After a keenly contested play-off against fast-improving Mexico, Japan did just enough to seal a place at China 2007, their fifth consecutive FIFA Women's World Cup. Despite a narrow 2-1 defeat in the second leg on Mexican soil, last week's 2-0 first-leg victory in Tokyo proved decisive.
A two-goal lead safely in the bag from the first game, Hiroshi Ohashi's charges were in relaxed mood as they arrived on North American soil. But far from taking things easy in the early stages at Toluca's Estadio Nemesio Diez, the Nadeshiko stormed ahead with their first clear chance of the game, Eriko Arakawa firing past Mexico custodian Sophia Perez on 12 minutes to make it 3-0 on aggregate to Japan.
Their pride badly wounded, El Tri rallied strongly to take the game to their opponents, roared on by the partisan home fans. Within just four minutes they had levelled the match, experienced Swiss referee Nicole Petignat awarding the Tricolor a penalty after Evelyn Lopez went down under the challenge of Rumi Utsugi. Fatima Leyva made no mistake with the resulting spot-kick.
Back in the game and with some measure of hope restored, things got even better for Mexico just prior to the half-hour mark. Liza Gomez's lofted pass found Maribel Dominguez inside the box, Marigol striking the ball home on the half-turn to put her team ahead.
Having taken part at just one previous edition of the FIFA Women's World Cup thus far, when they qualified for USA 1999 by virtue of a play-off win over Argentina, the passionate Mexico fans packing the Nemesio Diez were beginning to feel that a second appearance was within their grasp.
But with El Tri still needing two more goals to cap a miraculous comeback, Japan came tantalising close to killing off the tie before half-time, Shinobu Ohno's drive crashing back off the bar with Perez beaten.
Corral makes her entry
Desperate for the goals that would seal his side's place in China, Mexico coach Leonardo Cuellar threw on young attacking prodigy Charlyn Corral to join Dominguez and Monica Ocampo up front in the second period. Ocampo's involvement had been in doubt thanks to an injury received in the first leg, but she shook off any ill-effects to help lay siege to the Japanese goal. Showing remarkable concentration and resilience, the visitors' backline steadfastly refused to buckle under the strain.
As the home side's desperation increased, their hopes were hit by a further blow with the withdrawal of star striker Dominguez through injury. A further combination of some wayward finishing from the Mexicans, allied to a dogged display from the east Asian side, put paid to El Tri's hopes of a dream finale to an intriguing tie.
Ohashi's hard-working charges can now focus on preparing for September's showpiece event, their fifth consecutive appearance at the elite competition. Having failed to make it past the group stages at each of the four previous editions of the prestigious tournament, Japan are determined to go one better this time around.
On the back of Japan's play-off success, the identities of 15 of the 16 teams taking part at China 2007 are now known. The remaining spot will go to the representatives of the Oceania Football Confederation, with their qualifying tournament set to take place between 9 and 13 April in Papua New Guinea.