Super-sub Dakota Lucas says it took a while to sink in that he had scored the Oly-Whites' last-gasp equalising goal in a 1-1 draw with Japan in Tokyo.
The Wellington striker admitted the New Zealand under-23 Olympic squad "pretty much got out of jail'' against the Japanese overnight (NZT) after being under siege for most of the match.
But midfielder Kosta Barbarouses dug deep to launch one last attack in the fourth minute of injury-time. Marco Rojas' slick step-over flummoxed the Japanese defence and Lucas supplied the finish to cancel out Kenyu Sugimoto's 71st-minute strike for Japan in both teams' first match before the London Olympics.
Lucas, who rated the goal among the most important of his career, said it took a while to register that he had netted to silence the massive crowd at Tokyo's National Stadium.
"But once I realised I had scored, I had a late celebration. It was good vision by Marco,'' said Lucas, who acknowledged Rojas' awareness had left him with a clear strike on goal.
Lucas - who turns 21 on the day of the Oly Whites' first Olympics game against Belarus on July 26 - said he was meant to start the match. But he still had "a little niggle in my ankle'' and coach Neil Emblen left him on the bench until the final 10 minutes.
"I really wanted to start to prove a point because there's no Chris Wood there till the next game and it was a good chance to start and make my mark.
"That goal helped me a lot.''
He agreed it would lift his and the team's confidence for Saturday night's match against fellow Olympic Games team South Korea in Seoul where West Bromwich Albion striker Wood and Ipswich Town defender Tommy Smith will bolster the squad.
Emblen admitted the Oly Whites had a lot of work to do after being "given a footballing lesson, not just in the way Japan played through the thirds but also in the way they closed down and pressed''.
He hailed some good goalkeeping by Jake Gleeson and "last ditch defending'' by a rearguard led by captain Ryan Nelsen, the Queen's Park Rangers English premier league centreback.
But Emblen said the Japanese, who are also preparing for the Olympics, were guilty of "some gilt-edged misses'' and the Oly Whites "rode our luck a bit.
"The boys looked rusty but I thought we showed that dogged New Zealand spirit and we've shown that we are hard to beat,'' Emblen said. "But we need to add some quality to that now while keeping that mentality.
"Our ball retention and speed of pass must improve but we have at least some time and a page of things to work on - [prior to the match] that page was blank.
Emblen fielded his three over-age players through the spine of his side with Nelsen at centreback, Michael McGlinchey in an advanced central midfield role, and Shane Smeltz up front in the Oly Whites' first outing in Tokyo since 2000 when a Nelson-led New Zealand team lost 4-0.
New Zealand, who arrived in Tokyo just 36 hours before kickoff, were rarely able to achieve any passing fluency and were under siege from the outset as they struggled to cope with the Japanese players' skill and movement.
The Oly Whites had only one real chance in the opening spell, in the 39th minute when Smeltz was bundled over by Hotaru Yamaguchi just outside the Japanese penalty area.
Midfielder Michael McGlinchey bent his freekick around the wall but it was palmed away to safety by keeper Shuichi Gonda.
But it was largely one-way traffic as the home side streamed forward but failed to finish their sweeping moves. Gleeson came to the rescue with several superb saves and Nelson and centreback partner James Musa produced some vital blocks.
Japan lost a little momentum after making several substitutions in the second spell but replacement Sugimoto struck from a simple tap-in after Gleeson could only parry the initial shot from Japan's only over-age player, Yuhei Tokonaga, 28.
Manabe Saito outstripped the Oly Whites' defence but squirted his shot across goal. That miss proved costly when Lucas lashed home his goal after a quick Kiwi counter-attack.
New Zealand 1 (Dakota Lucas 90+4) Japan 1 (Kenyu Sugimoto 71). HT: 0-0.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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