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“But against Japan, we want to do and play the way we’ve been training. We don’t want it just to be a dogfight. We want it to be a game people can watch and be excited about.”

Japan will have something to say about that, of course.

The Nadeshiko have never beaten the Americans _ draws in 2000, 2003 and 2004 are the best they’ve managed in 25 games _ and have been outscored a whopping 77-13. They have three losses this year alone to the U.S., including a pair of 2-0 defeats in warmup games a month before the World Cup began. This also is Japan’s first final at a major tournament, having lost to the U.S. in the semifinals at the Beijing Olympics.

“Of course it’s something I bring up,” U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said. “We’ve been there before, we’ve done it before.”

But Japan is a far better team than the one the Americans saw in May, having upset pre-tournament favorite Germany in the quarterfinals and Sweden in the semifinals. The Nadeshiko’s ball-handling skills are exquisite, drawing comparisons to Barcelona for their lightning quick passes and slick combination play, and they dominate possession as if it’s a game of keepaway.

They’ve shown a nice scoring touch, too, their 10 goals at the World Cup second only to the 11 scored by the U.S. The ageless Homare Sawa has been a marvel, sharing top-scoring honors with Marta with four goals.

“Why shouldn’t we be confident?” Sawa asked.

Japan also has powerful motivation, knowing it has provided some emotional relief for a nation still reeling from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The team displays a banner reading “To our Friends Around the World _ Thank You for Your Support,” after every game, and coach Norio Sasaki inspired his players before the quarterfinal by showing them pictures of the devastation.

But the Americans remain confident, just as they were through every pothole and dip in their bumpy road.

“Nothing worries me right now,” Sundhage said. “You have to enjoy the moment. Look at the road we’ve taken. If I get worried, I just have to look back at that road.”