Football: Big guns Japan, USA kick off World Cup campaigns

Football: Big guns Japan, USA kick off World Cup campaigns
Japan's midfielder Homare Sawa (L) fights for the ball with Italy's midfielder Valentina Cernoia (R) during their international friendly football match in Nagano on May 28, 2015.

VANCOUVER - Japan's defense of the Women's World Cup gets under way on Monday when the Asian champions take on Switzerland in Vancouver, as 2011 runners-up the United States play Australia in Winnipeg.

Japan won the title in dramatic fashion four years ago in Germany, lifting the spirits 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 dramatic final in Frankfurt, winning in a penalty shootout.

Now Japan, ranked fourth in the world, will need to upset the odds again starting with the 19th-ranked Swiss newcomers as they bid for a second straight World Cup crown, a feat last achieved by number one ranked Germany in 2003 and 2007.

Monday's third day of action in Canada features four games with Japan's Group C rivals Cameroon and Ecuador, both competing in their first World Cup, going head-to-head in Vancouver, while over in Winnipeg, two-time winners the United States' Group D rivals Sweden play African champions Nigeria.

Japan coach Norio Sasaki has recalled former FIFA women's player of the year Homare Sawa, 36, with some 17 players having appeared in a World Cup, including skipper Aya Miyama, a two-time Asian player of the year.

The Americans won the first global women's football showcase in 1991 and took it again in 1999 on home soil.

This year, 13 players from the 2011 US squad return, with their first test against two-time quarter-finalists Australia - runners-up to Japan in the 2014 Asian Cup and ranked 10th.

Striker Lisa De Vanna will be a key player for the Matildas, with coach Alen Stajcic also counting on playmaker Katrina Gorry to test Hope Solo in the US goal.

De Vanna is set to make her 100th international appearance against the Americans on Monday as Australia bid for a first success in 25 clashes.

"Every game I play for the Matildas I wear my heart on my sleeve and to finally make it to 100, it's a big milestone," said De Vanna, who has scored 35 goals since making her debut in 2004.

"It's hard to focus on that when you've got such a big game but it's a great honor and to be co-captain of this team just caps it off."

Group of death? 

The second-ranked Americans will look to former World Player of the Year Abby Wambach, pacy Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux to spark their attacks.

The US have gone 16 years since they last lifted the trophy. When results dipped early in 2014, ex-Matildas boss Tom Sermanni was sacked after just 15 months and replaced by Jill Ellis, who saw the US arrive in Canada on a nine-game unbeaten run.

"We're ready and hungry to win," said Ellis.

"Because it's close to home it's great for us. We're hoping for a big fan base to cheer our players, our team, on." Former US coach Pia Sundhage's Sweden, the 2003 runners-up, open against Nigeria in their difficult Group D.

"Certainly if you roll over and die it's the group of death. We have no intention of doing so," warned Ellis.

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