If there was one play that best captured Mexico’s performance in Sunday’s 2-1 loss to Japan in the Olympic soccer tournament, it came in the 53rd minute when forward Diego Lainez dribbled deep into the Japanese end, spun sharply to his left and drove his right foot toward the ball.
He whiffed, hitting only air before stumbling toward the turf as the ball rolled beyond the end line. Lainez swiped at the grass before rising, a look of both frustration and bemusement on his face.
If Mexico’s quick start to the tournament had its players thinking about how nice a gold medal might feel around their necks, Japan reminded them there’s a long way still to go, riding goals from Takefusa Kubo and Ritsu Doan in the first 12 minutes to victory before 63,000 empty seats at Saitama Stadium, about 15 miles outside Tokyo.
The loss isn’t likely to keep Mexico out of the knockout round. After last week’s 4-1 win over France, Mexico is guaranteed a spot in the tournament quarterfinals with a victory over winless South Africa on Wednesday and a French draw or loss against Japan. A tie with South Africa would also send it through provided France doesn’t win its finale.
Japan, the only unbeaten team in the group, has already reserved its spot in the second round but needs at least a draw with France to assure it will advance as the group winner.
Despite playing for the second time in four days in Japan’s summer heat and humidity, Mexican coach Jaime Lozano stuck with the same lineup he used in last week’s game with France. Japan made just one change.
The fatigue may have hung heavier on the white-clad Mexicans, who had the ball for nearly 60 of the 90 minutes Sunday but did little with the advantage, taking nine shots and putting four on target, just one more than Japan in each category.
Kubo, one of 10 players on the Japanese roster who plays for a first-division club in Europe, put his country ahead to stay in the sixth minute when he beat a Mexican defender to the ball, then beat Mexican keeper Guillermo Ochoa with a left-footed shot from the center of the box. The Real Madrid winger, known as the Japanese Messi for his dribbling skills and the four years he spent in Barcelona’s youth academy, has two of Japan’s three goals in the Olympic tournament.
Doan, who earned an assist on the first score, got the second one on his own six minutes later, blasting a left-footed penalty shot into the center of the net as Ochoa dove to his right, giving Japan a two-goal lead before Mexico took its first shot.
César Montes set up that goal with a reckless foul on Yuki Soma on the edge of the box. After pointing to the spot Portuguese referee Artur Dias consulted a video replay, which confirmed his decision to award the penalty.
Lozano didn’t start bringing fresh legs on until the final half hour although any chance Mexico had of a comeback appeared to vanish at about the same time, with defender Johan Vaquez bringing Doan down from behind just outside the penalty area in the 68th minute, drawing a straight red that left his team to finish the game a man down.
Mexico didn’t quit, though, allowing Robert Alvardo to half the deficit in the 86th minute, bending in a long left-footed free kick that appeared to fool Kosei Tani, Japan’s boyish-looking keeper, who tried to stick his right foot in the ball’s path but missed. The goal was the first Japan has allowed in the tournament.
But Tani came up big in stoppage time, getting a hand on Vladimir Loroña’s header from the center of the box and redirecting it over the net to save the win.