South Korea vs. Japan: Breaking Down the Olympic Men's Soccer Bronze Medal Match

Charlie MelmanCorrespondent IIAugust 10, 2012

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 07:  Hiroki Sakai of Japan, Keigo Higashi of Japan and Daisuke Suzuki of Japan look on during the Men's Football Semi Final match between Mexico and Japan, on Day 11 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at Wembley Stadium on August 7, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Julian Finney/Getty Images

Japan and South Korea have a tough task in trying to follow up a thrilling day of women's Olympic soccer, but the two Asian nations are more than capable of providing a fitting appetizer to the gold medal match later this weekend.

These teams took very different routes to the bronze medal match, and both will have to reverse recent trends if they do not wish to be the forgotten fourth-place team.

The Japanese got off to a fantastic start in the group stage, and much of their pre-tournament promise looked to be ready to deliver for the underrated footballing nation.

With Yuki Otsu spearheading the attack, manager Takashi Sekizuka's offensive tactics led his side to an undefeated record in group play. Even Spain fell victim to Japan's admirable work rate, tidy passing and clinical finishing touch, as the Samurai Blue introduced themselves in style.

Through the entire tournament, however, it has been their defence which has kept the team in contention and has stifled almost all who have had the misfortune of trying to break them down.

Extremely disciplined and unusually technical at the back, it took the brilliant play of an inspired Mexican team to finally penetrate the wall which had repelled so many. Now, although the scoreline in that semifinal was somewhat inflated by Japan's desperate tactics at the end, that veneer of impenetrability has worn off.

However, South Korea has looked a bit toothless in recent matches. They have managed a mere one goal in their last two games, and after Arsenal striker Park Chu-Young was left on the bench for their semifinal against Brazil, one wonders what options are left at striker.

Ji Dong-Won put in an admirable performance against a clearly superior Brazilian side, but while he created a couple half-chances, he will need much more support to significantly impact the game.

Then again, this is a team that has done nothing the easy way throughout the Olympics.

In fact, the Koreans have won only one match without the aid of penalty kicks thus far. They have always found the right times to lose, but, after their gritty spot-kick triumph against Great Britain, their luck has faded somewhat.

That is to be expected when your team is not particularly good and making it even this far exceeds expectations. South Korea certainly have quality in spots and a workmanlike attitude, but this is not a side with great depth or extraordinary talent in its starting lineup to offset shortcomings.

Against Brazil in the semifinal, that was brutally exposed. Their physically and emotionally exhausting 120-minute endeavor against Great Britain fatigued the Koreans greatly, and they faded after a positive opening period during the semi. Eventually, Brazil overran them.

This time, the Japanese are spent as well.

Their capitulation to Mexico took extra time to complete, and, with the work rate of every player on the team, the toll on each man's body is great.

While Korea had the adrenaline rush of a victory to sustain them, Japan have borne the burden of a crushing loss, despite leaving their "human being-ness," to borrow a term from U.S. forward Abby Wambach, on the pitch in the quarterfinals.

But that is something that both sides will have to deal with in similar measure heading into this bronze medal match. To a certain degree, the hardware will go to whichever side can push itself over the line and overcome the agony of defeat and fatigue.

Of course, there are tactical matters to consider, as well.

Both sides are quite stingy in defence, and this should be a game of few goals. Before getting trounced by Brazil, South Korea had only allowed two in the entire competition.

With defences in fine form, the outcome of the match will largely depend on which midfield and attack combination has the most players in form. By that measure, Japan would seem to have the upper hand.

While Park Chu-Young, Korea's best option at striker, has not found the back of the net since the group stage and was not trusted to start against Brazil, Yuki Otsu has scored in the past two games for Japan.

Of the six goals the Japanese have in the tournament, five have come from two players. Otsu has three, and rising star Kensuke Nagai has two. The duo has a confidence and form that the Koreans cannot match.

This game will be anything but easy; two scrappy, determined and hungry sides both want Asia's first football medal in 44 years as badly as any trophy.

And though South Korea have shown that the game is anything but predictable, it looks like Japan will join Brazil and Mexico on the podium this weekend.