Unless you’ve been ignoring the Olympics completely, you’ve heard about Japan’s magnificent win over gold medal favorites Spain. Yuki Otsu scored the game’s only goal in the 34th minute off a corner. A few minutes later, Inigo Martinez was sent off for fouling Kensuke Nagai on a breakaway, but Spain was still able to keep much of possession despite being a man down. Japan had a number of chances to extend their lead in the second half and put the game to bed, but their poor finishing didn’t come back to haunt them as Spain never really threatened.
Despite poor finishing in the second half, this was a great win for Japan. Going into the match, Spain was a favorite for the gold. They had World Cup and Euro winners Juan Mata and Javi Martinez. They had Jordi Alba, one of this Euro’s best players. They had the electric Bilbao midfielders Ander Herrera and Iker Muniain. They had one of the world’s best shot-stoppers in David De Gea. On paper, this team could challenge for senior international titles. And Japan beat them, pretty comfortably. Besides an early long range shot from Juan Mata, I don’t remember Shuichi Gonda really being troubled. Only twice (Adrian and Alba) did Spain get behind the Japanese defensive line. On the other hand, I can remember Japan having four great opportunities to extend their lead. This wasn’t a smash-and-grab against one of the most talented and accomplished teams in the tournament. It was a deserved victory that could’ve been more.
The sending off benefited Japan, but it wasn’t decisive. In the second half, they were able to keep the ball longer and expose Spain’s lack of defensive cover. Spain also had one less player to press with and allowed Japan to keep the ball for longer, but they were able to keep the ball as well as they had been with eleven men. Aside from some of the chances that Japan created and missed anyway, the man advantage wasn’t that influential in the game.
Spain’s biggest problem was lack of an attacking outlet. They needed someone to remain central to finish off crosses and passes, but all of their attacking players were more interested in staying wide. The senior side suffered from a similar problem at the Euros, but they were able to get behind defenses much more frequently than the Olympic side today. Considering that largely the same team had no problems scoring at last year’s European Under-21 Championships, Spain’s lack of attacking options was surprising.
While Spain were able to keep much of the possession, Japan won the midfield battle. Otsu, Hiroshi Kiyotake, and Keigo Higashi were able to keep the ball and combine brilliantly with lone striker Nagai. Otsu in particular caused havoc on the right side of the Spanish defense throughout the first half.
Captain Maya Yoshida was immense in the center of defense, breaking up attacks before Spain could camp players outside the box. Yoshida also elegantly carried the ball into midfield on a number of occasions. Hiroki Sakai was also terrific on the right, keeping Jordi Alba quiet and providing speed on the counter. After he was forced off because of injury, Gotoku Sakai was equally impressive as his replacement.
Despite missing some chances, Kensuke Nagai was excellent as the lone striker. He held up play, opened up space with his speed, and, most importantly, pressed the Spanish defenders and caused several giveaways.
On the Spanish side, De Gea was excellent. He saved Nagai’s shot on a breakaway, and displayed his world class shot-stopping skills early in the second half against Higashi.
This was a hugely important win, not only because it was against Spain, but also because the group runners-up face Brazil, a matchup you want to save for later.
A great win and a great start to the London Olympics.