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Riko Ueki stars as Japan retain title

Nanjing: Japan completed a near-perfect tournament to become AFC U-19 Women’s champions for a record fifth time, seeing off previously unbeaten DPR Korea 1-0 thanks to a superb Riko Ueki goal.

After a tense and close-fought match, Futoshi Ikeda’s side continued their remarkable run of second-half scoring to claim back-to-back titles, following their 2015 win against the same opponents.

World champions at U-17 and U-20 level, DPR Korea finished as runners-up for the fourth consecutive time as their search for a first AFC U-19 Women’s Championship crown since 2007 went unfulfilled.

Having both convincingly beaten all comers since the tournament began two weeks, the teams spent the early moments feeling each other out in what was a cagey opening.

Thomas Gerstner’s side had been consistently fast starters in Nanjing, and the final represented the first time in the tournament they failed to take the lead within the first quarter of an hour.

As ever, their most dangerous outlet was star striker Sung Hyang-sim (pictured above), and it was her sublime turn and pass that released Ri Hae-yon in the 24th minute, with her long range shot taking a bobble and testing Aguri Suzuki.

Japan managed to control a large amount of possession, but it was DPR Korea who looked slightly more dangerous in a half where clear cut chances were few and far between.

Gerstner’s side, it must be said, dealt with Japan’s forays forward with comfort and it was only a narrowly-missed 40th minute strike from Riko Ueki that gave them any real cause for concern.

DPR Korea, already without Kim Pom-ui, suffered a further blow when right winger An Song-ok, a key contributor throughout the tournament, was injured just before half-time and replaced by Ri Pom-Hyang, whose three minute cameo against Vietnam was her only game time of the tournament.

The final remained goalless at the break, but burst into life less than five minutes after it, when the brilliant Ueki produced a moment of individual brilliance – cutting inside from the left before hammering the ball beyond Ri Jong-sim from 20 metres – to make it 1-0.

Remarkably, Ueki’s 50th minute strike meant it was the fifth consecutive match that Japan had scored in the first 10 minutes after half-time, and their 18th second-half goal out of 21 in total for the tournament.

Led by the determined Sung, DPR Korea immediately looked for a way back into the game, and it was their top scorer who provided a super cross for Rim Jin-a, but the midfielder failed to make significant contact and the chance was lost.

Japan, too, continued to push forward in search for a second goal, and they nearly found it when Honoka Hayashi rattled the cross bar from outside the box in the 64th minute.

DPR Korea never gave up the fight, but were held largely to long range efforts which were unable to test Japanese goalkeeper Aguri Suzuki.

The final moments were another gripping chapter in a compelling footballing rivalry, as the two best sides in the tournament went toe to toe.

DPR Korea mounted a final dramatic raid on the Japanese goal, with the Young Nadeshiko unable to clear the ball for over a minute, but a clean strike never materialised and Japan were champions yet again.

Fittingly, Ueki (pictured above) – who was superb all tournament with three goals and six assists in four matches - was voted player of the match in the final, while the astute Ikeda claimed his first continental trophy.

There was some cheer for DPR Korea as Hyang-sim was crowned as the tournament's Most Valuable Player.

Futoshi Ikeda: Head coach, Japan

“I congratulate my players, they played very hard. At half time I told the players I wanted them to continue what they were doing and be confident going into the second half. DPR Korea are strong and they have many great players. We will be prepared for the World Cup. The players didn’t mind that we were playing against DPR Korea – the only thing that mattered was to win the game and to win the tournament. We became champions of Asia, so the players now have an experience of a great success. 

Thomas Gerstner: Head Coach, DPR Korea

“First, congratulations to Japan. They played a nice final. Nice passing and nice ball control and they had – most of the time – the match control. One shot, one goal, one is a winner, one a loser. We weren’t bad. The girls fought all the time. In added time we were close to scoring and we would have been back in business, but we didn’t score. After the match we can say what happened and talk about the ifs. Yes, we had some injuries and we could find many excuses if we want to, but we don’t need to. We have two players going to the hospital who cannot walk, but this is football, sometimes it happens. When we get back we will check what we will do in the next week and the team will meet and train in November and December after some rest. This we will discuss when we get to Pyongyang.”

Photos: AFC