Olympics: Day 2 Observations (Asia)

Sunday night saw the second round of Olympic group stage matches, a night that’ll live long in the memory with Asian football fans despite all three encounters finishing in draws. South Korea were only denied late on against a very capable Germany side, leaving them one point away from the quarters. Iraq kept out the hosts Brazil over 90 minutes to record their second consecutive 0-0 draw, while Japan came from 2 down against Colombia to record a draw that keeps them well within the fight for progression.

Our Asian correspondents Tom Danicek and Martin Lowe look back at the key talking points from an impressive night of football.

Germany (3) v (3) South Korea
Taegurk Warrior spirit undone by late German equaliser

From a night that would’ve gone down in national footballing folk law came a tale of what could’ve been by a last minute hammer blow that denied, for now anyway quarter final progression for South Korea. Asian fans shouldn’t be put off however, an admirable display offers promise that the Koreans can emulate or even better their bronze medal efforts from four years ago here in Brazil.

The Germans late equaliser aside (which in all honesty was a stroke of bad luck rather than ineptitude on the Koreans part) it was a perfectly well-executed game plan by the Taegurk Warriors. Man for man, there was no doubting the quality in depth that the Germans possessed, but the crucial almost deciding factor was the mental strength and imposing pressing play of the Koreans, something rarely seen by East Asian teams.

Even while the game was at 2-2 at the start of the second half, the Germans were rattled, prone to rash outbursts at little niggles and generally being set on the back foot by the opposition’s high intensity. Jang Hyun-Soo in the first, and Park Yong-Woo in the second individually pressed this home in the centre of midfield, which gave Korea the mental advantage for the most part, without letting the Germans find their feet.

While I attempted to pick holes in Korea’s game plan against Fiji earlier in the week, this time around against the Germans, Korea executed their strategy perfectly. Hwang Hee-Chan, who was frustrated on too many occasions against Fiji, was the standout live-wire on the last line of defence, deserving of his opener, while Lee Seul-Chan put in yet another appealing attacking display down the right, assisting Korea’s third.

The game wasn’t without its question marks of course, the perplexing decision to leave out last round’s top performer at the tournament in Ryu Seung-Woo in place of another averagely performing Moon Chang-Jin should see a switch for the final group game, while Jang’s deployment in centre of midfield as the team’s start off point led to a deep lying team base, something that was much improved in the second half when he dropped into the back four.

The talking point after the match revolved around Suk Hyun-Jun, who scored his third in two matches after appearing again from the bench, but crucially missed the golden opportunity to put the game to bed only moments before Germany’s equaliser. Should he be given more minutes against Mexico? He came into this tournament with some good showings for the seniors, but with Hwang’s impact as a busy, mobile striker from the off, it looks like the former Porto man will have to do with coming off the bench again to add to his tally.

Given Mexico (only) beat Fiji 5-1 earlier in the night, Korea know they are within touching distance of a place in the quarter finals, only needing a point in their final encounter with the Central Americans.

In analysis this match should be assessed as a whole, and not too concentrated on the last minute disappointment. Korea ripped apart the timid, naïve stereotype of East Asia and competed on the front foot against high quality opposition. There’s very few at this tournament that have impressed as much as the Koreans, as they remain Asia’s most likely route to a Rio footballing medal. ML

Brazil (0) v (0) Iraq
– Hosts play to Iraqi strengths; the Asians have no understanding for their individualism

As an #AsianFootballPassionate, you don’t see an awful lot of opportunities to be proud on a continental representative in confrontation with an international opponent, let alone a presumed global powerhouse. In fact, it gets that bad these days, I was gladly and almost shamefully defending Queiroz‘s Iran and their beyond sturdy 2014 World Cup performance against Argentina.

This, however, was one of those team efforts that outclassed the supposedly superior opponent in more respects than just defensive organisation. Think Okada’s Japan vs Denmark in 2010 – something like that. And while I’ll be quick to admit myself I might have a soft spot for these objectively unspectacular, yet infinitely brave sides, Iraq were genuinely impressive on Sunday. Even spectacular.

Apart from some fouls in danger areas, Renato Augusto’s crossbar (mirrored by the one from Mohannad Abdulraheem at the other end) and those few chances late on, Iraq were holding on in a surprisingly comfortable manner. And that was really refreshing to see, considering how erratic the Japanese and South Koreans usually tend to be at the back.

