The FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015™ may be two years away, but the road to this global showpiece is already well underway in Asia. Over past three weeks, the continent’s preliminary round of qualifiers has been taking place, and it has culminated in four sides progressing to join Australia, China PR, Japan and Korea Republic at next year's AFC Women's Asian Cup in Vietnam.
Former champions Thailand and six-time Asian Cup veterans Vietnam advanced as expected, and without any great challenge. There were, however, surprises elsewhere, with Myanmar qualifying at the expense of Chinese Taipei, and Jordan edging out Uzbekistan to reach their first-ever Asian finals.
The eight-team AFC Women's Asian Cup will take place in Ho Chi Minh City between 14 and 25 May 2014, with the top five finishers going on to represent the continent at Canada 2015.
A familiar trio
Southeast Asian teams dominated the same stage of this tournament four years ago, with Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar all excelling, and the same trio were once again impressive this time.
Thailand opened brightly with a 9-0 demolition of hosts Bangladesh, a match in which their leading striker Nisa Romyen scored four times. The dynamic forward was again on target as the Thais edged a resilient Philippines 1-0 before adding a hat-trick in the 5-1 victory Iran that sealed top.
Vietnam, too, made light work of their group campaign. Under Chinese coach Chen Yunfa, the team nicknamed ‘The Golden Girls’ showed hosts Bahrain no mercy in their opening fixture by firing home eight unanswered goals, including a hat-trick from midfielder Nguyen Thi Muon. They proved no less ruthless against Kyrgyzstan, winning 12-0, before rounding off a flawless campaign with a 4-0 triumph over Hong Kong.
It was, though, a different story for Myanmar, who claimed their hard-earned berth courtesy of the most slender of margins. Two opening wins against India (2-0) and hosts Palestine (12-0) were followed a goalless draw against Chinese Taipei, who had also prevailed in their first two matches. Level on seven points, it took goal difference to separate the two teams, with Myanmar left celebrating.
Jordan steal the show
Having missed out on a place at the 2010 AFC Women’s Asian Cup with a 3-0 loss to Myanmar, hosts Jordan entered the qualifying campaign determined to ensure a happier ending. The west Asian made an early statement of intent by thrashing Lebanon 5-0 in their opening fixture before producing the preliminary round’s biggest win, racking up 21 unanswered goals against Kuwait, with forward Maysa Jbarah scoring eight times.
The Jordanians faced their first real test against Uzbekistan, who headed into the decisive fixture level on six points with a pair of victories against Kuwait (18-0) and Lebanon (4-0). However, after an evenly contested first half in which neither side found the back of the net, Masahiko Okiyama's Jordan side reinforced their position as the tournament’s most prolific side in the second period. Sama’a Khraisat scored a brace and Shahnaz Jebreen and Stephanie Al Naber were also on target as the Jordanians ran out 4-0 winners.
These qualifiers, which took place between 21 May to 9 June, captured attention across Asia thanks to the high-scoring exploits of the teams involved. Unsurprisingly, a clutch of prolific markswomen caught the eye, with Uzbekistan's Zebo Juraeva topping the tournament’s scoring-chart with nine goals despite her side's elimination.
Sharing second place, just a goal behind, were Jordan's Jbarah and Thailand's Romyen. While the former managed all eight of her goals against Kuwait, the latter maintained her goalscoring form across all three of her team’s outings and will be a player well worth watching in Vietnam next May.
Aside from emerging talents, there were also outstanding performances from Jordan's Stephanie Al Naber, a star performer during qualifiers who previous Asian Cup, whose experience and tally of six goals were again vital for her side.