BELO HORIZONTE, BRAZIL – Manchester United striker Javier Hernandez’s two second-half headers doomed Japan, who finished last in Group A as the only team without a point and a minus goal difference of five.
Alberto Zaccheroni’s side also lost 3-0 to Brazil in the opening match and 4-3 against Italy on Wednesday. Brazil beat Italy 4-2 on Saturday to win the group and will face the runnerup of Group B in the semifinals.
Japan lamented their soft defense, which again leaked goals as fatigue set in during the second half.
“We couldn’t make the plays to win the game,” Keisuke Honda said. “We got tired but if you want to win at this level, you can’t afford to be tired.”
“We’ve got to start addressing the defense on an individual basis.”
Said Yuto Nagatomo, who came off midway through the second half with a left-calf injury, “The other teams are on the same schedule as we are so we can’t use fatigue as an excuse. We couldn’t keep up with them and that’s the bottom line.”
“As someone in the defense, I’ll be the first one to say we conceded way too many goals. You just can’t win games if you concede at the rate we did.”
Shinji Okazaki, who scored for the second straight game, was about the lone bright spot for the Asian champions.
“It might be nice for me, but the goal means nothing really because we lost,” the Stuttgart striker said.
“This tournament has served as a reminder of how hard it is to win on an international stage like this. It’s been a learning curve for us and hopefully by the time the World Cup comes around, we will have created a winning team.”
Japan dominated during the early phases and should have gone up in the 10th minute, when Okazaki deflected Endo’s shot into the net but was ruled offside.
Replays, however, showed Okazaki was not in an offside position with the linesman slow to raise his flag.
Japan paid the price for not making the most of their good start as Mexico started to click and hit the post in the 40th minute through Andres Guardado, who headed off the upright from a Jorge Torres cross.
In the second half, the Mexicans picked up where they left off in the first as Hernandez broke the deadlock in the 54th minute, heading in a leftwing cross from Guardado by the near post.
Zaccheroni turned to a 3-4-3 formation five minutes past the hour with the introduction of Maya Yoshida, the culprit of the Italy game.
But just a minute later, “Chicharito” punished Japan again with another header, freeing himself from Atsuto Uchida to nod in Giovani dos Santos’ corner by the far post.
With a quarter-hour left to play, Nagatomo limped off the pitch in pain, slumping to the ground needing treatment before the trainers signaled his substitution.
The Inter Milan defender, said after the match that he is fine and the injury was not related to the left meniscus he tore earlier this year
Japan pulled one back with four minutes left as Okazaki finished off a neat sequence involving Shinji Kagawa and Yasuhito Endo, netting from point-blank range off the palms of Guillermo Ochoa.
Hernandez won a penalty in the second of five minutes of stoppage time, which Eiji Kawashima managed to save by parrying the shot wide right.
But not even Kawashima’s heroics could help Japan avoid yet another defeat.
“It’s disappointing we lost but at the end of the day, Mexico were the better team,” said Zaccheroni.
“I have to admit they were one step ahead of us and had control of the game. But the team did make an effort at this tournament, especially in the Italy game.”
“It has been a good experience for us.”