Saitama – An early burst of scoring gave Japan an emphatic 2-1 victory over Mexico in the Tokyo 2020 men’s soccer tournament on Sunday night at Saitama Stadium, giving the host nation control of its own fate heading into Wednesday’s final Group A game against France.
Japan head coach Hajime Moriyasu made just one change to the starting lineup that narrowly beat South Africa 1-0 on Thursday — swapping Royal Antwerp midfielder Koji Miyoshi out for Nagoya Grampus’ Yuki Soma — while Mexico’s Jaime Lozano kept intact the squad that dominated France.
“We were able to remain focused, we weren’t distracted at all and we were able to use those two days to recuperate as well as focus on what we had to train for,” Moriyasu said. “The players were calm and didn’t forget that they needed to challenge themselves. I think we were able to play aggressively, patiently and smartly from the very beginning.”
It took just six minutes for Japan to take the lead with Takefusa Kubo, the Real Madrid wonderkid who has spent his first two Spanish seasons on loan at other clubs, receiving a fine Ritsu Doan cross from the left side of the pitch before sending a blistering strike past veteran goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa from the right edge of the box.
“When he beat out the defender I realized it was the right time to move, and he saw me making my run,” Kubo said. “It was a great pass and all I had to do was finish it off.”
The host nation doubled its lead just four minutes later when a video review resulted in Mexican defender Cesar Montes being shown a yellow card for a reckless challenge on Nagoya Grampus midfielder Yuki Soma in the box, with PSV standout Doan beating Ochoa from the penalty spot.
Mexico, aiming to avenge its group-stage exit in Rio just four years after winning gold in London, regrouped and mounted several attacks on goal, all of which were deftly managed by a back line still missing injured Bologna center back Takehiro Tomiyasu.
Japan, which lost to Mexico in the 2012 semifinals before a defeat to South Korea in the bronze-medal game, held strong and never felt overwhelmed, especially after a last-man foul by defender Johan Vasquez against Doan left Mexico reduced to just 10 players.
“(Japan) was always pushing, they were creating a lot of opportunities and they had all the bases covered,” Lozano said. “We made some mistakes that we hadn’t made for some time, and it was hard to take possession of the ball.
“We talked at the end of the match; the players are motivated and they want to continue fighting, so I’m really not worried about their emotional state. We just have to be strong for our next match.”
Yokohama F. Marinos striker Daizen Maeda came on later in the second half as a substitute in his Olympic debut, but failed to help Japan pad its lead despite a couple promising runs.
“After winning a difficult game like this I think the next game becomes really important, so now that’s all I’m focused on,” the 23-year-old said.
Mexico made it close in the 86th minute when Roberto Alvarado scored off a free kick that trickled into the net. But Japan goalkeeper Kosei Tani redeemed himself during stoppage time with a series of fine saves against a frantic Mexican attack looking to salvage a point.
“It was a reminder to us that it’s not going to be easy to win in these international tournaments,” Moriyasu said. “I was glad to see the players grow and prove themselves within this very tough game.
“I believe we were able to win because we worked as a whole team.”
A win or draw against France on Wednesday at International Stadium Yokohama would clinch Japan’s first knockout-round appearance since London, while a loss — plus a Mexico victory over South Africa at Sapporo Dome — would see two from the trio of Japan, France, and Mexico advance on tiebreakers.
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