Two goals in last three minutes turns defeat into victory for Asians while Russia beat Venezuela but have to wait to see if they made the last 16.
Late comeback against Tunisia sees Japan top Group D at Under 17 World Cup
SHARJAH // Such is the confidence coursing through this Japan team that they will happily embrace whatever challenge the Fifa Under 17 World Cup throws at them.
They again demonstrated a capacity to overcome all obstacles on an energy-sapping evening at Sharjah Stadium, when their third Group D fixture pitted them against a robust Tunisia side.
That both teams had already qualified for the last 16 was a moot point, as Tunisia discerned the only way to derail the Japanese juggernaut was to employ their greater physicality. Japan, forever nifty and nimble, refused to abandon their principles, though, and maintained a pristine passing game to eventually triumph. Beauty had slain the Beast.
“We are satisfied today, but the game was really even,” said Hirofumi Yoshitake, the Japan coach. “It was a very tough game and hard for any side to win. Our strong point was stamina and that was where we finally gained the advantage.”
“Finally” is the right word. For 87 minutes, in their guise as big brothers holding off their smaller siblings, Tunisia kept Japan at arm’s length, their opponents frequently swiping at thin air. Then, the score was 1-0 to the north Africans, whose goal just before half time belied their more durable nature. After some neat build-up play, the ball was laid off to Mohammed Drager, who rifled a low shot inside the near post.
Yet Japan embellished their status as one of the tournament’s most sparkling teams with a late fightback, equalising first through the substitute Daisuke Sakai, three minutes from the end, before the irrepressible forward Ryoma Watanabe sealed the points in injury time with his third goal of the tournament.
Pushed around for the majority, Japan proved even the little guys pack a punch, too.
In fact, they would not want it any other way.
“We welcome any team to play us in the next rounds,” said Yoshitake, although his confidence should not be mistaken for arrogance. “We actually want to play stronger teams always, because this is a good experience for us to grow and develop. So all teams are welcome.”
However, Japan cannot promise to be the most hospitable of hosts. Nine points from nine tells only half the story, for Yoshitake’s youngsters have caught the eye with some supreme performances thus far. Honduras, conquerors of the UAE, and Japan’s last-16 opponents, beware. Just ask Tunisia.
“They are very difficult to play against,” said Abdelhay ben Soltane, the Tunisia coach, although he did not need to. “They are very hard to stop, but we stopped them for nearly 90 minutes. Losing in the final seconds is a little bit hard for us.”
Tunisia can find comfort in their continued participation, though. Argentina appear their most likely next assignment so, with Asia’s second-best U17 side out of the way, they now face South America’s finest.
“They’re all very strong teams in the next round,” Ben Soltane said. “We played them about 20 days ago in a friendly and drew 2-2, so I don’t think they are any stronger than Japan.
“And with this match I’m happy because we played better than in the previous two games, even though we lost. I was pleased with our tactics and application.
“With Japan we had to press always, and be very strong, physically. Argentina are another style, who play individually instead of collectively, which is no problem.”
The only problem, it appeared, was that Tunisia would not be extending their stay in Sharjah.
“Before the match I was thinking only to go to the last 16, so I have what I want,” Ben Soltane added. “However, I feel sad that I’m leaving here. But this is the work.”
Russia overpowered Venezeuala 4-0 in Fujairah in the group’s other game, but face an anxious wait to see if they advance as one of the four best third-placed teams.
The European champions have three points, with a goal difference of plus two. Only Croatia, in the four completed groups, have an inferior record.
Japan 2-1 Tunisia
Japan: Sakai 87, Watanabe 90
Tunisia: Drager 45
Russia 4-0 Venezuela
Russia: Makarov 16, Sheidaev 39, 85, Golovin, 45+2
Sent off: Maceira 90 (Venezuela)
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