SEVILLE, Spain — Spain closed out the international break with a 1-0 win over Japan on Tuesday with an early goal from Alba Redondo. With goalkeeper Ayaka Yamashita’s gloves stung by an effort from long range, Redondo slipped beyond the Japanese backline to race onto the loose ball, firing it into the top right corner nine minutes into the friendly.
Although both teams continued to fashion half-chances throughout the rest of the night, it was a sluggish affair that failed to spark into life offering up no more goals.
The match served a preview for the Women’s World Cup next summer as Spain and Japan will face each other in Group C at the tournament hosted in Australia and New Zealand — but the stakes certainly felt lower.
ESPN’s Sophie Lawson has reaction and analysis from Estadio Olímpico de la Cartuja.
1. New-look Spain still have questions to answer
In the aftermath of the dispute between the majority of the senior Spanish women’s squad on one side, and their coach and federation on the other, a new-look Spanish team continues to take shape.
Vilda fielded a raft of younger players and those who lack senior international experience, yet for the teething problems, these are players that should be better suited to the abilities of their coach.
For too long, the manager would populate his team with players from Barcelona and try to lean on the style associated with the Blaugrana, even though it rarely came together on the pitch for Spain. In a squad that’s now populated with players from Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Levante and other clubs, the coach can get back to basics and balance out possession-heavy football with much more of a direct attacking threat.
In their first match of the month, La Roja had faced a defensively disorganised Argentina team that repeatedly buckled under pressure from the hosts — but against Japan, Spain were asked to work more and be smarter with the ball. Maybe tired from the level or still trying to get used to playing with each other, the hosts repeatedly failed when it came to that extra intelligence or finesse when they needed it.
2. Japanese attack remains an unfinished puzzle
Having first favoured Riko Ueki to lead the line when he took over as Japan coach, Futoshi Ikeda opted to keep the young striker on the bench for this window’s loss against England and Tuesday’s first half against Spain. Instead, he utilised Mana Iwabuchi as a false nine against England before introducing Mina Tanaka, who kept her spot for the start of the second game.
Yet, where Iwabuchi, the experienced striker, had been able to affect play against the Lionesses, she was cheap with the ball when she had it against Spain.
Indeed, Japanese attack looks to be one where the players spend the domestic season playing for different clubs, such that when Nadeshiko could mount attacks against La Roja, the Japanese continually looked disjointed. Much needed partnerships appear either yet to take hold, or having fizzled out over the course of the league season.
The second half introduction of Ueki gave Japan a little more focus in attack and, again, Yui Hasegawa attempted to be the catalyst, positioning herself in the majority of Japan’s attacks and desperately trying to find players to get into the home box.
The match wore on as they tend to with Ikeda going to his bench to try and inject some life into the side, flipping the coin between adding hungry players trying to impress and disrupting any building flow. The introduction of Fuka Nagano after the hour helped the side to spread wider across the pitch and pick up spaces between the lines — but for all the better work in midfield, the attack remained blunted.
3. Two teams very much in transition but not much time
With both squads in a state of transition and both knowing they’ll be playing each other in what is on paper the decisive and last match of their World Cup group stage in July, it was always going to be tough to make any clear pronouncements about this friendly. Indeed, on a night when you’d hoped for slick teams trying to pick each other apart, you were left with young squads still feeling things out at this level.
It would be unfair to declassify the match to the stature of a preseason friendly or similar, but it had that look of players not quite at 100%, still trying to feel things out, still looking for each other and a wider understanding of how their coaches want them playing.
For Spain and their new-look squad, this is understandable and acceptable — the younger players Vilda has called in amid the sudden withdrawal of the veterans will need time to get up to speed at the senior international level after all. Yet for Ikeda, who took charge of Japan after the departure of Asako Takakura following a disappointing Olympic campaign last year, this is the time in his tenure when the pieces should be slotting into place.
The Nadeshiko are not just boosted with having players playing professionally around the world, but with the advent of the Women Empowerment league in Japan, a full-time league that allows all the home-based players to play at a professional level. The question becomes why, when you have all these pro players who understand how to play football and who impress on a weekly basis for their domestic clubs, does it still look like a struggling experiment when they are brought together for their national team?
There were bright moments for the visitors after the break and indeed, the Spanish defence wasn’t allowed to switch off even in the dying exchanges — but for Japan, the performance once again did not match the potential on the pitch. With just three more international windows before teams convene for the World Cup, things are not looking too positive for the 2011 champions.
Spain: Misa 6, Ivana 6, Rocío 6, Olga 7, Zornoza 6, Oroz 6, Teresa 6, Redondo 7, Shelia 5, Cardona 6, Athenea 5
Subs: Oihane 5, Paralluelo 5, Nahikari 6, Fiamma 5, Pérez
Japan: Yamashita 6, Miyake 6, Shimizu 5, Minami 6, Kumagai 6, Naomoto 5, Hasegawa 6, Hayashi 6, Tanaka 5, Endo 6, Fujino 5
Subs: Ueki 6, Norimatsu 5, Sugita 6, Nagano 6, Miyazawa 5
Best and worst performers
BEST: Olga Carmona, Spain
The left-back had a couple of looks with shots from range, but stuck to her defensive duties to do a lot of mopping up in front of Misa.
WORST: Hikaru Naomoto, Japan
The midfielder remained absent whilst on the pitch with Japan looking better once she was subbed off.
Spain: Fixtures for the upcoming windows have not yet been announced, but Spain are scheduled to face Costa Rica, Zambia and Japan in the World Cup’s Group C in July.
Japan: Fixtures for the upcoming windows have not yet been announced, but Japan are scheduled to face Zambia, Costa Rica and Spain in the World Cup’s Group C in July.