SAITAMA – For most of Tuesday evening, Japan’s U-24 men’s soccer team frustrated Spain with patient defending and occasional threatening runs that looked capable of upsetting one of the tournament’s strongest teams and giving the host nation its best-ever Olympic showing.
But after 115 minutes it was Spain whose patience ran out, with Real Madrid striker Marco Asensio curling in a dagger from the right side of the box to see the European side advance to Saturday’s gold-medal final against Brazil with a 1-0 win.
The result will see Hajime Moriyasu’s side face Brazil on Friday for the bronze medal — its second time playing in the third-place match in the last three Olympic tournaments.
“What’s most important is that even though we can’t advance to the final, we have to keep ourselves motivated ahead of the next match against Mexico,” Moriyasu said. “We can still win a medal so we have to bounce back and put in efforts to achieve that.”
Both teams came into Tuesday’s showdown at Saitama Stadium on especially short rest, having each played 120 minutes just three days earlier in their respective quarterfinals. Spain pulled away from Ivory Coast in its 5-2 extra-time win on Saturday at Miyagi Stadium, while Japan needed a penalty shootout to put down New Zealand at Kashima Stadium.
The opening 15 minutes of the match were all one-way traffic for Spain, which dominated possession and created several inquisitive chances on goal that were handled deftly by Japan goalkeeper Kosei Tani and center-back captain Maya Yoshida.
Tani, currently with the J. League’s Shonan Bellmare, prevented what easily looked like Spain’s best chance of the first half when he smothered an attempt by Wolverhampton striker Rafa Mir at point-blank range.
Japan’s few attacks never lasted long or produced any serious threats, with Hiroki Sakai’s 35th-minute cross to Wataru Endo that the Stuttgart man couldn’t put on target perhaps the most promising.
But the team started to find its pace in the last 10 minutes of the first half and Real Madrid midfielder Takefusa Kubo was visibly frustrated when Peruvian referee Kevin Ortega called time on the period rather than let a Japan counterattack play out.
Spain’s frustration appeared to grow in the second half, opening up space for Japan to mount more counters even as the tournament’s last remaining European side found its own chances on goal.
Perhaps the biggest defensive play of the game came in the 54th minute when Yoshida’s last-gasp sliding tackle on opposing captain Mikel Merino appeared to have given Spain a penalty, only for a VAR review to correctly judge that the former Southampton man had reached the ball first.
A rapid series of Spain attacks in the 87th minute pushed Tani to his limit, but the 20-year-old stood firm to deliver a flurry of big saves and keep the game scoreless.
The end of the second half brought another interrupted Japan attack, with Martin Zubimendi earning a yellow for a blatant shirt pull against Ritsu Doan as the PSV attacker galloped toward the Spain goal.
Forward Daizen Maeda, who came on at the start of extra time in relief of Kubo, nearly put Japan ahead in the 102nd minute with a header that went over the crossbar.
A Jesus Vallejo foul on Yuki Soma gave Japan a free kick from deep in Spain territory on the left flank, leading to several chances in the penalty area that had an unabashedly partisan press tribune screaming in frustration.
“In the end we couldn’t score a goal, and that’s one of our biggest problems,” Moriyasu said. “When it comes down to it we have to finish our attacks. This ability has to be enhanced. I’m not just talking about today’s match; the players have to aim to play at a higher level overall.”
Spain’s salvation came through its oldest player — 26-year-old Asensio, who ended Japan’s dream of surpassing the team that won bronze at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City with a superb strike.
Japan last reached the bronze final in 2012, when it lost to archrival neighbor South Korea in Cardiff, following a defeat to Mexico in that tournament’s semifinal.
“Two of our players, Yoshida and Sakai, reached the semifinals in 2012 but they were not able to win the medal, so they have already talked about their experience with their teammates,” Moriyasu said. “I would like to revisit that so we can fully prepare ourselves for Friday’s game against Mexico.”
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