Paul Marcuccitti

Paul Marcuccitti is a passionate soccer fan from Australia who will share his views about the World Cup in this column.

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AFC Women's Asian Cup: Brief update

    The AFC Women's Asian Cup has had a break with the completion of the group phase. Japan will now face Australia in the first semi-final, and then North Korea and China - two teams that have won the last 9 Asian Women's Championships between them - play in the other semi.

    There have been some surprises in this tournament and further evidence that Australia's entry into Asia is making an impact in this confederation.

    Australia won its semi-final spot at the expense of South Korea, and that means that South Korea will now miss the finals of the 2007 Women's Asian Cup.

    No big deal? Well, the South Koreans qualified for 2003 after finishing third in that year's Asian Women's Championship. They are the first of the 2003 qualifiers (anywhere in the world) to fail in their attempt to reach the 2007 tournament. Australia's entry means that the big 4 - China, North Korea, Japan, South Korea - is now the big 5, and 5 won't fit into the 3.5 places allocated to Asian teams for next year's Women's World Cup.

    China is hosting next year's finals so it qualifies automatically. Two of the three teams joining China in the AFC semi-finals will also qualify but one will have to play off against the third team from CONCACAF. (This also happened in 2003 with Japan, which finished fourth in the Asian Championship, playing Mexico, which finished third in the Women's Gold Cup. That time Japan scored a 4-2 aggregate victory and claimed a place at the finals.)

    The loser of the Japan-Australia semi will hope that China defeats North Korea in the other semi-final because that would give the Japan-Australia loser a second chance at qualifying for the Women's World Cup. If the match for third place includes China, it becomes as irrelevant as any other match for third place and Japan or Australia would need to go through the CONCACAF playoff.

    But I'm not going to put any money on North Korea playing in the third place match because the evidence from this tournament suggests that it is the favourite for its clash with China. The speedy North Koreans finished top of Group B with 3 wins and a scoreless draw. In that draw against Australia, it was the Koreans that looked more dangerous and had better chances.

    After losing 0-4 to Australia on the tournament's opening day, the now-departed South Koreans needed a win in their final group match against North Korea to reach the semi-finals but North Korean substitute Kim Yong Ae scored the only goal of the game.

    The other two Group B teams simply weren't in the same class. Thailand defeated Myanmar but then conceded 25 goals in its other three matches. The Myanmar team actually did better against the group's heavyweights - midfielder Aye Nandar Hlaing even scored a memorable goal against South Korea - but it's still going home with no points.

    Group A has been notable for the way Japan has dominated it. In recent years China has lost its Asian supremacy but few observers would have expected that it would be Japan qualifying for the semi-finals with a 100% record in this group (scoring 17 goals in the process) while China struggled to find the back of the net.

    Vietnam and Chinese Taipei, the other two teams in Group A, did not mount a genuine challenge, yet I watched almost disbelievingly as the Steel Roses relied on goals from young star Ma Xiaoxu to labour to a 2-0 win over Vietnam.

    When China and Japan played each other, both had already qualified for the semi-finals so you have to be a little careful about reading too much into Japan's 1-0 win. Nevertheless, the Japanese were clearly the better team in earlier group games - they look really comfortable in possession.

    The Japan-Australia semi could be a real classic. The Japanese would have to be favoured but there shouldn't be a lot between the teams. The Matildas will be encouraged by their strong performances against the Korean teams.

    Earlier I mentioned that North Korea and China have won the last 9 Asian Women's Championships. This will also be their sixth meeting in either an Asian semi-final or Final (and all of those meetings have been in the last 13 years). What more do you need to know about their upcoming encounter?



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