The Japanese men finished in fourth place at the Olympics. This was a great finish, but one feels they underachieved at the end. After finishing first in their group and beating a dangerous Egypt side 3-0 in the quarterfinals, they seemed to flame out in the semifinals and the bronze medal match.
Japan 3-0 Egypt. Kensuke Nagai got things started in the 14th minute, using his increasingly impressive pace to get on the end of a great ball from Hiroshi Kiyotake. As the Egyptian keeper collided with his defender, Nagai slotted into an empty net. However, Nagai ran into defender Ahmed Hegazy on the play and was unable to continue after his goal. He was replaced by Manabu Saito, who dropped into the midfield. Otsu played a slightly forward role for the rest of the match. Japan’s cause was further aided in the 41st minute when defender Saad Samir was shown a straight red card for a last ditch foul of Saito. Egypt were excellent on the ball and were able to keep possession throughout, but with a man less opportunities to get on the ball were fewer. Japan made it 2-0 in the 78th minute, when Maya Yoshida headed in a free kick from Kiyotake. It was 3-0 in the 83rd when Otsu headed in a cross from Takahiro Ohgihara. Japan definitely benefited from the man advantage (two men towards the end when Egypt lost a man to injury and were out of substitutions) but played extremely well against a talented and dangerous team. Kiyotake was superb and controlled the match. Maya Yoshida was excellent as usual.
Mexico 3-1 Japan. Mexico played well and deservedly went through, but it was nonetheless disappointing to see, especially since Japan beat this same team five days before the Olympics. Otsu got things started and had me on my feet with a wonderful 20-yard volley in the 12th minute. Japan were playing well and looked to be in control. However, Mexico got back into the game and looked increasingly threatening. Gio Dos Santos in particular missed a golden chance to level the match. The pressure told in the 31st minute when Dos Santos’ corner was flicked on by Jorge Enriquez and nodded in by Marco Fabian. It was the first goal that Japan had conceded all tournament, and Gonda had no chance. Mexico continued to play well into the second half, and Japan struggled to produce anything in midfield. Oribe Peralta made it 2-1 in the 65th minute with a well-placed shot that again left Gonda helpless. Ohgihara was dallying on the ball outside of the box and Peralta dispossessed him before launching his shot. Japan tried to press and find an equalizer but found it difficult to play out of the midfield against a Mexico side that liked to keep the ball wide. Fabian in particular caused Japan lots of problems. As Japan searched for an equalizer, Mexico scored a third on the counter. Javier Cortes took advantage of some poor defending and scored on a shot that Gonda should have definitely saved. Japan’s midfield picked the wrong day to have its worst match of the tournament, with Kiyotake and Higashi well below par.
South Korea 2-0 Japan. Outplayed and outmuscled in the consolation match against their Asian rivals. Korea were fired up for the match and pressured Japan from the start. Japan were able to start passing the ball well but were unsettled by some tough challenges from Korea. Park Chu-Young gave Korea the lead in the 38th minute after dancing his way around some terrible defending. The shot was a weak one and Gonda probably should have kept it out. It was 2-0 in the 57th minute when the excellent Koo Ja-Cheol was put through by Ji Dong-Won and shot under Gonda. Japan searched for a way back into the match, and thought they had one when Maya Yoshida put a superb header into goal. However it was correctly ruled out for a block on keeper Jung Sung-Ryong. Again, the midfield was below par and was unable to consistently threaten the Korean defense.
Watching the tournament, one thing that became clear to me was the huge gap between youth sides and the senior side. On pretty much every team in the tournament, the overage players stood out. Thiago Silva, Maynor Figueroa, Craig Bellamy, Nordin Amrabat all performed noticeably better than some of their younger teammates. This was the same with Maya Yoshida, who was comfortably the best player for Japan in the tournament. It shows how important experience at the highest level is for international football.
In addition to Yoshida, Kiyotake was superb throughout the tournament. Up until the semifinal, he controlled matches with his control and varied passing. He set the tempo with short passes, but showed he was equally adept at longer passes, serving up assists with two such passes against Egypt. Hiroki Sakai was superb at rightback. He was excellent in defense and provided width and speed on attack. When he played, Gotoku Sakai was equally as good. I thought he probably should’ve started on the left. Yuki Otsu has the potential to be a great player, and should play more for Monchengladbach this season. He played well throughout the tournament and provided excellent movement in support of Nagai, who was also excellent bar some poor finishing against Spain. Ohgihara looked comfortable on the ball and provided excellent set piece delivery. Gonda has the potential to be a future No. 1.
It was a great tournament and I am really looking forward to watching these guys play in the future.
Congratulations to the women’s team who finished with a silver medal, losing 2-1 in the final to the US. The women outplayed the physically strong US team and could have gotten a better result had it not been for great saves by Hope Solo and some questionable calls by the referees. The result further cements Nadeshiko Japan as overall one of the best women’s teams, and surely the best in terms of playing beautiful football.