A strong effort by Japan’s under-24 team was not enough to overcome their Argentine counterparts as head coach Akinobu Yokouchi’s side suffered a 1-0 loss at Ajinomoto Stadium on Friday night in the first of two scheduled friendlies between the two sides.

After hitting the woodwork twice early in the first half, the third time turned out to be the charm for Argentina in the 21st minute when striker Adolpho Gaich, the tallest field player on the pitch at 192 centimeters, headed a cross from Matias Vargas off the bottom of the crossbar and past the outstretched arm of Japan goalkeeper Keisuke Osako.

Japan struggled early against the Argentine press and rarely escaped their own half, but over time the host managed to apply pressure, especially with midfielder Koji Miyoshi providing crosses from the right side.

Yet it was clear that Argentina was the superior side in terms of physicality and technique, rarely giving Japan’s players the space they needed to advance into the box.

“In the first half they forced possession onto us, and they had a lot of players on the second line. We weren’t able to bring the ball forward and we were trying to make corrections,” said Japan defender Ko Itakura.

The situation improved for Japan in the second half as Argentina was content to sit back and defend, but several solid chances to equalize went wasted after neither Kyosuke Tagawa nor Takefusa Kubo could steer their chances on target.

“They had good periods of time, we had good periods of time, it’s the same at any level, but the difference is what you do with your chances and we have to do better next time,” midfielder Takefusa Kubo said. “We had lots of chances, but being unable to finish them is the situation we find ourselves in. That’s what we have to work on in the next two days.”

Japan’s starting lineup offered a solid look at many of the players who will feature for the host nation at the Tokyo Olympics, with midfielders Kubo and Miyoshi joining defenders Yuta Nakayama and Kou Itakura as the Europe-based contingent.

But the team could have benefited from the presence of center back Takehiro Tomiyasu, who is spending this week with the senior Samurai Blue squad, and attacking midfielder Ritsu Doan, whose call-up was canceled due to injury.

“We understood Argentina’s strong points from watching the tapes, but experiencing it on the pitch is different,” Yokouchi said. “We played to win, so it’s a disappointing result. The players are also disappointed. We have one more chance to win so we’ll prepare for that.”

The two teams will play again on Monday in Kitakyushu, Fukuoka Prefecture, marking the first international game played outside the greater Tokyo area since before the pandemic.

Both teams are training in a protective “bubble” established by the Japan Football Association in a test run of how athletes attending the Tokyo Olympics in July and August may be handled in an effort to reduce the risk of coronavirus infection.

“I hope that by July and August the situation improves, that the number of vaccinations improves and that the situation is more controllable,” Argentina head coach Fernando Batista said. “I’m sure everyone around the world is hoping for that.”

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