Japan secured a place in the Paris Olympic women's football tournament by beating North Korea 2-1 in the second leg of their final Asian qualifying tie Wednesday in Tokyo.

Center-back Hana Takahashi tucked home the 26th-minute opener and Aoba Fujino's 76th-minute header proved enough for Nadeshiko Japan in front of a crowd of 20,777 at National Stadium, where the visitors halved the deficit through substitute Kim Hye Yong nine minutes from time.

Japan, who lost in the last eight as the hosts at the 2021 Tokyo Games, advanced through Asian qualifying for the first time since reaching the 2012 London Olympics.

Japan defender Hana Takahashi (5) reacts after scoring in the first half of a Paris Olympic women's football qualifier against North Korea at the National Stadium in Tokyo on Feb. 28, 2024. (Kyodo)

Captain Saki Kumagai, a member of the team who failed to qualify for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, said she was determined not to repeat the experience.

"I know first-hand the difficult spell we went through after a team who had been together for such a long time was dissolved in a flash," Kumagai said. "I felt we absolutely had to win for the future of Japanese women's football. I told my teammates that heading into the game and I'm really relieved we won."

World No. 8 Japan and ninth-ranked North Korea played a scoreless draw in Saturday's first leg in Saudi Arabia, which hosted in place of Pyongyang after the Japan Football Association raised concerns about issues including a lack of transparency surrounding match operations.

Lauding his team for their perseverance, Japan manager Futoshi Ikeda said the 2012 silver medalists would aim to go one better when the Olympics kick off in Paris this summer.

"Grinding out results under these tough circumstances will help them grow," Ikeda said. "We'll be aiming to capture the medal with the best color."

North Korea manager Ri Yu Il said both teams had contested a "wonderful match" in a spirit of fair play.

"It's extremely disappointing not to get the win, but it will serve as a catalyst for the development of both nations," he said.

After a cagey start, forward Mina Tanaka blocked North Korean defender Wi Jong Sim's shot following a 22nd-minute free-kick in the game's first real chance. Tanaka then contributed to the opener at the other end of the pitch, her flicked header hitting the bar off a half-cleared free-kick before Takahashi put away the rebound.

"The ball fell nicely and I just had to push it in," Takahashi said.

But Japan's frailty in defending set pieces persisted. They were let off the hook when Ri Su Jong misfired her shot into a teammate from close range following a 38th-minute free-kick, while keeper Ayaka Yamashita crawled Choe Kum Ok's backheel off the line after a throw-in in the 45th minute.

Japan defender Hikaru Kitagawa (R) makes a challenge in the first half of a Paris Olympic women's football qualifier against North Korea at the National Stadium in Tokyo on Feb. 28, 2024. (Kyodo)

The visitors started the second half on the front foot, with Japan needing substitute Kiko Seike to spark things up. She first sent a shot wide in the 65th minute, off right-wingback Risa Shimizu's cross, then had another attempt blocked inside the box on a counter.

Shimizu, who had a solid outing all-round, set up the vital second goal for Japan with a nutmeg of her marker before sending a chipped cross for Fujino to nod home.

North Korea kept up the pressure and Kim chipped past Yamashita after she was played through by Ri Hak to keep their hopes alive, but Japan stood firm to take their place among the 12 teams in Paris for their sixth appearance at the summer games.

"We had difficult spells in the match and there's much to reflect upon, as I was responsible for the goal we conceded, but we got the win thanks to my teammates," Takahashi said.

North Korea supporters cheer for their team during a Paris Olympic women's football qualifying game against Japan at the National Stadium in Tokyo on Feb. 28, 2024. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo
North Korea players are pictured after losing to Japan in a Paris Olympic women's football qualifying game at the National Stadium in Tokyo on Feb. 28, 2024. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo


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