A 1-0 defeat to eliminated Poland was enough for the Asian side to advance on the Fair Play rule
Japan play a risky game but secure World Cup last-16 place at expense of Senegal
Any ousting from a World Cup seems cruel, but to leave via a tie-breaker based on disciplinary statistics, and mere yellow cards at that, will really hurt Senegal’s footballers.
The pain will spread far beyond too, because a whole continent’s football looks diminished by Thursday’s dramatic ending to Group H of the World Cup. There will be no African teams left after the group phase for the first time in 36 years.
It was always tipped to be the most "open" group and in some ways the most exotic, with its unusually broad mix: Japan from Asia, Colombia from South America, Poland after an impressive qualifying in the European zone and Senegal from an Africa that now seems to be stuck further than ever beneath its glass ceiling. Of all of them, Colombia look much the most potent, even after a disastrous start.
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And Japan? They are entitled to be proud of representing the Asian zone, after Australia, Saudi Arabia and Iran had gone home with differing degrees of failure, and South Korea had left, allbeit in a blaze of glory, with the shock defeat of Germany.
Yet there was little glorious about Japan’s approach to the final 90 minutes of their curiously disjointed group campaign. They lost to a Poland who had nothing to play for but pride, and approached the fixture with a puzzling strategy with senior players rested.
They also seemed to take a reckless risk by not chasing the equalising goal in the final moments that would have insured them against heartbreak if the match between Senegal and Colombia, poised on a knife-edge at 1-0 had swung in another direction.
Japan intended, it seemed, to give few clues to their next opponents about their strengths and weaknesses. At least that’s one way of interpreting head coach Akira Nishino’s team selection. Shinji Kagawa and Gen Shoji were left out of Nishino’s XI. His strategy seemed to be that keeping back senior players would also ensure their freshness for the next game.
The problem was, that for there to be a guaranteed next game, Japan needed a draw. They went about that task without Kagawa, Shoji and also Takashi Inui, who has been impressive up front in this World Cup and Makoto Hasebe, although their absence was explained by the yellow cards they carried from previous fixtures. They risked suspension with another.
As it turned out, cards have utterly shaped the placings in Group H, Senegal eliminated because they had collected more than Japan through the competition.
Japan will also look back with gratitude to the red card Colombia incurred against them at the very start of their first match in Russia. They beat the South Americans 2-1, when Colombia played almost the entire fixture with 10 men.
It was the beginning of what now looks like quite a charmed path to Japan’s third ever appearance in the last-16 of a World Cup. True, they showed gumption in their 2-2 draw with Senegal, but seemed to leave that gumption elsewhere against Poland. True, the heat was sapping, but it was draining for both teams and the best openings were engineered by a Poland with nothing to play for.
Kamil Grosicki’s meaty header drew an athletic save from Eiji Kawashima in the first half, and then, from a free-kick, Japan’s suspected vulnerability against set-pieces was signalled.
Rafal Kurzawa arched in the free-kick, Robert Lewandowski looked like the obvious target, and that may explain why so many Japanese players seemed to disregard Jan Bednarek, attacking the far post. The Southampton defender met the ball as it dropped to volley firmly past Kawashima.
Had Lewandowski then made a better job of the excellent cross he received with just the goalkeeper to beat, Japan would have run out of luck. Had Kawashiwa not reacted smartly to a defection from Makino, threatening an own goal, Japan would be heading home.
Their lack of urgency in the final moments against Poland was puzzling. But, maybe it is their calm self-belief that will buoy them further, carry them into history at this World Cup.