Japan escape Spain's grasp
© AFP

Missing highly-decorated ace Amarelle to injury, Spain was unable to overcome Japan and fell via penalties in a high-energy contest to begin their Dubai 2009 campaign on the wrong foot.

In the opening minutes, both sides seemed eager to grab the advantage, as long shots were exchanged and summarily batted away by goalkeepers at both ends of the pitch. A miscue led to the first goal, as Hirofumi Oda had the misfortune of knocking his wayward pass under his goalkeeper. As the first period drew to a close, Kunihiro Wakabayashi sent Japan’s avid followers into a frenzy as he pushed down the left flank, but he was unable to produce a shot on goal.

Russia’s captain Nico had his direct kick knocked back into his path by Japan goalkeeper Tomoya Ginoza, but could only send his second effort sailing into the stands. And the value of those near misses was made clear moments later as Masahito Toma tapped in from close range to draw his side level.

Teruki Tabata then slapped what, under other circumstances, might have been termed a ‘grass-cutter’ slicing his shot under Spain’s Roberto Valeiro and into the net. Rikarudo Higa made matters worse for Spain as he sent another goal past the surprised Spanish.

Juanma got Spain back into the match halfway through the second period, though his shot was nearly parried over by Ginoza. Javier Torres then struck with a bouncing ball that managed to elude Ginoza. And Nico showed good patience before slotting home, to give Spain the lead and set up an anxious final period.

Tabata tried his luck with a half-field free-kick and managed to snake it into the net, despite the handful of red shirts poised seemingly in all the right places. Cristian Torres had two free-kicks, but could put neither on goal as time ticked away. Javier Torres then contrived to send a toe-poked shot over the bar from close range with the goal gaping before him. Spain kept knocking in the final seconds, with Juanma striking the post and Cristian Torres nearly stealing one from Ginoza's grasp.

The sides traded goals in extra-time, sending the match into sudden-death penalties and it was Japan that emerged victorious, slotting home their third penalty after a miss by Spain.

Japan will have to be at their best when they face Côte d'Ivoire tomorrow and will naturally be looking to deny Ludovic Ehounou anything like the five-goal extravaganza that he turned in against El Salvador, who face Spain in Tuesday’s other Group B match.