(As featured on Kick Off Asia)
Round 1 in Group D of the Men’s Olympic football tournament could barely have produced a more favourable outcome for Japan, as the Samurai Blue deservedly beat a heavily favoured Spain 1-0. Takashi Sekizuka’s men made history in the process with their first victory against Spain at any level of competition, while Honduras and Morocco produced a highly entertaining 2-2 draw to leave Japan at the top of the standings, with the Atlas Lions guaranteed to be missing first-choice Lens defender Zakarya Bergdich for their encounter with Japan at St James’ Park on 29 July after he was sent off.
Spain, who came into the competition as reigning UEFA European Under-21 champions, have not won their opening match at either an Under-21 or senior level since 2008, and they never looked like breaking that sequence of results at Hampden Park, defeat by a single goal flattering a losing side whose total output was reflected in just two shots on target, only Japan’s profligacy preventing a much more comfortable margin of victory.
Sekizuka, whose squad selection prior to London 2012 and in the series of warm-up fixtures seemed to provide some clues for his starting line-up, restored Daisuke Suzuki to the centre of defence alongside Maya Yoshida, opting for Yuhei Tokunaga at left-back in place of Gotoku Sakai. More surprisingly, the Head Coach gave Kensuke Nagai the lone striker role in his 4-2-3-1 formation, with Yuki Otsu, normally to be found as the advanced forward, rotating between the left and right attacking midfield positions with Hiroshi Kiyotake.
It was a selection that paid great dividends, Yoshida, Tokunaga and Nagai all outstanding performers on a day in which several players featured prominently. The Cerezo Osaka midfield pair of Takahiro Ogihara and Hotaru Yamaguchi were rampant in breaking up play, Ogihara’s slender frame belying a superb engine and tenacity in the tackle, while Yamaguchi’s athleticism and coverage of the field deserved a goal, a late chance squandered in stoppage time the only real blemish in an otherwise excellent demonstration of midfield play.
The match began largely as many had anticipated, Spain’s possession-led style seeing the ball routinely recycled across defence and midfield as they probed for weaknesses in a well-organised and well-marshalled Japan side. Captain Javi Martínez, operating as the pivot and patrolling in front of a four-man backline, and Juan Mata drifting in between the lines, were instrumental to the distribution of the ball in an opening fifteen minutes they dominated, and to that point his side proved equally adept at the second tactic integral to their game, swarming around Japanese players who had the ball at feet high up the pitch to regain possession as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Nonetheless, save for a powerful drive from Mata which Shuichi Gonda pushed around his left upright midway through the first half, the FC Tokyo goalkeeper was largely redundant, crosses from Isco on the left of the Spanish midfield dealt with by Suzuki and the assured Yoshida, and they posted a warning on 25 minutes that this would not be a one-sided match, Kensuke Nagai taking one touch too many in trying to evade a challenge, rather than taking a shot when the opportunity presented itself.
Japan took the lead eight minutes later, Ogihara bending a left-footed corner to the six-yard area, and under the feeblest of challenges from Martin Montoya, Otsu prodded the ball into the net past de Gea’s attempted block. Nagai’s work-rate in attempting to shut down the opposition’s build-up play had caused flutters in an ordinarily composed defence, and shortly after Kiyotake had dispossessed de Gea following a poor Iñigo Martínez back-pass and sent his shot narrowly wide across a very tight angle, it was the Nagoya Grampus forward’s pressing and strength which saw Íñigo Domínguez correctly dismissed for pulling him back with a clear goalscoring opportunity at hand shortly before the interval.
Perhaps sensing the opportunity to take advantage of the greater space afforded to his players, and with Otsu struggling with a knock picked up in the first period, Sekizuka introduced Manabu Saito at half-time, the Yokohama F-Marinos forward’s pace problematic for many defences as an impact substitute, and potentially more so against an opposition diminished in number.
Five minutes after the restart Keigo Higashi came close to doubling Japan’s advantage. Ogihara swept in to steal possession from Mata, Nagai collected the loose ball, skipped past a challenge before feeding Keigo Higashi eighteen yards from goal, and he whipped a curling shot heading for the top right corner which drew a fine save from the Manchester United goalkeeper.
Nagai’s touch and will had been unyielding all game, but with 57 minutes played his finishing deserted him, at a time when a goal would almost certainly have ended the match as a contest. Sent clear by a sliding through-ball from Higashi, he scuffed his shot wide of De Gea’s goal, and his efforts would again go unrewarded four minutes from time as he robbed substitute Oriel Romeu, only the large frame of the advancing de Gea stopping his attempted chip from making its way into an empty goal.
With late pressure rebuffed, and after Yamaguchi had lifted a shot wide from eight yards after an unselfish pass from Higashi, the only sour note as the celebrations began was the earlier sight of a clearly troubled Hiroki Sakai limping from the field. The full-back fell to the turf three times in need of treatment, and replacement Gotoku Sakai struggled in an unfamiliar position, miscontrolling three times in quick succession and ceding possession cheaply around the 18-yard area. Should the former Kashiwa Reysol star be absent for any prolonged period, the most logical change would be for Yuhei Tokunaga and Gotoku Sakai to slot into the positions they play for their respective clubs. Sekizuka having sprung one surprise, however, may indicate that this is a tournament in which predictability and conservatism are not at the forefront of his thinking for the Samurai Blue.
|Match Statistics||Match Statistics|
|On Target||2||On Target||4|
|Jordi Alba||40′||Manabu Saito||61′|
* Denotes over-age players.