Soccer | SOCCER SCENE

Early present helps Japan claim perfect start to World Cup campaign

by Andrew McKirdy

An opening win that few saw coming has given Japan the perfect start to its World Cup campaign, but there will be further hurdles to clear if the team is to book its place in the knockout round.

Japan beat Colombia 2-1 in Saransk on Tuesday in a game of high drama, indelibly shaped by a third-minute handball that saw Colombian midfielder Carlos Sanchez sent off and Shinji Kagawa give Japan the lead from the penalty spot. Colombia clawed its way back to equalize through Juan Quintero’s 39th-minute free kick, but Japan regrouped at halftime and a Yuya Osako header in the 73rd minute gave the Samurai Blue a historic victory.

No Asian team had previously beaten a South American opponent at the World Cup, and few would have predicted that this Japan side would be the one to do it. Results had been poor heading into the tournament, and the Japan Football Association’s decision to replace manager Vahid Halilhodzic with Akira Nishino in April was beginning to look questionable at best.

But Nishino and his players fully deserve their moment after a thoroughly impressive second-half performance against Colombia, and they can now have legitimate ambitions of claiming a place in the second round with games against Senegal and Poland still to come.

“Every player has doubts about whether they can perform going into the tournament,” wrote former national team defender Yutaka Akita in Wednesday’s Nikkan Sports. “But I think today’s win will have blown those worries away. I believe that they can write a new page in history with Nishino at the helm.”

Fortune was certainly in Japan’s favor at Mordovia Arena. First, Colombian playmaker James Rodriguez, who almost single-handedly dismantled Japan during a 4-1 win for the South Americans at the 2014 World Cup, was deemed fit enough only to start on the bench. Then Sanchez blocked Kagawa’s goal-bound shot with his arm to leave the Colombians a man down with 87 minutes remaining, and Kagawa gratefully dispatched the penalty.

Throughout the rest of the first half, however, Japan failed to capitalize on its early present. Takashi Inui and Osako both missed chances that would have surely put the result beyond doubt by halftime, and instead Colombia was allowed to come back into the game and head into the break on level terms.

“When the opposition lost a man after only three minutes, you thought ‘we can win this,’ ” wrote former Nadeshiko Japan manager Norio Sasaki in Wednesday’s Sports Nippon. “But actually the team became unsettled. It was a situation that they hadn’t anticipated. So even though they had a numerical advantage, they panicked. They hit meaningless long balls, switched sides and defended too deep, destroying their balance.”

Fortunately for Japan, things picked up significantly in the second half. The team played with far greater aggression and composure in both attack and defense, and the way Osako took his goal — rising above the Colombian defense to head home a corner — typified the change in attitude.

Nishino deserves huge credit for the team’s second-half improvement, and a series of canny substitutions further proved the manager’s mettle.

“Nishino really proved his ability in getting Japan ready for this first game,” wrote former national team striker Akihiro Nagashima in Wednesday’s Nikkan Sports. “He’s only had a short time in the job, but he’s got the defense working as a unit, and when he brought on (Hotaru) Yamaguchi for (Gaku) Shibasaki and (Shinji) Okazaki for Osako, there was no drop-off in the way the team functioned.”

Taking three points from the opening game is undoubtedly a huge advantage for teams at the World Cup, but Japan’s progress to the knockout round is far from assured just yet. Senegal proved it will be a force to be reckoned with after beating Poland 2-1 later on Tuesday, and the Poles and Colombia are by no means out of the reckoning despite their opening losses.

“It’s great that the team won, but it wasn’t a controlled victory,” wrote firebrand critic Sergio Echigo in Wednesday’s Nikkan Sports. “They won because they got a penalty and the opposition had a player sent off early in the match. It’s important to analyze things with a clear head and not just celebrate.”

After the way Nishino and his players suffered in the buildup to the tournament, however, it would take a heart of stone to deny them their moment.