Olympic Men's Soccer 2012, Japan vs. Spain: What Japan Must Do to Pull Upset
The opening ceremony is still more than 24 hours away, but the Olympics have started. Soccer is one of the games to have kicked off early to accommodate a more complete tournament. Today, the Japanese will take on European and World champions Spain, although not with quite the same roster.
Olympic rules allow only three players over 23 to be included in the squad, and veterans such as Xavi, Xabi Alonso and Andres Iniesta will not be playing tonight. You can see detailed preview and rosters of Spain against Japan here.
Despite Spain’s weakened squad, they have a lot of talent to challenge for medals. The Spanish will go in as favorites, and it is up to Japan to show their mettle. Let us look at things that the Japanese must do, or at least try to do, to pull off an upset.
And even a draw will surely be an upset, seeing Spain’s recent dominance of world soccer.
Press, Press and Press
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Teams have often found out that while pressing Spain might be a good strategy, it is also a vulnerable one. Spain has an array of accomplished passers and deal with pressing opponents fairly easily. They have very few chinks in their armor, and only Italy could score a goal against them (a mere single one) in the recently concluded European Championship.
That goal was: getting possession after pressing for it, and releasing a forward with an accurate ball when most Spain players were advanced. With Spain, most players will often be advanced. It is getting the ball back from them that is the hard part.
A silver lining for the Japanese in this match is that it will be a sort of Spain B team that will play today.
Even then, it is a side that any national side will fear playing against.
Contain Mata, Muniain and Tello
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Easier said than done, but if Japan can contain the likes of Juan Mata, Iker Muniain and Christian Tello, then more than half of their job will be as good as done. The Spain team at the Olympics has limited flair as compared to the illustrious, full-fledged national side.
The philosophy might be the same, but there will be differences in execution that indicate that there won’t be total domination. This means that Japan do have a chance, which they should maximize by containing the players who will most likely have an impact.
They should also keep tabs on Jordi Alba who is always an attacking threat from full-back even.
Get It to Kensuke Nagai
The Japanese must tell themselves again and again that a game of soccer is won by scoring more goals. While they do this, they must also remember to get the ball as often as possible to the player who is most likely to do that for them.
In the absence of Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda, there is a huge responsibility on Kensuke Nagai if Japan are expecting a medal this year at the Olympics. Nagai has a fabulous goal-scoring record at the under-20 (7 goals in 14 appearances) and under-22 (9 goals in 13 appearances) levels for Japan.
With the Olympics nearly very similar to an under-22 tournament, expect more goals from Nagai. One may just be enough for today, though Alberto Zacheronni’s men will have to defend well.
Crowd the Midfield
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Alberto Zacheronni is known for his affiliation with the 3-4-3 formation. However, with Japan, he mostly employs the 4-2-3-1 as he did so very successfully when Japan won the Asia Cup in 2011. It shall be no different today with the main agenda being stifling Spain’s creative play.
Japan will predictably spend the evening seeing less of the ball than their favored opponents. In such a case, it is essential to have the entire team facing Spain’s goal rather than retreating back when through balls are threaded in behind the defense.
To maintain this objective Japan will have to keep minimal space between the back four, the midfield two and then the advanced three.
Kensuke Nagai can play as a false nine to crowd the midfield even more, but it would be best if he mixes up his play and plays on the shoulder of the last defender at times. Japan do have to score, after all, if they have to salvage something from this match.
Restrict Spain to Long-Range Shooting
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As mentioned earlier, this is not a full-strength Spain side. Considering that, most of Spain’s players who can hurt the opposition from range will be missing today.
Juan Mata, Iker Muniain and Javi Martinez do strike the ball well from range, but are nowhere near the class of Alonso or Xavi. Japan will have to take that chance, and whenever Spain do strike, they need to get bodies in the way of such shots as much as possible.
The first half-hour will be key. If Spain are kept out, Japan have a chance.
And if Nagai has his day, who knows: The men from the land of the rising sun may just start with three points.