The Samurai Blue began their London 2012 Group D match against Morocco almost unchanged from the side which defeated Spain, Gotoku Sakai replacing the injured Hiroki Sakai at right-back, and again they won by a single goal as they qualified for the last eight of the competition with a game spare, but here the similarities ended as Japan were unable to re-produce the level of performance which led to such a memorable result in Round One. Takashi Sekizuka’s side were second-best for a significant period of this contest to an Atlas Lions team in which Zakaria Labyad, Abdelaziz Barrada and Nordin Amrabat excelled, and they were fortunate to claim victory as only a combination of poor finishing, Shuichi Gonda’s commanding performance in goal and some last-ditch defending prevented Morocco from leaving Newcastle with at least a draw.
An early evening encounter under the brightest of skies and a St James’ Park pitch tended to perfection promised an entertaining encounter between two teams boasting a number of technically gifted players, and that was what the large crowd enjoyed from Morocco in the opening period. Japan’s midfield was tormented by the movement of Amrabat and Labyad, while Daisuke Suzuki struggled to cope with Barrada’s physical presence. As early as the fifth minute a glaring defensive error from the Albirex Niigata central defender gifted Amrabat a free run on the Japan goal, the forward’s momentary lapse of concentration allowing Maya Yoshida to intervene and shuffle the ball away from danger. After eighteen minutes Japan could again have gone behind, Labyad’s outswinging corner headed goalward by Mohamed Abarhoun, striking Gotoku Sakai’s shoulder, with the right-back reacting well to block Amrabat’s attempted follow-up with Gonda scrambling to cover.
As inviting as Pim Verbeek’s charges were to watch in the first half, Japan were dour, unable to penetrate a compact defensive unit in which a high back line was bolstered by a midfield sitting little more than ten yards in front, Morocco controlling the tempo and direction of play. Captain Driss Fettouhi and central midfield partner Houssine Kharja were alert to the dangers posed by Hiroshi Kiyotake, Yuki Otsu and Keigo Kigashi, isolating Kensuke Nagai and forcing Takahiro Ogihara, a player typically able to link the base of midfield and Japan’s attacking triumvirate, into playing long passes behind the defence with little success.
Japan’s best chances of the 45 minutes were fashioned in quick succession, Suzuki bringing a save from Mohamed Amsif on his goalline after he met Ogihara’s in-swinging corner, and then his centre-back partner Maya Yoshida glancing a header narrowly wide of Amsif’s left upright.
Japan emerged in the second period playing at a quicker pace, determined not to let Morocco benefit from Pim Verbeek’s deliberately slower play, and with much improved movement across the midfield. Takahiro Ogihara pressed higher up the pitch to retrieve possession in more dangerous positions, while Sakai, deputising for the injured Hiroki Sakai, was notably more advanced in supporting Japan’s attacks. Nagai, Otsu, and Kiyotake continually rotated between each other’s roles, the former Cerezo Osaka star in particular much improved late on as he roamed across the width of the pitch, and a superb move between the three perhaps deserved more when Kiyotake’s 25-yard drive found the crossbar via Amsif’s excellent save on 62 minutes, the goalkeeper then benefitting from a stroke of good luck as the ball rebounded straight up in the air from his shoulder, allowing Amsif to claim. Moments later Nagai and Otsu combined with the Grampus striker lifting his shot over the Morocco goal, before the Borussia Mönchengladbach midfielder embarked on a mazy run from halfway, cutting inside and unleashing a drive which Amsif turned away superbly low to his right.
Verbeek chose to remove Amrabat and Bidaoui as his side were unable to dispel the ever-growing pressure, but with Japan spurning chances, it appeared as if the game was heading for a draw, and a difficult final group game with Honduras on the horizon in which only a win may have assured Japan’s progress. Twelve minutes remained when Hoitaru Yamaguchi intercepted and burst forward from his own half, a superb touch from Nagai sending the midfielder alone into the penalty area, but he could only replicate his late effort against Spain, blasting the ball high into the stands.
However, Nagai has been one of two outstanding performers for the Samurai Blue at London 2012, and in the 84th minute he latched on to Hiyotake’s pass floated over the Morocco defence and lobbed the advancing Amsif, the 23-year old striker exploiting his scintillating pace in a sprint that the goalkeeper could never win having already accelerated past Mohamed Abarhoun. Amsif could only turn and watch as Nagai flicked the ball over his head, bouncing once and nestling in the corner of his goal.
A late scare followed, Gonda pressed into service and making a superb double save to first block Labyad’s shot as Suzuki dithered, and Yoshida, as composed in defence as Nagai has been scintillating in attack, recovered his ground superbly to block away Omar El Kaddouri’s rebound. Svein Oddvar Moen’s final whistle blew shortly after, enabling Japan to celebrate equalling their best ever performance at an Olympic Games with great hopes of progressing further. Crucially, Nagai’s goal and six points from two games means a draw or better from the final group game against Honduras on 1 August will ensure they top Group D, avoiding a prospective quarter-final against tournament favourites Brazil and instead producing a likely meeting with the much less-favoured Egypt or Belarus in the first knock-out round.
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Omar El Kaddouri
Soufian El Hassnaoui
* Denotes over-age players
(An earlier version of this report appeared on Japan Today)