Keisuke Honda rescues Japan in Senegal thriller

Gabriel Tan Gabriel Tan

Keisuke Honda made history on Sunday as he came off the bench to net a 78th-minute equaliser and earn Japan a 2-2 draw against Senegal in the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

Heading into their second Group H game on the back of Tuesday’s 2-1 win over Colombia, it initially looked as though the Samurai Blue would be falling to defeat.

Twice, Senegal took the lead – first, through Sadio Mane in the 11th minute and, after Takashi Inui had equalised for Japan, Moussa Wague looked to have won it with his 71st minute strike.

But, just six minutes after coming on as a substitute, Honda was perfectly placed to finish from close range to force the draw and – in the process – become the highest-scoring Asian in World Cup history with four goals, as well as the first Japanese to net in three different tournaments.

The result leaves the two teams joint-top of Group H and both will have reason to be confident in their prospects of reaching the Round of 16, with one match left to go in the group stage.

It was the Senegalese who started the brighter of the two teams at the Ekaterinburg Arena on Sunday and, having already shown their attacking prowess in their earlier win over Poland, Japan certainly did not need to give them a helping hand in opening the scoring.

Mane given a helping hand by Kawashima.

A poor defensive header from Hiroki Sakai gave the ball straight to Youssouf Sabaly. Although the left-back’s shot on goal was fairly tame, Eiji Kawashima opted to punch instead of catch and could only divert it into Mane, who watched on in delight as the ball ricocheted off him into the back of the net.

However, Japan gradually got into the contest and duly equalised in the 34th minute, when Yuto Nagatomo brilliantly brought down a diagonal pass by Gaku Shibasaki and fed it to Inui, who – with supreme precision – curled a low effort beyond Khadim N’Diaye’s despairing dive into the bottom corner.

A sublime finish by Inui drew Japan level.

The Japanese then really got a stranglehold on the game in the second half but failed to make the most of their chances.

Yuya Osako somehow failed to connect with a Shibasaki cross from five yards out on the hour mark, before another peach of a curler by Inui came crashing back off the bar four minutes later.

Osako misses when it seemed easier to score…

As often is the case, Senegal delivered a sucker punch in the 71st minute when Sabaly turned his marker cleverly and whipped a low cross all the way to the far post, where it was met by 19-year-old Wague with an emphatic finish into the back of the net.

Wague is now the youngest African scorer at a World Cup.

In tournaments gone by, Honda has been Japan’s leading man but, so far, he has had to settle for a cameo role under coach Akira Nishino.

Nonetheless, he gave a timely reminder of his importance with 12 minutes left on the clock, as he was perfectly positioned inside the area after Inui kept alive a deep cross from Osako, dispatching his shot home despite two defenders attempting to block on the line to earn his side a crucial point.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man.

JAPAN: Eiji Kawashima, Hiroki Sakai, Maya Yoshida, Gen Shoji, Yuto Nagatomo, Makoto Hasebe, Gaku Shibasaki, Genki Haraguchi (Shinji Okazaki 75’), Shinji Kagawa (Keisuke Honda 72’), Takashi Inui (Takashi Usami 87’), Yuya Osako.

SENEGAL: Khadim N’Diaye, Moussa Wague, Salif Sane, Kalidou Koulibaly, Youssouf Sabaly, Alfred N’Diaye (Cheikhou Kouyate 65’), Badou Ndiaye (Cheikh N’Doye 81’), Idrissa Gueye, Ismaila Sarr, Sadio Mane, M’Baye Niang (Mame Biram Diouf 86’).