If the Olympic Games are meant to value competition and not procession, it provided a perfect start at Hampden Park yesterday. Spain, the winners of their last three major tournaments, a historic team playing futuristic football, were very well beaten by Japan, whose 1-0 victory was much narrower than it might have been.
The only goal came when Yuki Otsu took advantage of negligent defending from a first-half corner. But there were excellent chances for Keigo Higashi, Kensuke Negai and Hiroshi Kiyotake, especially after Inigo Martinez’s red card, and on a fairer day they could have scored four or more.
It did not feel like a lazy or presumptive to think that Spain’s tournament would be one long passing move from Glasgow down to Wembley Stadium, for their inevitable final with Brazil on 11 August. Yes, this is not a full-strength Spanish side. But their starting eleven yesterday included three players from the Euro 2012 squad, including Jordi Alba. The quality is remarkable: coach Luis Milla brought on Oriol Romeu, Ander Herrera and Christian Tello, and did not even touch Iker Muniain. But as a unit they were routed.
This was an object-lesson in how to play against Spain’s unique style. Japan were well-drilled defensively, while their midfield was relentless, chasing the Spanish passing back to its source, starving them of time and options. It was exhausting work, but provided the basis for their forwards to make the incisions.
“We are very pleased with the result,” said Japan coach Takashi Sekizuka afterwards. “We had a very strong will to win, although they had numerous dangerous players we were still able to change that into a good offence.”
Japan must now view their games against Honduras and Morocco as conquerable as they head for a crucial group victory. Oriol Romeu conceded that Spain must win those two if they are to qualify.
It was very swiftly obvious that Japan would cause Spain more problems than most sides did. The tireless forward running of Negai was one of Japan’s best weapons. After just two minutes he tested David De Gea with a volley and soon after carved another opening with his sharp and selfless movement, pulling into the left-channel and forcing Alvaro Dominguez into conceding a corner.
Spain could never summon the incision of Japan, and with 11 minutes left before half-time they scored the only goal. Takahiro Ogihara swung in a corner from the right and, inexplicably, there were no Spanish defenders near Otsu, who volleyed the ball past De Gea and in.
The world champions’ defence was rattled and five minutes later they nearly conceded again, when Martin Montoya’s mis-hit backpass allowed the excellent winger Kiyotake past De Gea but he could not quite find the angle to score.
And then, two minutes later, the crucial moment: Nagai forced himself goal-side of Inigo Martinez, whose clumsy tackle led to a deserved red card.
Down to 10 men, and committing most of them forward, Spain were repeatedly exposed at the back in the second half. De Gea had to make a diving save from Keigo Higashi’s curled shot. Nagai could not convert Kiyotake’s perfect ball behind the re-arranged defence. Javi Martinez, who moved from midfield to centre-back, has never looked so ruffled on a football pitch. He was then embarrassed by Kiyotake, who shot just wide.
With Romeu and Herrera on, Spain improved, but the closest they came to scoring were two blocked shots from Mata and Alba with 11 minutes left. They lacked the numbers, energy or ideas to break through Japan, and Nagai and Hotaru Yamaguchi had the best late chances for 2-0. That would have been a fairer result, but Japan must be happy enough with how this went.
Match Rating 8