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Can England’s Lionesses Upset Defending Champs Japan?

Heading into the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, England was not the sexy choice. The Lionesses were undefeated in World Cup qualifiers, outscoring their opponents 52-1, but few insiders expected them to challenge the game’s giants: Germany, the United States and Japan.

Then came the victory over Norway in the Round of 16 and the upset of host Canada in the quarterfinals. England still only has a 10 percent chance of winning the tournament, according to our Women’s World Cup forecasting model, but its chances nearly doubled after the Norway win and then more than doubled after the victory over Canada. The squad, which features no recognizable stars and has not won a match in this tournament by more than one goal, now finds itself on the brink of history.

England has never made it this far in a Women’s World Cup, and this is the furthest any English team, men or women, has come in a World Cup since 1990. Tonight, the squad, led by coach Mark Sampson, will take the field in Edmonton against defending champions Japan for a spot in the final against the U.S., which upset Germany 2-0 in its semifinal match Tuesday night.

Japan is favored to win the game 61 percent to England’s 39 percent, according to our model. Its chances of winning the tournament are 20 percent — double England’s but still a far cry from the U.S.’s 70 percent.

Japan has quietly arrived at this stage of this competition. The team played its most complete game of the tournament in its 2-1 victory over the Netherlands in the Round of 16 and labored to a 1-0 win over Australia in the quarterfinals. Japan’s attack remains the game’s best; its tiki-taka passing style in the midfield is a beauty to watch for spectators and baffling for defenses. The midfield, led by 36-year-old former captain and 2011 World Cup hero Homare Sawa and star Nahomi Kawasumi, has dominated possession in every one of the team’s matches but has failed to convert that dominance into goals. Japan has averaged just 1.4 goals per game in the tournament, and England’s stingy defense will need that run to continue if it’s to have a chance.

The Lionesses’ leading scorers in the tournament are two defenders, Karen Carney and Lucy Bronze. England’s lack of offensive firepower and struggles in the final third could prove decisive against what is a small, but well-organized Japanese backline. With both Carney and Bronze likely to have their hands full with Japan’s speedy attackers, they will have fewer chances to direct counterattacks as they did against Canada. As a result, outside of set pieces, they are unlikely to impose themselves on offense.

If Japan can do a better job converting its chances, it should win this game, maybe even comfortably. But, then again, in this tournament, nothing has been comfortable for the big teams.

Daniel A. Medina is a multimedia journalist based in New York City.

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