It was not pretty, but Japan did what was necessary to survive at the World Cup. If the Samurai Blue can make history by beating Belgium on Monday to reach the quarterfinals for the first time, the rather undignified end to Thursday’s 1-0 loss to Poland will be long forgotten.
Japan progressed to the second round despite suffering its first loss of the tournament against the Poles, with Jan Bednarek’s 59th-minute goal ultimately not proving fatal thanks to a 1-0 win for Colombia against Senegal elsewhere in Group H. Japan squeezed through by virtue of having collected fewer yellow cards than Senegal over the three first-round games, with both teams’ records otherwise identical.
That put both of Thursday’s matches on a knife-edge as the clock ticked toward fulltime, and Japan manager Akira Nishino reacted to his team’s precarious advantage by instructing his players not to attack for the final 10 minutes. The sight of the Japanese players calmly passing the ball around drew loud boos from the crowd at Volgograd Arena, but the nation’s pundits were more understanding in Friday’s newspapers.
“It was a high-stakes decision, but in reality this was a victory for teamwork,” former Japan defender Yutaka Akita wrote in Nikkan Sports. “Of course Japan’s scouts and staff were there analyzing the Colombia-Senegal game, watching how it was panning out and reporting to the manager. With that data, Nishino was able to decide how to approach the rest of the game. The manager believed that it was going to finish 1-0 to Colombia and he relayed his instructions accordingly.”
Nishino’s tactics were a gamble, but then he had already shown his willingness to take risks with his starting lineup. The manager changed six players from the team that started both previous games against Colombia and Senegal — including all front four attackers — and the decision almost backfired spectacularly.
“There were six changes to the starting lineup, and that must have had something to do with the motivation of the players who hadn’t played yet, and the need to look at the players’ physical condition in the heat,” former Japan defender Koji Nakata wrote in Friday’s Sports Nippon.
“The idea was to use players who were fresh and try to get a 0-0 draw. But if you change the players and the system, you are taking a risk. The overall defending was worse than in previous games and the team wasn’t able to switch into attacking mode. They were also vulnerable to the counterattack after conceding the goal, and there are lots of things to work on before the next game.”
Japan will certainly have to improve if it is to eliminate the Belgians, who beat England 1-0 in Kaliningrad later Thursday to make it three wins out of three and finish top of Group G.
“When the ball was played forward there wasn’t much support, and when they tried to attack down the wings there weren’t many players waiting for the ball in the middle,” former Japan striker Shoji Jo wrote in Friday’s Sports Nippon.
“The players’ positioning and combination play wasn’t working out. They were working hard as individuals but as a team there wasn’t much link-up play, which seemed a bit of a waste. The starting point of attack — (Gaku) Shibasaki — often received the ball in deep positions and that was why he wasn’t able to stay close to the forwards and set the attacking rhythm.”
Nishino can at least take heart from the fact that his key players will go into the last-16 game in Rostov-on-Don fresh and rested, even if the Belgians can say the same after making nine changes for their win over England. Nishino’s squad will also be motivated by the knowledge that the manager could call on anyone for Monday’s match, however, and the fact that Japan has already exceeded expectations by reaching the knockout round could work in its favor.
“Being able to use so many players in World Cup games that aren’t dead rubbers will improve the atmosphere,” wrote Akita. “The fact that (goalkeeper Eiji) Kawashima, who had difficulties in the first two games, was able to make a great save and help out the team was also important. And with a risk-taker like this at the helm, I don’t think it’s just a dream to think that Japan can now get to the quarterfinals for the first time.”
Monday’s game will provide the answer.