Nippon power shocks Spain

Japan's Yuki Otsu scores the first goal past Spain's goalkeeper David de Gea during their men's Group D football match at the London 2012 Olympic Games in Hampden Park, Glasgow.

GROUP D

SPAIN 0

JAPAN 1

(Yuki Otsu 34)

It wasn't supposed to be like this.

Spain, dominant at Under-19, Under-21 and senior level, were supposed to walk through this Olympic qualifying group on their way to the serious business of battling Brazil and Uruguay for a place at the top of the podium.

Instead, they were beaten by Japan last night, flattered by the scoreline and they now find themselves preparing for a clash with Honduras on Sunday that they cannot afford to lose.

There has long been a theory that if a team can just hassle and pressure Spain, maintaining defensive discipline while constantly looking to break and counter-attack, the World Cup holders can be beaten, but it never works out like that.

For all their talents, Italy couldn't do it in the European Championships, Switzerland couldn't do it last summer in the Under-21 tournament and Greece fell short this month at the Under-19s.

At every age level, Spain play the same way, calmly passing and passing and passing and waiting for the slip-up that will allow them to pounce.

Rattled

For once, that wasn't the case at Hampden Park in Scotland.

Japan were ready for them and, for the first time in years, a Spanish side looked rattled and scared.

Takashi Sekizuka's Japanese side were excellent and fully deserved their victory. Goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda had just one serious save to make in the first half, a spirited slap at a Juan Mata long shot, and the defence and midfield coordinated their efforts perfectly to create a thick blue wall of resistance.

Spain may have enjoyed the greater share of possession, but they couldn't convert into chances.

Japan, by virtue of their refusal to let Spain settle, were always a threat. They broke the deadlock in the 34th minute, capitalising on the timidity of the Spanish defence at a set-piece.

Takahiro Ohgihara's floated corner was left by everyone, David de Gea and Martin Montoya in particular, and Yuki Otsu slid in to score.

The lead could easily have been doubled moments later when Montoya played a hideously underpowered backpass to de Gea that was quickly intercepted by Hiroshi Kiyotake, the ball slipped harmlessly across the face of goal.

But then, disaster for Spain. The impressive Kensuke Nagai broke clear, tearing in on goal and the hapless Inigo Martinez could only drag him clumsily to the ground. Referee Mark Geiger had no option but to show the red card to the Real Sociedad man.

When he blew for half-time four minutes later, it seemed an act of mercy. But only for a short time.

Spanish football might look easy, but quickly passing and receiving the ball is a tactic that can go very wrong, very quickly. Outnumbered and outworked, their game began to fall apart.

They tried to play their swift strokes across the pitch, but they made mistakes. They tried to push up and pressurise their tormentors, but they left gaps. Twice, Japan should have extended their lead, once through Kiyotake, the other through Nagai. On both occasions, their shots were slipped wide.

Coach Luis Milla threw Chelsea's Oriel Romeu on to calm everyone down and it worked, to an extent. Spain began to hold on to possession and they started to stretch the tiring Japanese down the flanks. But to no avail.

Time eventually ran out on them and in the closing stages it was Nagai, again, who went closest to scoring. This was a disjointed, tentative performance by Spain and they paid a heavy price.

If there were a temptation to view this tournament as something inferior or second grade, the Japanese have dispensed a swift and emphatic reminder of the reality.

There are some good teams here, with good players. And this competition has just been blown wide open.

npsports@sph.com.sg

This article was first published in The New Paper.

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