Japan's hopes of ending a 53-year medal drought in men's Olympic football were shattered Friday after a 3-1 defeat to Mexico in the third-place playoff at the Tokyo Games.
Japan were aiming to win their first medal since taking bronze at the 1968 Mexico Games when they beat Mexico 2-0, but it was the Mexicans that exacted the revenge on this occasion.
Sebastian Cordova opened the scoring from the penalty spot in the 13th minute at Saitama Stadium and the hosts were dealt another blow when Johan Vasquez peeled away from his marker to double Mexico's lead with a 22nd-minute header.
The Mexicans, beaten 2-1 by Japan in the group stage, took advantage of more sloppy defending at the set piece to go further ahead as Alexis Vega made it 3-0 with a header shortly before the hour mark.
Japan pulled a goal back through a fine solo effort from substitute Kaoru Mitoma with 12 minutes left, but it proved little more than a consolation.
"With a medal at stake, I'm really disappointed at not being able to produce a result that would have pleased all the supporters and Japanese people," manager Hajime Moriyasu said. "Mexico took their chances with the penalty and the set-piece early in the game and that made it difficult for us."
Friday's game was also a rematch of the 2012 London Olympic semifinal, won 3-1 by eventual champions Mexico. Japan went on to lose 2-0 to South Korea in the bronze medal match in London.
"It was a comprehensive defeat," said captain Maya Yoshida, the 32-year-old who also skippered Japan in London. "We had lots of people supporting us. We wanted to pay them back with a medal."
The game's kickoff was brought forward by two hours to 6 p.m. to accommodate a change to the starting time of the women's final. That match was originally scheduled at 11 a.m. at the National Stadium but due to heat concerns was moved back to 9 p.m. start at International Stadium Yokohama.
The Tokyo Games gold medal match will be contested between defending champions Brazil and Spain on Saturday.
Japan welcomed back center-back Takehiro Tomiyasu from suspension as Moriyasu put his faith in his tried and tested members elsewhere. But Japan looked wearier of the two sides after both teams played 120 minutes in the semifinals three days ago.
Japan scored two early goals in their first encounter but they were two down here before the break, with Yuki Soma firing wide from a tight angle and lone forward Daichi Hayashi's effort from distance saved by veteran keeper Guillermo Ochoa.
They had a real sight on goal eight minutes into the second half.
Wataru Endo, who gave away the penalty, did well to create space down the left to send in a cross but Ritsu Doan, who had a quiet first half, could not keep his header down before Mexico scored their decisive third.
Winger Mitoma, who was barely given a look-in by Moriyasu over the course of the campaign, was brought and quickly set up two chances, the second of which fell to fellow substitute Ayase Ueda but his low drive was saved by Ochoa.
Mitoma finally showed what he is capable of as he hammered home Japan's only goal in the 78th minute, conning a defender with his typical kick fake down the left before finding the near top corner with his left foot.
A well-worked corner had substitute Reo Hatate in acres of space at the edge of the box but he dragged his low effort narrowly wide, while Mitoma showed another burst of pace to slice Mexico's midfield open but his low shot also went narrowly wide as Japan ended the home Olympics in fourth place.
"I felt all of our players were giving everything they had left in them after all these games," said Manchester City's Ko Itakura, who came on in the second half. "Tournaments for this age group are now finished, but we'll try to have as many of us as possible in the senior squad."
Moriyasu's strong 22-man squad of European-based youngsters supplemented by solid overage players in Yoshida, Endo and Hiroki Sakai failed to deliver at home Olympics, but he stated that "the efforts put in were worthy of a medal."
"The players showed their development through this Olympics...We couldn't get a medal but I'm thankful for the players who brought me this far," said Moriyasu. "I'm sure all the experience will serve them in good stead in the future."