The Girls’ Youth Olympic Football Tournament Nanjing 2014 has broken new ground with both semi-finals ending in penalty shoot-outs. Unsurprisingly, goalkeepers had a major hand in the winning teams’ fortunes. Venezuelan custodian Nayluisa Caceres showed courage and composure by not only keeping Mexico at bay while nursing an injury, but also dispatching the winning spot-kick herself. Meanwhile, China PR substitute Zheng Jie performed heroics against Slovakia with two successive penalty saves that paved her team’s path to the final.
Playing through the pain barrier
Venezuela sailed smoothly through the group stage but clearly found the going much tougher in the semi-final against Mexico. Although the South Americans made a dream start when forward Argelis Campos capitalised on a mistake by Tricolores keeper Kelsey Brann to open the scoring after two minutes, midfielder Dayana Cazares equalised for the North Americans six minutes later. Thereafter the two sides surprisingly cancelled each other out for long periods, although the Mexicans twice went close to scoring and Venezuela's top scorer Deyna Castellanos was thwarted at the last moment.
A spot-kick duel then ensued in which Cacares provided a telling contribution from both sides of the goalline. Having seen her side lose the initiative when defensive team-mate Sandra Luzardo missed Venezuela’s third attempt, only for Mexico’s Daniela Garcia to follow suit by smacking her shot against the crossbar, Caceres then saved Montserrat Hernandez’s effort before converting the crucial last kick herself to win the match.
"I didn’t expect it to go to penalties," Caceres told FIFA.com excitedly after the victory celebrations had died down, "and I certainly didn’t expect that I’d get to take one myself, so I was thrilled to have scored the winning spot-kick."
During the interview there were tears in the eyes of the Venezuelan No1, who participated in the FIFA U-17 World Cup Costa Rica in April this year. Although Caceres told FIFA.com that they were "tears of happiness", her heavily-strapped right foot suggested that she had been playing through the pain barrier.
"I got injured in the second half," she recalled. "A Mexican player shot on goal and I dived to save it, then another one of their players came down on top of me and I hurt my foot."
"I can still play the next game, though," insisted the courageous keeper, who still has the title-decider firmly in her sights, injury or no injury. "This is the most important match of all and our opponents are China, so we have to take the game to the hosts. I'm well up for this match."
Compared with Caceres, Zheng Jie’s path to the final was shorter and less painful. The China custodian only entered the fray two minutes before the end of regular time, in what was clearly a tactical ploy by China coach Lu Yiliang to introduce a specialist penalty stopper for the impending shoot-out. Sure enough, the game finished 0-0 after 80 minutes and Zheng Jie went on to save Slovakia’s first two attempts, which were taken by captain Martina Surnovska and Tamara Gmitterova respectively. Meanwhile, China converted all of their kicks and ultimately prevailed 4-2 to progress to the final.
The China coach admitted that he hadn’t envisaged the semi-final to be so arduous: "Our opponents made a real fight of it," he said, "but the main problem was that our players were a bit edgy. We created several decent chances and under normal circumstances we would have put at least one of them away."
When asked about Zheng Jie’s introduction, the Chinese tactician smiled knowingly. "We did indeed plan to put her on specifically for the penalty shoot-out, because she's better at saving spot-kicks,” he said. “How come she trained up to become a specialist penalty stopper? Mainly because she has a talent for it, otherwise no amount of training would have helped."
As to whether Zheng Jie’s display had earned her a starting place in the final, Lu Yiliang was keeping his cards close to his chest as usual: "I don’t know right now, that all depends on the circumstances," he concluded cryptically.