Spain go for football gold after edging hosts Japan in semis

1992 winners Spain move on to play defending Olympic champions Brazil for the Tokyo 2020 (in 2021) men’s football gold medal after a 1-0 extra-time win over hosts Japan in the semifinal contest from Saitama.

Spain edged hosts Japan 1-0 in a tense semifinal of the Tokyo 2020 Men’s Olympic Football Tournament at the Saitama Stadium on 3 August. The game needed extra-time to separate the sides after 90 minutes of regular time failed to produce a goal or a winner.

Real Madrid star Marco Asensio settled the affair five minutes from the end of the extra-time session with a wicked curling shot from the right side of the penalty area.

“We had a clear idea from the beginning to get to the final,” said Spain coach Luis de la Fuente Castillo after the game. “It was a very high-level game. We had two great teams who were both trying to reach the final. There was a lot of tension. No one wanted to lose, no one wanted to take risks. But it’s the type of game that you expect to see at a semifinal. 

“And so we played our own game, and I’d like to say, well deserved that win,” he added.

It was no surprise when the first half ended with the score tangled at nil-nil. The two most possession-oriented teams at this Tokyo 2020 (in 2021) Men’s Olympic Football Tournament both battled to control midfield and keep hungry hold of the ball at all costs.

Spain had the best chance of the opening period when, in the 35th minute, Rafa Mir of English side Wolverhampton Wanderers, was put clean through on goal. Barcelona man Pedri’s diagonal ball from the right side of midfield picked out the rampaging Mir, who found a seam between the Japanese centre-backs. The England-based striker, in the starting XI after a hat-trick in the quarterfinal rout of Côte d’Ivoire, was only denied his fourth goal in two games by a smart save from Japanese goalkeeper TANI Kosei.

The Spaniards, with six players from the senior team that reached the semifinal of the recently concluded UEFA EURO, continued to press their hosts after the interval.

And the Europeans were on the verge of taking the lead again in the 55th minute when referee Kevin Ortega of Peru whistled for a penalty kick. The 107-times capped Japan senior international YOSHIDA Maya looked to have fouled Mikel Merino, who was shaping to shoot after carving out a good look at goal from 12 yards out.

However, after a VAR review, the call was overturned and 32-year-old YOSHIDA’s yellow card rescinded.

Bonus football and Asensio’s intervention

Spain, despite gaining even more of the possession as the clock ticked toward the 90-minute mark, couldn’t find the key to unlocking a stingy Japanese defense. The closest they came was in the 91st minute, when Mikel Oyarzabal combined with Marco Asensio, on as a second-half sub for Pedri, to carve out a shot from the edge of the Japanese penalty area. But it was well saved again by Tani as the match moved, almost inexorably, to extra-time.

Midway through the first period of extra-time, Japanese striker MAEDA Daizen got on the end of an inch-perfect cross from the left side. But the substitute could only head over Unai Simon’s goal in what was the best chance of the contest for the hosts up to that point.

With both teams visibly tiring, and time running out, the game’s critical moment came with just five minutes to go before the end of the second period of extra-time. Asensio of Real Madrid, still trying to regain his full fitness and confidence after a horrendous knee injury two years ago, curled his left-footed effort around Tani and into the side netting from the right corner of the penalty area to settle the 1-0 win for Spain.

The Spaniards now move on to the 7 August gold-medal match against Brazil, who moved past Mexico thanks to a penalty shootout (following a goalless draw through 120 minutes of regular and extra-time), in the other semifinal from the Ibaraki Kashima Stadium.

“We are…thinking about that final because that’s just who we are,” said Spain’s Jesus Vallejo. “It’s in our DNA. But we’re not thinking about [just getting a] medal. We can’t just be satisfied [with what we’ve already got].”

Japan and Mexico will fight it out for bronze on 6 August in Saitama.

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