AUCKLAND, New Zealand -
Japan have hardly been tested in this Women's World Cup and rolled with a perfect 4-0 record into the quarter-finals, where a win over Sweden would show the Nadeshiko are very much a true contender.
But Friday's opening day of the quarter-finals also gives Netherlands an opportunity to take control of a wide-open World Cup. The Dutch were runners-up to the United States four years ago, and the Americans beat them in the quarter-finals of the Tokyo Olympics.
With the US already eliminated, Netherlands have a major obstacle out of its way. But first up comes a match against Spain, which had never before advanced into the quarter-finals of the World Cup until this year.
A look at Friday's games:
Sweden is rated third in the world by FIFA and the highest-ranked team still in the World Cup. After three third-place finishes in the tournament, the Swedes are ready to play in a championship game.
Sweden ended America’s run toward an unprecedented third consecutive World Cup title, have been to the semi-finals three different times, including in 2019, but has not made it to the final since 2003. Sweden were runner-up to Germany in its only championship game.
The Swedes were sparked by goalkeeper Zecira Musovic, who was unflappable during Sweden's 5-4 penalty shootout win over the Americans.
The one thing Sweden coach Peter Gerhardsson has figured out about Japan is that they are nothing like any other team the Swedes have seen so far in this tournament.
“None of the four opponents we’ve played so far are reminiscent of Japan,” Gerhardsson said. “But when we’re looking at the matches played by Japan, we don’t think that there are any similarities between those countries and Sweden either.”
But Japan have breezed through the tournament and is a perfect 4-0 headed into this match against Sweden at Eden Park, where Japan can avenge its loss to the Swedes in the quarter-finals of the Tokyo Olympics.
Hinata Miyazawa has scored five times in four games and leads the Golden Boot race headed into the match against Sweden. The 23-year-old has already matched the team’s World Cup record set by Japanese legend Homare Sawa, who had five goals when Japan won the event in 2011.
Japan have scored a team-record 14 goals while going 4-0 and conceded only one goal this tournament, in a 3-1 victory over Norway in the knockout stage.
“Since this team has been built, everything that we have done is now taking form and we’re able to see it on the field,” midfielder Fuka Nagano said. “I think that is helping me and each player believe in themselves and I think that’s leading to us getting to where we are now.”
Japan has benefited from back-to-back games in New Zealand. After beating Norway in Wellington, the Japanese have made the short flight to Auckland. Sweden played in Melbourne, have an additional travel day and a new time zone to adjust to for the quarter-finals.
The game could be a defensive battle despite Japan’s scoring abilities because the teams have combined for six clean sheets, and each has conceded only one goal apiece in four games. But Sweden rank seventh among the eight quarter-finalists for average expected goals, and had just three shots on goal against the United States.
Spain seemed to be among the strongest teams in the competition until a 4-0 blowout loss to Japan in the group finale. La Roja rebounded to eliminate Switzerland in the knockout round with 5-1 win.
The goal allowed was an own goal, and the Spaniards made five line-up changes ahead of the Switzerland match in a major shakeup after the Japan loss. Now in the quarter-finals for the first time, Spain's match against the Netherlands will be a true test of where it stands among the soccer elite.
Spain have scored 13 goals through four games and has been offensively aggressive in every game, except the loss to Japan.
Netherlands are trying to make the championship game for the second World Cup in a row. The Dutch failed to qualify for the first six editions of the World Cup but have been among the best since their 2015 debut. Netherlands made it to the knockout round that year and lost to the United States in the final in 2019.
Dutch forward Lineth Beerensteyn couldn't help but celebrate a bit when Sweden eliminated the reigning two-time champion United States. The two teams played to a tense 1-1 draw in the group stage and Beerensteyn is happy to avoid another match against the Americans.
“From the first moment I heard they were out I was just like ‘Yes! Bye!’” Bereensteyn said. “From the start of the tournament they were already talking about the final. I was thinking, ‘You first have to show it on the pitch before you talk.’
“I still have a lot of respect for them but now they’re out of the tournament,” she said. “For me it’s a relief and for them it’s something they will have to take with them in the future.”
The match is a meeting of prolific scorers: Jill Roord has scored four goals so far, one off the pace behind behind tournament-leading Hinata Miyazawa of Japan. Aitana Bonmati has three goals so far and has stepped in for Alexia Putellas, the two-time Ballon d’Or winner who has been limited by injury.
Danielle van de Donk, the midfielder who tussled with American captain Lindsey Horan in group play, will miss the game for the Netherlands because she has two yellow cards in the tournament.
“I feel very stupid,” she said. “You don’t want to be suspended for the next round and I now have to deal with that personally.”