Tomoaki Makino tries the unorthodox to get Japan moving. Picture: AFP.
Tomoaki Makino tries the unorthodox to get Japan moving. Picture: AFP.

Lucky Japan benefit from fair play rule

JAPAN coach Akira Nishino defended his negative tactics as his side qualified for the last 16 of the World Cup by virtue of their superior fair play record despite losing 1-0 to Poland.

A chorus of whistles and howls from the 42,189 spectators sent the teams from the pitch in Volgograd after a farcical end to their final Group H match.

On a burning afternoon that saw several twists in the plot, Japan somehow set up a meeting with either Belgium or England by virtue of a goal scored 640km away in Samara and because they received two yellow cards fewer than Senegal.

The last 10 minutes were played out at a pace that would have looked slow even in a training match and Nishino admitted he told his players to take the 1-0 defeat and run once news came through of Yerry Mina's 74th-minute goal for Colombia.

Nishino even praised his players for following the most negative of orders.

"The players listened to me and were loyal and determined to keep the status quo," Nishino said.

"It was just the situation that forced me to make the risky call and we decided not to go on the offence and rely on the other match.

"I'm not too happy about this but the World Cup is such that these things happen and we went through so it was perhaps the right decision."

Japan reached the knockout stage for the third time in their history but when Jan Bednarek scored his first international goal in the 59th minute for the already eliminated Poland, the score between Colombia and Senegal stood at 0-0, meaning the last team left from Asia were heading home.

But Mina's goal turned everything on its head.

Artur Jedrzejczyk gets in the face of Hiroki Sakai. Picture: AP/
Artur Jedrzejczyk gets in the face of Hiroki Sakai. Picture: AP/

Suddenly Colombia would win the group and Japan were ahead of Senegal despite identical points, goal difference and goals scored, because of the Africans' poorer fair play record.

Nishino admitted that he sent on midfielder Makoto Hasebe for striker Yoshinori Muto in the 82nd minute specifically to give negative orders to his teammates - stop trying to score and do not commit any fouls.

"I did tell Hasebe to tell the team to stay put (at 1-0), not to concede any yellow cards and go to a defensive 4-1-4-1," Nishino said.

The result was a game that petered out to a cacophony of jeers. Hardly a tackle was made in the last 10 minutes or so as Poland decided any sort of win would be enough to give themselves some pride after two defeats and Japan hoped and prayed Senegal would not equalise in Samara.

Japan will thank their under-fire goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima for keeping them in Russia also, after he made a stunning save to keep it goalless at half-time.

Kawashima's place had been under threat following his howler for Senegal's first goal in the 2-2 draw and he repaid Nishino's faith with a wondrous stop.

Piotr Zielinski crossed from the right and Kamil Grosicki found himself unmarked near the penalty spot.

His cleverly directed header looked destined for the bottom corner until Kawashima made up huge amounts of ground to claw it to safety with a big right hand at full stretch.

Goalline technology confirmed he had kept it out by less than half the width of the ball but that was just about the best Poland could offer until Bednarek's goal.

A long Rafal Kurzawa free-kick was met on the volley crisply from close range by Bednarek as Poland recorded their only win of a sorry Russian campaign, despite arriving ranked eighth in the world.