VOLGOGRAD, Russia (Reuters) - Japan lost 1-0 to Poland on Thursday but survived to become the only Asian side to qualify for last 16 of the World Cup in Russia — and the first team ever to progress thanks to FIFA’s new disciplinary tie-breaker rule.
Japan made it through Group H in second place thanks to their players having been shown four yellow cards, two fewer than Senegal, who were eliminated, meaning there will be no African representatives in the knockout phase.
Senegal, who lost 1-0 to Colombia, ended up level on points, goal difference and goals scored with Japan so the teams were separated by the tie-break rule introduced at this World Cup for the first time.
Japan, who had only needed to draw against Poland to guarantee qualification, will next face a daunting task against the winners of Thursday’s Group G decider between England and Belgium.
Their advance, though, came only after a risky gamble paid off.
For after Colombia scored against Senegal in the 74th minute, putting qualification in Japan’s hands, coach Akira Nishino ordered his players to take no risks, an approach that slowed the game and earned resounding boos from the crowd.
“I decided that I was going to rely on the other match’s result. We were not happy about the situation of course. It was not intentional... However, it was a very tough and risky situation,” Nishino told reporters.
So risky indeed that had Poland scored another goal, Japan would have been sent tumbling out.
The Asian side were especially vulnerable as Nishino had excluded some of the squad’s most creative players, including midfielder Takashi Inui and Makoto Hasebe, from the starting line-up.
He said his decision to make six changes to his side was down to fatigue rather than any attempt to play for a draw.
Nishino, who took over in April after former coach Vahid Halilhodzic was fired, stressed he wanted his squad to play a freer, more attacking style in the last 16 against England or Belgium.
“They are both world-class teams,” said Nishino. “I would like to play both of them because they will pose a fantastic challenge for us.”
Poland shook up the lethargic game - played in 36 degree Celsius (96.8 Fahrenheit) heat - in the 59th minute when Rafal Kurzawa floated a free kick to the far post and an unmarked Jan Bednarek scored from close range.
At that point, with Senegal and Colombia still level at 0-0, Japan were staring at elimination.
Nishino then introduced Inui, but Japan barely fought back and were only reprieved after Colombia scored in Samara.
The game then petered out in the dying minutes in farcical circumstances with both sides, content with the result, idly rolling the ball around amid the fans’ boos.
Still, Japanese fans were left toasting goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima, who in the first half made a spectacular save that denied Kamil Grosicki’s header and also prevented a Japanese own goal after the break.
Poland were relieved to have restored some pride by eking out a win but they finished at the bottom of the group as one of the tournament’s biggest disappointments.
The Poles reached the quarter-finals of Euro 2016 and more had been expected after they had finished top of their World Cup qualifying group.
Their main man, striker Robert Lewandowski, powered in 16 goals during the qualifiers — but failed to score in Russia, ending his miserable tournament with another spurned chance against Japan.
Poland coach Adam Nawalka said his team proved they were not quitters by winning their first game at a World Cup since they beat Costa Rica in Germany in 2006.
“After the first two games against Senegal and Colombia, our team had to deal with a lot of justified criticism so it was clear the emotional level of this game would be extremely high for the Polish team,” he said.
Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer and William Schomberg; Additional reporting by Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk and Nick Mulvenney in Kazan; Editing by Ian Chadband