Ghana, hailed as potential medal hopefuls after fine displays against Italy and Paraguay, crashed out of the men's Olympic Football tournament after a dismal showing in Wednesday's 1-0 defeat to Japan. In contrast, the Asian side, already eliminated after losing their first two games, showed commendable desire and rounded off their Greek adventure with a flourish.
The Africans went into the match knowing a point would suffice for a place in the last eight, regardless of the result between Italy and Paraguay in the second game of the night. Ghana created the first chance in a scrappy opening as the Japanese, mindful of the devastating early goals conceded against Paraguay and Italy, retreated to the safety of their own half. With 10 minutes played, Asamoah Gyan latched onto a dreadful Yasuyuki Konno back-pass, but after winning a 30-metre sprint duel, the striker fired wide from 15 metres. Yoshito Okubo signalled Japan's arrival as an attacking force three minutes later with a fulminating 20 metre drive as the Asians increasingly gained the upper hand. Konno's header was scrambled clear by the Ghanaian defence following a superb 18th minute lay-off from Yuki Abe as the Africans concentrated on maintaining the stalemate. William Tiero at least showed a sign of attacking life with a hopeful poke midway through the half.
|Japan were good enough on the day|
With eight minutes remaining until the break, Japan were rewarded for their positive efforts and Ghana punished for their passive attitude as Naoya Kikuchi launched a hopeful punt from the centre-circle for Okubo to loop a header from the corner of the box over the onrushing Owu, caught way off his line in no-man's land (1-0). Ghana looked for an immediate response but Gyan drove wide from 15 metres after an impressive solo run. Ono immediately came close to doubling the Japanese advantage on 44 minutes with a spectacular volleyed effort.
Ghana emerged from the dressing room in determined mood and Tiero had the first chance of the second period after 53 minutes, but his long-range shot whistled past the post. Gyan squandered a golden opportunity to level a minute later as keeper Sogahata made a hash of a back-pass but the striker failed to net from 11 metres. Knowing they faced an early exit from the tournament, the Africans piled forward and Gyan almost made the pressure tell after 57 minutes.
The Japanese countered and after 61 minutes Takamatsu tested Owu from 15 metres, but the keeper got down well and pulled off a blinding reflex stop with his right hand. Ghana looked short of inspiration and heads started to drop. Stephen Appiah, a source of all that was good in the first two matches, practically vanished in the midfield morass. With the Africans stretched in the closing phase, Japan neglected to make the game safe five minutes from time as Owu again showed off his goalkeeping prowess against Takamatsu. Ghana launched a final desperate onslaught and with three minutes remaining substitute Kwadwo Poku fired goalwards but keeper Sogahata made a fine fingertip save.
Reflected Ghana coach Mariano Barreto afterwards: "That's football. My players knew they were in a good position going into the game, but Japan were very strong today. You have to say we were a bit unlucky with the goal; you don't see that every day. I'd like to congratulate my players as they've shown they can compete with the best in this tournament and the future looks bright for them. Good luck to Italy and Paraguay, and safe journey home to Japan." Commented Japan coach Masakuni Yamamoto: "We've deserved to win today. We kept it very tight at the back. This team has steadily improved over the last two years. Our big target is the 2006 World Cup, and we've picked up a huge amount of experience here."