Hikaru Naomoto and Aoba Fujino scored two minutes apart in the first half to lead Japan to a 2-0 Women’s World Cup victory over Costa Rica on Wednesday that put the Japanese on the brink of advancing to the knockout stage.
Japan could advance out of Group C later Wednesday if Spain, ranked sixth in the world, beat 77th-ranked Zambia in Auckland.
The two teams kicked off in front of a sparse crowd of 6,992 at Dunedin Stadium, a huge differential from the record sales of over 1.5 million tickets for this year’s tournament. High fan turnout in Auckland and Sydney — there were 117,000 combined at opening night in those cities — have been partly offset by much smaller crowds in Dunedin, where attendance has dropped with each match from an initial high of 13,711.
Las Ticas kept the pressure high throughout the match, but the Japanese dominated with precision in ball handling and passes.
Mina Tanaka passed the ball to Naomoto, who dribbled past a Costa Rican defender before scoring on outstretched goalkeeper Daniela Solera in the 25th minute. Fujino then snuck the ball in on an angle into the far left corner of the net. Costa Rican defenders Maria Paula Elizondo and Mariana Benavides failed to stop Fujino from scoring.
Japan came close to scoring earlier in the match off the rebound of a save by Solera. Hinata Miyazawa collided with Japanese teammate Aoba Fujino as they both went in for the kick, causing them to miss the shot.
Costa Rican midfielder Raquel “Rocky” Rodriguez, the star of the team, didn’t come into the game until midway through the second half. She missed her team’s last match against Spain due to an undisclosed injury.
Solera went down midway through the second half after taking a shoulder to the head, but she remained in the game.
WHY IT MATTERS
The victory for Japan puts it on the verge of qualifying for the knockout stage for the fourth time in the nation’s history. If Spain defeats Zambia later Wednesday, then both Spain and Japan will move into the round of 16 with the group winner to be determined by their head-to-head match on Monday.
Costa Rica was eliminated with the loss.
Japan faces Spain in Wellington in a match with the potential to decide knockout seeding. Also on Monday, Costa Rica travels to Hamilton to play Zambia.
Ellen McIntyre is a student in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State.
AP Women’s World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/fifa-womens-world-cup