PREVIEW: Japan vs Canada — Tokyo 2020

Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games – Women’s Football
Japan vs Canada
July 21, 2021 at 6:30 am EST/7:30 pm JST
Sapporo Dome in Sapporo, Japan
Watch Live: CBC TV network, CBC Gem, CBC Olympics app, CBC Sports’ Tokyo 2020 website.

RELATED READING: Tokyo 2020 Preview: CanWNT heading to Japan in search of third-consecutive medal

Canada’s campaign to “change the colour of the medal” at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics gets underway on Wednesday with their group stage-opener against the hosts Japan.

It will be Bev Priestman’s first game at a major tournament as head coach of a senior national team, and quite a way to do it — against a strong team, in their home Olympics, with getting off to a good start surely the priority. There won’t be any fans in the stands, as Japan declared another COVID-19-related state of emergency, but the desire to win at home will still very much be there for a Japanese side that is in the midst of its “golden generation”.

There are players on the Japanese team who were part of the 2011 World Cup-winning team — as well as the teams that have won back-to-back AFC Women’s Asian Cups and silver medals at the 2012 Olympics and 2015 World Cup, among other things.

Arsenal’s Mana Iwabuchi, still only 28, remarkably took part in all five of those, with Japan captain Saki Kumagai another of the most successful players the sport has ever seen. The 30-year-old defender/midfielder was part of all of the above international squads, minus the 2014 AFC Women’s Asian Cup, but would need several trophy cabinets to house all of the other things she’s won — 25 of them between her club career (mostly at Olympique Lyonnais, where she played with Kadeisha Buchanan for a few years) and international play. All that, and the 2019 Asian Women’s Footballer of the Year to put the cherry on top.

That level of experience leading a strong backline will be a big test for whoever Canada starts up top, but as we know, Canada have proven this year that they can grind out results against some of the world’s top sides. In 2021, they’ve beaten England, Wales, and Argentina, drawn Netherlands, Brazil and Czech Republic, and come within 10 minutes of keeping a clean sheet draw against the best team in the world from the United States, among other results. All of those teams are in the top 35 in the world, so Canada have tested themselves against the world’s best in advance of these Olympics.

The 3-3 draw with Netherlands behind-closed-doors is an especially positive result, as it came against a team that won the 2017 European Women’s Championship and were runners up at the 2019 Women’s World Cup. It was also positive to see Canada scoring goals (two from Janine Beckie and one from Nichelle Prince) after a pair of scoreless draws in their previous camp in June.

On their day, Canada can beat anyone with the starpower that they possess — the best international goalscorer of all-time Christine Sinclair is among a group of stars — and if both teams show up on Wednesday, it should be a very entertaining match to open their run at Tokyo 2020.

Canada’s biggest strength is their backline — Kadeisha Buchanan is one of the best centre-backs in the world, Shelina Zadorsky has captained Tottenham Hotspur in the Women’s Super League and Vanessa Gilles has hardly put a foot wrong during her national team career — but assuming Priestman continues to play a back four, only two of them will be able to start in the centre of defence. On the left will likely be one of Allysha Chapman or Gabrielle Carle, while what Priestman sees as Ashley Lawrence’s best position will be the deciding factor on the right. If it’s right back, she’ll start there, but if it’s midfield, Jayde Riviere is a more-than-capable deputy. The backline will be worked against a team that includes the aforementioned Mana Iwabuchi and Washington Spirit forward/midfielder Saori Takarada, a budding star who already has more than 100 professional appearances at 21 years old.

This game will take place at Sapporo Dome in Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan — the home of Japanese top flight side Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo, and Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters of the Nippon Professional Baseball league — and more than 1,000 km north of Tokyo. The stadium opened in 2001, and has also hosted matches at the 2002 World Cup, as well as the 2019 Rugby World Cup and several other major sporting events. Canada’s second group stage game against Chile will also take place at the venue as well (Saturday, July 24 at 3:30 am EST).


  • Sinclair set for her 300th international cap: As well as holding the record for most goals scored by an international footballer, with 186 over the past 21 years, Canada captain Christine Sinclair is set to join another very small group of legends on Wednesday. Only 23 players in women’s international football have made 200 caps, including Sinclair and a pair of other Canadians — recently retired Diana Matheson (206), and Sophie Schmidt (205), who is also a part of the squad in Japan for this tournament. Sinclair will do one better when she takes the pitch for the first time in Tokyo, and will become the fourth player ever to reach 300 caps for their national team. Currently sitting on 299, Sinclair is behind a trio of Americans on the all-time leaderboard — still-active Carli Lloyd (306), Christie Pearce (311) and the possibly-untouchable Kristine Lilly, who made 354 appearances between 1987 and 2010. Sinclair is undoubtedly the best player to ever pull on a Canadian kit, and reaching cap number 300 is yet another milestone to add to the collection. Next up – 200 goals? Only time will tell.
  • Japanese familiarity could be crucial again Canada: The aforementioned Saki Kumagai will be a huge player for Japan in this tournament as a central defender/defensive midfielder, but the rest of Japan’s defenders should also be a challenge to break down. They also have a trio of defenders — Risa Shimizu, Asato Miyagawa and Nanami Kitamura — from NTV Tokyo Verdy Beleza, who finished 3rd in the Japanese top flight in 2020 — that pre-existing familiarity with one another may prove to be important in such a short tournament, and this group have it. There are seven players in total from that team, as well as four from each of reigning Japanese champions Urawa Reds and second-place INAC Kobe Leonessa. This team has a lot of chemistry, and a lot of players who regularly play with one another, which could be an important factor in whatever success they have at this tournament.
  • Who’s in Canada’s best XI?: Bev Priestman has a lot of decisions to make ahead of Canada’s first match — with strong battles for minutes in most positions on the pitch. If there are any locks to start, assuming everyone is fit and available for selection, they’d probably be Christine Sinclair up top and Kadeisha Buchanan at centre-back — with Jessie Fleming, Janine Beckie and Ashley Lawrence also expected to start in Canada’s best eleven. If Ashley Lawrence starts in midfield, that would open up a spot at right back for Jayde Riviere, but if she starts in the backline, Quinn and Desiree Scott are probably the favourites to start in the midfield triangle we’ve seen Priestman deploy during her tenure as Canada boss. On the wings, Nichelle Prince, Janine Beckie and Adriana Leon are among the players battling for two spots in a 4-3-3 formation, while Vanessa Gilles has proven that she’s ready to be a starter for the national team at centre-back if Priestman selects her over Buchanan’s regular partner over the past few years, Shelina Zadorsky. Decisions, decisions…


 Japan wins: 7 || Canada wins: 4 || Draws: 3

Previous match:

International Friendly: October 6, 2019 – Japan 4-0 Canada