Arguably Asia's most successful team in Men's Olympic Football, the hopes of Mexico 1968 bronze medallists Japan achieving a fifth consecutive appearance on the global stage are hanging by a thread. A surprise 2-1 setback at the hands of Syria in Amman has blown Group C wide open in the hunt for the only automatic berth to London 2012.
The stunner proved costly for coach Takashi Sekizuka's side, who not only saw their winning streak brought to a close but also conceded top place to the west Asians. Although the two sides are level on both points and goal difference, it is the Syrians that are currently leading courtesy of goal scored.
Only the three section winners will claim automatic qualifying passage while the runners-up will participate in a round-robin continental play-off in March. The top side will then advance to face Senegal in a one-off decider on 23 April in Coventry, England, for a potential fourth berth from Asia.
With so much at stake, understandably Sekizuka is desperate to put their campaign back on track with an emphatic win over the already-eliminated Malaysia in the penultimate matchday next Wednesday. "First of all, we have to win," said the 51-year-old former Kawasaki Frontale coach. "Then we need to knock in as many goals as we can."
Judged from his remarks, the Japanese are aware they must sharpen their finishing edge if they are to outlast Syria - a battle which possibly will be determined on goal difference. In the previous meeting Sekizuka's visitors carved out some clear chances only to see the opponents win courtesy of their superior finishing, a fact which forward Kensuke Nagai laments.
"We created good chances which the forwards failed to capitalise on so we lost the game," said the Nagoya Grampus striker who cancelled out Yuya Osako's own goal, before Ahmad Al Salih sealed the win for the Syrians with a last-minute effort. "We are left with few options but to score as many goals as we can in the remaining two games."
Sekizuka's charges head to Malaysia targeting a big win but their focus is not helped by the team's growing injury list. Cerezo Osaka and Japan national team midfielder Hiroshi Kiyotake remains absent nursing a bruised calf, while striker Ryohei Yamazaki is ruled out for a broken left arm suffered in Amman.
The Jubilo Iwata man played for just 18 minutes before getting injured and his loss was evident with his replacement Osako putting through his own net to gift the Syrians their opener.
In order to enhance their potency upfront, Sekizuka turned to Genki Haraguchi, who has been making a name for himself with Urawa Red Diamonds. He said: "I've been keeping an eye on Haraguchi and he is very fit at the moment. He excels at pushing the ball up from midfield, and can set up his team-mates or create his own chances."
Realising mentality usually plays a key factor at the age-group level, the experienced Japanese tactician urged his team to maintain their spirit. "There are still two games left and it is important for us to prepare for them mentally,” he said. “We must keep on fighting and do our utmost to grab the maximum points.”