.

Veteran Sara Larsson and outside back Annica Svensson start on the right side. Larsson is a dependable veteran, but doesn't have the speed she once had. Svensson is the least experienced of the Swedish back line and considered the most vulnerable, although to be fair, most defenders would be when compared to Thunebro and Rohlin.

Japan's defense put in one of the most incredible performances of this tournament on Saturday, shutting out Germany over 120 minutes. The two central defenders, Saki Kumagai and Azusa Iwashimizu had brilliant games. The pressure will be on them again in this match. Kumagai is the only Japanese defender with any size at all and defending against set pieces will be a problem against Sweden. But if they can come up with another match like Saturday, they will give Japan a chance.

The outside backs are Yukari Kinga on the right and Aya Sameshima on the left. Kinga is experienced and a very good two-way player. She loves to get involved in the offense, crossing the ball, attacking the flanks, working give-and-go plays. Sameshima sometimes looks as though a strong wind would blow her over. She almost seems a bit too relaxed at times, which can be a worry against competition as strong as this. Look for Sweden to attack her side early and often.

The Japanese back line will have to guard against Schelin's and Oqvist's speed on through balls, something that caused the US trouble in the group stage match.

Advantage: Sweden slightly again.

What a battle this should be in the midfield, with some of the best on the field in this match. Homare Sawa and Aya Miyama give Japan two of the most creative and technically skilled midfielders that you'll see. Sawa has now experienced five World Cups and is one of the most respected players in the world. She had a scary moment in Saturday's match when she got kicked in the groin area, but was right back on the field in just a few minutes.

Aya Miyama is the best at set pieces and she can pinpoint free kicks from 40 yards in. Not only that, but she just good enough to score a few of her own. With Miyama and Sawa distributing in the midfield, Sweden will be spending a lot of time chasing and not as much with possession of their own. Fouls in this match could be costly, giving Miyama a chance to use her skills.

The other two midfielders are Mizuho Sakaguchi and Shinobu Ohno. Ohno has speed to burn and will sometimes change positions with Kozue Ando to play as a striker. She might be Japan's most dangerous attacking weapon in their starting lineup. Sakaguchi has been steady so far in the tournament from her central midfield position.

Caroline Seger heads up the Swedish midfield. She is a very tough, physical player, who has already had to sit out one match due to yellow card accumulation. But make no mistake, she is also very skilled with a strong shot and she can thread passes through to her forwards as good as any midfielder in the game.

Perhaps the surprise of this World Cup for Sweden has been Lisa Dahlkvist. Not really known as a scorer for the national team, she has scored in three consecutive matches, although one was a penalty kick against the US. She has a powerful shot if she can get it on frame and can be dangerous on strikes from midrange.

Therese Sjogran, the great Swedish veteran who is their all-time caps leader, starts at one outside position. She scored the opening goal against Australia and has assisted on two other goals as well. Fundamentally solid and technically strong, she provides yet another link to the speedy Swedish forwards. Filling out the midfield is Linda Forsberg, another tall, physical presence in the midfield. She is experienced and very good at crossing the ball from the wing.

Also look for Nilla Fischer to make her presence known in a substitute's role. She scored a goal and played a very good match against the United States, subbing in for Seger during her suspension.

Advantage: Even

Sweden's forwards are going to be a handful for Japan's defense in this match. While Lotta Schelin has had trouble finding the net, she is always dangerous, with good pace and size. She is adept at runs up the middle and she can beat the best of defenses when she times it well. Now that she has finally got a goal, look for more to follow.

My guess is that Thomas Dennerby will again go with speedy Josefine Oqvist over Jessica Landstrom at the other starting forward spot. Oqvist has had a better touch in the attacking third so far, although she has yet to score a goal. Landstrom's height is a problem for pretty much every defense, but especially for one as short as Japan's. If Landstrom starts, that would most likely be the reason why. Landstrom scored against Colombia in Sweden's first match of this World Cup.

Japan usually starts Kozue Ando and Yuki Nagasato up front. Both are long-time veterans of this team. Nagasato has over 30 career goals and scored in Japan's opener against New Zealand. Ando has yet to dent the scoreboard in this tournament and sometimes drops back to midfield, with Ohno moving forward into the attacking role.

The most attention in this tournament has gone to Japan's substitute forwards. Karina Maruyama has never scored a bigger goal than she did against Germany on Saturday. It was a well-placed shot to the far post that had Nadine Angerer guessing the wrong way. Maruyama has a knack for finding seams in opposing defenses and exploiting them. The most technically skilled of the forwards might be teenager Mana Iwabuchi, who is very creative and appears to have a bright future. Her biggest problem is that she can be knocked off the ball by bigger defenders.

Advantage: Sweden.

Japan has faced two strong, physical opponents so far in the tournament, playing a great match against Germany in their 1-0 victory, but faring not so well against England in a 2-0 loss. The 120 minutes against Germany had to take something out of them and they substitute very infrequently, leaving one to believe that they could wear down before this tournament is over.

Still, they are so strong technically and they can make the other team have to work to get possession. That works in their favor against a team like Sweden. Japan needs to keep the ball at their feet, string together passes and be patient.

Sweden has been very opportunistic to this point in the tournament, taking advantage of mistakes by both the US and Australia to win important matches. The Japanese are less likely to make those kind of errors, but my guess is that Sameshima will be pressured throughout the match in hopes of forcing a mistake.

Set pieces will be very important to both sides in this match. Sweden will look to target their tall players in the penalty area and create traffic in front of Kaihori. Japan will look for Miyama's brilliance on set pieces to lead to a goal.

Sweden has been very good at playing through balls and letting Schelin and Oqvist run onto them. They will also switch points of attack often to keep Japan from settling in on defense. This should be an interesting match for contrasting styles and a close match as well.

My Prediction: Sweden 1, Japan 0.