Rafa Mir turned the super-sub for Spain when he produced a hat-trick to help his side turn the tables on Ivory Coast 5-2 and book a place in the men’s football semifinal after a break of 21 years.
Mir, a product of the Barcelona youth system, brought Spain back from the brink of defeat after being introduced as a substitute in the stoppage-time (90+2 minutes). Mir found the equaliser within a minute of his arrival and set Spain on the winning path, at the Miyagi Stadium in Rifu.
In one of the most riveting actions seen in the men’s tournament so far, Ivory Coast matched Spain in every department and had the victory in its sight when Max Gradel made it 2-1 in the first minute of the second half stoppage time. Staring at a certain defeat, Spanish coach Luis de la Fuente introduced Mir, who came in to erase Spain’s hesitancy at the goalmouth and forced the action into extra-time with his equaliser.
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Rejuvenated by a new lease of life provided by Mir’s effort, Spain regained its usual flair in the attack in the extra-time. Helped by a favourable VAR review, Spain gained a penalty in the 98th minute when the Ivory Coast defender Eric Bailly, who had given his side an early lead, was caught handling the ball in an effort to deny Mir a header. The resultant penalty was scored by Mikel Oyarzabal as Spain gained the lead for the first time in the match.
Mir proved the perfect finisher for Spain as he found two more goals towards the end of the extra time to complete his hat-trick. Spain, the silver medallist in 2000 Sydney Olympics, thus ended a wait of two decades to regain its place in the semifinals.
Spain, who won gold as the host in 1992 Barcelona Olympics, will be meeting the current host Japan in the second semifinal at Saitama.
Japan, the bronze medallist in 1968 Mexico Olympics and the semifinalist in 2012 London, failed to convert a few chances coming its way in the regulation and extra-time but shrugged its goal-shyness in the shoot-outs which was resorted to after 120 minutes of goalless affair. Japan goalkeeper Kosei Tani saved New Zealand full back Liberato Cacace’s effort from the spot while midfielder Clayton Lewis blasted his spot-kick over the bar. For Japan Ayase Ueda, Kou Itakura, Yuta Nakayama and Maya Yoshida were all on target.
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Defending champion Brazil was never near its usual form but managed enough to beat Egypt by a solitary goal. Youngster Matheus Cunha found the target late in the first half after he was nicely set up by forward Richarlison.
The first semifinal will see Brazil taking on Mexico, the 2012 London Olympics champion, at Kashima Stadium on Tuesday. Mexico eased past South Korea 6-3 thanks to a double each from Henry Martin and Sebastian Cordova.
At Rifu: Spain 5 (Dani Olmo 30, Rafa Mir 90+3, 117, 120+1, Mikel Oyarzabal 98-pen) bt Ivory Coast (Eric Bailly 10, Max Gradel 90+1).
At Kashima: Japan 0 (4) bt New Zealand 0 (2) on penalties.
At Saitama: Brazil 1 (Matheus Cunha 37) bt Egypt 0.
At Yokohama: Mexico 6 (Henry Martin 12, 54, Luis Romo 30, Sebastian Cordova 39-pen, 63, Eduardo Aguirre 84) bt South Korea 3 (Lee Dong-Gyeong 20, 51, Hwang Ui-Jo 90+1).