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(News Focus) Feisty S. Korean women keep Olympic football hopes alive

All News 12:09 March 03, 2016

By Joo Kyung-don

SEOUL, March 3 (Yonhap) -- When South Korean women's football head coach Yoon Duk-yeo said last month his team could reach the Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, this year, local fans praised him for his confidence, but at the same time, there were doubts.

Yet after two hard-fought draws against heavy favorites, South Korea still have a shot at qualifying for their first Olympics, as improbable as it seems.

South Korea, which have never reached the Summer Games since women's football was first contested in Atlanta 20 years ago, entered the final round of Asian qualification for the Summer Games as the underdog at No. 18 in the FIFA rankings. Of the six Asian countries vying for the two Olympic spots, only Vietnam, at No. 29, is ranked lower.

With Japan (No. 4), North Korea (No. 6), Australia (No. 9) and China (No. 17) also in the competition, booking a ticket to Rio seems to be a fool's hope.

Before departing for Osaka, Japan, for the qualifying tournament, Yoon acknowledged that the road ahead would be tough, but he wanted three wins and two draws against their Asian opponents. However, facing two tournament favorites -- North Korea and Japan -- in their first two matches, most people thought Yoon's plan would quickly be ruined.

The 54-year-old coach later added that against North Korea and Japan, an ideal result would be getting a single victory or two draws and these two matches will set the tone for his squad for the rest of the tournament.

That mission has been cleared: South Koreans managed to hold both North Korea and Japan to 1-1 draws.

And in what has been a topsy-turvy tournament so far, South Korea, now tied for third with North Korea in the standings, realize their maiden Summer Games appearance isn't as impossible as once thought.

Host Japan, the 2011 FIFA World Cup champion and the 2012 London Games silver medalist, are winless after two matches, as are North Korea, which qualified for the last two Olympics. Australia have surged to the top with two straight victories. With China occupying second place after a win and a draw, the qualification has become anyone's game.

Yoon has no time to feel relieved after two draws. To make Yoon a man of his words, three victories are now needed and the team's next opponent is Australia, which stunned Japan 3-1 and crushed Vietnam 9-0.

South Koreans can move up to second place with a win at Yanmar Stadium Nagai but also can drop below fourth place with a loss against Australia, though the standings will depend on the results of other matches.

South Korea has fared poorly against Australia to date, with a head-to-head record of two wins, one draw and 11 losses. South Korea's last victory came in 2010.

"Australia have power and speed, and they're tall," Yoon said. "Our match against Australia will be the most critical battle for us to reach the Rio Games."

Yoon, who led South Korea to their first Women's World Cup knockout stage last year, said quickly recovering physically is the key before the Australia match kicks off at 7:35 p.m. on Friday.

For the first two matches, played on Monday and Wednesday, South Korea used the same starting lineup, and eight players played the full 90 minutes in both matches. Midfielder Lee Geum-min was lifted in the 89th minute against North Korea, making it nine players who have barely taken a breather since the tournament opened.

In contrast, the Aussies have had a much easier time. Only four players have played both of the Matildas' first two matches. Since those who were featured against Japan are their best players, this means at least seven Australians enjoyed a full day's rest on Wednesday and will be in better shape Friday.

Besides physical condition, South Koreans hope star forward Ji So-yun can wash off her memory of missing a penalty. The 25-year-old, who is South Korea's all-time leading scorer with 39 goals, burst into tears following the match against Japan after failing to convert the chance to put South Korea up 1-0 in the second half.

"There is no excuse," Ji said with tears in her eyes. "I feel ashamed for letting my teammates down."

Coach Yoon said that missing penalties is part of the game, and that the Chelsea Ladies FC forward needs to overcome the painful memory.

"I hope she isn't too down on herself and recovers from it quickly," he said.

On the positive side, striker Jung Seol-bin has been at the top of her game, having scored both goals for South Korea so far, including a late equalizer against Japan to save the team from defeat.

"I want to keep this good feeling for the remaining matches," Jung said Wednesday. "Although the Australian players are physically imposing, we will neutralize them with our sharp play on the pitch."


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