Germany toast Algarve success
© AFP

At the 19th edition of the Algarve Cup, Germany gained a measure of revenge over Japan by beating them 4-3 in one of the most exciting finals in the competition’s history. And while victory in a friendly tournament, however prestigious, cannot be compared with a FIFA Women’s World Cup™ quarter-final, Silvia Neid’s side went some way to making up for that painful defeat against the subsequent world champions at Germany 2011.

Germany’s heroine on the Algarve was unquestionably Celia Okoyino da Mbabi, who followed up her hat-trick in the 4-0 semi-final defeat of Sweden with another treble in the final to secure the title and become the tournament top scorer.

Almost eight months after being knocked out of ‘their’ FIFA World Cup by a heart-breaking extra-time strike from Karina Maruyama, Germany showed there were no lasting scars by racing into a two-goal lead against Japan courtesy of Dzsenifer Marozsan and Mbabi. However, the world champions showed their class by levelling through Nahomi Kawasumi and Asuna Tanaka before the hour-mark. Mbabi’s second, from the penalty spot, two minutes from time looked to be decisive until Yuki Nagasato equalised on 90 minutes. With extra time looming, Mbabi pounced to finally settle the matter to the delight of the large contingent of German fans, who saw their side claim their second Algarve Cup in their eighth appearance underneath the warm Albufeira sun.

Speaking after the event, Japan coach Norio Sasaki was keen to emphasise the positives: “We started very slowly and conceded early goals, but we never gave up and kept battling. Obviously, I wish we’d had a more favourable result, but I still feel we did quite well. Yes, we have things to work on before [the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament in] London, but the players are improving and preparing very well.”

An historic first

Perhaps the most pleasing aspect for Sasaki, with just over four months to go before the Olympics, was his side’s 1-0 win over USA in their final Group B game. Substitute Megumi Takase got the all-important goal in a victory that owed much to Japan’s ability to convert their chances.

The two heavyweights have faced each other 24 times at senior level, with four of those encounters ending in draws. Amazingly, though, Japan’s triumph here was their first win in regulation time over the Stars and Stripes. Even their historic victory in the final of Germany 2011 came via a penalty shoot-out after a 2-2 stalemate in extra time.

We never gave up and kept battling. Obviously, I wish we’d had a more favourable result, but I still feel we did quite well.
Japan coach Norio Sasaki

Homare Sawa, Japan’s star attraction and the winner of the Best Player award at last year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup, took no part in her side’s final two games after falling ill, but not even her absence could deny the east Asians their historic victory. The defeat consigned USA to second place in their group, thus denying them a berth in the final for the first time since 2002. The North Americans have been utterly dominant at the Algarve Cup this past decade and have an overall record of eight titles in 17 appearances.

"They’re world champions, so it’s always great to test yourself against them,” said USA’s Abby Wambach after their showdown. “You learn a lot. Japan can trouble any opponent, which is why you need to have a lot of patience and not get frustrated with a lack of possession. They are technically very good and really pressurise you defensively. I’m very proud of how we played today, but they scored when they had the chance and deserved their victory.”

Mixed fortunes for Nordic states
The fact that the tournament comes very early in the northern European season often adversely affects the performances of Sweden and Norway. And while the former did manage two wins in Group A, against China PR (1-0) and Iceland (4-1), before an emphatic defeat at the hands of Germany, the Norwegians had their hopes crushed by three successive defeats in Group B, albeit against high quality opponents in USA (2-1), Japan (2-1) and Denmark (1-0).

Norway at least had the satisfaction of bowing out with a 3-0 win over Wales in the match for seventh place, whereas Sweden then came up against a USA side with a point to prove after having been denied a place in the final. Not unsurprisingly, the North Americans emerged victorious, Alex Morgan’s first international hat-trick and goal number 134 for Wambach securing them a 4-0 victory and the consolation of third place. Wambach has now surpassed Kristine Lilly (132) in the list of all-time top-scorers for USA and now lies second behind the legendary Mia Hamm (158).

The future
Wales, Portugal, Hungary and Republic of Ireland made up Group C, the section in which the hosts are traditionally joined by relatively low-ranked sides. Though not unable to compete for the top-six places at the tournament, these lesser lights still bring much to an event that affords them vital international experience and the chance to learn from the game’s leading exponents.

The new president of the Portuguese Football Association, Fernando Gomes, attended the 2012 edition to lend his association’s support to an event that has become an essential part of the women’s game – this despite not being part of the official calendar. “It’s a privilege to have the best teams in the world here and such a well organized and successful tournament,” said the FA chief, before adding: “We’re satisfied with what we’ve achieved [this year] and expect to celebrate edition number 20 next year with great success.”

For all the results from the 2012 Algarve Cup, click on the link to the right.