Japan scored three times from lightning breaks in the first half, once in the second and defended resolutely to trounce Spain 4-0 on Monday and top Group C at the Women’s World Cup.
Hinata Miyazawa scored twice, Riko Ueki scored once and both were instrumental in each other’s goals as Japan switched swiftly from defense to counter-attack and scored from its only three attempts on goal before halftime.
Mina Tanaka came off the bench to score the last in the 82nd minute as Japan, with only 22% of possession, turned on a counter-attacking master class in front of 21,000 fans.
Both teams had already clinched places in the round of 16, Japan for the fourth World Cup in succession, Spain for the second. Both had beaten Zambia 5-0 and Spain had the better goal differential after a 3-0 win over Costa Rica. A draw would have been enough to see Spain finish atop a group for the first time in its history.
But Spain has struggled against Asian teams in World Cup matches, losing to South Korea in 2015 and drawing with China in 2019.
Japan played with a strong and cold wind at its back in the first half and that added carry to long balls forward which helped catch the Spain defense in retreat.
Spain had an overwhelming majority of possession in the half; by the 25-minute mark it had enjoyed 68% and had more than 230 completed passes to Japan’s 43. But it was timid, reluctant to go forward and played mostly around the middle of the field, keeping the ball on the ground in the face of the wind.
Japan was content to defend in depth and to counter-attack. It sprang the trap for the first time in the 12th. From just inside the Spain half and wide on the left Jun Endo sent a long, curling ball forward which fell for Miyakawa, who neatly slipped her shot past Misa Rodriguez.
In the 23rd Moeka Minami cleared from the edge of the Japan area. Ueki nodded the ball back for Nagano to send Miyazawa away on the right. She passed across the goal to Ueki, who took the ball on her left foot, propped to her right and unleashed a shot which deflected off Irene Paredes and ballooned over Rodriguez.
Ueki celebrated the goal a day after her 24th birthday.
In the 40th it was Ueki’s turn to deliver for Miyazawa. She broke incisively on the left, passed across to the right as the Spain defense, backpedaling, tried to regroup and Miyazawa finished clinically with her left foot.
Each goal fell into the same pattern and each was executed with the same precision. Spain had few chances before halftime, perhaps its best was Jennifer Hermoso’s header from Ona Batlle’s cross.
Tanaka’s goal was a magnificent solo effort. She beat Rocio Galvez near halfway, eluded Batlle and Paredes and then drove the ball powerfully into the top left corner. Japan’s four goals came from only five attempts.
Among the fans at Sky Stadium were some from Palmerston North, the provincial town 160 kilometers north of Wellington which was Spain’s base until they quit it suddenly last week.
Japan was a surprise winner of the World Cup in 2011 and runners-up to the United States in 2015. With 12 goals from three group matches this time, they again loom as a title contender.
Japan now will play Group A runner-up Norway on Saturday in the round of 16 and Spain will play Group A winner Switzerland.