With a place in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics men’s Gold medal match at stake, Japan Under-23s welcome Spain Under-23s to home territory at the Saitama Stadium 2002 on Tuesday lunchtime.
The host nation prevailed in a nail-biting penalty shootout with New Zealand to make the final four, whereas Spain’s five-star showing against Ivory Coast saw them progress at the weekend.
None of South Africa, Mexico or France was able to hold their own against Japan’s hugely talented prospects during the group stage of the Olympic Games, and Hajime Moriyasu’s men could have been forgiven for expecting a simple route to the semis against New Zealand.
However, the Olywhites navigated two hours of football without shipping a goal – albeit as well as not finding the back of the net at the correct end of the pitch – and the two nations would bid to prove their prowess from the spot for a spot in the final four.
After Liberato Cacace’s effort from 12 yards was kept out by Kosei Tani, Clayton Lewis blazed his effort over the bar, allowing veteran defender Maya Yoshida to convert as scenes of unbridled delirium followed for Japan on home soil.
Moriyasu has vowed that his Japan team will “battle it out to the death” in Tuesday’s semi-final as they bid to maintain their 100% record in the tournament so far, and ending his side’s 53-year stint without an Olympic medal in men’s football is all the motivation that the host nation need to get the job done.
While Japan were nullified by New Zealand’s dogged defence in the quarter-finals, Spain laced up their finest shooting boots for their encounter with Ivory Coast, but Luis de la Fuente’s side were mere minutes away from seeing their Olympic dreams crushed.
With the scores level pegging at 1-1, veteran winger Max Gradel seemed to have won it for the African nation during second-half injury time, only for sparkling substitute Rafa Mir to take the tie to extra time within seconds of being introduced onto the field of play.
The Spanish starlets soon clicked into sixth gear during the final 30 minutes of the match, as Mir completed his hat-trick with two quickfire strikes after Mikel Oyarzabal’s 98th-minute penalty during a 5-2 rout, but the story could have panned out a whole lot differently for Spain had Mir not been on hand to prod home in the dying embers of normal time.
Hailed “the real protagonist” by De la Fuente after Spain’s spot in the final four was sealed, Mir single-handedly led the charge for a Spain side who thoroughly deserved the victory on the day, with De la Fuente claiming that “justice” had been done to his side.
Either Mexico or Brazil will face the winners of this encounter in the showpiece event on August 7, and London 2012 saw Spain and Japan lock horns in the group stage, where a Roja side featuring several now-celebrated names succumbed to a 1-0 defeat.
Japan Under-23s Olympic Games Men’s Football form:
Japan Under-23s form (all competitions):
Spain Under-23s Olympic Games Men’s Football form: