Friday 26 February 2016, 23:00

Asian sextet on starting blocks

It’s been described as a ‘mini World Cup’. It features three nations in the FIFA/Coca-Cola Women’s World Ranking top ten, five in the top 20, and some of the best female footballers on the planet. It is the Japan-based AFC qualifiers for the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament Rio 2016.

2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup™ winners and London 2012 silver medal winners Japan headline the field. Joining the hosts for the 29 February – 9 March tournament in Osaka are Canada 2015 quarter-finalists China PR and Australia, as well as Round of 16 qualifiers Korea Republic. As if that is not enough, three-time Asian champions Korea DPR are also in the mix, as are outsiders Vietnam.

Just two spots are up for grabs to Rio where a 12-team tournament will be held during the August Olympiad. The six-team field in Osaka again provides evidence of Asia’s strength in depth, and a qualifying task that is perhaps matched only by Europe. Adding to the already onerous challenge for the sextet is a five-match schedule condensed across just ten days.

Nadeshiko’s new vision Japan’s growth on the world stage has been mirrored at Olympic level. Their four campaigns have seen a clear pattern of improvement commencing with a group-stage exit on debut, subsequently followed by reaching the quarter-final and semi-final stage, before their silver-medal win in London. Those that believe in omens will suggest a gold medal is the next step in the chain.

But despite Japan’s stunning record in recent years, even they will find it tough to reprise the successful qualification campaign of their male counterparts a month ago. And should they reach Rio, they will do so without long-term Nadeshiko icon Homare Sawa who retired in December, following a stellar career that included all four of Japan’s Olympic Games appearances.

Free-scoring forward Yuki Ogimi has inherited Sawa’s No10 shirt in Norio Sasaki’s squad, which includes 16 members of the Canada 2015 roster. Among the new faces is Kumi Yokoyama who finally makes the step up for a senior tournament after a stellar showing at the 2012 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup, and a massive goal haul in the Nadeshiko League.

Tight field Much interest lies in the form of the enigmatic Korea DPR. They may be one of Asia’s powerhouses but their recent appearances at international level have, for a variety of reasons, been infrequent. The North Koreans, along with Japan, were Asia’s qualifiers during the past two Olympiads providing further evidence if any were needed of their quality.

Australia has enjoyed considerable success in recent years, including being crowned Asian queens in 2010. However, qualifying for the Olympic Games through Asia remains an unfulfilled achievement as yet. The Aussies have been keeping a low profile at international level in recent months, but the recent conclusion of the W-League season means the tournament is well timed.

“(The) Qualifying (tournament) is a mini World Cup for us,” Australia coach Alen Stajcic said of the six-team event. “To make it to the Olympics would be a massive prize and massive boost for the team and the sport.”

Both China and Korea Republic are showing consistent signs of growth, following a relatively low key period in the years prior. Both impressed at Canada 2015 on their return to the world stage, with the two nations also displaying plenty of strong signs at youth level. South Korea have started to see a growing number of players depart for foreign shores and their roster for Japan is reflective of that with Ji So-Yun (Chelsea), Cho So-Hyun (Kobe) and Jeon Gae-Ul (Western New York Flash) among the foreign contingent.

Meanwhile, China, now under the guidance of former France coach Bruno Bini, has been defeated just once in their last nine matches, ending USA’s 12-year unbeaten home streak in the process. They will, however, be without the most high-profile player: Wang Fei. Their star goalkeeper, who can count Turbine Potsdam and Lyon on her resume, is set to miss the tournament due to what the Chinese FA described as “her personal health and physical conditions”. There will be other key absentees in Osaka with Korea Republic set to be without former teenage starlet Yeo Min-Ji, while Australia suffered a dual injury blow with dynamic forward Sam Kerr and W-League top-scorer Larissa Crummer also missing due to injury.