Japan’s Olympic soccer team gave itself a confidence boost with a credible performance against defending champion Argentina on Tuesday night, before a thunderstorm forced the match to be abandoned with Japan trailing 1-0.
Yasuharu Sorimachi’s men, inspired by swashbuckling right-back Atsuto Uchida, held their own against an Argentina team featuring Juan Roman Riquelme, Javier Mascherano and Sergio Aguero, before finally succumbing to a sublime goal from Angel Di Maria midway through the second half.
Uchida asked questions of the Argentine defense throughout the match, with midfielders Keisuke Honda and Hiroyuki Taniguchi also impressive in a match cut seven minutes short at National Stadium.
Sorimachi refused to chalk the game off as a defeat, and asked for even more from his players when the Olympics finally begin.
“In soccer you never know what is going to happen until the very end,” he said. “So I don’t like to think that we lost that game.”
There is one week left to go before the game against the USA, and I want to see the players doubling their efforts.”
Argentina manager Sergio Batista, who has not given up hope of securing the services of Barcelona striker Lionel Messi for Beijing, paid tribute to Japan’s performance.
“Both teams’ level was fairly even,” he said. “Japan were very good in the first half and their control was excellent.”
Japan’s women had more success in the first game of the day’s doubleheader, downing their Argentine counterparts 2-0, with both goals coming in a three-minute first-half blitz. Shinobu Ohno swept in the first from an Aya Miyama cross in the 34th minute, before Yuki Nagasato doubled the lead minutes later with a fierce drive.
Sorimachi began the men’s match with just Montedio Yamagata’s Yohei Toyoda up front, with strikers Takayuki Morimoto and Tadanari Lee both watching from the bench.
The need to play it tight became apparent in the opening 10 minutes when Riquelme hit the post from a free kick and Di Maria slid a dangerous cross into the Japan box, but Di Maria soon went into the referee’s book for a foul on Uchida as Japan began to give as good as it got.
Neither Taniguchi nor Masato Morishige could bundle in the resulting free kick, but Uchida’s constant barnstorming runs down the right side ensured the Argentine defense was kept busy.
Japan settled into a fluent passing rhythm, but the threat of an Argentina attack was always a flick of Riquelme’s boot away. The Boca Juniors maestro and his midfield partner Fernando Gago at times lacerated the Japanese defense with their precision through-balls, but the home side remained alert to snuff out the danger.
With thunder growling around the stadium as the second half got under way, both teams upped the tempo in search of a breakthrough.
Di Maria and Ezequiel Lavezzi went close for Argentina, the latter narrowly failing to apply the finishing touch inside the box, before Honda let fly with a rasping shot from 27 meters that ricocheted off Oscar Ustari’s crossbar.
The heavy downpour made both defenses’ jobs even trickier, but the weather could not be blamed for the moment of skill that turned the match. Di Maria collected the ball outside the box, beat Michihiro Yasuda with a deft spin of his body, and rifled the ball past Shusaku Nishikawa into the bottom corner of the net.
Sorimachi shuffled his pack as the rain lashed down on the pitch, but the elements had other ideas.
A fearsome thunderclap persuaded referee Pandian Palaniyandi to halt the proceedings, before ruling that play could not continue with 83 minutes played.