AFC rivals contest world crown
Fortune tellers, soothsayers and crystal-ball gazers alike would have been hard pressed to predict the line-up for Sunday's FIFA U-20 Women's World Championship Russia 2006 final, which sees China PR and Korea DPR go head-to-head.
Only the extremely brave or foolhardy would now hazard a guess at the eventual outcome on Sunday, as the only certainty is that the new world champions will come from Asia. That has only happened once before in FIFA's long history, when Saudi Arabia's young men claimed the 1989 FIFA U-17 World Championship in Scotland.
The meeting at the Lokomotiv stadium in Moscow also represents a re-run of the AFC U-19 Women's Championship final back in April this year, when a solitary goal by China's Ma Xiaoxu was enough to settle the issue.
The Chinese are, indeed, ahead in the all-time comparison between the teams, with a record of 11 victories, five draws and five defeats against the North Koreans. Of their three meetings in U-20 or U-19 World Championship qualifiers, China have won all three.
Korea DPR, however, are the only team at the tournament to have won all of their matches at Russia 2006. The side coached by Choe Kwang Sok opened in a blaze of glory with a shock 2-0 victory over reigning world champions Germany and the belief instilled by this unexpected triumph helped propel the team to four subsequent consecutive wins.
Group stage victories over Switzerland and Mexico, each by a convincing 4-0 scoreline, were followed by two last-gasp knockout triumphs. Hong Myong Gum struck a last-minute winner in the quarter-final against France and, in the semi, Ri Un Hyang repeated the trick by netting against the Brazilians with just three minutes remaining.
Those goals have helped establish the North Koreans as the second-highest scorers at the tournament on 13 goals, with Germany's final tally of 16 still possibly within reach. Even more impressively, the Asians have conceded just once, an Elodie Thomis consolation strike for France in the 2-1 quarter-final triumph .
Ma closes in on Golden Shoe
China exercised similar dominance over their group, finishing on maximum points, three clear of second placed Nigeria.
An opening 2-1 victory over Finland was hardly a sparkling display, but the team improved appreciably in a 3-0 victory over the Nigerians before squeezing past Canada thanks to a the only goal of a tight game. The Asians then hit blistering form in the quarter-final and disposed of hosts Russia 4-0.
By contrast, the semi-final against the Americans was tense and dramatic right to the end as China held on against a US onslaught to take the game to penalties, where Zhang Yanru's save from Lauren Cheney decided the match in the Asians' favour.
Incredibly, no opponent has yet succeeded in scoring past Zhang from open play, as the only goal the Chinese have conceded came when Fan Yuan put through her own goal in the first minute of their first game against Finland. Since then, China have gone fully 479 competitive minutes without conceding.
Ma Xiaoxu has emerged as the outstanding player for the Chinese. The striker is the Steel Rosebuds' undoubted star turn, a clinical converter of chances, and looks a near-certainty for the Golden Shoe as she currently leads the scoring charts on five goals going into Sunday's final. US striker Danesha Adams could theoretically pip her to the post, but she would need to score a hat-trick in the third-place play-off against Brazil and then hope the Koreans succeeded in shutting out Ma.
Ironically, however, China's golden girl so nearly went from hero to zero in the semi-final, as she was the only one of her side's penalty-takers to fail from the spot. Even after victory was secure, the captain remained disconsolate, tears rolling down her cheeks, as she stood alone, seemingly unable to join in her team's celebrations.
Her good humour will need to be restored by Sunday, as China will require an inspirational performance from their leading player. The 120 minutes of intense concentration against the Americans on a sodden and heavy pitch undoubtedly exacted a high physical toll, as the Chinese visibly faded during the match and only survived until the end of extra-time thanks to some superb organisation at the back.
Shang Ruihua will certainly need to drum up his side's remaining reserves of energy for Sunday's match if they are to have any chance of matching the lithe yet powerful Koreans, and ensuring that the trophy - already bound for Asia - is directed straight to China.