VOLGOGRAD, RUSSIA – Akira Nishino knows there are a few ways for his Japan squad to qualify for the knockout stage of the World Cup for the third time in five tournaments.
He only cares about one. With a victory over No. 8-ranked Poland at Volgograd, Japan has a shot at finishing atop Group H.
Nishino says, “We are still going for top of the group.”
After a 2-2 draw last Sunday, Japan and Senegal share the lead with four points and the same number of goals scored and conceded.
Japan can advance with a win or a draw, and perhaps even a loss. It could even be decided on the drawing of lots.
But Nishino’s squad, which was the lowest-ranked at 61st overall and considered the longest shot to advance from the group, was emboldened by its opening 2-1 win over Colombia and now is aiming to advance with a bigger victory over winless Poland, which is already out of contention.
If Japan earns at least the point it needs against Poland, it will only be the second time that Japan has gone through the group stage undefeated, the other being when co-hosting in 2002 with South Korea.
Colombia, which has three points, could still top the group with a win over Senegal in Samara.
If Japan and Senegal were to finish in the second spot and with the same goal difference and number of goals scored, then the team advancing could be determined by the number of yellow and red cards awarded.
If that can’t separate them, FIFA will draw lots to decide who goes through.
Japan has been impressive in Russia, particularly during its 2-1 victory over Colombia when admittedly it was playing against 10 men for most of the match. It also showed resilience in coming back twice to secure a draw against Senegal, the second equalizer coming from Keisuke Honda, who became the first player in Japan’s World Cup history to score in three tournaments.
Poland, by contrast, has been one of the competition’s disappointing teams, particularly in attack despite the presence of star striker Robert Lewandowski. Over its two defeats, Poland has only scored a single goal.
As one of the seeded teams, Poland had high hopes following a successful qualification when it won eight of its 10 matches. Back home, there is talk of fans selling their tickets for the Volgograd match at a discount, while Polish tabloid Super Express has harshly labeled the players as “milksops” who performed “better in the commercials than on the field.”
Under-fire coach Adam Nawalka has taken responsibility for the team’s performances but has adamantly defended his players even after the 3-0 loss to Colombia, which confirmed Poland’s early departure from the competition.
“We have to come to grips with it,” he said. “The Japanese team is very well prepared. I can see this is a team that plays a very collective football.”
Japan should be aware of Poland’s recent World Cup history. On its two previous appearances at the World Cup — in 2002 and 2006 — Poland also lost its opening two games, but went on to finish the tournaments on a bright note with victories over the United States and Costa Rica.
Should Japan get through to the next round, it won’t know which team it will face in the round of 16 until Thursday when Group G comes to a conclusion. Belgium takes on England, both of which have already qualified after their two group wins against Panama and Tunisia.