Analysis: Spirited Japan edge closer to knockout rounds
Ekaterinburg: Japan twice came from behind to secure a 2-2 draw with Senegal in their second 2018 FIFA World Cup Group H match on Sunday and claim a valuable point that stands them in good stead to advance to the last 16.
After the East Asians defeated Colombia 2-1 in their opening fixture of the tournament, coach Akira Nishino named an unchanged side, but Japan fell behind to Sadio Mane’s early strike before Takashi Inui levelled.
Moussa Wague put the West African side back in front but substitute Keisuke Honda rescued a point with 12 minutes remaining as the Samurai Blue and Senegal remained level on points and goal difference at the top of the standings.
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Defensive mistakes, missed opportunities
While Japan will be happy to have finished on level terms, it could have been more. After the side began confidently, Genki Hariguchi (8) will have been disappointed with his attempted clearance in the build-up to the first goal (below) and goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima’s (1) poor punch then gifted Mane an easy opener.
Yuya Osako was Japan’s star man in the win against Colombia, but he missed a gilt-edged opportunity to put his side in front just after the hour when Gaku Shibasaki centred and the striker completely missed the ball from a few yards out with the goal at his mercy.
With Japan dominant, Osako then back-heeled into the path of Inui, whose lovely curling effort struck the crossbar. It was a five-minute spell in which Nishino’s team should have put themselves in the driving seat, only for Senegal to take the lead down the other end soon after.
Playing alongside captain Makoto Hasebe in the centre of the park, Shibasaki was arguably Japan’s best player, delivering a composed performance that was reminiscent of the country’s record appearance maker Yasuhito Endo.
The Getafe midfielder showed fabulous vision to pick out the marauding Yuto Nagatomo with a beautiful, long diagonal ball that led to the left-back teeing up Inui for the equaliser. His inch-perfect low delivery across the penalty area (mentioned above), meanwhile, deserved the end product from Osako.
In total, Shibasaki made 36 successful passes (shown above) as he shifted the play to either side of the pitch with attacking full-backs Nagatomo down the left and Hiroki Sakai on the right both beneficiaries of some pinpoint balls into their paths.
The veteran effect
Just like in the win against Colombia, Honda was afforded just 20 minutes on the pitch, but the Mexico-based forward used his time to devastating effect to salvage a point that could see Japan into the next round.
The 32-year-old drifted into the box with 12 minutes remaining and found himself unmarked at the back post to finish Inui’s centre and in doing so scored in his third successive FIFA World Cup with what was his fourth goal on football’s biggest stage.
But Honda owes plenty to the work of another substitute, Shinji Okazaki, who twice prevented goalkeeper Khadim N’Daiye from grabbing the ball, first in challenging the custodian for Osako’s floated delivery and then in cleverly preventing him picking up Inui’s ball back in as Japan earned a deserved point.
Japan now have four points from two games and need just a draw from their final Group H match against Poland on Thursday in order to progress to the knockout rounds for the third time.
Photos: FIFA via Getty Images
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