FIFA WOMEN'S WORLD CUP FINAL 2011
JAPAN 2:2 USA aet; 1-1 at 90mins, Japan won 3-1 on penalties.
Morgan 69', Miyama 81', Wambach 104', Sawa 117'
Japan's first football World Cup.
An action-packed final and a great advert for the women's game. An even bigger night for Asian soccer and the Japanese women's team - the Nadeshiko are the new world champions, the first ever Asians in the men's or women's game to win the biggest prize.
What a narrative the final contest took. The USA looked like running away with it from the off. They almost scored in the first 30 seconds and for about a quarter of an hour Japan looked like nervous minnows who did not know what they were doing in a World Cup Final.
Faster, higher, stronger, the Olympic motto, could have been applied to Pia Sundhage's team. Using their physical superiority the Americans had Japan on the ropes and it only seemed a matter of time before the floodgates would open for a torrent of goals.
Lord knows they tried to score, but Abby Wambach's thunderous shot against the underside of the crossbar just short of the half-hour was the closest the US came to breaking the deadlock.
The Japanese must have been glad to see half-time. Even at 0-0 the Americans seemed well in control and needing only to carry on plugging away until luck would shine on them in front of goal. In the pacy winger Heather O'Reilly, the mountainous custodian Hope Solo and the imperious No.9 Wambach, the US possessed three players the Japanese could not deal with adequately.
The US had dominated in shots and possession and had pressed the Japanese so effectively the blue shirts were hitting hopeful long balls from the middle, if they were lucky enough to get past halfway.
America began the second half where they had left off, unimpeachable at the back and powering up the wings to cross for their big centre-forward to cause havoc; an effective if inelegant approach betraying US Soccer's Anglo-Saxon roots and the athleticism of its domestic sports culture. Their first goal was a route one special and their second a simple cross and power-header.
Japan were different, playing short and quick passes to feet. Even in the midst of an onslaught and in the tightest of spaces, they would try to tiki-taka their way out of trouble.
Sundhage did not lose her Scandinavian cool but equally showed her joy or frustration at times on the touchline. Nadeshiko coach Norio Sasaki was in contrast unflappable throughout, never giving an inch to shows of emotion throughout the two-hour rollercoaster. What a sound constitution he must have.
Sasaki's cool strategy won out in the end, and his inner zen was shared by his players, who maintained their patient build-up from the back despite twice falling behind. By contrast, the Americans, who had taken a deserved lead through Alex Morgan's unerring missile in the 69th minute, panicked into conceding in the 81st minute in a defensive cock-up which allowed Aya Miyama to stab home.
Japan were level again in more ways than one, more comfortable in finding space and letting their natural passing game unfurl itself once more with the physical fright of the first half fading away. Growing in confidence with each passing minute, the Japanese ensured the US knew they were not willing to cave in.
And so to extra-time and the US started again the brighter. Morgan pulled a chance wide before crossing in the 104th minute for Wambach to thump home a header, her 50th headed goal. The US had been ropy in not winning it in the 90 but now they had another chance to seal the Cup.
But Japan kept knocking at the door, refusing to budge psychologically from their victory mission. Yukari Kinga almost chipped in an equaliser before midfielder Homare Sawa popped up again when it mattered to flick a Miyama corner cleverly past Solo with the back of her boot. It was three minutes before the end of regulation extra-time.
With seconds left a red card for Azusa Iwashimizu who scythed down a raiding Morgan on the edge of the box, but the resulting free-kick failed to find the target.
Relentless to the last, the Japanese had withstood the early storm and twice pegged back the apparently superior Americans. When the US missed their first three penalty kicks against Japan's diminutive keeper Ayumi Kaihori it was clear who had finished the match psychologically in the ascendant.
Saki Kumagai rifled the winning kick into the top corner and the World Cup was Japan's. Sawa won the tournament's golden boot with five goals and was also crowned Player of the Tournament.
The Nadeshiko earned their tournament the hard way, first pipping China to qualify, then beating the much-fancied hosts in Wolfsburg and brushing aside Sweden 3-1 in the semi-final before fighting the USA to the wire and eventually beating them for the first time in 25 attempts.
"Not one of the players gave up," said Sasaki quite honestly.
Gambare Nippon? You certainly did.
(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile
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