Sunday 06 February 2022, 14:00

China reclaim Asian crown in a tournament of shocks

  • China PR produced a stunning final comeback to win the AFC Women’s Asian Cup

  • First-timers Vietnam and the Philippines among five to qualify for the FIFA Women’s World Cup

  • Stars including Wang Shanshan and Ji Soyun made their mark

China PR are once again queens of their continent after producing a remarkable comeback to beat Korea Republic 3-2 in the final of the AFC Women’s Asian Cup.

The final victory – achieved by overturning a 2-0 half-time deficit – capped a stunning campaign from the Steel Roses, who also shocked Japan en route to reclaiming a trophy they had last won in 2006. Having dominated the early editions of this competition, China’s record overall tally of Asian titles now stands at nine – three times that of any other nation.

Crestfallen Korea Republic, who had never reached the final prior to this year, can also be proud at having set new standards in India – and of securing a spot at next year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup™. The Taegeuk Nangja and their final conquerors will be joined at those global finals by Japan and a duo of debutantes in the Philippines and Vietnam, while Australia – despite suffering a shock quarter-final exit – are assured of their place as co-hosts.

That unexpected reverse for the Matildas was typical of a tournament in which shocks abounded, with Japan – winners of the previous two editions – another of its victims. With plenty from India to reflect on, we look at the stars and storylines that dominated this Asian Cup.

AFC’s FIFA Women’s World Cup sextet

  • Australia

  • China PR

  • Japan

  • Korea Republic

  • Philippines

  • Vietnam

Defining moments

Hosts’ heartbreak

India had gone into this Asian Cup with justifiably high hopes of qualifying for their first World Cup and boosting the country’s ambitious plans for growing the women’s game. But disaster struck in the shape of a COVID outbreak that left the hosts unable to field a team for their second group match against Chinese Taipei and ultimately forced their withdrawal from the tournament. Thomas Dennerby, the team’s vastly experienced head coach, described it without hesitation as “my worst ever experience as a head coach”. “My team and I are devastated,” lamented the Swede. “[This was] six months of sacrifice, dreams and passion. Our dreams are forever killed.”

Ji rocket ousts the Aussies

As the highest-ranked team at the Asian Cup, and having reached the semi-finals of last year’s Women’s Olympic Football Tournament, Australia were widely tipped to take home the trophy. But the star-studded Matildas failed to even make it to the last four, going out to a stunning late strike from Ji Soyun after spurning a string of gilt-edged chances at the other end. Steph Catley, who captained the team in their quarter-final loss, made no attempt to sugar-coat the setback. “We're a team of world-class players and we keep coming up short in moments like this," she reflected afterwards. "We've got to learn from it.”

Malditas make history

Not every Aussie at the Asian Cup headed home with cause for regret. Former Matildas coach Alen Stajcic was able to reflect on having overseen a historic and hugely successful campaign, with the Philippines qualifying for the semi-finals and reaching the first World Cup of their history. They did so after beating Thailand and Indonesia in the group stage, and coming out on top in a heart-stopping penalty shootout against Chinese Taipei in the last eight. "This is probably the best experience of my coaching career – and I’ve been coaching for 20 years," said a beaming Stajcic. "It's such a unified group, such a close group, and it's no surprise that the whole country back home in the Philippines is really proud of them."

Roses show their steel

China and Japan produced a thrilling spectacle when they met in the semi-finals, sharing four goals and playing out a dramatic penalty shootout. Not for the last time, the plaudits and a hard-earned victory went to the spirited Steel Roses, who twice came from behind – equalising for the second time in the 119th minute – before holding their nerve from 12 yards. That achievement was all the more impressive as they were missing star player Wang Shuang, who had picked up an injury in training. “It’s a huge achievement for me, the whole team and women’s football in China,” enthused coach Shui Qingxia.

Comeback queens seize the crown

If we’d thought that topsy-turvy last-four encounter would be the game of the tournament, or that we’d seen Shui’s side at their indomitable best, the final taught us otherwise. China, despite dominating possession, entered the fourth quarter of the match 2-0 down and seemingly destined for defeat. But Tang Jiali’s penalty halved the deficit, Zhang Linyan restored parity with a fine header just four minutes later and then, just as extra time looked to be beckoning once again, substitute Xiao Yuyi smashed home the most dramatic of winners at the end of an intricate, beautifully-constructed move.

Headline makers

  • Wang Shanshan: Having begun the tournament in the shadow of her star namesake, Wang Shuang, this 32-year-old forward proved her enduring worth to the Chinese cause by scoring in each of her side’s matches en route to the final. She was also the undoubted heroine of the semi-final win over Japan, netting that 119th-minute equaliser before slotting home the winning penalty in the shootout that followed.

  • Ji Soyun: One of the most elegant players in the game, the Chelsea star brought her usual midfield mastery while also adding a few high-quality and hugely important goals. Her magnificent match-winner in the quarter-final victory over Australia was one of five goals Ji contributed to Korea Republic’s campaign, cementing her position as the country’s all-time leading scorer.

  • Sam Kerr: Though uncharacteristically wasteful in her team’s last-eight defeat, Ji’s Chelsea team-mate still did enough in her shorter-than-expected campaign to finish as the tournament’s top scorer. Kerr’s seven-goal haul also established her as Australia’s greatest-ever scorer of either gender, taking her beyond the 50-goal benchmark set by Socceroos legend Tim Cahill.