Thursday 10 March 2016, 02:13

Asia’s strength in depth heightened amid Rio charge

History will show that Australia and China PR completed an impressive campaign to win through to the 2016 Women’s Olympic Football Tournament in Rio. Whether history ultimately views the AFC qualifiers for Rio 2016 as a watershed moment in Asian women’s football remains to be seen. For the first time since Athens 2004, teams other than Japan and Korea DPR will represent Asia in the Olympiad. The elimination of London 2012 silver medallists Japan on the tournament’s penultimate matchday was undoubtedly the headline-grabbing news for many around the world.

For Australia and China it was a case of opening strongly and maintaining momentum until Wednesday’s conclusion of the Osaka-based competition. Not only was the tournament a test of football ability, but also of stamina, with five matchdays compacted into just ten days. Korea Republic and Vietnam also featured in the six-team tournament with both proving, to various degrees, that Asia’s depth is as strong as it has ever been.

New faces at the continent’s summit Australia set the tone for the tournament with a stunning 3-1 opening-day victory over Japan. It ended a six-match winless run for the Matildas against the Nadeshiko, and also earned a dose of revenge for the Aussies quarter-final exit against the same opponent at the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015™. Poignantly too, it was Australia’s first win over a former world champion at a major tournament.

The Aussies then routed Vietnam 9-0 before hugely combative 2-0 and 2-1 wins over Korea Republic and Korea DPR respectively. A final-day showdown between the two Rio-bound teams ended in a 1-1 deadlock leaving the Aussies two points clear at the summit. Australia’s youthful side continues to mature with every passing year, with their midfield trio of Elise Kellond-Knight, Emily Van Egmond and Katrina Gorry particularly influential. The team also boasts significant x-factor in attack, with striker Kyah Simon finishing as the tournament’s top-scorer with four goals.

“I said before we left (home) that whoever qualifies through Asia is a medal chance,” stated Australia coach Alen Stajcic, who also described the tournament as like ‘a mini-World Cup’. “The thing we have seen this week is this group mature. We always had the weapons in attack, but now we have shown we have maturity, composure, hard work, discipline and commitment, and I think we have the makings of a world-class team.”

Maturity has also seemingly arrived for China, who are now under the guidance of charismatic former France coach Bruno Bini. Like Australia, China’s young side are very much a team on an upward trajectory. That growth has seemingly been hastened by the arrival of Bini following Canada 2015.

China collected a tough 1-1 draw against old rivals Korea DPR, albeit thanks only to an injury-time equaliser from the penalty spot, before one-goal victories over Korea Republic and Japan. The latter result, combined with wins over USA and England in recent months, is concrete evidence of Bini’s positive influence for a nation that was once a permanent fixture at global tournaments. As was the case at Canada 2015, China remain a compact but low-scoring team with the Steel Roses netting just seven goals in their five matches, while leaders Australia scored 17.

“'Chinese football’ is what you saw in the match against Japan,” Bini said. “Playing tactically works very well for us, and technique is also a part of my philosophy. We have fantastic players and they live and work together very well.”

Increased depth costly for big guns While Vietnam – who were the lone qualifiers from the previous stage of the competition – failed to collect a point, their performances indicate a further narrowing of the gap between Asia’s big five and the rest. While Vietnam crashed to a 9-0 defeat against Australia, they held China to a 2-0 scoreline and, most remarkably, were only undone by a last-minute goal against Korea DPR.

Fourth-placed Korea Republic also provided evidence of their ongoing development. The Taeguk Ladies displayed trademark Korean resilience in each match and only a missed spot-kick cost them a famous victory over Japan. Korea DPR finished fifth behind their neighbours on goal difference, but remained in the hunt for qualification until the penultimate match. The challenge now for their new-look side is to bounce back after also missing last year’s Women’s World Cup.

Most intrigue among the vanquished quartet surrounds Japan. After featuring in three successive global Finals, including last year’s Women’s World Cup decider, few predicted Japan to end the contest on home soil with just two wins from five matches. In the wake of the recent retirement of the legendary Homare Sawa, and with three years until the next Women’s World Cup, this tournament could mark a change in significant personnel for the Nadeshiko squad. Certainly there is no shortage of talent on the production line following success at recent FIFA youth tournaments, most notably victory at the 2014 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup.