If the scale of the task facing Japan in their opening encounter at London 2012 could be made any more daunting, the list of honours and accompanying statistics achieved by Spain as a side and their Olympic squad’s individuals serves to underline just how fraught Thursday’s contest could be. They are the reigning 2011 UEFA European Under-21 champions, who lost just once in fifteen matches from the qualification stage through to taking the title. They have six wins in six matches to date in attempting to progress to the finals of the 2013 competition, scoring 21 goals in the process while conceding only two. The squad contains a 2011-12 UEFA Champions League winner, three Euro 2012 winners including two who were starters for the senior side in Poland and Ukraine, two of the summer’s most coveted players in Athletic Bilbao’s Javi Martínez and Iker Muniain, the former available for the not-insignificant sum of €40 million, and possess a forward who has scored two hat-tricks in his last three competitive matches. Eleven of the team which won the 2011 Under-21 title are included in the eighteen, and of the three over-age players, none exceeds 24 in a squad with an average age of 21.6.
Finding flaws in a national team which has come to define contemporary football, one in which grace and poise under pressure and retaining possession rather than conceding the ball to the opposition has misleadingly been called negative, which requires diligent work off the ball in defence as much as it does perpetual movement into space to receive a pass, and which continues to confound critics in adapting to tactical challenges posed by opponents, including the ability to play in a strikerless formation first postulated by former Brazil head coach Carlos Alberto Perreira in 2003, is difficult at any level, and few head coaches will envy the job at hand for Takashi Sekizuka as he attempts to find a way to contain Luis Milla’s side.
Sekizuka’s troubles are exacerbated through his own ongoing failure to find the correct balance in midfield and attack, a formula which has proved elusive since the suite of poor performances at Toulon. Kensuke Nagai was deployed as the lone striker in Japan’s ubiquitous 4-2-3-1 formation in the welcome but undeserved 2-1 victory over Mexico, a position in which he thrived following a switch from the unfamiliar role on the left of the three advanced midfielders in which he could recently be found. However, with the likelihood being that Sekizuka will pick a midfield containing those he believes to possess the best defensive attributes, Takashi Usami will doubtless return to the bench, particularly after a spate of underwhelming displays, meaning a more recognisable triumvirate of Nagai, Higashi and Kiyotake will start in Glasgow. Yuki Otsu would then be expected to take the pitch as the advanced forward, his meager return only supplemented by a late, superlative winner against Mexico as a substitute, with Kenyu Sugimoto, quietly impressive in the warm-up watches, watching from the sidelines.
Perhaps a small glimmer of hope can be found in the fact that it is Spain’s opening match. While Japan have occasionally stumbled going into the first tie of a tournament, securing a draw at the 2011 AFC Asian Cup versus Jordan through Maya Yoshida’s 92nd minute equaliser, the 2010 Asian Games saw the Under-23 Samurai Blue cruise through Group A, all three victories including clean sheets, with Japan also taking nine points from their three group games at the 2010 AFC Under-19 Championship the same year. Moreover, Spain are notoriously poor starters of late, not having won their first fixture at either an Under-21 or senior competition since 2008, drawing both games at the European Under-21 tournaments in 2009 and 2011, and although they subsequently went on to be crowned champions in both competitions, eyebrows were raised in some circles about their temperament, appetite and strength when they could only manage a 1-1 draw with Italy in Euro 2012, and suffered a 1-0 defeat to a fastidious and meticulously defensive Switzerland at the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
Crucial to any potential upset, however unlikely it may seem, will be the concentration and resolve in defence of captain Maya Yoshida and that of his counterparts across the defensive line. The VVV-Venlo centre-half is still only 23-years old but has developed a maturity and composure which will probably find him captaining the senior team in years to come. The expectation is that Yuhei Tokunaga will partner Yoshida in the middle, while Gotoku Sakai and Hiroki Sakai will take up positions at left- and right-back respectively. The latter, who has the attributes to become the archetypal modern full-back as he seeks to develop his career in Germany, and who has a blend of height, pace, strength, and a host of attacking attributes at his disposal, will need to be keenly focused on his defensive responsibilities if Japan are to emerge with the point or more that would ease the demands and pressure on Sekizuka’s side in their two remaining Group D games.