Kaliningrad (Russia) (AFP) – Japan squeaked into the World Cup knockout phase by virtue of their fair play record on Thursday, joining group winners Colombia in the last 16 as England and Belgium prepared to do battle.
As the minutes ticked away in Volgograd, Japan and Poland slowed to a walking pace in a farcical end to the match, with both sides settling for a 1-0 win for the European side.
Four hundred miles (640 kilometres) to the northeast in Samara, Senegal, level on points, goal difference and goals scored with Japan, knew they needed a goal to nudge Japan out of the Group H qualification spots.
But Aliou Cisse’s side could not find the inspiration they needed to respond to Yerry Mina’s second-half headed goal and their exit ended a miserable tournament for African sides, not one of whom progressed.
The South Americans, who lost star man James Rodriguez to injury in the first half, will play whoever finishes second in Group G, in which England and Belgium are battling for top spot. Japan will play whoever tops that group.
– Clean Japan –
Japan, who made six changes for their game, have conceded fewer fouls — 28 — at the World Cup than any other country with three games played.
Japan coach Akira Nishino said he was “forced” to tell his players to slow down at the end and not take any risks, despite boos ringing out from spectators.
“It was a very tough decision,” he explained, adding: “I chose to keep the status quo in our game, and rely instead on the other result.
“My players were very loyal in listening to me and following my decision. It was tough, as my style is attack-minded. The situation forced me to make this decision.”
Colombia coach Pekerman said he was relieved his team — who reached the quarter-finals in Brazil in 2014 — were going through from a tough group.
“This was a very even group and you see that with Senegal, who had a very good tournament, going home,” he said.
“There was a lot of tension in the air today and, in that regard, I think my team did very well.”
– Ringing the changes –
Both England and Belgium — packed with Premier League talent — have sailed through the group stages, winning their two games and are now in the curious situation of weighing up whether they even want to top Group G.
There has even been some talk that England might have an easier route at the World Cup if they lose in Kaliningrad.
England impressed in their opening two World Cup games, beating Tunisia 2-1 and thumping Panama 6-1.
But captain Harry Kane was left on the bench as Gareth Southgate and Belgium boss Roberto Martinez made a combined total of 17 changes.
Only goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, John Stones and Ruben Loftus-Cheek kept their places from the England side that thumped Panama, with Kane not given the opportunity from the start to bolster his lead in the race for the Golden Boot.
Martinez made nine changes, with Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne among those left out.
The other match in the group, between Tunisia and Panama, is a dead rubber.
The final group games of the World Cup in Kaliningrad follow the dramatic exit of Joachim Loew’s 2014 winners, who finished rock bottom of their group after a 2-0 defeat to South Korea.
Germany apologised to the country on their official Twitter account before the team landed in Frankfurt.
“Dear fans, we’re just as disappointed as you,” the tweet read. “We’re sorry we didn’t play like world champions. That’s why we deserved to be eliminated, as bitter as it is.”
Defender Mats Hummels had earlier tweeted out his regrets with a succinct “sorry…” and a crying-face emoji.
German media have given a damning verdict of the campaign, which will be remembered as the first time since 1938 that the country has failed to make it past the first round.
“No words!” chided the best-selling Bild daily, over a picture of a despondent-looking Toni Kroos.
Despite a huge scare for Lionel Messi’s Argentina, who needed a late goal from Marcos Rojo to edge through to the knockout phase, all of the tournament’s other big guns are through to the last 16 in Russia.
Friday is a rest day. The last-16 ties start Saturday, with France taking on Argentina in Kazan and Uruguay facing Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal in Sochi.