Japan could not be counted among the favorites coming into the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup, despite their depth and skill. They finished fourth in the 2008 Olympics and third in the 2010 AFC Women's Asian Cup. Oh, and that was before a massive tsunami and earthquake rocked the country, limiting the number of games the women's team could play in the build-up to the tournament. It even took the men's team out of the 2011 Copa America.
In the first game of the World Cup, Japan got off to a positive, if unconvincing start in their 2-1 win over New Zealand. They were expected to defeat New Zealand more easily than they did, but they all count for three points, as we all know. Turbine Potsdam star Yuki Nagasato and set piece specialist Aya Miyama scored the goals in a 2-1 win.
The second match of the group stages was a much bigger success for Japan, as they did a bit of foreshadowing with their massive 4-0 thrashing of Mexico. To that point, they were only the second team, after France, who looked like they had a fantastic whooping in them. Germany, Brazil and the United States had put in good performances, but at no point had any of them looked like a team who could drop a 4-0 win on any team good enough to qualify for the World Cup.
Japan had a hiccup in the last game of the group stages, as they were defeated by England 2-0. They were the inferior team for 90 minutes, a very surprising result after their thrashing of Mexico. England are a team with some fantastic talent who was thought to be very capable of defeating Japan, but it was surprising how poorly Japan played in the match compared to their previous performance. After getting outplayed by a team who was superior physically but inferior technically, very few gave the Japanese much of a chance going into their quarterfinal against Germany.
Instead, they pulled off the upset of the tournament, beating Germany 1-0 in extra time with a goal by Karina Maruyama in the 108th minute. Germany looked panicked and disorganized for much of the match, putting in an extremely uncharacteristic performance. Breaking down Japan is difficult for anyone, and it was obvious that the hosts got frustrated and let the pressure get to them when they didn't score a goal early on. Their shooting in the match was poor, and they paid dearly, disappointing an entire nation with their quarterfinal exist. Still, despite Germany's disappointing performance, Japan passed the ball and held their shape brilliantly and were very much deserved winners.
In the semifinals, they faced a similar team in Japan. Bigger, stronger, faster, and good enough technically that they were favorites, even against a team as technically sound as Japan. The Japanese prevailed again in a thriller, with the legendary Homare Sawa scoring the winner in a 3-1 win. The victory was capped off by an incredible 35 yard chip by Nahomi Kawasumi, a sure goal of the tournament candidate that completed her brace on the day.
The final against the United States is a task similar to what Japan has seen before. Once again, they are slight underdogs. Once again, they face a team that is much bigger, stronger, and faster than they are. In the previous two rounds, they prevailed. So, who's going to win the classic size versus skill match this time around?
Check out the corresponding post on the United States' road to the World Cup final.
For all of our coverage of the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup semifinals and how the two teams got to the final, give our Sweden vs. Japan and USA vs. France StoryStreams a read. For all of our previous coverage of the tournament, check out our 2011 Women's World Cup section. For more on the final, bookmark this StoryStream. We'll have updates in the build-up to the game. You can catch the game on Sunday at 2:45 P.M. ET on ESPN. We'll have more information on the schedule of events and where to watch as the game approaches.