The final set of games in Group H were set up perfectly with three teams battling it out for just two places in the next round. With their draw against Senegal, Japan stayed level at the top of the group and knew that a draw against Poland would be enough to see them through to the knockout stages. Japan could also still qualify through the group with a loss but would need Colombia to beat Senegal. This suited Japan as Colombia needed to win themselves to ensure qualification but the Samurai Blue would have wanted to leave matters in their own hands as Senegal needed only one point to finish in the top two spots.
Three teams all had something to play for but Japan were playing a Poland side who were already knocked out. Star striker Robert Lewandowski had been firing blanks thus far and the rest of the team weren’t being decisive enough on the ball. Poland manager Adam Nawalka spoke before the game saying “We will fight for our pride and our fans” and that’s exactly what they did.
There were plenty of changes for both sides, Poland using this opportunity to try out new players as they were already eliminated and Japan perhaps resting their bigger names for the game to come. Poland made five changes to their starting lineup whilst Japan made six. Tomoaki Makino came in at centre back for Gen Shoji whilst Gotoku Sakai replaced captain Makoto Hasebe in midfield. The whole attacking quartet was changed with Hotaru Yamaguchi, Yoshinori Muto, Takashi Usami and Shinji Okazaki all coming on from the start. Okazaki, coming back to full fitness, was replaced by Yuya Osaka at half time. Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda were unused substitutes.
Poland, who had looked nervy in the first game, often lost possession in defence with Muto in particular unable to profit from good chances; Lukasz Fabianski denying the forward on several occasions. However going forward the European side had their dangerous moments. Japan goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima who had been criticised earlier on in the tournament pulled off one of the saves of the World Cup to deny Kamil Grosicki with a close range header. The 35-year-old keeper shifted his feet quickly before leaping to just deny the Hull City winger, goal line technology showed just how close it was.
Into the second half and it was Poland who this time did manage to put the ball across the line. Southampton defender Jan Bednarek volleyed in a Rafal Kurzawa freekick from close range, nothing Kawashima could do this time to prevent his team from going behind. Japanese fans anxiously checked their phones for the Senegal and Colombia score and were elated about fifteen minutes later when defender Yerry Mina put the South Americans in front. The final fifteen minutes of the match was played almost like a behind closed doors friendly, neither team pushing on with both more than happy about the result. Poland would finally win a game at this World Cup and Japan as it stood were going through much to everyone’s surprise. This is how the scores stayed and later results in Group G meant that Japan have a showdown against highly tipped Belgium in the round of sixteen. Surely that would be a step too far for the Samurai Blue, right?
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