By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, July 27 (Yonhap) -- South Korea upset the reigning Women's World Cup champion Japan 2-1 in the final East Asian Cup match on Saturday, an unexpected result that helped North Korea earn its first title of the regional tournament.
Ji So-yun scored both South Korean goals at Jamsil Olympic Stadium in Seoul, giving South Korea its first win of the tournament and denying Japan its third straight East Asian Cup title. Japan finished second with four points, followed by South Korea and China with three points apiece, with South Korea finishing ahead thanks to its edge in the goal difference tiebreaker.
Earlier in the day, North Korea defeated China 1-0 to end the round-robin event at seven points. Japan had four points before its showdown against South Korea, and needed a victory to also reach seven points and edge out North Korea on the goal difference tiebreaker.
After losing its first two games, South Korea, ranked 16th in the world, was regarded as the heavy underdog against the world No. 3 Japan, which brought 16 players from the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup championship squad. But with North Korean players watching and cheering on from the stands, South Korea came out with energy on both ends, and their efforts paid off with Ji's free kick score in the 13th.
From just behind the arc, Ji put one past the Japanese wall and into the top right corner, out of Ayumi Kaihori's reach in the Japanese net.
Japan failed to register a shot on net in the first half and frequently saw its efforts foiled by the physical South Korean defense.
South Korea was more conservative to begin the second half, trying to protect the slim advantage. Then in the 57th minute, forward Jeon Ga-eul nearly doubled the lead for South Korea but narrowly missed the far corner with a floater from the left edge of the box.
Ji finally added the insurance goal in the 66th. Kwon Hah-nul drove deep into the Japanese area on the right and her cross found the charging striker. With Japanese defenders caught out of position, Ji controlled the bouncing ball and calmly shot it past Kaihori.
Yuki Ogimi brought Japan back to within one goal in the 72nd minute, pouncing on her own rebound from point-blank range.
Japan was all over South Korea over the final stretch. Kozue Ando rang her shot off the far post from the left edge of the box in the 80th. In the 86th, Mizuho Sakaguchi shot from the center of the box with South Korean goalkeeper Kim Jung-mi way out in front, but midfielder Kim Soo-yun headed the ball over the net.
Earlier on Saturday, North Korean defender Ri Un-hyang scored just 90 seconds into the match against China, and helped her team hang on for its second win of the tournament.
Ri got her head on a corner by Kim Un-ju, and the ball floated over the stunned Chinese goalkeeper, Wang Fei.
Wang, assuming the ball would sail out of play, helplessly watched the header go into the net instead.
North Korea remained in control in the second half, though it didn't have serious scoring opportunities until the final stretch.
In the 74th, Ra Un-sim tried to redirect a Ri Ye-gyong cross from left wing but Wang made the stop. Two minutes later, Kim Jo-ran unleashed a shot from the top of the arc but it went wide of the left post.
In the 80th, Kim was at it again, this time rattling the side netting with her left-foot strike.
The women's competition at the East Asian Cup began in 2005. South Korea was the inaugural champion, and Japan won the next two events in 2008 and 2010. North Korea had been the runner-up in 2005 and 2008.
North Korean women's football team made its first trip to South Korea since the 2005 East Asian Cup. The North Korean players have had mostly warm reception from South Korean fans during the tournament, despite lingering tension on the divided peninsula.
The men's tournament will conclude on Sunday, with China taking on Australia at 5:15 p.m. and South Korea hosting Japan at 8 p.m. Both matches will be at Jamsil Olympic Stadium.
Japan leads the men's competition with four points, followed by China and South Korea with two points apiece, and Australia with one point.
South Korea was the inaugural men's champ in 2003 and added its second title in 2008. China won the East Asian Cup in 2005 and 2010.