Asian heavyweights eye success in Portugal, Turkey
Kuala Lumpur: With just over a month remaining until the AFC Women’s Asian Cup Jordan 2018, five of the tournament’s heavyweights are set to begin a week of international tournament action at the Algarve Cup in Portugal and the Alanya Women’s Cup in Turkey.
The prestigious Portugal-based tournament, now its in 25th edition, will feature the four highest ranked sides to have qualified for Jordan 2018, with World No 4 Australia the best-placed squad in the 12-team competition.
The Matildas, alongside China PR, will feature in Group A, while Korea Republic and defending Asian champions Japan have been placed in Groups B and C respectively.
China PR are the only Asian side to have won the tournament, lifting the trophy in 1999 and 2002, while Japan have twice reached the final, only to lose to Germany on both occasions, most recently in 2014.
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Portugal v China PR
The Steel Roses have recovered from a shaky start under Icelandic head coach Siggi Eyjolfsson to string together four confidence-boosting wins in a row, and arrive on the Iberian Peninsula following a training camp in the United States.
Striker Wang Shanshan and creative midfielder Wang Shuang will hope to repeat their strong form from January’s Four Nations Tournament in Foshan, while Bayern Munich goalkeeper Wang Fei returns to the national team after a two-year absence.
Portugal, currently 22 places behind China in 38th on the FIFA Rankings, enjoyed their first ever win in a UEFA European Championship Finals match last year, when they beat Scotland 2-1, but home losses to Belgium and Italy towards the end of 2017 have left their 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup qualification hopes in a precarious position.
Australia v Norway
Seven international wins in a row, an all-time high in the world rankings, and an unprecedented sense momentum around the women’s game in Australia has the Matildas among the favourites for April’s AFC Women’s Asian Cup, but their depth will be tested in Portugal as they face quality opposition without a number of their established stars.
The 2016 AFC Player of the Year Caitlin Foord, striker Kyah Simon and 2017 Algarve Cup revelation Emily Gielnik are all missing through injury, while question marks remain over the fitness of Steph Catley and Hayley Raso.
Their first opponents, Norway, dominated the early years of the Algarve Cup, winning four of the first five editions of the tournament, but have struggled more recently, failing to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics, and exiting UEFA Euro 2017 in the group stage with no goals or points.
All eyes at the Albufeira Municipal Stadium will be on Sam Kerr, as the superstar forward looks to add to her tally of 11 goals in her last six international matches.
Korea Republic v Russia
Nearly a year on from the AFC Women’s Asian Cup qualification success dubbed the ‘Miracle of Pyongyang’, Yoon Duk-yeo’s charges are still searching for their first win since, having lost twice to world champions the United States and once each to Asian heavyweights Japan, DPR Korea and China PR.
For that reason, Korea Republic’s Algarve Cup campaign has an added air of importance as the Taeguk Ladies look to build confidence ahead of a Jordan 2018 group stage which will include meetings with both Australia and Japan.
Chelsea star Ji So-yun returns to the squad fresh from her goal against Manchester City at the weekend, while 21-year-old forwards Han Chae-rin and Son Hwa-yeon have another chance to impress on the international stage, beginning against a Russian side who themselves remain winless – and scoreless – in their last six games.
Japan v Netherlands
Arguably the pick of the fixtures on Matchday One, Japan’s clash with the Netherlands sees the champions of Asia and Europe cross paths in a battle between two of the world’s elite national teams.
Japan’s 2017 year of mixed fortunes ended with defeat on home soil against DPR Korea in December’s EAFF E-1 Championship, and their first fixture of 2018 presents another difficult challenge.
In FC Barcelona’s Lieke Martens, the Netherlands have the World and European Women’s Player of the Year for 2017, as well as a legion of quality players who ply their trade at the biggest clubs in Europe, but Japan can boast some star names of their own including Olympique Lyon’s Saki Kumagai.
The Netherlands beat Japan 3-2 at last year’s Algarve Cup, before the Nadeshiko turned the tables to earn a 1-0 win in the teams’ most recent fixture in June.
ALANYA WOMEN'S CUP
Jordan v Poland
Also in action over the coming week are AFC Women’s Asian Cup hosts Jordan, who will compete in the 12-team Alanya Women’s Cup in Turkey, having flown directly from Spain where Al-Nashmiyat completed a three-match series against Spanish top flight clubs.
Jordan – 50th in the world rankings – will meet 30th-ranked Poland first up, with the Europeans coming into the tournament following a fine run of form which has included crucial FIFA Women’s World Cup qualifying wins over Belarus and Albania.
Maysa Jbarah has been in lethal goal-scoring form for Jordan, with the experienced striker scoring in all three matches during Jordan’s week in Spain.
Photos: AFP, Chinese Football Association, AFC