NEWCASTLE, ENGLAND – Kensuke Nagai struck a late winner as Japan reached the quarterfinals of the Olympics for the first time in three attempts at the London Games on Sunday.
A tightly contested match looked to be heading for a stalemate but the fleet-footed Nagai raced onto a pass from Hiroshi Kiyotake and lobbed the ball over advancing Morocco goalkeeper Mohamed Amsif in the 84th minute to make it two wins out of two for Japan following their shock opening win over Spain.
The result qualified Japan for the last eight with a game to spare against Honduras in Coventry. Morocco have one point. Honduras face Spain here later in the day.
Japan have not medaled in men’s soccer since the 1968 Mexico Games, where they won a bronze, and have not made it out of the group phase since Sydney 12 years ago.
At Sydney 2000, Hidetoshi Nakata hit the post in the shootout as Japan went out in the quarterfinals after a 2-2 draw with the United States in Adelaide.
At the last Olympics in Beijing, they lost all three games in the first round under Yasuharu Sorimachi.
Yuki Otsu, match-winner against Spain, started but defender Hiroki Sakai, who hurt his left ankle in that game, started on the bench and was replaced by namesake Gotoku Sakai of Stuttgart.
Morocco fashioned the first opening on seven minutes, Japan goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda gathering safely after Noureddine Amrabat had scuffed his shot under pressure from Maya Yoshida.
Gotoku Sakai then came to Japan’s rescue with a crucial double block from Mohamed Abarhoun and Amrabat on 19 minutes and Gonda beat away a shot from Zakaria Labyad.
Japan were limited to a handful of half chances in the first 25 minutes and they went closest to breaking the deadlock through Daisuke Suzuki, who forced a smart save out Amsif with a header just before the break.
It was much the same story after the interval with Morocco the more industrious of the two sides, but Japan hit the woodwork on 63 minutes through a blistering strike from Kiyotake, the ball coming off the underside of the bar and falling into the welcoming arms of Amsif, who then produced a fine stop to deny Otsu.
Japan finished strongly and should have scored through Hotaru Yamaguchi with 11 minutes left, but Nagai snatched victory with his late effort to spark delirious scenes on the Japanese bench.