Perhaps it’s fitting that the man who finally unlocked the Olyroos after 81 minutes of stubborn rear-guard action was once one of the most sought-after players in world football.
You don’t play almost 130 games in La Liga for Real Madrid, or score in a UEFA Champions League Final against Juventus, if you’re not a decent footballer.
So when Marco Asensio came off the bench to replace Carlos Soler in the 68th-minute of Spain’s 1-0 defeat over the Olyroos last night, we should have known what was coming.
Nevertheless, it was bitterest of feelings to watch Asensio collect a pass from Dani Olmo, step back onto his left foot and swing over an inch-perfect cross for Spain’s stand-in skipper Mikel Oyarzabal to head home.
Asensio had only been on the pitch for 13 minutes but still looked Spain’s most likely route to goal, springing the offside trap once to almost play in fellow substitute Rafa Mir and generally causing Joel King all sorts of headaches down Asensio’s right-hand side.
He’s on his way out of the Bernabeu this summer, or so the Spanish newspapers say, so perhaps it should have come as no surprise to see Asensio in such a decisive mood.
But after watching the Olyroos drop ten men behind the ball and repel absolute everything Spain threw at them in the second half, it still ended up being a frustrating result.
The Aussies defended as if their lives depended on it for the majority of a one-sided contest, even if their goal led a charmed life at times.
The Olyroos' resistance is broken.
— 7Olympics (@7olympics) July 25, 2021
Spain should have taken the lead in the first half when Javi Puedo played in the busy Oyarzabal, only for their skipper to blast his left-footed strike high over Tom Glover but against the underside of the crossbar.
Oyarzabal took the captain’s armband from injured hothead Dani Ceballos and with Barcelona defender Oscar Mingueza also ruled out before the match, it wasn’t even Spain’s first-choice starting eleven.
But they still featured six players from the senior Euro 2020 squad in their starting side at the Sapporo Dome and with the likes of Athletic Bilbao goalkeeper Unai Simon, Villarreal defender Pau Torres, Barcelona starlet Pedri and Leipzig’s elusive attacker Olmo among them, it was always going to be tough to take something from this game.
But that doesn’t mean the Olyroos didn’t give it a red-hot go, even if they failed to register a single shot on goal in the first half and conceded 70 per cent of possession.
The second half wasn’t much better and it wasn’t until Spain scored that the Aussies finally started to press further up the park, with substitute Nick D’Agostino’s long throws putting some pressure on Spanish goalkeeper Simon.
The Olyroos actually fashioned a clear-cut chance with five minutes remaining, however substitute Caleb Watts was ball-watching when Harry Souttar stooped to get a flick-on and instead of ghosting in to bundle the ball home at the far post, Watt simply watched as it drifted out for a goal-kick.
Worse still for Graham Arnold was the fact that three of his key players all picked up a second yellow card for the tournament, with Nathaniel Atkinson, Riley McGree and Mitch Duke set to miss the game against Egypt through suspension.
The tireless Duke will presumably be replaced by D’Agostino, however Atkinson – who was needlessly booked in the final seconds – and the industrious McGree are harder to replace.
And despite remaining second in the group, the Olyroos will probably still need to take something from their final group-stage encounter with Egypt at Miyagi Stadium in Rifu on Wednesday night.
The Egyptians went down 1-0 to Argentina in the other Group C match on Sunday and don’t really look like they’ve got goals in them.
But following a night in which the Olyroos proved they can stand tall against a top-class European side, they might need to find some answers of their own if they’re going to take anything off Egypt and maintain control of their Olympic destiny.