By Steve Keating
VANCOUVER (Reuters) - The United States arrive at the Women's World Cup final battle-hardened and seeking revenge, while Japan enter Sunday's match determined to retain the trophy they denied the Americans four years ago.
It all adds up to a spicy finale to the global showcase that began on June 6 under the shadow of a FIFA corruption scandal but ends with the players in the spotlight and an intriguing contest that is set to cap off a month of record-smashing television ratings and attendance figures.
Another capacity crowd of over 50,000 is expected to fill BC Place and once again most of those will be flag-waving, face painted Americans who have poured across the Canadian border to support their girls, who start firm favorites with the bookmakers.
Downtown Vancouver was awash in red, white and blue on Friday as smiling packs of American fans began a weekend of partying they hope will culminate with the U.S. hoisting the trophy for a record third time following victories in 1991 and 1999.
"These are two talented teams with a lot of history and rivalry and I think it will be a classic match-up," said U.S. coach Jill Ellis.
"Both teams have a lot of the same players from 2011, but that said, this is a different team on a different journey and I know all 23 players and our staff are tremendously excited for this next challenge."
The final will offer a fascinating contrast of styles and personalities as different as the two nations -- the big, brash, athletic Americans who take a very direct approach on the field facing a clinical Japanese side that relies on a clever, short-passing game.
"In 2011, both teams had a wonderful game in the final and for women's soccer in the world, I hope that we will have a wonderful game like the way we did then," said Japan coach Norio Sasaki.
No team had a harder path to the final than the U.S. who emerged at the top of the Group of Death that featured three top-10 ranked teams and then stormed through the knockout phase without conceding a goal, dispatching Colombia, China and top-ranked Germany
As always, controversy has never been far from the U.S. camp with goalkeeper Hope Solo refusing to deal with new domestic abuse allegations, and Abby Wambach, women soccer's all-time leading scorer, dispatched to the bench.
But the distractions have had no impact on the Americans, who have been impenetrable in defense and not conceded a goal since the 27th minute of their opening match against Australia. In the process, Solo has piled up five clean sheets.
Certainly there is no shortage of extra motivation on both sides.
Many members of the U.S. team were also on the squad that fell to Japan on penalties in the 2011 final in Germany.
For Japan, there is also a little bit of revenge to be extracted from Sunday's game, as the Asian champions seek to get one back on the Americans for the London Olympics gold medal game, which the U.S won 2-1.
The Japanese have quietly gone about their business, going through the tournament unbeaten, notching six straight wins, all by one-goal margins.
After topping their group, Japan methodically disposed of the Netherlands but struggled to break down Australia in the quarter-finals, before netting a late winner that television replays suggested was offside.
Japan also needed a bit of good fortune to sink England in the semi-finals when Laura Bassett scored a stoppage time own goal to gift the ‘Nadeshiko’ a spot in the final.
"In order to be the best team in the world at the World Cup, you have to beat the best teams," said Wambach.
"They (Japan) have an amazing team and they're the reigning World Cup champions so I think it's going to be a fantastic final."
(Editing by Andrew Both)