Japan Qualifies for Round of 16 ahead of Senegal, Despite Finishing with Identical Records

On a swelteringly hot evening full of twists and turns, Japan somehow scrambled into the knockout stage of the World Cup finals courtesy of a goal that was scored 400 miles away in Samara, by Colombia’s Yerry Mina, and by virtue of the fact that they picked up two yellow cards fewer than Senegal.

That is how tight the margins were in Group H, where Japan and Senegal finished with identical records: level on points, goal difference and goals scored. Japan, however, only accumulated four bookings compared to Senegal’s six, and that – the Fairplay rule – ended up being the deciding factor on a day when Poland signed off their miserable World Cup finals with a win.

It was a strange game in so many respects and finished with Japan, aware of the scoreline in Samara, playing a game of keep-ball deep inside their own half, desperate not to concede again or pick up any more bookings. Many in the crowd made their feelings known by whistling in disgust, yet Japan were not bothered in the slightest. Their players performed a lap of honour at the end and can now look forward to a place in the last 16 for only the third time in their history. As for Poland, Jan Bednarek’s second-half winner will provide small comfort from a tournament in which they were a huge disappointment.

It was uncomfortably humid in Volgograd, with the temperature hitting 38C in a stadium where bottles of water were scattered around the perimeter of the pitch to give the players some respite from the unforgiving conditions. The game itself was something of a slowburner, however, and although Japan carried the greater attacking threat for much of the first half, it was Poland who came closest to scoring during that period.

Just after the half-hour mark, Kamil Grosicki met Bartosz Bereszynski’s right-wing cross, following some fine work from Rafal Kurzawa in the buildup, with a twisting header from 12 yards that was drifting towards the far corner. Stretching every sinew to get across his goal, Eiji Kawashima managed to claw the ball out with his right hand. The Japan goalkeeper ended up in the back of the net but the ball just about stayed out – part of it was over the line but not all.

It was an impressive save from Kawashima, whose place in the team had come under scrutiny after he was at fault for goals in the games against Colombia and Senegal. Although Nishino kept faith with Kawashima, the Japan manager made a number of curious selection decisions, including leaving out Shinji Kagawa, their talisman, Makoto Hasebe, the captain, and Takashi Inui, who has arguably been their best players at these finals.

Generally, though, it was Japan who looked the more menacing up to the interval. Shinji Okazaki’s diving header, from Yuto Nagatomo’s left-wing cross, flashed past the near post in the 13th minute and moments later Yoshinori Muto saw his low drive repelled by Lukasz Fabianski at the near post. Fabianski, who replaced Wojciech Szczesny in goal and was one of five changes to the Poland team, made another decent stop when he beat away Takashi Usami’s angled shot.

The problem for Poland was often the final ball – Grosicki overhit a pass that would have left Piotr Zielinski clean through on goal – yet Kurzawa found his range with a lovely flighted free-kick from left to right that exposed some awful marking in the Japan defence. Hiroki Sakai, Gotoku Sakai and Yuya Osako all stood and watched as Bednarek, on the edge of the six-yard box, side-footed home a powerful right-footed volley that gave Kawashima no chance.

Inui, finally, was introduced midway through the second half but it was Poland, with the game now stretched, who should have scored again. Grosicki broke down the Poland right and this time executed his centre perfectly, picking out Lewandowski, who ought to have registered his first World Cup goal. Instead, in a moment that summed up his tournament, the Bayern Munich striker lifted his shot over the bar. What a blessing for Japan.

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