Fans from Asia were treated to an enthralling closing matchday of the AFC U-16 Women's Championship on Sunday as both the final and the third-place playoff were decided by penalty shootouts.
In the process, defending champions Japan edged Korea DPR to retain their title while the day's early match saw hosts China PR overcome Thailand to secure qualification for next year's FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup Costa Rica 2014, their second consecutive appearance at the U-17 Women’s World Cup.
The tournament decider brought together two sides with a history of success on the U-17 level, with Korea DPR winning the inaugural FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup at New Zealand 2008 and Japan finishing the runners-up at the next edition at Trinidad and Tobago 2010, so it came as no surprise the championship match was a thriller.
In a rematch to the past edition's final, the two sides were locked at 1-1 after regulation time and as a result went straight into spot kicks with the tournament's rule of no extra time being played. The Japanese emerged the victors in the penalty shootout with Korea DPR defender Kim Jong Sim's missing her spot kick, handing Japan their third Asian title.
Sunday proved to be a day for celebrating as well for China PR, with the home side emulating their third-place victory in the last campaign in 2011 during which they also played as hosts. Midfielder Liu Yan put the Chinese ahead with an early strike but the visitors equalised shortly after the restart before going on to take the lead courtesy of Chuchuen Sudarat's strike.
With the Thais looking as if to be destined to victory, China PR equalised in dramatic fashion through Wu Yue's stoppage-time effort. Boosted by their leveller, the hosts side kept their cool to convert all spot kicks, prevailing 4-2.
"I am proud of my players," a relieved China coach Gao Hong told FIFA.com. "Today we squandered too many opportunities in front of the goal. Our young girls were nervous and tense but fortunately, our players came into life in the closing minutes and scored the crucial equaliser.
"The results aside, they gained precious international experiences during the campaign. It was a top-class competition as both Japan and Korea DPR are big teams. Next we will switch focus on preparation for the World Cup next year, where we aim to at least progress beyond the group phase.”
Road to the final
Both finalists demonstrated why they were considered to be pre-tournament favourites as they ran riot en route to the concluding game. Korea DPR, who lifted the trophy in 2007 with a 3-0 final defeat of Japan, fired six unanswered goals past debutants Jordan in group opener with top-scorer Ri Hae Yon completing a treble.
The dynamic No10 was again on target in their 10-0 rout of Chinese Taipei which sealed their place in the last four, before netting a brace in their 3-1 victory against China which sealed their place in the final as well as qualification for Costa Rica 2014.
Even more impressive were Japan, the tournament's top-scorers who racked up an incredible 35 goals in four matches. They produced the tournament's biggest win by thrashing Guam by 19-0, before another 9-0 demolition of Iran set up their semi-final clash against Thailand. The Japanese proved too strong for the opponents, with a 6-0 one-sided triumph firing them into the final.
A series of talents emerged as Japan ran riot throughout. Forward Rikako Kobayashi maintained her free-scoring form to win the Golden Boot award with seven goals, while midfield duo Hikaru Kitagawa and Hina Sugita each scored six times. The latter, who skippered Japan to the continental title, earned the tournament Most Valuable Player award for her outstanding performances and leadership
"It was really difficult match against Korea DPR but our players showed their spirit and did not give up until the end," said Japanese coach Asako Takakura. "As we are playing in the World Cup next year, we have to improve a lot and today’s match was an opportunity for my team to get much needed experience against a strong opponent."
China PR prove too strong
Thailand proved to be the tournament's biggest surprise despite their near-miss against China PR. They remained undefeated during the group stage, including draw 2-2 against strongly-favoured Korea Republic to edge the former world champions to a place in the last four. Uzbekistan also stunned Korea Republic with an opening goalless draw, although they fell 3-0 to Thailand.
Stealing the show were a resolute China PR, who opened brightly by thumping Bahrain 17-0 before sweeping past Australia 2-0 to reach the semi-finals. Even against inaugural world champions Korea DPR, the hosts played bravely only to see the opponents prevailing courtesy of their superior finishing abilities.
"Our German technical adviser proposed an attacking strategy which I followed," Gao Hong summed up, "We played an even game against them and created equal chances but we lost due to our profligacy in front of the goal. Our performances and successful qualification will provide us with a massive morale-booster heading to Costa Rica next year."