OSAKA – Nadeshiko Japan is in need of a miracle to qualify for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics after the former world champions went down 2-1 at the hands of China on Friday.
Goals from Zhang Rui and Gu Yasha sent China on its way past Japan, which again outpossessed its opponent but had only Kumi Yokoyama’s second-half goal to show for.
The Asian champions have just one point from three games and are fifth in the six-team, round-robin qualifying tournament. Australia fortified its lead on a perfect nine points with a 2-0 win over South Korea, with China trailing on seven points.
After edging last-place Vietnam 1-0, North Korea lies in third place with five points, followed by South Korea on two points.
A number of stars have to be aligned if Japan is to qualify for its fourth consecutive Olympics. Japan must win its remaining two games against Vietnam and North Korea, and hope that China, North Korea or South Korea do not earn more than seven points.
The Nadeshiko then must pray they finish with a better goal difference than China, which faces South Korea on Monday and Australia on Wednesday.
Japan coach Norio Sasaki pointed the finger at himself for what has been a lackluster campaign no one could have imagined.
“It’s my responsibility,” said Sasaki, who has been in charge since December 2007. “There’s still a possibility. Whether we can come up with the result remains to be seen, but we will keep working until it’s all over.
“We were chasing the game and found ourselves in a situation where we just could not click,” added Sasaki. “In any case we can’t let our heads drop and want to make the effort in the next two games. The most important thing is to reset mentally.”
Captain Aya Miyama was in tears as she apologized over the result.
“We’ve believed in the manager all along and we’re not about to stop now,” Miyama said. “We’ll stick to our guns until the finish.
“Including today, the teams we’ve faced here are not unbeatable. But in the past, we’ve beaten teams who we thought were unbeatable so football can be complicated,” Miyama commented.
“I’m the captain so I feel responsible. All these years, I’ve never lost faith in the coach and my teammates. It’s not the coach’s fault.”
Japan sorely needed a strong start to the game with its back against the wall, but instead was staring at a deficit by the 14th minute.
An ill-advised back pass from midfielder Yuri Kawamura set up Zhang for a one-on-one with goalkeeper Miho Fukumoto, and the Chinese striker promptly capitalized as sighs filled Kincho Stadium all around.
Japan struggled to respond despite having the bulk of possession, settling for just one shot well off target by Aya Sameshima before the intermission. Kawamura, who looked shaky throughout the first half, was benched at the break for Mana Iwabuchi.
Miyama forced a save from Zhao Lina in the first minute of the second half, trying to turn the tide for the hosts, but China pulled away three minutes before the hour through Gu, whose 20-meter effort deflected off defender Saki Kumagai and sailed into the top right corner.
Japan finally found the net in the 65th minute, when Yokoyama mopped up a loose ball inside the box before blasting past Zhao to make it 2-1, but would not come closer to scoring before the final whistle.
Japan has an extra day to prepare for the game against Vietnam, which gave North Korea a hard time earlier on Friday.
“This just goes to show how competitive Asia has become. The question is whether each and every individual understands that. The problem lies within us, not our opponents,” forward Yuki Ogmi said.
Added Miyama, “I’m sorry for the fans who’ve been supporting us. We’ve been playing for all we’re worth but the result showed we are lacking something.”