The pressure will be on Sophie Schmidt, both in coping with Japan's world-class midfield and in delivering the set pieces that take advantage of Japan's hobbit-sized defense. (Canadian Soccer Association)
Live on TSN and Sportsnet. Internet stream at CTVOlympics.ca (within Canada).
Because it is the morning of the Big Game, we are hearing a lot of people urging us to calm down and remember that the Big Game, is in fact, just one match. Canada could lose this match by a hundred goals and still wind up in a strong position. Besides, it's a good idea not to get expectations too high: Japan is, as will constantly be repeated on this morning's broadcast, the defending World Cup champion.
But suppose you agreed with me when I said, yesterday afternoon, that Canada would probably have a tougher matchup against Sweden than they would against the Japanese. Japan's got a nasty midfield and could shove the ball down Canada's throats if we let them, but their undersized and occasionally erratic defense is also vulnerable to Canada's strongest wing: its attack. While Japan are of course the favourites one doesn't have to stretch the imagination that far to see Canada grabbing the three points. Whereas against Sweden, well, still possible, but that much tougher.
So I'll keep calling it the Big Game. Canada could finish third in their group and advance to the quarter finals, but that would mean a game against the United States and an almost certain trip home sans medal. Realistically, Big Red must finish second to have a chance at the podium... and if they finish second it'll actually be a relatively good one, thanks to the fearsome Americans being on the other side of the bracket.
If Canada's going to spring one upset in the group stage, this is the one to spring.
Let me be clear: I still think Japan is likely to get a win this game. But I have reasons for optimism and they are two-fold:
Firstly, the best part of Japan's team is their midfield. Homare Sawa, while getting a little long in the tooth, is certainly one of the five best midfielders in women's soccer. Her supporting cast is up to a high standard as well, with the biggest name to watch being Mizuho Sakaguchi: a relatively young 24 years old on this veteran team, Sakaguchi is a neat two-way midfielder who is capable of both audacious distance chip shots over unprepared goalkeepers and surprisingly tenacious defense.
That said, Canada's midfield has improved in recent months with the borderline-miraculous return of Diana Matheson at full strength. Matheson teams up well with Desiree Scott as defensive midfielders, while Sophie Schmidt's soccer remains at a very high standard and the wide play has begun to improve. Does this mean Canada's midfield is as good as Japan's? No, and don't be stupid. But it does mean they might be able to absorb more of the pressure than Japan is used to. Against teams with aggressive midfielders (like the United States and France) Japan's record is promisingly mixed.
Second, even by the standards of women's soccer Japan's defense is small. Saki Kumagai, one of their less experienced defenders, is the only one taller than 5'5" (and I swear some of those measurements are exaggerated even so; I'm not sure Yukari Kinga is really that much taller than Matheson). What everyone remembers from the 2011 World Cup is Japan beating the United States; what they don't remember is the part where Abby Wambach and Lauren Cheney were pretty much on a rampage and the Americans actually got some great offense going that they just failed to convert on through crappy tactics, a lack of intelligence, and some excellent goalkeeping.
Melissa Tancredi is 5'9". Christine Sinclair is not just 5'9" but built like a brick shithouse. Even Brittany Timko is 5'8", though slighter than the other two. Canada's attacking play on set pieces isn't brilliant but it's better than it was; there could be opportunities for Sinclair to try and get a shot off a corner being marked by a defender she's half a foot taller than. That matchup is hugely promising, if Canada can exploit it.
This will put even more pressure on Schmidt; luckily, she's my pick for the second-strongest player in the Canadian lineup. Set pieces have long been a weakness for Canada's national teams of either gender, but Schmidt hit a few promising ones in the warmup games. With so much of Canada's best offense likely to come off the corner or well-placed free kicks, she'll have to be delivering well. And Japan may be small but they're talented: Schmidt isn't likely to get much leeway.
What Canada needs this morning is some good old Even Pellerud route-one soccer. Right now all the coaches who read this site are storming off in disgust but, this one game, what Canada needs to do is put themselves in a position where the speed and far superior strength of their forwards can make its mark. The midfield will have a lot of problems. So just thwack it up to Sinclair. Let her muscle through guys and eventually get on the end of one. It's unlikely Canada will be able to outplay Japan on the carpet so don't bother; use that athleticism. I know it's not pretty and won't do anything for the development of soccer in Canada, but this isn't a U-20 training camp. This is one game, and the tactics must be suited for winning it.