I mean, whose footballing heart didn’t jump every time a Gabriel Jesus or even a Neymar ran straight into the stoic Iraqi defender and just crashed? I know mine did! And this has seriously happened a lot, especially with Mustafa Nadhim. Very resolute and firm in tackle, he was just standing guys off – and this passivity worked wonders for him. Tellingly, Opta has counted zero tackles and three interceptions from Nadhim; the centre half typically didn’t even need to make an actual move to stop an attack and, more importantly, hasn’t even committed a single foul.

Roles were generally distributed perfectly across the Iraqi backline. The other stay-at-home centre back Ahmed Ibrahim was mainly responsible for clearing the ball (doing so 11 times over the course of the game!), whereas right-back Alaa Ali Mhawi – now being touted as the country’s very own Paolo Maldini, having been written off by most fans prior, according to our friend Hassanin Mubarak – has proved to be a supreme ball-winner, producing an impressive six tackles and eight ball recoveries.

But okay, that’s the defensive part of the game no one wants to spend too much time admiring, I get that. And we definitely don’t want to admire the usual Iraqi time-wasting strategy and other unsportsmanlike antics, coming from both the goalkeeper (Hameed has genuinely been ‘injured’ up to six times already) and outfield players who dutifully follow the Younis Mahmoud University guidelines.

But there was a fair amount of flair to Iraqi game, too. On no less than three occasions, captain Saad Abdulameer has absolutely schooled at least two Brazilian midfielders, being ironically the prominent samba teacher on the pitch. And however inefficient their dribbling was (which applied to Brazilians as well by the way), Sherko Kareem and Ali Adnan have also showed everyone that the gulf in technical proficiency was nowhere near as huge as most home fans had probably imagined prior to the kick-off.

This was simply a complex, fearless and ultimately proud performance from Abdul-Ghani Shahad’s men. Men, not boys. TD

Japan (2) v (2) Colombia
– Coach Teguramori addresses issues, yet ends up being let down by individual cock-ups

Makoto Teguramori by all means deserves his fair share of criticism for the embarrassing 5-4 defeat to Nigeria. Notably, the manager failed to recognise one glaring weakness of the Japanese defence (midfield withstanding), and mainly right back Sei Muroya – that being the inability to deal with diagonals, pouncing on second balls, or simply adequately reacting to any kind of aerial delivery; in case of crosses even flexibly abandoning the favored concept of zonal marking to instead adopt principles of man marking.

This issue was highlighted by Japan’s refusal to press up high, or indeed to press collectively. On more than one occasion, it was solely Shoya Nakajima (left wing) who was trying to win the ball in the opponent’s half, whereas Shinzo Koroki (striker) and Riki Harakawa (central midfielder, pushing highest without the ball) were mostly shadowing others. Thanks to that, the Nigerians had the needed peace to raise their heads and pick out those stinking long passes.

In what can only be described as a pleasant surprise, Teguramori has recognized this fatal shortcoming and reflected his main takeaway in the starting line-up for Colombia. Speedy Takuma Asano partnered Koroki upfront while combative Yosuke Ideguchi added steel and dynamism to the central midfield. Now, the latter himself didn’t have the best of games, acting rashly on occasions with or without the ball, but he still epitomized the whole Japanese move away from passivity.

The sheer number of turnovers made by the South Americans, not too rarely even deep in their own half, was nigh incredible for this level. There were, to use tennis terminology, some unforced errors, but also quite a few forced ones, notably by Takuma Asano, who himself won possession an incredible eight times – more often than anyone else on the pitch (stat per Ollie Trenchard).

Consequently, Colombia’s build-up play was being damaged on a regular basis, and a poor two shots on target (sadly supplemented by the bizarre own goal from the disappointing Fujiharu) underline that. In the end, therefore, you’ve got to wonder how on earth Japanese didn’t win.

Well, I’ll tell you why: they were wasteful, it really doesn’t go beyond this banal explanation. Asano alone has tried his luck six times and most of those efforts made for genuinely good opportunities. Especially after Minamino came on to provide the suddenly blunted offence with more cutting edge for the last half an hour, the Asians could’ve easily scored three or four times. With this number of balls won so high up the pitch, you just need to finish off more moves. And while two goals are not nothing, Colombia were simply begging – actively begging – for more. TD

Player of the Round

Alaa Ali Mhawi (Iraq) – Having been brought into the side for a seemingly impossible task of neutralizing Neymar, the 20-year-old very much did just that. Didn’t make a single unsuccessful challenge, cleared six balls, intercepted five forays… do we need to continue?

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