Mon, September 23, 2013

Canadian women lose Olympic soccer opener

By STEVE BUFFERY, QMI Agency


Canada's Candace Chapman (left) and Rhian Wilkinson (right) fight for the ball with Japan's Yuki Ogimi during their women's soccer match at the London Olympics in Coventry, England, on Wednesday, July 25, 2012. (Alessandro Garofalo/Reuters)


COVENTRY, ENGLAND - There was a Japanese fan sitting behind the press area at the City of Coventry Stadium who shrieked like a wounded bird every time her team put together a decent scoring chance against Canada in opening-round women’s soccer action at the London Olympics.

At times it sounded like someone was taping an episode of the old Wild Kingdom show.

The Japanese chances on a warm and sunny Wednesday afternoon were plentiful, and, predictably, the defending FIFA world champions defeated Canada, 2-1, on the strength of their renowned ball control, passing, skill and creativity.

But it wasn’t a whitewash by any means and the bigger Canadians, though out-classed for much of the game, earned high marks for refusing to lay down against the Asian powerhouse, and for fighting back after falling 2-0 behind in the first half.

"When you play against Japan, you know there’s going to be some real scary moments," said Canadian coach John Herdman. "They can do things that other teams can’t do to you. They move the ball so quickly, it’s scary for defenders. But when you see (Canadian) players pulling their mates out of the mire, with last-ditch tackles, that’s what this team has got to be about. And that’s what I loved about them."

The loss puts the Canadian team behind the eight ball in the Olympic tournament, but just slightly. A win against the lower ranked South Africans on Saturday and a positive result against Sweden on Tuesday will almost surely put Canada in the quarterfinals, and neither Herdman, nor his players, were by any means devastated by the loss to "The Nadeshiko," as the Japanese team is known.

"I think you’ve got to keep the expectations real," said Herdman, an Englishman who took over as head coach in just under a year ago, following Canada’s dismal 0-3 performance in the 2011 World Cup. "This team will grow through the tournament, we’ll build momentum off little performances like this, we’ll take the positives out."

One positive was the goal scored by Melissa Tancredi in the 55th minute, when the Ancaster, Ont., native redirected a cross from Rhian Wilkinson in front of the Japanese goal to make it 2-1. But in the end, the Japanese were too much for Canada, a team looking to rebound from its poor performance at the last World Cup.

"They’re quick, they're crafty, they get into those tight little spaces that you don’t think they can get into," said Canadian defender Lauren Sesselmann, who made an incredible save on Japanese forward Yuki Ogimi in the second half which gave the Canadians a lift.

Ogimi had an open net, but Sesselmann made a nifty sliding save to clear the ball off the line.

Japan’s goals, both in the first half, were scored by Nahomi Kawasumi and Aya Miyama. Kawasumi’s goal was a thing of beauty as her teammate, Shinobu Ohno, fed her with a nice back-heel pass, and then Kawasumi charged in and beat Canadian goalkeeper Eric McLeod in the top corner.

The match featured two of the best players in women’s soccer, Japanese midfielder Homare Sawa, FIFA’s world player of the year in 2011 and now a four-time Olympian, and Canada’s Christine Sinclair, who has scored 137 goals wearing the red and white, but didn’t have many chances to get involved in Wednesday’s game. Both have been capped over 180 times.

The Japanese have made extraordinary progress in women’s soccer at the Olympics, going 0-3 in their first appearance at the 1996 Atlanta Games, but then reaching the quarterfinals at the 2004 Athens Games and making it to the semis four years ago in Beijing, losing to the eventual gold medallists, the U.S.A.

However, they looked less than formidable in a couple of recent friendlies, a 2-0 loss to France last week and a 4-1 defeat at the hands of the Americans in June. But against a weaker Canadian side they looked right on form.

"I’m scratching one side of me head and feeling OK in the other," said Herdman after the Japan match. "The only thing I can ask for from the players that they put PB’s in. You looked at every Canadian player there, there was not one ounce of Canadian left out there."

steve.buffery@sunmedia.ca

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