(LEAD) (Asiad) S. Korea likely to avoid Japan early in women’s football knockouts after bracket change

For a while, the South Korean women’s national football team felt they got the short end of the stick when it came to the draw at the Hangzhou Asian Games, with Japan, the best team in the continent, likely being their first knockout opponent.

However, following a change that even national team officials hadn’t learned of until Monday afternoon, South Korea will most likely avoid Japan until the gold medal match.

In the 16-nation competition in China, South Korea will play out of Group E against Hong Kong, Myanmar and the Philippines. Japan, the defending champions, will face Vietnam, Nepal and Bangladesh in Group D. Both South Korea and Japan are favored to win their groups.

In Hangzhou, groups have different numbers of teams: Three teams each in Groups A, B and C, and four apiece in Groups D and E. The five group winners and the three best runners-up will advance to the quarterfinals.

Initially, Group D and E winners were to face each other in the quarterfinals, while winners of Groups A, B and C were to take on runners-up from other groups.

According to the tournament schedule available on the Asian Games website as of Monday afternoon, the knockout bracket had undergone changes. The Group E winner will either face the Group D runner-up or the Group C winner. And the Group D winner will play either the Group C winner or the Group E runner-up.

A Korea Football Association (KFA) official with the women’s national team said the South Korean governing body had not received any notification from the Hangzhou organizing committee regarding the bracket change. The official acknowledged, however, that the latest tournament handbook sent to the KFA, dated Sept. 8, contained the updated information and the KFA hadn’t double checked the bracket for any last-minute change.

In football tournaments, group winners don’t typically face each other in their first knockout matches. When South Korea opened their Asiad training camp on Sept. 5, head coach Colin Bell lamented his team’s rotten luck, saying: “I don’t understand how the winners of groups, when you carry on, play each other. The system is too complicated.”

In the new bracket, South Korea and Japan won’t meet until the gold medal match if they both finish first in their groups and claim the first two knockout contests.

Japan won silver in 2014 and gold in 2010. South Korea won three straight bronze medals from 2010 to 2018, and will try to grab gold for the first time.

Japan, world No. 8, have long had South Korea’s number. Currently ranked 20th, South Korea have posted only four wins against Japan in 33 meetings, with 11 draws and 18 losses. Their most recent victory over Nadeshiko came in August 2015.

Speaking to reporters earlier Monday, South Korean midfielder Ji So-yun said she was bracing for a quarterfinal showdown against Japan.

“Even if Japan won’t have all of their overseas-based players, they won’t be a pushover at all,” Ji said, also not aware of the new bracket. “They have such a deep pool of talent, and their domestic league players will still be a force.”

Ji is one of many players returning from the national team that took an early exit from the group stage at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in August. Despite carrying heightened expectations, South Korea had one draw and two losses in Australia.

“I know our fans must have been disappointed with our results at the World Cup, but we have to keep moving forward,” Ji said. “We didn’t accomplish our goal at the World Cup, and we learned our lessons there. I hope everyone at the Asian Games will play every match with a great sense of urgency.”

Ji was a member of all three bronze medal teams over the past three Asian Games.

Source: Yonhap News Agency