Jittery Japan reach Round of 16 despite Poland defeat

Gabriel Tan Gabriel Tan

Japan have stumbled into the 2018 FIFA World Cup Round of 16 despite falling to a 1-0 Group H defeat to Poland at the Volgograd Arena on Thursday.

Jan Bednarek scored the only goal of the game for the already-eliminated Poles a minute before the hour mark to condemn Japan to their first defeat of the campaign, in what proved to be a woeful display from the Asian side.

However, with Colombia beating Senegal 1-0 at the Samara Arena, the Samurai Blue advance to the knockout round as runners-up in Group H, and will next meet either Belgium or England.

Needing only a draw to guarantee their progress, it initially looked as though Japan would be going for all three points following a bright start.

Yoshinori Muto and Yuto Nagatomo combined down the left to create their first real chance in the 12th minute, but Shinji Okazaki was unable to keep his header the near post on target.

Okazaki with an early half-chance for Japan.

A minute later, Muto found space on the edge of the box and fired away a snapshot that Poland goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski had to be alert to keep out down low.

But the first warning sign from the Poles came two minutes after the half-hour mark when Kamil Grosicki was left unmarked inside the box and sent a glancing header heading towards the far corner, only for Eiji Kawashima to recover well from a poor starting position to claw it away with a brilliant save.

The tie was, however, turned on its head in the 59th minute when poor marking from the Japanese gave Bednarek plenty of time and space inside the area, where he meet Rafal Kurzawa’s dangerous freekick with a perfectly-cushioned volley into the back of the net.

Bednarek ensures Poland would bow out on a high.

Despite now needing to score to make sure of their last-16 berth, the Samurai Blue hardly showed any urgency and it was – in fact – Poland who had the better chances to score in the closing stages.

A sweeping counterattack in the 74th minute saw Grosicki play an incisive pass to release Robert Lewandowski but he wastefully blazed over from a promising position.

Then, with nine minutes remaining, Tomoaki Makino – in an attempt to intercept another dangerous cross by Grosicki – could only send the ball towards his own goal but Kawashima reacted well to make the save.

Even the Japanese fans were not impressed by their team’s tactics.

Remarkably, Japan then decided to play out the remainder of the contest by stroking the ball around inside their own half despite trailing on the scoreboard, although it was ultimately enough as they were given a helping hand by the Colombians.

With Japan finishing with the exact same tally as Senegal on all counts, it was ultimately their fair play record that earned them a spot in the Round of 16.

JAPAN: Eiji Kawashima, Hiroki Sakai, Maya Yoshida, Tomoaki Makino, Yuto Nagatomo, Gotoku Sakai, Gaku Shibasaki, Hotaru Yamaguchi, Takashi Usami (Takashi Inui 65’), Shinji Okazaki (Yuya Osako 47’), Yoshinori Muto (Makoto Hasebe 82’).

POLAND: Lukasz Fabianski, Bartosz Bereszynski, Kamil Glik, Jan Bednarek, Artur Jedrzejczyk, Grzegorz Krychowiak, Jacek Goralski, Piotr Zielinski (Lukasz Teodorczyk 79’), Rafal Kurzawa (Slawomir Peszko 80’), Kamil Grosicki, Robert Lewandowski.