Olympics 2012 – Soccer – Canada vs. Japan @ The City of Coventry Stadium – July 25, 2012

This July the eyes of the world are on London, England.  The eyes and hopes of the Team Canada fans start off with the Women’s National Soccer team.  It was still two days before the opening ceremony.  This was Canada’s first competitive action in the Olympics.  There are 277 Canadian Athletes set to compete in London, but the first would be the 20 or so ladies on the soccer team.

To say that the Canadian Women’s National Soccer team’s performance at last summer’s World Cup in Germany was a disappointment would be a massive understatement.  Ranked in the top 10 in the world the Canadian women have been the soccer team that the nation has hung it’s national pride on as they have been one of the better nations for several years now.  People were expecting them to take the next step.  That did not happen.  Not only did it not happen they ended the tournament in last place gaining no points and only scoring 1 goal.  A major disappointment.

Soccer Canada forged ahead and set in motion a plan that would help the ladies bounce back from that dismal performance.  They replaced the head coach with Brit John Herdman.  Herdman brought a very detailed approach to coaching and prepared his team in every way possible from nutrition to mental approach to fitness.  He told his team that the time was now for Canada to turn the corner.

And they did by defeating Mexico in the qualification tournament and becoming the second team behind the United States to make the Olympics from this part of the world.  They became one of only 16 teams to make the Olympic tournament and to compete for the gold, silver and bronze medals.

There are four groups of four teams with the top two teams of each group advancing along with the two best third placed teams.  Canada is in Group F along with Japan, South Africa and Sweden.  Canada (7th in the world) is in tough as Japan (3rd in the world) and Sweden are top ranked teams.  The defending World Cup champions Japan was Canada’s first opponents.  They are the favourites in the group.  Japan is a technical team that does not turn over the ball often.  They are like the Barcelona of women’s soccer with wonderful one or two touch passing and as a result they are frustrating to play against.  Canada’s overall record against Japan is 3-3-3.

The Canada – Japan game was played under ideal conditions at the City of Coventry Stadium.  Japan was in navy blue uniforms with Canada in all white with red piping.  The beginning of the game was very cat-and-mouse.  Japan did not dominate possession as they love to early on.  Canada was successfully playing a compact defensive style.  Erin McLeod got the start in nets for Canada.

While Canada played the Japanese evenly over the first 30 minutes of the match a great bit of skill around the 33rd minute demonstrated how talented the Japanese are.  After conceding a throw in deep in their own end and following that up with some sloppy defending Japan struck for the game’s opening goal.  It was a nice build up by Japan featuring some good patience and a great finish.  A precise chip, a cheeky backheel and then a sure strike was all it took.  Midfielder Nahomi Kawasumi from a severe angle in tight placed a ball into the top right hand corner of the Canadian net that left McLeod no chance.

Japan started taking control of the game after their first goal.  Canada needed to show a bit more patience in their offensive forays.  They kept trying long searching balls instead of slow build ups.  As a result they kept giving the ball away needlessly.  Their transition game needed to be better.  Giving the Japanese some of the credit for Canada’s difficulties offensively, the Japanese work hard defensively and put pressure on the ball as soon as they lose it.

A spirit breaker for the Canadian side came with under 1 minute remaining in the 1st half.  McLeod gambled and lost.  She came off her line needlessly to deal with a cross from the left side and didn’t get to it.  Luck was on the Japanese side when the ball found the head of midfielder Aya Miyama and went into the deserted Canadian net.  It was a mistake from McLeod as she should have let her fullbacks deal with the cross.  Some of the blame also has to be laid on the shoulders of said fullbacks as they did not get a head to the ball either.

It was now 2-0 Japan and playing against a team that is excellent at possessing the ball meant this was going to be an uphill struggle for Canada to get back into the game.  Especially since as the game wore on the Japanese were getting better.  At times it seemed like there were more Japanese players on the field than Canadian as they were everywhere.

Canada had to get the ball up the field quickly and with purpose.  They had to hope to surprise the Japanese on the counter attack in the 2nd half.  Canada also had to have in their minds that it was very important to not lose this game 3-0 or 4-0 as goals against was going to surely play a part in who moves on.  With that in mind a massive play happened for Canada defensively in the 51st minute.  Fullback Lauren Sesselmann saved a sure goal against by clearing a ball right off the goal line after a Carmelina Moscato give away.  That play seemed to bolster the Canadian play over the remaining 40 minutes.

Shortly after in the 55th minute Melissa Tancredi provided her team with a glimmer of hope.  There is no doubt that captain and striker Christine Sinclair is the best player on the Canadian team.  She is probably one of the top 3 female soccer players worldwide.  Sinclair is the focal point of the Canadian attack, but if they are going to have any success at the Olympics secondary scoring is a must.  Former striker and present-day fullback Rhian Wilkinson started the play that led to the goal with an overlapping run along the right side.  She played a beautifully weighted and placed cross along the ground behind the Japanese defense.  Tancredi made an excellent run and stayed onside.  She then got behind the defender covering her momentarily, but long enough to get her boot on the cross and deflect it past Japanese keeper, Miho Fukumoto.  It was Tancredi’s 19th goal she’s scored for Canada.

It was now 2-1 with 35 minutes left giving Canada a hope of a tie.  The Japanese did not really give Canada another sniff at the net.  Sinclair did not have a lot of room to manoeuvre when she did get the ball.  On one occasion I counted 5 Japanese players around her.  With under 12 minutes left in the game it was obvious that Japan was just nursing their lead and content to just possess the ball.  They ended the game with 57% of the possession.  It was a composed performance by the Japanese.

In all honesty no one really expected Canada to defeat Japan…though a tie would have been nice.  Canada was done in by a sloppy 1st half though they should take away some positives from their stronger 2nd half.  One bad thing that did happen towards the end of the game was when central defender Candace Chapman went down with an apparent knee injury.  She was alone when it happened and it did not look good.  Canada had to finish the game with 10 as they had already used up their allotted subs.  It will be hard to replace Chapman’s experience in the middle of the defence for the Canadian side if she cannot continue in the tournament.

Canada did drop their opening match, but they still have a lot to play for.  All is not lost.  Their next game is Saturday morning (our time) against South Africa.  This is a must win for the team.

Game Stats:
-On-Field Officials:  Referee:  Kirsi Heikkinen (Finland)
Assistants:  Anu Jokela (Finland) and Tonja Paavola (Finland)
-Goals:  1st Half:
33rd minute – Japan – Nahomi Kawasumi
44th minute – Japan – Aya Miyama
2nd Half:
55th minute – Canada – Melissa Tancredi
-Shots on Goal:  Canada:  3
Japan:  5
-Saves:  Canada:  3
Japan:  2
-Corners:  Canada:  0
Japan:  3
-Attendance:  24,549
-Final Score:  Canada:  1
Japan:  2

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