Japan battle hard for place in semi-finals (March 12 2007)

KUALA LUMPUR: Defending champions Japan had to overcome stiff resistance from Thailand in Group B before emerging 2-1 winners and sealing their place in the AFC U-16 Women’s Championship semi-finals on Monday.

Japan, beaten by DPR Korea 1-0 last week, needed only a draw to progress to the semi-finals because the Thais had lost 7-1 to the Koreans.

However, at one point it looked as if a major upset was on the cards when Thailand made it 1-1 just before half-time.

The Japanese, however, prevailed but the Thais, who finished third two years ago, can hold their heads high after a battling performance.

Japan now meet China in the semi-finals.

Japanese coach Hiroshi Yoshida admitted he was surprised by Thailand’s tenacity.

“We thought we could win this match quite easily but there was a lot at stake,” said Yoshida. “Whoever could win would go to the semi-finals so there was a lot of incentive for Thailand.”

“We won in the end but the performance was not that great. Thailand made it very difficult for us.”

Thailand coach Chana Yodprang was proud of his players after an improved performance from their defeat to DPR Korea.

“We knew Japan was a very strong team but we wanted to take the game to them and we did that,” said Chana.

“We tried our best and I think we put on a great show. The players had more confidence after our game with the Koreans, even though we lost, and that is why we were able to play better.”

Thailand were forced on the defensive from the opening whistle and worked hard to keep the Japanese attackers at bay.

Japan’s livewire forward Chinatsu Kira was robbed by a great defensive tackle in the second minute and was again denied eight minutes later when Thai goalkeeper Pattamawadee Wongpota stopped her shot from eight yards.

But Japan would eventually get their breakthrough in the 13th minute when midfielder Saki Takano let fly from behind the box to score her team’s first goal.

If Japan thought their goal would open the floodgates, they were disappointed. Thailand shrugged off the setback and continued to play organised football with Pattamawadee playing a key role in thwarting Japanese attacks.

Three minutes before half-time, Thailand stunned Japan with an equaliser. Captain Rattikan Thongsombut forced her way down the left inside the box and sent in a goal-bound shot that beat Japanese goalkeeper Saki Nakamura.

Before the ball went over the line, Nattaya Dounjantuek made sure of the goal by slamming the ball home from one yard.

Two minutes later, Pattamawadee made a point blank save from Mana Iwabuchi as the sides went into half-time locked at 1-1.

Japan went all out for a second goal after the break with Natsumi Kameoka rounding Pattamawadee but failing to get her shot in.

It was left to Sakano, again, to lift Japan. In the 58th minute, she raced down the left and send a sharp shot past Pattamawadee to give Japan a 2-1 lead.

Thailand suffered another setback on 72 minutes when midfielder Kunlatida Kaigitrat was sent off for a second yellow card. With 10 players, Thailand faced an uphill task against the fitter Japanese.

Two minutes after the sending off, Pattamawadee saved from Natsuki Kishikawa and Takano in quick succession and five minutes before the end, Emi Nishiyama hit the side netting.

Japan had another chance to score in the 87th minute but Iwabuchi’s shot was cleared off the line by Thai defender Warinda Patisang.

Iwabuchi also hit the crossbar from an inswinging corner from the left as Japan settled for a 2-1 win and a place in the last four.