SARANSK, RUSSIA - Japan made hard work of a match in which it held all the cards but was saved by a late Yuya Osako winner which earned it a 2-1 win in its World Cup opener against a 10-man Colombia on Tuesday.
The win at Mordovia Arena in Saransk was the first for an Asian team over a South American opponent at a World Cup and was Japan’s first at the tournament since it beat Denmark in the final group game of the 2010 edition.
Shinji Kagawa scored his 31st goal for the national team and first at a World Cup after Japan was handed a one-man advantage and a penalty in the third minute.
Juan Quintero evened the score from a free kick before halftime but the combination of a Keisuke Honda corner and Osako header gave Japan the win — and its first World Cup triumph on European soil.
“The players hung tough and battled well and this is the result,” said Japan head coach Akira Nishino. “We were calm and able to create a rhythm.
“We did not just want to be reactive, we wanted to keep hold of the ball and go for goal, and I thought about how to put together the midfield with that in mind.”
Carlos Sanchez’s red card came at the end of the second minute, the Espanyol player blatantly blocking Kagawa’s shot with his right hand with the goal open.
The ball had bounced to Kagawa after Osako broke free from some calamitous defending by Davinson Sanchez, forcing David Ospina into a one-on-one save.
After Slovenian referee Damir Skomina had sent Carlos Sanchez packing, amid intense Colombian protests, Kagawa stepped to the spot and calmly slotted the ball down the center as Ospina anticipated to his right.
“I am so relieved. I was able to keep a cool head and put the penalty away,” said Kagawa.
Colombia’s first serious foray forward saw its captain and chief goal threat Radamel Falcao meet a cross on the edge of the six-yard box, but his lunging volley had no power and was directed straight at Japan goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima’s chest.
Japan had another excellent chance in the 32nd minute when Osako turned the Colombian defense over, but he sliced his right-footed shot well wide.
And that miss became all the more costly when, just six minutes before halftime, Quintero squeezed his free kick under an airborne Japanese wall and into the bottom corner.
Colombia was awarded the questionable free kick when Makoto Hasebe and Falcao clashed trying to get their heads to a 50-50 ball.
Kawashima got his hands to the subsequent free kick, but could not keep it out, goal-line technology confirming it clearly crossed the line despite the FC Metz stopper’s desperate pleading.
Japan had the first two chances of the second period — for Osako and Takashi Inui — but both were thwarted by the Colombian goalie who made comfortable saves on chances that could have reaped more. Maya Yoshida also headed wide as Japan piled on the pressure.
Perhaps sensing a chance to steal the match, Colombia coach Jose Pekerman sent on James Rodriguez in the 59th minute, the 2014 World Cup’s golden boot winner having been questionable before the match due to a calf injury.
Nishino responded by dispatching his own talisman, Honda, from the bench a few minutes later and it was the former AC Milan man who impacted the game first. Honda swung a corner onto the rising Osako’s head, and the Werder Bremen player deftly directed the ball into the net.
“We had practiced loads of set pieces and that goal was straight off the training ground,” said Osako. “It was a team effort.”
Despite finally retaking the lead, the final minutes were not without incident, a last-ditch sliding block in the box by Osako on Rodriguez allowing Japan to hold its lead and move on to its second Group H match against Senegal on Sunday with three points in the bag.
“We were a bit too defensive-minded after conceding but battled through the 90 minutes,” said Kagawa. “But we haven’t achieved anything yet and have to ready ourselves for the next game.”