After an enthralling 120 minutes of football, China trumped defending champions Japan 4-3 on penalties on Thursday to seal a berth in the AFC Women's Asian Cup 2022 final. After Chinese goalkeeper Yu Zhu saved Japan's fifth and final penalty, skipper Wang Shanshan slotted home the winner.
The eight-time winners came from behind twice to push the game into the penalty shootout. Ahead of kick-off, Japan were touted as clear favorites but now the Steel Roses have an opportunity to win a record-extending ninth title.
Japan were all over China in the first half. Waves of blue surged into the China half as the defending champions created multiple chances. In the third minute, Riko Ueki was set through on goal by Mana Iwabuchi, who did well to take on a couple of Chinese defenders. However, Ueki slammed the shot high and wide.
Minutes later, Ueki was once again through on goal but she was ruled offside. But finally, in the 26th minute, Japan were rewarded for their dominance. Hinata Miyazawa darted down the left flank and drilled in a cross. Ueki got to the end of it and nudged it home past the helpless China goalkeeper.
However, even with the lead in the bag, Japan continued their charge. The Japanese striker once again found herself in the thick of things minutes later. Set up by a Risa Shimizu cross, Ueki attempted a right-footed shot but struck the side netting.
China seemed like a sitting duck, with Japan toying past their defense with their deft passing. In the 45th minute, Hinata Miyazawa came close to double the lead for the reigning champions but her shot from outside the box flew across the face of the goal. Going into the break, the tie seemed tilted all in favour of Nadeshiko Japan.
China come out roaring in second half
After the break, the Steel Roses made some personnel changes and a change in system to counter Japan's growing dominance. And just like that, the eight-time champions turned the tie on its head. Substitute Xiao Yuyi set up Wu Chengshu with a cross and the latter flicked in the equalizer. Japan were caught napping and left stunned almost immediately.
China did brilliantly to maintain a narrow shape and constantly pressed Japan to disrupt their deft passing game. Although the the latter still played out from the back, the quality of their passes in the opposition half drastically fell.
But in the 53rd minute, Japan found an opportunity to pull ahead through Mana Iwabuchi's shot from the centre of the box. Nadeshiko Japan kept creating better chances but China's resilient defense stood up to the task.
Japan's Ueki had their best chance of the half in the 75th minute, when she had an open goal to aim, but pulled her shot wide. Even after the completion of regulation time, both sides were level pegging and the game rolled into extra time.
Japan, China inseparable after a drama-filled extra time
Although Japan looked all rattled after conceding the equalizer in the second half, they started extra time on the front foot. The reigning champions looked to have had regained their passing precision. Minutes into the first half of extra time, Japan had a glorious opportunity to take the lead. Set up by Ueki, Yui Hasegawa hit the crossbar from outside the box.
However, that was only an indication of the Japanese surge that would follow later. In the 103rd minute, the defending champions pulled ahead through Ueki, who beat the Chinese goalkeeper with a diving header off a free-kick from Hasegawa.
In the following minutes, Japan had two other opportunities to equalize but Yu Zhu stepped in with crucial saves. However, going into the second half of extra time, Nadeshiko Japan had the crucial lead.
Japan kept on dominating the second half too and looked on their way to the Women's Asian Cup 2022 final. However, China had other plans. Right on the brink of the final whistle, Wang Shanshan scored off a Zhang Xin cross to restore parity out of the blue in the 119th minute. Japan were left devastated as the game rolled into a penalty shootout.
Wang Shanshan's heroics defines penalty shootout
With the momentum completely on China's side, Japan needed a herculean effort to keep their composure in the penalty shootout. Saki Kumagai stepped up to take Japan's first penalty but her effort was saved by Yu Zhu. However, China couldn't capitalize on the missed penalty. Zhang Xin scuffed her spot kick wide.
But Yui Hasegawa didn't follow the trail. She sent the goalkeeper the wrong way and buried her penalty into the left corner. Zhang Rui scored too.
Penalty-takers from both sides did well to convert their spot kicks. But the game had one final twist left. Moeka Minami had an opportunity to give Japan the advantage by scoring the fifth and final penalty, but her shot was brilliantly saved by Zhu.
China were just one spot kick away from sealing a berth in the grand finale. And taking the penalty? The ever-relient Wang Shanshan. The Chinese No 11 stepped up and slotted the ball into the top left corner to send China through. Japan bowed out of the tournament as China set up a final clash with South Korea on Sunday.