Final Match, played Monday 23rd of December:
INAC Kobe Leonessa 2 - 2 Albirex Niigata Ladies
INAC Kobe Leonessa win 4-3 on penalties after extra time
INAC Kobe Leonessa today looked to win the Empress' Cup for the fourth time in succession - a feat not accomplished by any team since the great Shimizu team of the eighties won seven in a row. The champions started with Beverly Goebel-Yanez back up front, with Niigata unchanged from Saturday's semi-final win over Belle. INAC's defence has been ponderous at times this season and Niigata's hope was almost certainly that the pace of McCarty up front could cause them trouble. As early as the fourth minute this scenario played out as Kai was hesitant and was dispossessed by McCarty who had a great chance to score but seemed to get caught in two minds and in the end Kaihori leapt on the ball to snuff out the danger.
A bustling, fighting run from Saeki down the left saw her win a free kick, which Miyazaki headed over. In defence Niigata were also noticeably combative, getting in the faces of the INAC forwards and midfielders. For INAC Kobe goal-mouth action was plentiful but clear scoring chances were few, though Goebel-Yanez did force Ichitani into a save in the 24th minute as INAC started to get their passing going through the middle. They did however take too long to get forward at times, allowing Niigata to reorganise defensively. Niigata's attacking plan throughout the first half was as expected one of looking to find McCarty quickly on the break. Goebel-Yanez had another fine save well held by Ichitani in the 37th minute, with Takase's strength to hold off defenders evident again in setting up the chance.
With three minutes remaining of the first half Niigata took the lead through McCarty, who again took advantage of poor defending from INAC, Isokane the culprit on this occasion. Taking the ball, the speedy American remained composed and slid the ball past Kaihori, dancing around Kai who desperately tried to get in a tackle. McCarty is due to return to the US following this game, the final match of her loan period and her contribution to Niigata's last ten games has been considerable.
In the opening minute of the second half, McCarty again outmuscled Isokane down the right though on this occasion Kai was there to clear for a corner. Another promising break for Niigata broke down but it was evident that the underdogs were not prepared to sit on a single goal lead, the big question being whether they could find one before INAC did. Yamazaki had a good chance saved by Kaihori, with Niigata again finding ample space on the break. Yet another chance fell to McCarty from an intercepted pass but she shot weakly having switched to her favoured right foot.
Yamazaki missed another great chance to double the lead, with McCarty taking three INAC players out of the game. Her pass to the far side of the box set up Yamazaki nicely, but she shot into the side netting with Kaihori scrambling across goal. Moments later a free kick to INAC Kobe gave them the equalising goal, Kinga stretching to put away Ji's ball into the box. Twenty-five minutes remained, and Niigata were understandably deflated to have allowed the opposition back into the game.
Niigata were first to make a change, Oishi Sayaka coming in for Kodama Keiko in the 74th minute. Niigata's attacks became fewer in number as INAC began to assert considerable pressure on their defence. At the same time, from open play INAC did not create many clear chances with Goebel-Yanez not having one of her best days.
Neither side had another goal scoring opportunity before the ninety minutes were up, and the match entered a further thirty minutes of extra time.
INAC Kobe took the lead for the first time not long after the restart. Kawasumi's chasing down of Nakamura at the goal-line led to a throw for INAC Kobe and then a corner kick, with Ji finishing off in the box after Ichitani let the ball slip through her hands, with her defenders not able to deal with the ball. Having thus taken the early lead in extra-time, the champions found their confidence and continued to pressure the Niigata defence, particularly down the right.
Niigata made their second change at half-time in extra time, Hirai Sakina entering the fray in place of Saeki, who was visibly tired from her exertions. Oishi Sayaka had done relatively little since coming on, but she was given a wonderful chance to score, with McCarty giving her the ball in space having again beaten the hesitant INAC defence. Kamionobe tried her luck from distance, striking a tremendous shot against the crossbar as Niigata looked to attack in numbers with time ebbing away.
A long ball from Takamura found Hirai as the ran into the box and her pass across goal found McCarty, who again was calmness personified as she found the right-hand corner to equalise for Niigata with nine minutes remaining. McCarty had another chance to score but Kaihori was just equal to it, first blocking with her leg and then recovering to catch the now airborne ball. At the other end it was Ichitani who was heroic in deflecting away a fine shot from Ji, as the game headed inexorably towards a penalty shootout. INAC Kobe had no intention of waiting for penalties and continued to attack furiously in additional time but with their best chance from Takase well saved, it was to penalties they went.
Niigata were first to shoot, with Kamionobe expertly scoring past Kaihori. Goebel-Yanez hadn't had a good game by her standards, and her shot was superbly saved by Ichitani. McCarty also showed expertise from the spot to make it 2-0 to Niigata, though Ji made no mistake to keep the deficit down to one.
Yamazaki went next for Niigata, though her shot wasn't particularly strong and Kaihori got across to save well. Takase went next for INAC and she belted the ball into the net to make it 2-2 after three kicks each.
Saito Yuri didn't look particularly confident stepping up and though Kaihori went the wrong way, her shot hit the bottom of the left-hand post. Kinga stepped up for INAC and she made no mistake to give her side a 3-2 lead.
Niigata's final kick was taken by Oishi Sayaka, and she was very calm in sidefooting the ball home. The final kick for INAC Kobe to win the competition was taken by captain Kawasumi Nahomi, and she scored to give her side a fourth successive Cup win, their second following a penalty shootout. Niigata's players were understandably distraught having come so close to their first major trophy, and this defeat will hurt for quite some time.
INAC Kobe Leonessa:
Kaihori Ayumi, Kinga Yukari, Kai Junko, Isokane Midori, Nakajima Emi, Sawa Homare, Ji So Yun, Watanabe Ayaka, Kawasumi Nahomi (capt), Takase Megumi, Beverly Goebel-Yanez
Unused subs: Takenaka Rei, Rebecca Moros, Minamiyama Chiaki, Tanaka Yoko, Kyokawa Mai
Scorers: Kinga Yukari (65 mins), Ji So Yun (93 mins)
Booked: Watanabe Ayaka
Albirex Niigata Ladies:
Ichitani Tomoko, Kitahara Kana, Takamura Chisato, Nakamura Kaede, Obara Yuria, Yamazaki Marumi, Kamionobe Megumi (capt), Saito Yuri, Kodama Keiko, Saeki Aya, Tiffany McCarty
Subs: Oishi Sayaka (Kodama Keiko, 74 mins), Hirai Sakina (Saeki Aya, HT in ET)
Unused subs: Koganemaru Sachie, Yamamoto Arina, Sakaguchi Moeno
Scorers: Tiffany McCarty (42, 111 mins)