OSAKA - The Rio de Janeiro Olympics are slipping through Nadeshiko Japan’s fingers as the former world champions drew 1-1 with South Korea in an Asian final qualifier on Wednesday.
Mana Iwabuchi broke the deadlock in the dying minutes with a lucky goal for Japan, but Jung Sul-bin quickly restored parity to hand South Korea a point that crippled the Asian champions in the six-team, round-robin qualifying competition.
Australia, which hammered Vietnam 9-0 earlier on Wednesday, tops the group with six points from two games, followed by China on four points after its 1-1 draw with North Korea.
North Korea and South Korea each have two points, while Japan is next to last with a single point, ahead of only Vietnam on zero points. The top two teams will qualify for Rio.
Even if Norio Sasaki’s side wins its remaining three games against China on Friday followed by Vietnam and North Korea next week, it could still come up short.
“I thought we did a good job in the way we approached the game, but at the end of the day, we couldn’t take all three points,” Sasaki said. “The players worked hard. I’ve got some self-reflecting to do.”
Said captain Aya Miyama, “We’re creating but can’t score. But we can no longer afford to talk about how we should be scoring. We just have to go out there and do it, no matter how it looks.”
“Luck is a part of it. And it’s not coming our way right now.”
Sasaki made six changes to the team that was beaten 3-1 by Australia on Monday, bearing in mind the impossible schedule of playing five games in nine days.
Asked about swapping more than half his lineup for a match Japan desperately needed to win, Sasaki said, “The changes I made I had success with in the past. A few players are nursing old injuries and I took precautions with them.”
Japan came roaring out of the gate, and nearly went in front in the fourth minute as Kumi Yokoyama hit the bar and Yuki Ogimi headed over an empty net from the rebound.
South Korea proved tenacious as expected, keeping the hosts off the scoreboard in the first half to invite an opportunity on the other side of halftime.
Nine minutes past the hour, South Korea earned a penalty as defender Yukari Kinga was judged to have handled the ball. But Japan goalkeeper Miho Fukumoto stepped up big time, saving on Ji So-yun to keep it a goalless game.
Japan caught a huge break in the 85th minute, South Korean custodian Kim Jung-mi punching nothing but air when Nahomi Kawasumi crossed from the right. The ball went off Iwabuchi unintentionally, giving the hosts the lead.
Yet, the match was far from over as the visitors leveled from a scramble with three minutes left. Jung tucked away the equalizer inside the right-hand post, silencing the crowd at Kincho Stadium.
South Korea coach Yoon Duk-yeo praised his players for fighting to the finish.
“We have two draws and coming here, we wanted to have at least two points after the first two games so we can live with this,” Yoon said. “The next match against a very physical Australian team will be key.”
“We missed a penalty and conceded in the second half, but we did well to keep playing to the end, which is a testament to our mental strength. We have put in a lot of conditioning work for this tournament and I thought we were physically better than Japan tonight.”
Iwabuchi tried hard to think positive.
“We have to make this point count. It’s not over yet, we still have a chance,” the Bayern Munich striker said.