CANBERRA – The gods conspired against Japan on Sunday as Philippe Troussier’s under-23s defeated Slovakia 2-1 to go the top of Olympic Group D, only to learn that Brazil had suffered a shock defeat to South Africa.
South Africa’s 3-1 win in Brisbane has set up a crunch match between Japan and Brazil on Wednesday night.
Japan, coming off a 2-1 victory against the South Africans last Thursday, dominated Slovakia in front of 15,289 at Canberra’s Bruce Stadium and looked set to book a quarterfinal spot after second-half goals from midfield stars Hidetoshi Nakata and Junichi Inamoto.
Slovakia caused a few flutters when midfielder Andrej Porazik volleyed past goalkeeper Seigo Narazaki in the 83rd minute and Japan survived two goalmouth scrambles in injury time, but the real drama came minutes after the final whistle.
Troussier called South Africa’s win over Brazil — a result that left the two teams level on three points — “disappointing,” while congratulating his players on an “intelligent performance.”
Japan could have scored six or seven goals before Nakata put his side ahead in the 67th minute with a bullet header after some wonderful skill on the left from Yokohama’s Atsuhiro Miura, who started in place of the ineffective Tomoyuki Sakai.
The only blemish on another sparkling display from Nakata was when the AS Roma player received his second yellow card of the tournament for a rash challenge in the 52nd minute, ruling him out of the Brazil clash.
Inamoto, who covered every blade of grass and hit the crossbar with a first-half header, added Japan’s second in the 74th minute, knocking the ball home after Slovakian keeper Martin Lipcak had foiled Naohiro Takahara in a one-on-one situation.
Nakata and substitute Tomoyuki Hirase went close as Slovakia pushed up in search of the equalizer, but Japan had defenders Ryuzo Morioka — who was also booked and will miss the Brazil game — Koji Nakata and Yuji Nakazawa to thank for surviving a nail-biting finale.
Japan, a 1-0 winner over Brazil at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, now faces a date with destiny at Brisbane Cricket Ground, while South Africa will meet a Slovakia team fighting for pride after losing two straight. The Japanese can book a quarterfinal place with a draw.
“Brazil must win this match if they want to go into the next round, but they’ve also been waiting for revenge for Atlanta. It will be very tough, especially without Nakata and Morioka,” said Troussier when asked about all the mathematical permutations.
Although Japan, now three points clear in Group D, could go out of the Sydney Games on goal difference if results go against them on Wednesday, Troussier remained upbeat.
“The players showed how far they’ve come in tonight’s match. Now they have a great chance to show the world their mental strength and organizational skills against Brazil,” he said.
For his part, Slovakian coach Dusan Radolsky promised his side will give 100 percent in Canberra on Wednesday.
“South Africa showed tonight that Brazil can be beaten. For us, it is a great honor to compete in the Olympics, so we will try our very best against South Africa,” he said.