Japan squeezed past Group E opponents Chile to earn a place in the Olympics 2021 women's football tournament quarterfinals. The 1-0 victory ensured the hosts qualified in third place and therefore meet Group G winners Sweden on Friday. Great Britain and Canada qualified in first and second place respectively.
After a slow start to the competition, Nadeshiko Japan were faced with a do-or-die situation with their South American counterparts. As such, coach Asako Takakura approached the game on the front foot with a clear intention to create as many chances as possible.
A win for Chile, meanwhile, would have seen the Olympic debutants make history by securing progression to the quarterfinals. Likewise, it was all-or-nothing for the South Americans after losing their first two matches.
Nadeshiko set up their typical 4-4-2 formation with a focus on maintaining possession in their opponents' half. Arsenal forward Mana Iwabuchi was back in the starting lineup after being rested against Team GB and posed a constant threat throughout the game.
Hina Sugita returned to the left of midfield as Japan shifted their attacking focus to wide areas. The first viable chance was delivered by wing-back Risa Shimizu in the 11th minute. She played a pinpoint cross to center-forward Yuika Sugasawa who was narrowly beaten to the ball by Chilean defender Camila Saez.
Another chance presented itself at the 14-minute mark when Sugita found her way through on goal with room to shoot. However, the INAC Kobe Leonessa midfielder was unable to place the shot and fired straight at the keeper instead.
Sugita continued to cause problems for the Chilean defense. 22 minutes in, she threaded an inch-perfect through ball to Iwabuchi as she made an incisive run into the penalty area. Iwabuchi was ready to pull the trigger but the shot was closed down by the opposing Chile defender.
Japan would remain rampant throughout the first half, with Chile being offered few chances due to being pinned back in their defensive third. If the Nadeshiko attack could not find a way through the back line, they would find room for a shot from range. An opening goal for the host nation seemed to be simply a matter of time.
The second half continued along similar lines, with both sides making changes. Bayer Leverkusen forward Mina Tanaka came on for Sugasawa, while Javiera Toro got off the Chilean bench to replace Rosario Balmaceda.
Tanaka made an instant impact, forcing a save from Chile keeper Christiane Endler at her first attempt on goal.
18-year-old NTV Tokyo Verdy Beleza midfielder Momoka Kinoshita made her first appearance at a major tournament, coming on to replace AC Milan's Yui Hasegawa at the 66-minute mark. The youngster played with energy and flair, raising further concerns for the Chilean defense.
Controversy struck at the 69th minute when Chile were all but certain they had taken the lead against the run of play. Le Havre attacker Francisca Lara's header had Japan's keeper beaten before ricocheting off the crossbar and away from the goalline. Mid-air, the ball appeared to have crossed the line. However, no call was made by any official nor was a VAR check conducted. Nadeshiko keeper Ayaka Yamashita was quick to gather the ball and play on.
Chance after chance came Japan's way, and that elusive final touch was eventually applied after 76 minutes. Iwabuchi received the ball from Sugita with her back to goal in the Chile penalty area. Surrounded by opposing defenders, Iwabuchi laid the ball off to her left as Tanaka arrived late to fire past the keeper to open the scoring.
Japan kept their foot on the gas and had no intentions of sitting on a slender one-goal lead. They kept their focus on attack and seemingly enjoyed capitalizing on the space they were being afforded, with Chile now being forced to play a more open game.
Chile fought valiantly until the end but were unable to gain a foothold in the game. This result will be a bitter disappointment for them but they will surely find comfort in the history that they have made at Tokyo 2020.
Japan were at their best against well-matched opponents. The behemoth lying in wait for the next round might not be so kind.
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