Netherlands eliminates Japan as transition of power in women's soccer is laid bare

Yahoo Sports

After reaching consecutive Women’s World Cup finals, Japan stranded in the round of 16 with a 2-1 loss to the European champions from the Netherlands on a late penalty kick on Tuesday.

That made the Dutch the seventh European team to reach the final eight at this World Cup on French soil, avenging their loss to the Japanese at the same stage in Canada four years ago.

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Both teams faced huge expectations in their home countries coming into this tournament, but a goal in each half from Dutch star Lieke Martens overcame Yui Hasegawa’s tally for Japan to send the Leeuwinnen to a quarterfinal with Italy on Saturday in just their second World Cup.

While the loss was rough on Japan, which had dominated the second half and was ultimately felled by a penalty that could be seen as a tad harsh, the result also seemed to confirm the emerging impression that the balance of power in international women’s soccer is shifting. For the first quarter century, the women’s game had its own juggernauts, separate from the men’s game. China was an early power. So was Norway. Neither of them traditional men’s soccer giants, exactly. Just as Sweden and, of course, the United States, have been much better on the women’s side than the men’s.

But at this World Cup, that’s started to change as more traditional soccer nations have finally awoken to the appeal and power of the women’s game. Earlier in the day, Italy defeated China to reach the quarterfinals in its first Women’s World Cup since 1991. Spain gave the Americans a much tougher contest than most had expected on Monday. The rise of the English has been longer in the making, but they have grown into a bona fide competitor after reaching semifinals at the 2015 Women’s World Cup and the 2017 European Championship.

Lieke Martens, center, celebrates after her winning penalty sent the Netherlands past Japan in the Women's World Cup round of 16. (Associated Press)
Lieke Martens, center, celebrates after her winning penalty sent the Netherlands past Japan in the Women's World Cup round of 16. (Associated Press)

And then there are the Dutch, whose women’s game came on in fits and starts but ignited with that surprise European title on home soil two years ago.

Suddenly, the quarterfinals slate of a Women’s World Cup looks a lot like it might for a men’s tournament, now that a lot of those major national team programs have finally started to take the women’s game seriously.

The Dutch began assertively, hoping to negate Japan’s technique and passing precision with a direct game that might capitalize on their superior physique. Just five minutes in, Vivianne Miedema met a deep cross but her effort took a strange deflection and caromed off the near post.

Then, in the 17th minute, Martens scored a magnificent opener. Her backheel at the near post from a corner skipped through Yuika Sugasawa’s legs and in off the far post.

That jolted the Nadeshiko. And Sugasawa soon completed a splendid Japanese move through the middle, only she pinged her finish off the far post.

Before halftime, Japan got its equalizer though as Yui Hasegawa capitalized on another wonderful combination through the middle with a terrific finish.

And Japan was by far the more dangerous team in the second half. Other than an early free kick by Sherida Spitse, which was saved well by Ayaka Yamashita, the Dutch were largely shut out from the action. The Japanese, a young, rebuilt team with a few holdover veterans from the 2011 World Cup-winning campaign and the 2015 incarnation that lost to the USA in the final, slowed the pace of the game down and froze the Dutch out of the danger areas.

The Leeuwinnen were torn apart on the counter attack. Japan had been profligate with its scoring chances all tournament and never more so than on Tuesday, when a half-dozen good chances really should have yielded a winner. Hina Sugita smashed a shot off the bar on just such a play, while Dutch goalkeeper Sari van Veenendaal made several good saves.

But entirely against the run of play, referee Melissa Borjas pointed to the spot in the 88th minute when Miedema smashed a shot from close range into Saki Kumagai’s arm. The latter didn’t have much of a chance to move her arm, which didn’t seem unnaturally positioned, and so perhaps the call was a little draconian.

Martens converted the penalty all the same.

And so a rebuilding Japanese team was sent home to consider its future. While the arrival of the Europeans is now a matter of fact.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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