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Shot at Olympic history will drive Korea Republic in China PR play-off, says Bell

Goyang: Korea Republic head coach Colin Bell believes his side will be motivated by the opportunity to seal a maiden Olympic qualification when they host China PR in the first leg of their women’s Tokyo 2020 qualifying playoff on Thursday.

More than a year after they were originally scheduled to meet, the two sides will finally decide the tournament’s final Asian qualifier over the coming week, with the second leg to be held in Suzhou on Tuesday.

Repeated postponements related to the COVID-19 pandemic may have pushed the 2020 qualifiers well into 2021, but the prize remains the same for Korea Republic, who are eager to make their first major statement since Bell’s appointment in October 2019.

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Unlike China, who have appeared in five Olympic tournaments and claimed the silver medal in Atlanta 1996, Korea Republic have never reached the rarefied air of Olympic competition in the women’s game, and Bell is eager for the class of 2021 to seize their opportunity. “We want to make history. That’s what is driving everybody,” said the English head coach.

“It’s a big chance for us. We’ve not played for over a year now so we’re looking forward to playing, and just getting onto the pitch first of all. There’s a lot at stake, so we want to have a positive approach and enjoy both matches, but we can only really enjoy them when we’re successful.”

With legendary Chelsea midfielder Ji So-yun (pictured below) making the trip from London to Goyang, just northwest of Seoul, Korea Republic will arguably field the game’s outstanding individual, but the FA Women’s Super League stardust available to Bell may be tempered by the need to quickly gel with national teammates they have rarely seen in recent times.

Ji and fellow English-based players Lee Geum-min and captain Cho So-hyun haven’t appeared for the national team since Korea Republic’s qualifying process began with routine wins over Myanmar and Vietnam last February, and Bell admits his star trio will have limited time to readjust to the international game.

“We have three experienced players playing in England and obviously we want to use that experience to our advantage,” Bell declared.

“The (England-based) girls have come in later than the home-based players. That can be a problem, but I think we’ve managed it very well. The girls have adapted very well.

“I’ve had the home-based players for a few camps now, but I haven’t seen Ji, Cho (pictured below) and Geum-min for a year, but you wouldn’t have that feeling that they haven’t been around for a year. They’re looking forward to playing in this qualification.”

China PR are also preparing for their first full international since the Olympic Qualifiers of 2020, where they defied expectations, the loss of key players and a lengthy spell in hotel quarantine to emerge unbeaten from a Sydney-based group featuring Australia, Thailand and Chinese Taipei.

The standout performance from that group came in their final match, where they earned a 1-1 away draw against Australia, and with the match at Goyang Stadium open to a limited number of fans, they will once again look to excel as the visiting team.

After more than a year away from the international arena, head coach Jia Xiuquan (pictured above) welcomed the presence of fans for Thursday’s match.

“My players are used to playing away matches with thousands of spectators in every season of the Chinese Women’s Super League,” said the former men’s international.

“The spectators are a kind of encouragement for my players to have more spirit and show their performance on the pitch. I think it’s a good thing for us.”

While many of Korea Republic’s stars are expected to start Thursday’s match, all eyes will be on the Chinese team sheet, with Wang Shuang, who missed the earlier qualifying matches while being locked down in Wuhan, among the potential inclusions.

Captain Wu Haiyan and Tang Jiali, both stars in China's qualifiers in Sydney, have made the trip to Goyang, as has talented 19-year-old midfielder Shen Mengyu, but the Steel Roses will be without 2018 AFC Women's Asian Cup Golden Boot winner Li Ying, who isn't part of the squad.

Ranked 15th, China PR are three places ahead of Korea Republic in the latest global charts.

The winners of these week's playoff will join Japan and Australia as Asia's representatives in the women's football tournament at the Tokyo Games.

Tokyo Olympics qualifying playoff – First leg
Goyang Stadium, Goyang City
Kick-off: 16:00 (UTC+9)

Photos: KFA

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