Japan 0-1 Poland
Japan became the first team to qualify from the World Cup group stages via fair play rankings despite a 1-0 defeat to Poland in which Akira Nishino bizarrely made six changes to an unbeaten team.
The Samurai Blue had beaten Colombia and drawn with Senegal to enter their final Group H match, against already-eliminated Poland, requiring only a point to reach the last 16.
But Japan scarcely threatened in Volgograd as Shinji Kagawa and Takashi Inui started on the bench and they were instead dependent on results elsewhere after Jan Bednarek’s fine strike won the game for Poland.
Colombia’s Yerry Mina came to Nishino’s rescue, though, as his goal defeated Senegal and ensured Japan progressed in second place due to their superior disciplinary record.
Senegal’s six yellow cards to Japan’s four ultimately cost the African side, who exit Russia in disappointing circumstances.
On this showing, neither England nor Belgium – Japan’s potential last-16 opponents – will fear playing Nishino’s men, who will be grateful simply to make the knockout stages and may well be unrecognisable after this risky experiment.
Both sides lacked a cutting edge early on and, even when Bednarek gifted Japan the ball 20 yards from goal, Shinji Okazaki could only nod wide at the end of a laboured move.
Japan at least drew encouragement from their first sight of goal and Yoshinori Muto’s drive forced Lukasz Fabianski to parry, before the goalkeeper smothered a tame Gotoku Sakai effort.
Goal-line technology was called into action when Poland belatedly came forward, but Eiji Kawashima brilliantly scooped Kamil Grosicki’s header clear.
A first half of little drama concluded to a chorus of whistles from the crowd and little changed following the restart.
But with just over half an hour remaining, Rafal Kurzawa’s free-kick picked out Bednarek, completely unmarked, to volley into the net against the run of play.
That setback hit Japan hard and their chances of rescuing the match and their campaign drifted by the minute, as Maya Yoshida directed a header well wide from a left-wing corner.
Robert Lewandowski should have put the result beyond doubt at the other end, but his wait for a first World Cup goal continues after he steered Grosicki’s pin-point pass over the top.
News of Colombia’s goal saw Nishino make another odd tactical call as his side sat on their one-goal deficit, despite the risk of Senegal scoring decisively in Samara.
Despite farcical scenes in which Japan moved the ball back and forth on halfway, it paid off as Senegal could not rescue a point, sending the fortunate Samurai Blue through.
Man of the Match – Jan Bednarek (Poland)
- Yuya Osako replaces Shinji Okazaki 47 mins
- Takashi Inui replaces Takashi Usami 64 mins
- Makoto Hasebe replaces Yoshinori Muto 82 mins
- Lukasz Teodorczyk replaces Piotr Zielinski 79 mins
- Slawomir Peszko replaces Rafal Kurzawa 79 mins
Japan – Tomoaki Makino
Referee: Janny Sikazwe (Zambia)