Football: Nadeshiko Japan manager Ikeda relishing World Cup challenge

Nadeshiko Japan manager Futoshi Ikeda is confident his team is on the right track as they began their training camp this week for the Women's World Cup, kicking off July 20 in Australia and New Zealand.

While the omission of 2011 World Cup-winning forward Mana Iwabuchi dominated the headlines following last month's squad announcement, the 52-year-old manager expressed full faith in his chosen players as they prepare for their last warm-up match against Panama in Sendai on July 14.

"Deciding on the 23 players was another step in our preparation," Ikeda, whose side face Zambia, Costa Rica and Spain in Group C at the finals, told Kyodo News recently.

"At the moment, I'm resolute but also feeling the significance (of the tournament)."

After Japan exited the previous World Cup in the last 16 and the Tokyo Olympics in the quarterfinals, Ikeda took charge more than halfway through the current World Cup cycle aiming to reinstate the country as a women's football powerhouse.

Despite boasting such top-class players as captain Saki Kumagai, the 2011 tournament-winning defender who has recently joined Roma from Bayern Munich, and Manchester City midfielder Yui Hasegawa, the burgeoning squad has not produced many eye-catching results against strong nations.

There was a hint of their potential, however, after claiming a 3-0 win over Tokyo Olympic gold medalists Canada during the SheBelieves Cup in February.

"I knew from the start about the (limited) time I had for preparation. I've been thinking about what I can do under that restriction," Ikeda said.

"We could play matches against really strong opponents, like former Olympic and World Cup winners (Canada and the United States). I sense we managed to make progress while striking a balance between finding areas to improve and achieving success."

Ikeda insisted there had not been a "turning point" during his tenure. Instead, he has been focusing on making steady progress to get the most out of each match in terms of player development and tactics.

"We tried three at the back (in October). We were made to realize against England and Spain (in November) we'd be exploited when we leave gaps," he said.

"We could see some positives by defending aggressively at the SheBelieves Cup. The players have managed to be on the same page more, and I can sense they are making proper improvement."

Currently ranked 11th in the world, Ikeda acknowledges his side needs to play with patience but stated he was excited by the chance to restore the sport's popularity level in Japan.

"Dispossessing opposition is the essence of football. There's no change to our basis of taking the ball off the opposition, playing toward the goal and making (quick) transitions," he said. "On how we do it at the World Cup, we'll clarify while playing there."

"I'm looking forward to entering this emotionally moving tournament, one that gives you adrenaline when celebrating with your players."

© Kyodo News