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 ends with another classic

    Last weekend, China and Australia treated Adelaide to an exciting AFC Women's Asian Cup Final. Australia was trying to win its first Asian trophy after joining the confederation at the beginning of the year; China wanted to regain its crown after being denied by North Korea in the tournament's last two editions.

    You often expect Finals to be a letdown these days. Many classic matches occur in quarter-finals and semi-finals.

    This tournament might have stuck to the script. The North Korea v China semi-final was one of the best football matches I've seen at any level. So if the Final was a tight and cagey affair, it wouldn't have been too surprising.

    It was, however, a tremendous battle between two teams that have plenty of talent but are even more notable for their determination and courage.

    The Final almost had a dramatic start when outstanding striker Ma Xiaoxu went down in the penalty area after just 70 seconds but the Japanese referee ignored the Steel Roses' penalty claims.

    As both teams battled for control of the game, a scrappy 25 minutes followed with few passes strung together. The only chance during that period fell to China in the 13th minute. Han Duan played a 1-2 with Ma Xiaoxu and her shot produced an excellent save from Aussie goalkeeper Melissa Barbieri.

    In the 29th minute, and without any real warning, the Matildas took the lead. Caitlin Munoz, who I have praised throughout the tournament, accepted a throw in with her back to goal and a defender bearing down on her. Munoz turned on to her preferred left foot and, from 25 metres, she fired a bullet into the top right-hand corner. Han Wenxia in the Chinese goal got a hand to the ball but could only touch it on to the inside of the post and the ball bounced into the goal.

    China tried to equalise within a minute with Han Duan - having her best game of the tournament - giving the ball to midfielder Zheng Qin, who shot wide.

    But the first half's last 15 minutes were almost all Australia. In the 31st minute, Munoz skilfully turned a defender again and released Sarah Walsh who, from a tight angle, shot the ball straight to Han Wenxia.

    A minute later, the inspired Munoz won a ball in a challenge that she would have been favourite to lose and played a square pass to midfielder Sally Shipard. From more than 25 metres from goal, Shipard's powerful strike forced an alert Han Wenxia to turn the ball around the post.

    From the resulting corner, the Matildas scored their second with a header from midfielder Jo Peters. Against the odds, Australia was in control.

    The Chinese players were now in disarray. The two-goal deficit really unsettled them and they made a lot of mistakes.

    Australia went for an early kill and in the 37th minute some great passing and movement involving Jo Peters, Sarah Walsh and Sally Shipard resulted in a Peters shot from just outside the box which flew narrowly wide.

    In the 41st minute, midfielder Collette McCallum created another chance for Munoz but the star forward couldn't get a good connection on the ball.

    The Matildas' control of play was largely thanks to a magnificent display by defensive midfielder Alicia Ferguson. She was left out of the starting team for Australia's semi-final against Japan so that defender Di Alagich could push into midfield and mark the dangerous Homare Sawa. With Ferguson restored, Alagich returned to a more familiar role at right back. Unfortunately injury forced Alagich off in the 44th minute and she was replaced by Rhian Davies - also a natural right back.

    China managed to create a chance in the final minute of the first half with defender Liu Yali shooting from just inside the penalty area. Melissa Barbieri saved well to keep Australia's two-goal lead intact at half time.

    The Steel Roses rediscovered their composure in the second half and spent most of its opening ten minutes controlling possession. But an Australian counterattack in the 55th minute nearly gave the Matildas a 3-0 lead. Sarah Walsh beat two opponents, burst down the right, and squared the ball for Munoz but, at full pace, Munoz shot just over the bar. As always, Walsh was full of running throughout the match.

    Back came China and this time Ma Xiaoxu volleyed over the bar after Han Duan nodded the ball down for her.

    Two minutes later, Han Duan crossed from the left for Ren Liping but the midfielder could only shoot tamely after turning in the penalty area.

    China's pressure continued with Ma Xiaoxu shooting from long range in the 59th minute and Barbieri had to scramble to keep the swerving effort out. This match had no shortage of fine strikes from outside the penalty areas.

    In the 60th minute, midfielder Bi Yan also tried her luck from long range but, faced with a crowded box, her effort flew wide.

    Both coaches made substitutions in the 66th minute. Australia brought Lisa De Vanna on for Caitlin Munoz and China brought Yuan Fan on for Ren Liping.

    Aussie coach Tom Sermanni must have felt that he needed fresh legs up forward with Munoz and Walsh doing so much hard running in counterattacks. But China's change was tactical. Yuan Fan is a defender and she replaced a midfielder. This allowed China's influential captain Pu Wei to push into midfield and it would prove to be a clever move by coach Ma Liangxing.

    The Steel Roses finally made their second half pressure count in the 68th minute with a glorious back heel by Ma Xiaoxu allowing Han Duan to shoot from inside the box. Han Duan made no mistake and her well-placed strike beat Barbieri's lunge.

    The pace and intensity of the match really lifted after China reduced the deficit and, within a minute, an Alicia Ferguson volley flew wide of Han Wenxia's goal.

    In the 72nd minute, Ma Xiaoxu again showed why she will be one of the players to watch at next year's Women's World Cup. After gaining possession from a short corner on the Chinese left, she ran along the goal line, left a defender for dead and, from an extremely tight angle (and with the goalkeeper and another defender trying to protect the goal), Ma Xiaoxu scored with a powerful shot.

