Japan became the only Asian team to reach the 2018 FIFA World Cup’s Round of 16 on Thursday night, losing 1-0 to a motivated Poland side but beating Group H rivals Senegal in a Fair Play Point tiebreaker to finish in second place behind Colombia.
The Samurai Blue’s starting lineup at Volgograd Arena featured six changes from their matches against Colombia and Senegal, with Tomoaki Makino, Yoshinori Muto, and Gotoku Sakai stepping onto the pitch for the first time. Shinji Okazaki, Hotaru Yamaguchi, and Takashi Usami also earned their first starts as captain Makoto Hasebe watched from the bench.
A listless first half saw both sides pressure but rarely approach the goal; Muto was perhaps the most guilty party for the Asian side as he frequently received the ball near the final third but was hesitant to advance into the penalty area. On the other end of the pitch, goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima redeemed himself for his blunders against Colombia and Senegal with a superb one-handed save against Bartosz Bereszynski in the 32nd minute.
Trouble came early in the second half for Japan, as Shinji Okazaki fell to the ground clutching his leg and soon walked off to be replaced by Yuya Osako. While Japan looked threatening, instead it was Poland who struck when Rafa Kurzawa’s long cross was met perfectly by Jan Bednarek in front of the goal.
Needing at least a draw to guarantee advancement on their own merits, Japan head coach Akira Nishino replaced Usami with Takashi Inui, the hero of the team’s 2-2 draw against Senegal. But the tone of the match changed completely around the 75th minute, when Colombia took the lead against the Africans in the other Group H match.
That score put Japan in an unenviable position: would they hunt for an equalizer and risk opening themselves to a dangerous Poland counter, or stall for time and hope that Senegal did not score, thus assuring that Japan would finish in second place by virtue of their superior Fair Play Points?
To the relief of Japanese fans but to the dismay of neutrals, Nishino chose the latter option, encouraging his players to pass the ball in their own end and sending on Hasebe to maintain discipline in the dying minutes under a chorus of boos from the stands.
“This match was disappointing but I’m happy that we earned our place in the knockout stage through these three results,” Kawashima said after the match. “I caused trouble for the team in these first two matches and I’m glad I was able to help the team today.”
The 35-year-old Metz netminder was already looking ahead to the Round of 16, where Japan will face either England or Belgium before a potential quarterfinal against Mexico or Brazil.
“We’ve faced a lot of difficulties but we got here together,” he recalled. “I want us to achieve something we haven’t done before.”