Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand, October 6, 2008 – Unbeaten South Korea stunned Asian champions Japan to set up a final clash of the inaugural Asian Women’s Cup Volleyball Championship against China in a rematch of the 2002 Busan Asian Games showdown.
A large crowd of more than 3,500 home spectators on Monday flocked into the competing venue at The Mall Nakhon Ratchasima’s MCC Hall to cheer on their favourite teams in the championship, which doubles as the Asian qualification round for next year's FIVB World Grand Prix. Aside from China and Japan, who have already made the cut for the FIVB's annual women's competition, South Korea and Thailand have also booked their places after making it to the semi-finals in the tournament.
In the 5th-8th classification round earlier, Vietnam thrashed Malaysia 25-13, 25-7, 25-11 in 52 minutes and Chinese Taipei survived a sturdy challenge from Australia to beat the much taller rivals 25-16, 19-25, 25-20, 25-13 in a gruelling 82 minutes.
Vietnam, led by hard-hitter Bui Thi Hue, breezed past winless Malaysia in a totally lop-sided encounter to next battle it out against Chinese Taipei in the fifth-place play-off on Tuesday.
For Chinese Taipei, the tournament serves as a stepping stone for their tougher campaign in the next year’s World Women’s Junior Championship in Mexico. They became the new kids on the block after finishing second to Japan in the Asian Women’s Junior Championship on home soil to book their place in the world meet.
Inexperienced Malaysia, who have yet to win a single set in the one-week tournament, and unfancied Australia on Tuesday vie for the seventh place in a rematch of the group round-robin preliminaries. Australia downed Malaysia in straight sets in the preliminaries.
In the first semi-final encounter between South Korea and Japan, the current Asian champions but a newly-formed team, the unbeaten Koreans proved an impossible nut to crack for the younger rivals as they raced to an initial 16-11 lead, thanks to mighty attacking hits from the powerfully-built Kim Min-Ji, who has so far emerged as the best scorer after collecting 68 points including 58 kills and seven blocks.
Despite the stout challenge from Japan, Kim Min-Ji and Lee Jung-Ok methodically took turns penetrating the rivals’ defence with their exceptional spikes to stretch the lead to 21-13 and from then on never looked back to win an effortless first set 25-13.
Their confidence boosted after the set win, the Koreans continued their sparkling form to lead 9-4 in the second set. As the fierce battle went on, Japanese captain and setter Seiko Kawamura collapsed and was stretchered out.
Tomomi Nakao was called in to fill the vacant position, but Yuko Suzuki instead turned attacker-cum-setter. Despite putting up a brave fight, Japan proved no match against the formidable Koreans, who stormed on to win the set 25-11, again without much trouble.
In the third set, Japan poured everything they had in an effort of making amends for the loss in the first two sets. Their intention paid dividends as they led 12-8 and widened the gap to 20-16. The Koreans, taking the height advantage, utilized their excellent teamwork and lightning spikes from Kim to bounce back heavily to come close at 19-21 and catch their smaller rivals at 23-23. South Korea won the hard-fought set 26-24, the match and the final berth.
“We just concentrated on our game. I think my girls overcame their unforced mistakes and came up with improved form. Japan also played well, but we had a tougher match against Thailand,” said Korean Head Coach Lee Sung-Hee.
“In the final clash against China on Tuesday, I admit that we are second to the Chinese. We have to work much harder in preparation for the match against them. We will study their tapes and statistics tonight (Monday night). However, I believe my girls will try their best.
“After this tournament, we will go back to Korea. My players will join their own clubs for the Korean Professional Volleyball League, which will kick off on November 22. I have been coaching defending champions GS Caltex team and hope I will put them in the top of the podium again this time,” said a proud Lee.
Despite the loss, Japanese Head Coach Sadatoshi Sugawara was still happy with his girls’ form. “I’m glad with the way they played. The on-going game changed after our captain and setter Seiko Kawamura was too tired. Obviously, she became nervous and could not play to her best form.
“She was then stretchered out to have her physical condition checked by court doctors. Finally, she was advised to be rushed to Maharaj Hospital for further physical examination,” Sugawara said.
“We are newly-formed team. Most of my girls are still young and inexperienced. The senior players are taking a one-month break after they competed in the Beijing Olympic Games. However, I don’t think they will return to join the team anymore. After this championship, we will return to Japan. Everyone gets ready to play for her own clubs in the National Volleyball League,” Sugawara said.
In a more thrilling tussle between China and Thailand, home fans cheered on their team all the way. Still, the host squad found the gritty visitors too strong.
In the first set, the home girls, boosted by boisterous home supporters, uncorked a series of sharp spikes from Wilavan Apinyapong and Onuma Sittirak and scintillating blocks from Pleumjit Thinkaow and Malika Kanthong to lead briefly 8-6.
During a critical moment, fast spiker Liu Yanan injured her right shoulder and was replaced by experienced Zhou Suhong, who won the best receiver award at the Beijing Olympic Games. China stormed back mightily from then on, with the devastating Wang Yimei puncturing the Thai defence into pieces with her deadly spikes to the back court. China snatched the first set as expected 25-18.
The second set became more exciting as leads changed hands several times. After a few smashes, China took the nail-biting 19-18 lead. Wang and Xue Ming were the principal players for China’s strong comeback as Wang’s spikes went unanswered and Xue effectively overcame the smaller blockers. China took the hotly-contested set 25-23.
The third set was completely dominated by China when home players became more prone with spiking and serving mistakes. The visitors easily clinched the set 25-14 and the match.
“We played well only in the first two sets. The Chinese blocking is very exceptional, foiling our attempts to fight back. However, when obtaining scoring chances, we committed unforced errors,” Thai Head Coach Natapon Srisamutnak said.
“On some critical moments, we produced error-filled serves. However, I praised my girls for doing so despite the fact that they made service mistakes. This is because if we could not press them with aggressive jump serves, we would have no attacking opportunities. It’s more than three years already that we could not win a single set from China.
“Though going down to China, I’m still happy with my girls’ form. It’s a pity they made too many mistakes in the third set. I confess that we have no match against them in the set. In the third-place play-off against Japan, I admit that their first-ball reception is very impressive. We have to avoid making any unforced mistakes. I’m still convinced that we can beat Japan to take the third place in the tournament.”
photo Getty Images
photo Getty Images