TOKYO • Japan appear to be the team to beat in the men's football competition at the Tokyo Olympics after becoming the only side to record three wins in as many games in the group stage.
The Samurai Blue advanced to the knockout phase as Group A winners after thrashing France 4-0 yesterday. They will be the favourites to beat New Zealand, who booked their berth after a goal-less draw with Romania to finish as Group B runners-up, in the quarter-finals on Saturday.
Real Madrid winger and star man Takefusa Kubo, who has netted in every game, opened the scoring against the French to make it three goals so far.
Only Brazil's Richarlison (five) and France's Andre-Pierre Gignac (four) have netted more.
The hosts then ran riot, with further strikes by Hiroki Sakai, and substitutes Koji Miyoshi and Daizen Maeda.
Unlike Japan, who named a top-class squad for their home Games, including Stuttgart midfielder Wataru Endo, PSV Eindhoven midfielder Ritsu Doan, Sampdoria defender Maya Yoshida and Bologna defender Takehiro Tomiyasu, France brought a team devoid of household names except for veteran Gignac and Florian Thauvin.
Hajime Moriyasu's men kept the 35-year-old Gignac quiet to record their second clean sheet of the Games, with just one goal conceded, and showed their cutting edge at the other end of the pitch.
Japan are seeking not just their first Olympic football medal since their bronze in 1968 but also a maiden gold, according to their coach.
"I have told my players that we are aiming for a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics," said Moriyasu.
"We have not only set the gold medal as our goal, but I believe if our players demonstrate the best of their ability, Japan can compete as equals with the best teams in the world."
Their biggest challenge is likely to come from defending champions Brazil, who eased into the last eight after beating Saudi Arabia 3-1, courtesy of Everton forward Richarlison's double and Matheus Cunha's opener.
The Selecao, Group D winners with two wins and a draw, next face Group C runners-up Egypt, who defeated Australia 2-0, in the next stage.
Another strong contender will be Spain despite their unconvincing form.
Although they boast six players who were part of the senior team's run to the semi-finals of Euro 2020, La Roja managed only a 1-1 draw with Argentina, finishing top of Group C with just one victory and two goals scored.
Tomas Belmonte cancelled out Mikel Merino's strike but the result meant Argentina failed to advance, with Spain next taking on Ivory Coast. The final quarter-final sees Mexico and South Korea play each other.