Olympic Football, St James’ Park, 29 July 2012

And so, the Group D odyssey continued for me and my younger brother Martyn, with a trip to Newcastle and the mightily impressive (though somewhat lopsided) St James’ Park. Again the cheap seats had afforded us a nonetheless tremendous view; like at Hampden, in line with the edge of a penalty area at one end of the field. St James’ seats are somewhat closer to the field, which must make the atmosphere of a Tyne/Wear derby rather impressive.

On this Sunday evening though, it was the more wholesome, happy Olympic atmosphere which pervaded the arena. Having seen two cracking games in Glasgow, we were both looking forward to seeing all four Group D sides in action once more. Up first this time was Japan v Morocco, followed by Spain v Honduras.

The Japanese chaps high-five one another before kick-off.

Japan v Morocco, 17:00

And so to the football. Once again (much in keeping with the Olympic spirit), both sides’ anthems were wonderfully observed by the 26,000 or so (i.e. half-full) in the stadium. We were on the look out for our man Kensuke Nagai, a player who had set a high watermark for hard work as far as we were concerned in the first march against Spain.

That man Noureddine Amrabat was the first to make an impression this match, bustling his way through the middle of the Japanese defence before being stopped in his tracks by Japanese captain Maya Yoshida. Things continued much in that vein for the first 20 minutes or so of the match, with Amrabat once again providing class for the Moroccans, along with his elusive team-mate in the middle, Zakaria Labyad.

At this point the egregious Mexican waving began, though I did feel slightly more enamoured to it this time round. The fans in the far corner seemed to be controlling things, with their boos (if the wave didn’t make it round) and cheers (if it did) probably confusing the 22 gentlemen on the field no end.

The second half of the first half belonged to the chaps from the Far East. First, a brilliant chase and control from Kiyotake found the Japanese creative outlet, Otsu, in the middle. His shot was turned turned wide by Moroccan keeper Amsik for a corner. Amsik was then at the centre of some minor controversy a few minutes later.  A strong header from a Ogihara corner was directed pretty much straight at the Moroccan keeper. He saved, then appeared (from where I was sitting anyway) to carry the ball over the line. Thanks to the gift of Sky Plus and BBC Olympics 12 HD, I can however confirm that the referee was bang on in not awarding the goal. Half-time was upon us swiftly thereafter.

Japan came into the game rather more in the second half. After both sides scoped one another out for the first 15 minutes or so of the second period,  Japan’s best opportunity of the match up to that point came in 63 minutes. Nagai drove at the heart of the Moroccan defence, the ball found its way to Kiyotake whose shot hit the underside, hit Amsik, and then spun gratefully into the be-beiged Moroccan keeper’s arms. A lovely run through the middle from Otsu soon thereafter was well matched by Amsik, then some excellent work through the middle from Yamaguchi unfortunately resulted in him directing the ball aerially towards Sunderland.

Some second half action from Morocco v Japan.

Japan were on top now, but they were, as they did against Spain, spurning some cracking opportunities. The opening goal finally arrived in the 84th minute of proceedings. A relatively speculative ball over the top from Hiyotake found Nagai sprinting through the channel. Amsik committed himself too early; Nagai dinked it beautifully over him and into the far corner.

Morocco had the last chance of the match deep into stoppage time. Just as I had been praising Yoshida’s performance, he got sloppy and allowed Labyad to wander through and force a save from Gonda. Yoshida made up for his error, however, with a great block from El Kaddouri, who had the goal at his mercy.

And so Japan had pulled another good win out of the bag with a resilient performance. Yoshida (despite his last minute error) had been excellent at the back, with Otsu linking the play and advancing beyond the front line beautifully. It was also fantastic to see our man Kensuke Nagai finally get himself on the scoresheet. I may sound like a corrupted MP3 but I can’t help but again praise Amrabat from the Moroccan side of things – why they took him off with 20 minutes left I’ll never know as he caused Japan far more problems than any Spaniard managed on Thursday. I genuinely think the Moroccan striker could do a job for a lower-end Premier League team.

This is why football, and indeed sport, is a wonderful thing – one team delighted, the other devastated.

St James’ didn’t quite live up to Hampden’s inter-match “entertainment” – there were no giant beachballs anyway. After some shoddy pre-match videos and two plays of Muse’s Olympic theme with obligatory inspirational video, it was time for match 2.

Spain v Honduras, 1945

Again, after the anthems, the Honduran players gave the crowd a good round of applause. From that moment on we were right behind them. Which we would have been anyway, because being East Fife supporters, Martyn and I are well used to it. Spain, predictably, dominated the first 5 minutes or so, and things were looking rather ominous for our new Central American brethren. There were rather more Hondurans in Newcastle than there were in Glasgow (perhaps there’s an enclave in Jesmond), and they were given something to shout about after 7 minutes.

