Soccer: Japan lose to Argentina in 1st of 2 U-24 friendlies

©Kyodo News

Japan's Tokyo Olympic hopefuls ended a yearlong layoff with a 1-0 loss against powerhouse Argentina on Friday at Tokyo Stadium in the first of their two under-24 friendlies.

Benevento's giant forward, Adolfo Gaich, netted the only goal in the 21st minute with a towering header off the crossbar. Japan, who fielded Getafe's Takefusa Kubo and Kawasaki Frontale's Kaoru Mitoma in a highly-anticipated lineup, failed to break down the high-pressing visitors in the team's first game since the AFC U-23 Championship in January 2020.

The two teams play again on Monday at Kitakyushu Stadium in southwestern Fukuoka Prefecture. Argentina are two-time Olympic gold medalists, having won in 2004 and 2008.

"We had a talk after conceding the first goal, and defensively we didn't let them do anything in the second half. The defeat is down to us at the front not scoring," Kubo said. "We want to pay them back (in the second game). Conceding first makes things difficult."

Japan were forced to weather an early storm as aggressive Argentina had an early penalty shout turned down following a challenge on Matias Vargas.

With Japan struggling to keep possession, the visitors twice came close by the 20th minute through Fernando Valenzuela, who headed a Gaich cross from the right onto the bar before again hitting the framework, this time from a tight angle after sneaking behind the home defense.

Vargas broke down the right to finally set up Gaich's opener for Argentina, while Japan came within a whisker of a leveler in the 32nd minute as striker Kyosuke Tagawa sent a long-range effort over the bar with his weaker right foot.

Winger Mitoma, who scored 13 goals in his J-League top-flight debut last season to steer Kawasaki to the title, looked a little off with his early touches but went on to offer occasional sparks down the left alongside his club teammate and side-back Reo Hatate.

"Many issues came to light," said Mitoma, who came off midway through the second half. "We were the ones making small mistakes. It was a wasteful game."

Antwerp's Koji Miyoshi missed a chance to celebrate his 24th birthday when he cut in from the left but curled his effort wide of the post before Kubo's free kick was saved for a corner as Japan began to find their rhythm after the break.

Argentina continued to press high, but Japan had the best chance of the half in the 70th minute, substitute Yuki Soma playing Kubo down the left before a low cross found Tagawa, whose close-range effort was denied by keeper Jeremias Ledesma.

Kubo also sent a volley just over the bar in the 80th minute as Japan kept searching for the equalizer.

Argentina have qualified for the Tokyo Olympics as one of two South American representatives for the 16-team tournament this summer alongside 2016 champions Brazil.

The Olympic men's tournament usually is an under-23 competition with limited spots for overage players, but the age bracket has been raised one year in line with the one-year postponement prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.