Japan stun Spain

Japan stun Spain

By Nobuyuki Tosey

In a thrilling encounter that would have convinced even those most cynical of the appeal of Olympic football, Japan earned their first victory over Spanish opposition with a convincing 1-0 win in their opening game of the London 2012 Olympics.

Yuki Otsu celebrates his winning goal

That the attention before the games for most Japanese fans and critics was largely focused on the coach Takashi Sekizuka’s personnel selections and formation rather than the threat of Spain was an indication of Japanese confidence in the ability of the players at Sekizuka’s disposal. Although it’s a given that the result wasn’t expected, many would disagree with the ‘shock’ label the victory has largely been met with.

Sekizuka’s selections would prove to be spot on; from the pre tournament friendly against Mexico where Japan adopted a very similar set up, he dropped the talented and more dynamic Takashi Usami for the eventual goalscorer Yuki Otsu.

To compensate, both Otsu and Hiroshi Kiyotake were given more freedom than Sekizuka has tended to allow his attacking midfielders and this led to a much more fluid transition from closing down to countering. However, despite this leading to numerous chances, it would be from a corner in the 34th minute that Yuki Otsu would get the winning goal.

But the game was ultimately won for Japan through their closing down in midfield and a back line that put very few steps wrong. Clichés about a country are often unwarrantedly used in the assessment of their national team, but it was understandable that this performance led to the foreign media drawing upon the stereotypes of Japanese discipline, efficiency & hard work rate.

Captain Maya Yoshida was imperious for Japan and whilst his partner in the centre of defence, Daisuke Suzuki, was evidently more nervous and less composed in possession, he did little to suggest that he would be the weak link for Spain to exploit. On top of that, given license to get forward Hiroki Sakai is one of the most exciting attacking young full backs around, yet the restrain to follow his attacking instincts was one of the most impressive performances the Hannover bound youngster has given in his career so far.

Spain lined up in similar fashion to the 4-5-1 put out by Sekizuka, although Mata and Rodrigo were further advanced than their Japanese counterparts Otsu and Kiyotake in their 4-3-3 formation. Paired with captain Javi Martinez, Atletico Madrid’s Koke was preferred over the more attacking Ander Herrara, perhaps aware of the threat that the trio of Japanese attacking midfielders possessed. Whereas that meant the club partnership of Atleltic Bilbao’s Ander and Javi Martinez was therefore missing, the Cerezo Osaka defensive midfield pairing of Ogihara and Yamaguchi for Japan would prove key in their victory.

The threat of Juan Mata would have no doubt been a key point in Japan’s plan to restrict their opponents and Mata’s tendency to come inside was, apart from a low shot well saved by Shuichi Gonda in the first half, dealt with admirably by the Cerezo duo. Furthermore, the Chelsea man’s threat certainly would have factored into Sekizuka electing to choose the more experienced Yuhei Tokunaga over the promising & more attack minded Gotoku Sakai, a selection fully justified by Tokunaga’s perfromance.

The intensity at which Japan were pressing their opposition was evident all over the pitch & was typified by their lone forward, Kensuke Nagai. The 23 year old is a rarity in football, having graduated from University before turning fully professional and his unique football background is somewhat evident in his style of play: the rawness of his finishing and the constant harrying of defenders means he is not the usual forward you come across in professional football nowadays.

These mean he can equally be as effective as he is a source for frustration, but in this circumstance it was definitely the former. This was summed up none more so than in the 42nd minute, when his dispossessing of last man Inigo Martinez led to the Sociedad man panicking and bringing him down for a straight red.

Goalscorer Yuki Otsu was withdrawn at half time with an injury, yet it is hoped that it won’t keep him out of the game against Morocco. His replacement, the more energetic and direct if slightly erratic Manabu Saito, gave Japan a second option to Nagai for a pacey outlet and was a move forced upon Sekizuka that would ultimately prove beneficial as it further stretched the depleted Spanish backline and brought forth more chances.

However, just as the labelling of the victory as being a ‘shock’ can be argued against, the same can be said for the notion that Japan could and should have won this game 4, 5 or 6-0. Japan certainly had numerous opportunities in the second half to double their lead, with Kiyotake, Yamaguchi, Nagai all guilty of missing decent openings.

But Spain were running a risk to find the equaliser and would certainly have been more defence minded had they conceded a second. The excitement surrounding the performance and amount of chances created should not disguise the fact that if Japan are to progress in this tournament they will need to be much more clinical.

The result leaves Sekizuka’s team in a very strong position to progress past the group stages and crucially hands them the opportunity to avoid Brazil in the next round. Morocco will provide a very different opponent to that of Spain and their draw against Honduras means they will most likely see the game as a must win.

As one of, if not the top team in Asia, they have had to face teams set up to counter against them right through the qualifying rounds. However, Japan now find themselves adopting a similar system and on the evidence of this game it is a scenario that will suit them well.

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