Japan-Spain Preview

Japan-Spain Preview

Published Jul. 25, 2012 12:39 p.m. ET

At the senior international level, Spain's reign covers the world's plains.

At the Olympic level, La Roja are out to prove they can carry the torch as well.

Spain begins its quest for an Olympic gold medal Thursday when it faces Japan to open Group D play at Hampden Park in Glasgow, Scotland.

The Iberians became the first team to win back-to-back European Championships and three consecutive major titles earlier this month, rolling past Italy 4-0 in the final. Spain had previously won the 2008 Euro and the 2010 World Cup, using a short-passing, possession-based offense known domestically as "tiki-taka" that picks apart defenses with precision.


While coach Luis Milla has only three players from Barcelona - the domestic club that best uses tiki-taka - at his disposal, his young charges are eager to follow in the footsteps of their senior heroes.

"They achieved something historic and there are a lot of expectations on us now, but it won't be as easy as people think," said 21-year-old goalkeeper David de Gea, who completed his first season as Manchester United's starter and backstopped Spain to the UEFA Under-21 title last year.

"There are a lot of games, so we just have to take it game by game, see how strong our rivals are and hopefully get to the final."

Winning the U-21 title in Denmark gave the young Spaniards their first taste of international success, and they now hope to become just the fourth country to hold a World Cup title and an Olympic gold medal simultaneously and first since West Germany (1974 World Cup, 1976 Olympics).

"It would be nice to (win the Games) after all they achieved," Athletic Bilbao forward Iker Muniain said. "We're starting an adventure that we're very motivated to get started on and finish with a medal."

Milla also has the luxury of having overage players with winning pedigrees on the squad, tabbing 2010 and 2012 senior champions Juan Mata and Javi Martinez. Mata, the U-21 Golden Player last year, had 12 goals with English side Chelsea in all competitions last season and a goal in the Euro final versus Italy. He'll likely pair with striker Adrian Lopez up front.

The midfield will be anchored by Ander Herrera, who had two goals in the U-21 tournament, and may rely more on Martinez with Barca midfielder Thiago Alcantara unavailable due to injury. The defense has dynamic wing backs in Cesar Azpilicueta and Jordi Alba, with the latter scoring the back-breaking goal versus Italy that finished off a lung-burning run from his own half of the pitch.

Spain is making its first Olympic appearance since winning the silver in Sydney in 2000, and its lone gold medal came as host in 1992.

While Spain's younger players are trying to establish themselves in the Olympics, Japan has been a mainstay in the quadrennial event. The Blue Samurai are making their fourth consecutive Olympic appearance after rolling through Asian qualifying but have not medaled since capturing the bronze in 1968 - still the high-water mark for the continent in Olympic play.

After losing all three of its matches in Beijing, Japan appears more confident in London after winning friendlies over fellow Olympic squads Belarus and Mexico. Defender Maya Yoshida may be under the most scrutiny as the captain and veteran from the 2008 squad, having to marshal his backline against the dangerous attacking options of La Roja.

One of Japan's best players, however, will not be available because Shinji Kagawa is preparing for his first season with Manchester United. The 23-year-old midfielder - also a member of the 2008 squad - has 11 goals in 33 international appearances at the senior level but bypassed the Olympics following his offseason transfer from German club Borussia Dortmund.

That makes Yuki Otsu the most likely threat to score for Japan. Otsu has yet to play for the senior squad but has three goals in 10 matches for the U-22 team and will be playing his first full season with Germany's Borussia Monchengladbach this fall.

The squads will head to St. James' Park in Newcastle, England, for their second group matches Sunday with Spain playing Honduras and Japan facing Morocco.