After a scoreless 120 minutes at Kashima Stadium on Saturday, Japan survived elimination with a dramatic 4-2 penalty shootout win over New Zealand in their quarterfinal Olympic men’s soccer match.
But the team appeared unfazed by the down-to-the-wire drama, because, at the end of the day, winning was the ultimate goal in the knockout stage.
Despite squeaking out a victory over a country not seen as a traditional soccer powerhouse, Japan’s players are convinced they can win in the next round.
In postmatch comments, Japanese players appeared less concerned about their play in the nerve-wracking overtime contest and more content to have made it to the next round.
“We can give ourselves credit for staying patient throughout the game,” said Japan defender and captain Maya Yoshida, who ended the marathon evening by netting the game-winning shootout kick. “We knew it was going to be a tough game, but we never lost focus.”
Japan entered the knockout stage after a perfect 3-0 record in the group phase. The hosts cruised past France with a 4-0 win in Yokohama on Wednesday.
While fans may have expected goals against the All Whites, who recorded their first-ever win in three Olympic appearances at the Tokyo Games, Yoshida insisted that every match is different and that teams sometimes face tests of endurance.
“We’ve won games scoring a few goals,” said the 32-year-old, who is competing in his third Olympics. “But sometimes there are games like this and you have to be patient.”
Attacking midfielder Ritsu Doan admitted that fatigue, made worse due to short rest periods since the Games’ kickoff, may have factored into Japan’s goalless performance. Still, he praised the team effort and eventual shootout victory.
“Winning the game through a penalty shootout wasn’t what we’d expected for ourselves,” Doan said. “But I think we played with a comprehensive effort. We knew it was going to be a tough game and we expect our next one will be the same. Yet we have nothing else but the gold medal in our sights, so we want to win it to advance to the final.”
Japan manager Hajime Moriyasu said he was happy with his team’s “fighting” performance.
“Regardless of how we played, our players kept fighting, limiting our opponents to no goals, and we wound up coming up with the result we wanted,” Moriyasu said. “They played with a tough mindset throughout the game and we are moving on. Winning is the most important thing for us, so it feels great.”
Moriyasu had raised eyebrows during the shootout when he let players who had volunteered take the shots — a risky bet that paid dividends.
“When you decide a lineup for a penalty shootout, you have different ways of doing it,” he said. “My staff and I were thinking a little bit about deciding the lineup on our own toward the end of (extra time). But we figured that some of our players wanted to be the kickers and we wanted to respect those who raised their hands, wanting to win on their own.
“We probably had more than five who raised their hands, but I think the courage that they showed, in a desire to win the game on their own, led us to the victory.”
Japan will face Spain in the semfinals at Saitama Stadium on Tuesday.
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