World Cup: Japan reach last 16 on fair play points, will meet Belgium
Japan took the back door into the World Cup round of 16 on Thursday, losing 1-0 to Poland but progressing due to a Colombia win over Senegal and the FIFA fair play points system favoring the Samurai Blue.
Akira Nishino’s team finished second in Group H and will face Group G winners Belgium in the first knockout round.
The outcome saved Japan’s head coach from at least some questions about his risky decision to start the game with a team showing six changes to the one that performed well in a gutsy 2-2 draw with Senegal in Ekaterinburg, leaving all four of his Russia 2018 goalscorers on the bench.
Colombia beat Senegal 1-0 thanks to a second-half goal by defender Yerry Mina and the South Americans finished top of Group H to set up a clash with Group G runners-up England.
Speaking before the final Group G games later on Thursday, Nishino said, “They (England and Belgium) are both world-class teams so it is a great challenge for us to face them, and we have to do good analysis and prepare our team and our strategies.”
Senegal and Japan both finished on four points having been handed their first defeats of the tournament Thursday, and with the same goal difference and number of goals scored.
But due to the West Africans’ poorer disciplinary record — they finished with six yellow cards to Japan’s four — they will be going home.
The result means Japan reach the knockout phase for the third time in their six World Cups but Nishino had to face some difficult questions about his decisions for the match at a sweltering Volgograd Arena.
After much speculation about his place in the team, Japan goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima proved his worth in spectacular fashion in the first half, just keeping out a free header from Kamil Grosicki.
After the break Kawashima, who made costly errors that led to Japan conceding in their first two games, was forced to dash from his line to pounce on a through-ball as Robert Lewandowski came at pace.
Then came the goal all of Japan was dreading. Rafal Kurzawa swung a free kick to the back post where Jan Bednarek volleyed Poland ahead with just over 30 minutes remaining.
As news filtered through that Colombia had scored in Samara both teams closed up shop and the game ground to a halt, much to the annoyance of the majority Russian crowd.
“The manner in which the team qualified was not the initial goal,” said Nishino. “I am not too happy about this, but I forced my players to do what I said. It’s the World Cup, and sometimes these things can’t be avoided.”
“There was booing in the stadium and I am sure that the players heard that and I feel that was regrettable.”
Having already qualified for the round of 16, Belgium and England utilized their squad players in their final Group G encounter. The Belgians made nine changes from their previous match while the English switched eight players.
Adnan Januzaj curled in the winner six minutes after the restart, saving Belgium from finishing second behind England on fair play points.
Belgium coach Roberto Martinez looked forward to the match with Japan, saying, “We are a stronger group than we were before the game. We’re facing Japan, we’ve got to be ready for it.”
In the other Group G match, Tunisia finished with a 2-1 win over Panama to claim third place, leaving the Central Americans bottom with no points and a minus-nine goal difference.