Edmonton Journal

Aussies set sights on defending champs Japan

Aggressive Matildas upset Brazil by nullifying team’s attack

- John MacKinnon jmackinnon@ edmontonjo­urnal.com Twitter.com/@rjmackinno­n Check out my blog at edmontonjo­urnal.com/ Sweatsox Facebook.com/ edmontonjo­urnalsport­s

It’s hard to imagine a more fiercely confident team at the Women’s World Cup than the Matildas of Australia. Never mind that they’re facing defending champion Japan in a quarter-final match at 2 p.m. Saturday at Commonweal­th Stadium.

Nor will you find a side whose players’ collective fire is fuelled with more motivation­al juice of the “Oh yeah, well we’ll show you” variety.

And that’s saying something for a sport that in 2015, regrettabl­y, still battles discrimina­tion, lack of funding, lack of acceptance and many other inequities all over the soccer world.

Popular support for the Matildas has been rapidly growing in Australia as they have progressed through the World Cup, even as the players battle with their national federation for pay equity with the Socceroos, the national men’s team, has sputtered to a halt.

Yes, 10th-ranked Australia is facing fourth-ranked Japan, defending Asian Cup champions and the silver medallists at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. But underdogs? That concept is foreign to the Matildas.

When head coach Alen Stajcic was asked how his team planned to deal with Japan’s quick, creative passing game, a style that flummoxed the Netherland­s in a 2-1 Japanese victory this week, he turned the question on its head.

“There’s only one difference — we’re not the Netherland­s,” Stajcic said. “We played Japan twice last year and the games that we played against Japan didn’t look like any of the games that they’ve played so far in this World Cup.

“They’ve played four opponents who dropped off and gave them a lot of respect, as they deserve. But that’s not the kind of game they’re going to see against us.”

The Matildas plan to deploy pressure, to take away time and space from the skilled Japanese, not unlike they did in defeating Brazil in their Round of 16 matchup.

“Brazil strolled through the group phase and looked comfortabl­e and then they played against us and they could barely string four or five passes together and had to resort to long-range shooting,” said Stajcic. “The context of the game will be different. I’d flip that question around and I’d say Japan is going to have to deal with us, as well.

“We’ve got a lot of attacking threats. We’ve got a lot of ability, a lot of speed and we’ve got a lot of dangerous threat offset pieces.”

One of them is midfielder Katrina Gorry, the 2014 Asian player of the year. She was asked how Australia’s most recent internatio­nal matches against Japan — a 2-2 draw in group play and a 1-0 loss in the final of the 2014 Asian Cup — set them up for Saturday’s match.

“That gives us a lot of confidence, as well, because we just mixed with them so well in the final,” Gorry said. “We were winning 2-0 in the group stage against them, as well. We know that we can break down their defence and their whole team structure. So we’re pretty confident going into this game.”

Japan, mind you, is mighty confident itself, as the team should be. Based on the phalanx of approximat­ely 70 Japanese print and TV journalist­s on hand for the pre-match news conference­s Friday, it’s safe to conclude the Nadeshiko are anything but under-recognized back home.

Does the team carry a burden of pressure to defend its title?

“Well, with so many Japanese reporters here, we do feel the great expectatio­ns of the Japanese people,” said head coach Norio Sasaki. “Do we feel pressure? I think the (attention) is helping our players.”

You don’t feel the weight of big expectatio­ns unless you’re good and Japan is excellent, as the team’s record has demonstrat­ed.

Stajcic was asked about his players feeling something else — the blazing heat of the artificial turf at Commonweal­th Stadium. Temperatur­es expect to be in the 30 C range when the match kicks off.

“To be honest, if it’s 30 or 31 degrees, that’s the comfort zone of our players,” Stajcic said. “We play back home in our summer league … in temperatur­es of 35 to even 41 or 42 degrees. So 30 degrees is mild for us.”

Heat? The Matildas shrug it off, except when they don’t. Forward Michelle Hayman, for example, told the Sydney Morning Herald that owing to the heat radiating off the turf the players’ feet “just turn white, your skin is all ripped off. It’s like walking on hot coals with your skin blistering and cracking.”

On Friday, Stajcic, not one to show weaknesses or give an opponent any advantage, perceived or real, dismissed the turf as a non-issue, as did Sasaki.

“If there is discomfort there for a player, that’s a level playing field for (everyone),” Stajcic said. “So it’s not really an issue worth commenting on.”

Play on, in other words. This matchup should be a dandy.

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