    With the score now 2-2, ten minutes of end-to-end play followed. Australia suffered a blow in the 83rd minute when injury forced Rhian Davies to leave the field. Davies had come on as a substitute to replace an injured player so Sermanni was now unable to bring other players from the bench if the match went to extra time.

    China now tried to complete the comeback with a late winner. With Pu Wei prominent in midfield, the Steel Roses dominated the closing minutes of normal time.

    In the 84th minute, midfielder Zhang Tong made a nice run but shot wide. A nice move three minutes later involving both Pu Wei and Zhang Tong resulted in Bi Yan shooting straight at Barbieri.

    Sally Shipard tried her luck with an 88th minute shot which also flew straight to the keeper but the last chance fell to Han Duan deep into stoppage time. Running on to a long ball, the Chinese striker was forced to shoot from an angle and could only find the outside of the net.

    The 30 minutes of extra time were like the 12th round of a heavyweight title fight. The two teams battled doggedly without landing punches. The strain on the players was visible and not surprising as it had been a hard game with a lot of strong physical challenges. (It was, however, a clean match. In 120 minutes, referee Mayumi Oiwa did not show a single card.)

    The only real chance in extra time fell to Zhang Tong in the 12th minute of the first period. She got between two Australia defenders who just did well enough to force her into a tame shot.

    The Matildas may have had an edge in fitness because they were the better team in the second half of extra time. But they couldn't create scoring opportunities so the Final would be decided by penalties.

    I sensed a sad ending for Australia. With just 90 seconds of extra time remaining, China made a goalkeeping substitution with Han Wenxia replaced by reserve 'keeper Zhang Yanru. That can only mean one thing: a penalty-saving specialist.

    Zhang Yanru proved her worth immediately. Collette McCallum took the first spot kick and the Chinese 'keeper made a great save diving to her right.

    Not surprisingly, Ma Xiaoxu was the first taker for the Steel Roses and she struck the ball expertly into the top right corner to give China an early advantage.

    Sally Shipard then scored with a similar shot to Ma Xiaoxu's but Bi Yan kept China ahead with another fine penalty that gave Melissa Barbieri no chance.

    Jo Peters was next for Australia. From a short run, the Aussie midfielder shot low and to the right but her strike was feeble and Zhang Yanru saved comfortably. Defender Li Jie then gave China a 3-1 lead with a shot into the bottom left corner.

    Alicia Ferguson needed to score to give the Matildas any chance and her shot, to Zhang Yanru's right, was too good for the Chinese 'keeper.

    Unfortunately for Australia, Ferguson just delayed the inevitable and Zhang Tong scored the winning penalty. It was a tame effort - straight at Barbieri - but the Matildas' custodian dived out of its way.

    So the Chinese women regained their title. Like many champion teams, they were able to lift their game when they needed to. Whether they're good enough to defeat teams like Germany, Sweden and the USA at next year's Women's World Cup remains to be seen. But the Steel Roses will have the advantage of playing at home and, even more importantly, a sensational young forward who has proven that she has the ability to be a match winner - Ma Xiaoxu.

    Australia finished one place higher than I would have predicted at the start of the tournament but they were nearly champions. The Matildas have now qualified for the Women's World Cup for the fourth consecutive time and seem ready to advance beyond the group phase for the first time. They are well coached by Tom Sermanni (though at the press conference after the Final he repeated the fiction that penalty shootouts are a lottery) and have been bolstered by talented youngsters.

    Better still, the Aussies have had some quality opponents to prepare against - one of the many dividends from membership of the Asian Football Confederation.

    Despite the controversial ending to their semi-final, the North Koreans are also on their way to the Women's World Cup as they defeated Japan 3-2 in the match for third place. I wasn't able to see the match (for the same reason that this column is a week late - real life has caught up with me!) but I can tell you that, despite their three suspensions, the Korean team took a 3-0 first half lead with goals from midfielders Ri Un Suk and Ri Un Gyong (2).

    Before half time, Japan pulled one back through Kozue Ando but the Blues didn't get a second until Yuki Nagasato scored with a header in the 89th minute.

    The North Koreans will be disappointed to lose their title so you can expect them to look for redemption in China next year. Despite the semi-final loss, North Korea is still the most daunting Asian team. Don't write them off.

    Japan now has to wait until November to find out who it has to play against in its final chance to qualify for the Women's World Cup. That's when CONCACAF's Women's Gold Cup will be held and the team that finishes third will play Japan, home and away, for qualification.

    The Blues also finished 4th in the 2003 Asian Cup and played off against a CONCACAF team for Women's World Cup qualification. They succeeded that time with a 4-2 aggregate win over Mexico.

    After being in Germany for the World Cup, following the AFC Women's Asian Cup may seem like going from riches to rags. But don't underestimate women's football. It can be exciting and entertaining. The Final of this tournament and both semi-finals were all wonderful games. Despite being a neutral during the North Korea v China semi, I was literally on the edge of my seat throughout the match.

    I love football (I know ... that isn't exactly news) and I especially love international football. I can enjoy it even if it isn't played at its highest level. If you're the same, give the women a go.

Roll on China 2007.



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