Japan reclaimed the AFC U-19 Women's Championship with a breath-taking 4-2 penalty shootout victory over Korea DPR on Saturday in Nanjing. The Young Nadeshiko boasted an unblemished record as they lifted the continental trophy for the fourth time to underline their dominance at this Asian youth level, having previously won the championship in 2002, 2009 and 2011.
Asako Takakura's side entered the final on the back of a 1-0 semi-final victory against Korea Republic, which sealed their qualification for next year's FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup in Papua New Guinea. Hwang Yong-bong’s Korea DPR also reached the final following their progression to Papua New Guinea in 2016 with a 2-0 defeat of hosts China PR.
The Japanese dominated largely through their trade-mark passing and possession play but their opponents looked dangerous hitting back on the counter-attack. Both sides, however, failed to find the back of the net and penalties were required to determine the winner after 120 scoreless minutes.
Japan kept their cool to convert four consecutive spot-kicks. Notably, goalkeeper Chika Hirao denied Jo Ryon-hwa's effort before Narumi Miura scored the decisive penalty as her side ran out champions of Asia.
"I planned for penalties and we had practiced them in training," a jubilant Takakura reflected on Japan’s successful campaign. "I told them there was nothing to fear before the shootout. To win the championship was our aim, so I’m very happy with the overall performance of my team."
*Three teams through *With the tournament also serving as the qualifier for Papua New Guinea 2016, the competition was ferocious. Japan's campaign was, however, fairly smooth during the group stage as they got off to a 2-0 triumph against Australia before putting six unanswered goals past Uzbekistan. China may have caused a few problems but Takakura's side edged the hosts 3-2 to win the group. Top striker Rikako Kobayashi would score the only goal in the decisive semi-final against Korea Republic to punch their ticket to Papua New Guinea.
Like Japan, Korea DPR maintained a perfect record en route to the final. They opened with a 5-0 triumph against Thailand before thrashing Iran 9-0. A 1-0 defeat of their neighbours to the south set up a last-four meeting with China, where Hwang's squad booked a spot at the U-20 Women’s World Cup with a neat win at the hosts’ expense.
Jong Song-Chon's Korea Republic, meanwhile, were the group stage’s top-scorers. The Taegeuk Ladies produced the tournament's biggest win with a 13-0 opening victory against Iran, before dancing past Thailand 3-0. Despite losing to the Japanese in the semi-finals, they beat China 4-0 in the third-place playoff to clinch the remaining qualifying slot.
*Starring duo *The tournament was set ablaze by a duo of former FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup stars. Ri Un Sim earned adidas Golden Boot honurs with eight goals as Korea DPR finished second at Azerbaijan 2012, while Kobayashi was twice on target for Japan, who were crowned U-17 world champions at Costa Rica 2014.
Having made a name for herself on the global stage, Ri continued to excel on the Asian scene, completing a hat-trick in the opener. She would score in each half against Iran before breaking the deadlock against China, which sealed her place as the tournament’s top-scorer with six goals.
Kobayashi, for her part, showcased her progress by picking up the tournament’s Most Valued Player award with four goals. The Japan No9 averaged a goal per game en route to the final as she mesmerised spectators through her fine showings. Despite failing to score in the final, the cool-headed forward netted their second spot-kick as her side prevailed on penalties.
"She [Kobayashi] is a very skillful player and she has the capability to come up with important goals at good times for the team," said coach Takakura. "Nobody knows exactly how far she can go in her career, but I believe she has the potential to make it to the top if she keeps putting in the effort."