Japan kicked off their World Cup campaign against Colombia in the smallest host city of the World Cup, Mordovia. In a very competitive Group H alongside Senegal and Poland there was no guarantee of progressing from the group stages for either side. Both Japan and Colombia met in the group stages four years ago in Brazil with the South Americans coming up trumps in a 4-1 victory. Two of the scorers that day for Colombia were Jackson Martinez who was not called up to the squad and James Rodriguez who sees muscle problems resign him to a role among the substitutes; the other scorer Juan Cuadrado started on the right wing. Japan’s scorer that day was Shinji Okazaki who also shared the unfortunate fate of Rodriguez, slight muscle fatigue seeing Yuya Osaka, relegated with Koln last season in the Bundesliga, start in the striker position.
The build up of this game in Japan was based around tragic events, an earthquake of 6.1 magnitude struck in Osaka with three confirmed dead. Japan manager Akira Nishino was immediately concerned about his teams mental state claiming that the “players were a bit shocked by this incident. They were slightly concerned about their relatives and family members.” Whether the events in Western Japan would have any impact in Russia remained to be seen but some fans believed it could act to inspire a national side who have only won five of their last fifteen games.
The two captains Makoto Hasebe and Radamel Falcao, making his World Cup debut, flipped the coin and kick off was upon us. Just three minutes in and Shinji Kagawa had found space, knocking the ball up to Yuya Osaka who battled well with Davinson Sanchez. Running past the Tottenham defender, Osaka struck a shot which David Ospina parried right into the path of the still running Kagawa. The Dortmund maestro connected well but saw his effort cannon off the hand of Carlos Sanchez. The referee did not hesitate to brandish the red card for the former Aston Villa midfielder who didn’t want to leave the pitch, Colombia protested but the officials were resolute. It was to be Shinji Kagawa who won the penalty to take it, waiting for Ospina to commit before stroking the ball confidently down the middle of the goal and into the net. The celebrations were loud but the Japanese knew there was plenty of football left to play.
The game quickly settled into the expected rhythm with Colombia controlling the pace of the game and finding joy through width, Juan Cuadrado especially finding space. Japan looked dangerous on the counter attack as Colombian players pushed forward. Shinji Kagawa was beginning to find some space as the game opened up but it was Nagatomo who was the standout player of the first half hour, using all of his energy to try to nullify the threat of Cuadrado. But then the unexpected happened. Jose Pekerman, Colombia manager, signalled a substitution. Defensive midfielder Wilmar Barrios on, Juan Cuadrado off. Perhaps there was a slight injury problem or perhaps Pekerman was trying to take the composed route back into the game to assert dominance. If Colombia didn’t want to get back into the game in chaotic style they were certainly given their chance in cumbersome fashion. The two captains, Hasebe and Falcao, clashed on the edge of the box with the Monaco striker winning a contentious freekick. Juan Quintero stood over the set piece and, as the Japanese wall jumped, he struck the ball low. This under the wall technique stunned Kawashima in the Japan goal who couldn’t quite keep it out. The referees watch buzzed and the goal was confirmed.
The first half started quickly, the second a lot slower. Japan were using the ball well and started to find players in wide areas, Nagatomo becoming a growing influence on the game from left back. With increased width came more space in the middle for Kagawa to fill and thread balls through and quicken the play. Colombia started the second half quietly, perhaps conserving energy or perhaps the extra man was finally paying dividends as Yuya Osaka and Takashi Inui both had shots smartly saved by Ospina.
Colombia needed a lift and it came in the form of a substitution. National hero James Rodriguez given a standing ovation as he replaced the enigmatic and impressive Quintero. The pattern of play remained with Japan and they began to see this game as a great opportunity to start their World Cup campaign in the best possible way. Kagawa began to see more and more of the ball as he dropped deep to start play whilst Inui’s movement in attacking areas was becoming more prevalent by the minute. Japan retained possession at will, the Colombian side struggling for an outlet and continually giving the ball back to their opponents.
Changes were needed and changes came. Carlos Bacca replaced Jose Izquierdo to help Falcao hold the ball up whilst Keisuke Honda replaced goalscorer Kagawa in the middle of the park for Japan. With Colombia’s strikers flailing it was Japan’s Yuya Osaka whose link up play proved potent, creating a huge chance for Sakai who saw his fierce effort blocked. Substitute Honda whipped in the resulting corner which Osaka gratefully headed in off the post. A deserved reward for the hard working forward. For all the one-way traffic and pressure in the second half Japan’s work had paid off. Colombia now needed to find their feet again and up the tempo. And they did: Rodriguez, Bacca and Mojica all having chances blocked in quick succession.
To say Japan held on for the win would be presumptuous. The Samurai Blue frustrated their South American counterparts, recycling possession smartly against the tiring legs of Colombia’s ten men. Japan started slow but played intelligently when needed, this famous victory their first in the World Cup since a 3-1 win against Denmark in 2010. Substitutes ran on at the final whistle. Colombia were deflated, Japan elated. Japan 2, Colombia 1.
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