Completely against the run of play, Honduras composed a nice move down the left. Roger Espinoza picked up the ball on the left edge of the area, exchanged passes with Mario Martinez, before a sweet left foot cross to the near post. Jerry Bengtson outjumped Jordi Alba and powered his header past De Gea (headed down!), becoming the joint-top scorer of the tournament as a result.

A near-side tussle in the first half.

Spain seemed rather shellshocked for much of the rest of the first half. On 29 minutes, Mata fired one across Mendoza when perhaps Muniain (playing in this one, and what a difference he made) was in a better position. Isco then volleyed not far off target after a sustained spell of Spain pressure. Right on half-time, Mata had his and Spain’s best chance of the half, shooting agonisingly wide of Mendoza’s right hand post.

Half-time arrived, then, with Honduras in the lead. There was a heated atmosphere developing between the players, not helped by Martinez writhing around “injured” on the halfway line, then opportunistically getting up when Honduras were on the counter. As it was, the Central Americans probably deserved to be in front, for their work rate and tenacity if nothing else.

The second half was about as much of a deluge as anyone is likely to see in football without a goal being scored. Spain were largely relentless from first to last. However, on 51 minutes, the first real chance of the half went to Honduras. Good work down the right led to a cross to the tireless Espinoza. His header rebounded off the upright, agonisingly just out of reach of the onrushing Bengtson. It would have been interesting to see how Spain would have reacted to going 2 behind

As it was, they stayed one down, and then proceeded to throw everything at the Honduras defence and their 5″7 keeper Mendoza (he’s taller than his deputy in the Olympic squad too). Firstly, a wonderful surging run from Muniain ended with his shot drifting just wide of Mendoza’s left hand upright. A similarly excellent driving run through the middle  a couple of minutes later resulted in his shot hitting that very post. On 72 minutes Rodrigo (who came on as a sub in this game, having been deservedly dropped after his showing against Japan) forced a wonderful save from Mendoza, tipping the Benfica striker’s header round his right post. Things were getting relentless now but the Hondurans were just about holding firm.

On 79 minutes, Rodrigo was again set free, but a combination of brave goalkeeping and just-about-sturdy-enough defending kept him out. In the process, Mendoza injured himself. Now, how injured he was, given Martinez’s reaction to his “injury” in the first 45 – I’m guessing it wasn’t too serious. What it didn’t justify, however, is Iker Muniain’s behaviour, attempting to barge into the Honduran keeper to get him off the ground. The resultant yellow card was one of the more deserving of the 13 given out by the Venezuelan referee on the night.

The referee’s performance was called further into question when the game reached its last minute. Another good run through the middle from Rodrigo saw him appear to be tackled from behind by Velasquez. On seeing the TV footage, there is no doubt he got absolutely nothing of the ball and a lot of Rodrigo’s ankles. As it was, the Venezuelan referee turned the claim down (one of three the Spanish had in the last 15 minutes) and Juan Mata was booked soon after for getting in his face (he seems like such a nice chap on Twitter too).

By this time chants of “HON-DU-RAS!” were floating round the stadium, and so it was that Honduras had the last decent chance of the match. A good surging counter attack found the ball at the feet of the controversial Martinez. His shot was very weak, but was spilled out for a corner by De Gea (and wasn’t too far from going in). The volume climbed all the more. A last-gasp set piece for Spain saw De Gea move forward to no avail.

The final whistle blew and the crowd stood to a man to salute their Central American heroes (other than the people who left early, presumably because there were tailbacks on the A167(M)). The Spanish players did not seem to share this sentiment, however, and instead decided to harangue the referee, with Muniain in particular (again) being pointlessly niggly and, frankly, a bit of a bully.

The Spanish show that, as well as being good winners, they can also be very bad losers.

The Hondurans, meanwhile, were naturally delighted, to the point where a few of their players, including Mendoza who had been excellent, climbed into the crowd to acknowledge the effort of their countrymen to come to Newcastle to support their team.

The one final gesture was a lovely one. In the warm-up, it was clear that an older lady had been hit by a wayward shot from a Honduran and had been hurt badly enough to need some first aid from the stewards. At the end of the match, the culprit became clear, as Roger Espinoza made his way to that end of the ground, apologised to the lady in question and handed her his shirt from the match. A frankly outstanding gesture, and one very much in keeping with the friendly Olympic atmosphere in the ground. An0ther quality day’s entertainment from Group D of the 2012 Olympics – the Japanese might well be worth keeping an eye on in the later stages.

Scores and scorers on the day:

Morocco 0-1 Japan (Nagai)

Spain 0-1 Honduras (Bengtson)

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