Japan's iron ladies look to forge another miracle

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Alastair Himmer
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Tokyo (AFP) - Four years ago, Japan's women pulled off an astonishing World Cup triumph, embodying the iron-willed spirit of a nation battling to recover from a deadly tsunami and nuclear crisis.

The "Nadeshiko" -- named after a frilly pink carnation -- toppled the mighty United States in a heart-stopping final in Frankfurt, winning in a penalty shootout to trigger a huge outpouring of emotion.

Now Japan will need to upset the odds again as they go in search of a second straight Women's World Cup win in Canada starting June 6.

"On that World Cup run there wasn't one easy game," coach Norio Sasaki told AFP. "But we found a way to win.

"The level of the world game has risen and we expect an even tougher battle this time. But we don't feel pressure to be champions again -- we go again as challengers."

Sasaki has recalled former FIFA women's player of the year Homare Sawa to the squad for Canada in the hope that lightning can strike twice.

The 36-year-old scored the winner in a recent warm-up win over New Zealand and has an uncanny knack for producing Hollywood endings.

But Sasaki will need an alchemist's touch if Japan are to repeat their 2011 heroics -- even if the holders should top a Group C containing Switzerland, Cameroon and Ecuador.

- Mini-musketeers -

Japan used the disaster enveloping their country after a triple meltdown at a nuclear plant 150 miles (240 kilometres) north of Tokyo as a powerful motivating tool, but the dazzling quality of their football stunned the Americans.

Sasaki's side added last year's Asian Cup title after settling for silver at the 2012 London Olympics, where their American rivals exacted revenge for their ambush in Germany.

Sawa's return has given Japan a psychological boost ahead of the sport's showcase event, which begins on June 6.

Her goals fired Japan to glory in 2011 and, while hampered by injuries over the past year, Sasaki insisted the attacking midfielder's selection for her sixth World Cup was not on sentimental grounds.

"I haven't picked her for experience alone," he said. "She puts her body on the line and she brings more tactical awareness. With Sawa's essence added to the mix, the team becomes more powerful."

Sasaki's mini-musketeers give away an average of seven centimetres (three inches) in height to the likes of the United States, but what they lack in size they make up for in technique and a high-pressing style which can suffocate opponents.

Japan go into the tournament in confident mood with no fewer than 17 players having appeared in a World Cup, including skipper Aya Miyama, a two-time Asian player of the year.

The Japanese face Switzerland in their opening game, before taking on Cameroon and Ecuador.

"The backbone of the side is there with the experience," said Sasaki. "These players are fighters."