Japan reach World Cup last 16 courtesy of their fair play record
Poland earned their first victory of the tournament – but Japan were celebrating progression.
Japan booked their place in the World Cup knockout stages amid farcical scenes in Volgograd despite falling to a 1-0 defeat against already-eliminated Poland.
Jan Bednarek fired the only goal in the 59th minute but the scoreline in the other Group H game between Colombia and Senegal meant the Japanese were still set to go through by virtue of a better fair play record than the latter.
The final 20 minutes of the match was played out by Japanese defenders stroking uncontested passes, with Poland clearly content to head home with their first and only victory in the bag.
The scenes brought back memories of West Germany’s controversial 1-0 win over Austria in the 1982 World Cup, although that had been contrived to eliminate Algeria and send both teams through.
The final whistle brought an end to a bizarre afternoon which began with Japan coach Akira Nishino making six changes despite knowing his side’s qualification was far from certain.
But it soon became apparent that Poland had little desire to come out fighting after their two opening defeats which had left them without hope.
Japan had the better of a tepid and forgettable first period, with Leicester’s Shinji Okazaki flashing a diving header just wide in the 12 minute from a Yuto Nagatomo cross.
Poland struggled to make any kind of impression, with star striker Robert Lewandowski starved of service up front as the Japanese continued to make the running.
However Nishino’s men were served a timely reminder of the frailty of their situation just past half-hour mark when Bartosz Bereszynski brought a superb stretching save out of Eiji Kawashima.
Kawashima got down low to scoop away Bereszynski’s header, with goal-line technology proving the ball had only partially crossed the line.
But the group leaders still had most of what passed for the momentum, and Takashi Usami struck a fine effort in the 52nd minute which was vitally blocked by Kamil Glik in the box.
Japan and Poland seem to have settled on 1-0 and no contact. Big gamble. If Senegal equalise Japan will go out.— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) June 28, 2018
Poland immediately countered and once again gave the Japanese cause for concern with Kamil Grosicki crossing from the right and Kawashima just reaching the ball before the lurking Piotr Zielinski.
All Japan’s good work was undone in the 59th minute when Rafal Kurzawa lofted a free-kick into the Japan box and with the defenders standing off him, Bednarek pounced to give Poland the lead.
Japan seemed shell-shocked by the effort and almost conceded a second in the 74th minute when Lewandowski miscued from a Grosicki cross in front of goal.
But with news of the other game in Samara clearly getting through to the Japanese bench, Nishino urged his side to ease off and risk holding out for the 1-0 defeat which ultimately proved just enough to see them through.