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Japan target Olympic gold after beating North Korea to qualify

Japan women’s football coach Futoshi Ikeda targeted Olympic gold after his team qualified for the Paris Games with a hard-fought 2-1 win over North Korea in Wednesday’s play-off second leg in Tokyo.

The two sides drew 0-0 in Saturday’s first leg on neutral ground in Saudi Arabia, setting up a winner-takes-all showdown for one of the two Asian berths at the Games.

Hana Takahashi put 2012 London Olympics silver medallists Japan in front midway through the first half at Tokyo’s National Stadium, before Aoba Fujino doubled their lead in the second half.

Kim Hye Yong pulled one back with less than 10 minutes to go for North Korea, who were cheered on by several thousand red-clad fans who chanted and banged drums from long before kick-off until the final whistle.

The hosts held on to punch their ticket to Paris and Ikeda set his sights on a first-ever gold medal.

“There are only 12 teams in the Olympic tournament and we know they will all be strong sides,” he said.

“We want to get ready for the competition and we are aiming to be the best in the world and win gold. We will try to improve and get stronger.”

Japan were eliminated in the quarter-finals at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 and also lost at the same stage at last year’s World Cup.

Ikeda said he has been trying to add more depth to Japan’s squad, who are ranked eighth in the world.

“When teams put us under strong pressure, we sometimes struggle to take the initiative and we need to get better at that,” he said.

North Korea were looking to qualify for the Olympics for a third time, and the first since 2012.

They returned to international football at last year’s Asian Games for the first time since before the coronavirus pandemic and lost 4-1 to Japan in the final in Hangzhou.

Choked with emotion

Coach Ri Yu Il said he was disappointed not to qualify for the Olympics but praised both teams for putting on “a great game”.

He choked up with emotion when he was asked about the support of the North Korean fans.

“I am so sorry that we couldn’t get the result for all the fans who came to watch us,” he said.

“We will make an effort to play better in the future.”

Japan made the breakthrough in the 26th minute when Takahashi headed in the rebound after goalkeeper Pak Ju Mi had tipped Mina Tanaka’s header onto the crossbar.

The goal forced North Korea out of their shells and Japan goalkeeper Ayaka Yamashita had to claw away a goal-bound flick from Choe Kum Ok on the stroke of half-time.

North Korea complained bitterly that the ball had crossed the line but no goal was given.

“Tonight’s game was a very important one,” Ri said.

“VAR would have been very helpful tonight, very useful.”

Fujino scored Japan’s second in the 76th minute, heading home Risa Shimizu’s pinpoint cross.

North Korea replied with a goal just minutes later when substitute Kim charged into the box and chipped the ball over Yamashita.

The first leg was played in Jeddah after Japan’s football association asked Asian officials to move it from Pyongyang over a lack of operational transparency and a scarcity of flights.

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