Japan took on Poland this afternoon in their final game of group play at the Volgograd Stadium in one of the more bizarre matches of the World Cup so far.
Akira Nishino made the odd decision to make six changes to his undefeated team and will be thanking Colombia for beating Senegal to send his side through.
While the Samurai Blue lost, the tiebreaker between them and Senegal went down to fair play points. Since Senegal had accumulated more yellow cards, they missed out as Japan went through as the first team to qualify for the knockout rounds in such a manner.
Only one point was needed for Japan to go through which may explain Nishino’s changes. However, he clearly underestimated the talent of already eliminated Poland.
Japan struggled to get their attacking movement going with the absence of Shinji Kagawa and Takeshi Inui, but playing for a draw seems to have been the plan from the start.
The first half started at full speed with both sides breaking down the field counter-attacking. Takashi Usami almost put Japan ahead within the first minute as he nearly was in on a long ball, but Lukasz Fabianski was quick to react and beat Usami to the ball before he could cause any damage.
The match slowed down significantly as the half went on. Japan saw plenty of possession, but weren’t flying forward on the attack as they had in their previous games.
Instead, it was a slower, more methodical style of play as Japan as they weren’t too concerned with winning all three points.
Japan had a couple of decent looks at goal in the half, taking shots when finding space. But all of their attempts hardly troubled Fabianski as they fired right at the goalkeeper.
The best chance of the half came when Kamil Grosicki got his head to a cross into the box. The resulting header was goal-bound, but Eiji Kawashima made a brilliant save to deny the goal. The Japanese keeper did well to get across his line and claw the ball away.
It looked like it could have been in the goal, but goal-line technology confirmed the entire ball didn’t cross the line.
Despite being eliminated, it was Poland that was the driving force for much of the first half. However, other than the Grosicki header, neither side looked as if they could score.
The early second half was all Poland as they saw plenty of possession and were breaking down the pitch fast on the counter-attack when Japan committed too many players forward.
An early Poland counter attack nearly saw Piotr Zielinski score the opening goal, but Kawashima was quick off his line to collect the cross.
It was too long after that Poland would score the opening goal, the only goal of the afternoon. Poland had a free-kick on the left side, and Rafal Kurzawa curled the ball right in front of goal.
Jan Bednarek ran onto the ball and volleyed it past Kawashima with a side-footed effort. It was his first ever international goal and was as good as they get.
From this point on, Poland had kicked it into another gear and was searching for another goal. Shortly after the goal, Japan had sent too many men forward, and Poland snapped on the counter-attack.
Grosicki played a low cross to the feet of Poland captain Robert Lewandowski right outside of the six-yard box, but he miraculous fired over the crossbar. For a striker of his stature, it was shocking he didn’t double the lead.
A goal by Colombia put Japan back into the knockout round as they would win the tiebreaker against Senegal. From the 80th minute on, Japan looked content with the result of the game and played keep ball as the time ran out.
It was a strange decision with so much time left as a goal from Senegal would have sent them out.
In the end, Japan’s time wasting paid off as managed to safely hold onto the ball and not concede any fouls or goals. Poland really didn’t chase the ball down either as they had nothing to play for and were content with the scoreline.
Despite the loss and their unsporting display at the end, Japan are through to the knockout stages. It was a bizarre game where neither side looked deserving of a win, but it was Poland who would go home with a win while Samurai Blue barely get by.
They await the results of the Belgium-England game later tonight as they will face the winner of Group G in the round of 16.