Japan produced a stunning result at the World Cup on Tuesday as they beat Colombia 2-1 in the two sides’ Group H opener.
They benefitted from an early red card for Colombia, midfielder Carlos Sanchez sent off for handling Shinji Kagawa’s shot in the box. Though Juan Quintero cancelled out Kagawa’s subsequent penalty with a superb free-kick, Japan had the last laugh as Yuya Osako popped up for a memorable winning goal.
Here are the talking points from the game.
FORTUNE DOESN’T FAVOUR THE BRAVE FOR COLOMBIA
Jose Pekerman will wonder why the old ‘fortune favours the brave’ adage didn’t hold true for him. The Colombia manager made two bold calls. Firstly, he didn’t rush to make a change when his team went down to 10 men as most managers do, instead waiting to see what his players could do before pulling the trigger and taking off Juan Cuadrado for midfielder Wilmar Barrios, who helped restore some control in midfield.
Then, having seen his side produce a battling display and effectively hold serve after equalising through Juan Quintero’s brilliant free-kick, Pekerman decided to go for the win, bringing on talisman James Rodriguez for Quintero and reliable goalscorer Carlos Bacca in search of a winning goal.
Hindsight may be perfect, but even allowing for the fact that his side conceded just minutes after Bacca came on, it’s hard to say the Colombia man got his decisions wrong.
Faced with a strong group that also includes Poland and Senegal, Pekerman knew how vital taking three points from this game was – even more so given they had gone a goal behind and a man down just six minutes into the game.
Winning from there would have lifted his side and given them momentum. Alas, his bravery was not rewarded.
HISTORIC WIN PUTS JAPAN IN PRIME POSITION
History was against Japan on Tuesday, as they’d never beaten a South American team at a World Cup and never won a World Cup game in Europe. And that’s before you consider the relative strength of the two sides – Colombia have a FIFA ranking of 16th, 45 places ahead of the Samurai Blue at 61st.
No matter. This was a professional performance, showcasing a steel and maturity that not many would have expected from Japan. They didn’t panic when 10-man Colombia were taking the game to them, nor did they let themselves be affected by missed chances, of which there were plenty.
Instead, they kept plugging away, and were duly rewarded for their efforts with Osako’s goal, which proved to be the winner.
Even after that, the way they held Colombia at bay as the South Americans chased what would have been a well-deserved equaliser was admirable.
Japan have only emerged from the group stages at a World Cup twice before, in 2002 and 2010. The job here is far from done. Senegal and Poland will be tough opponents – indeed, there is an argument that this is the Group of Death everyone’s been looking for. But they’ve put themselves in a great position.
HAS SANCHEZ HARPOONED COLOMBIA’S QUALIFICATION HOPES?
Heading into this game, Japan looked like the easiest opponents Colombia would face in the group. Poland and Senegal are ranked eighth and 27th respectively, and Colombia would have hoped to go into those games with three points already in hand.
Carlos Sanchez effectively put paid to that plan. His teammates did their best to mitigate the damage, putting in a wonderful performance with 10 men who didn’t deserve to be on the losing side, and it’s only natural to wonder what they could have pulled off had Sanchez not had his moment of madness.
It’s not just that he got sent off, it was the manner of the red card. Understandable though the instinct may be to protect your goal at all costs, sticking out a hand to block a shot is inexcusable – especially with 87 minutes of the match to play.
The only way it can turn out a good idea is if the subsequent penalty is missed – not a gamble anyone should be willing to take, Luis Suarez’s luck in 2010 notwithstanding.
Instead, Colombia were hamstrung for nearly the whole game. They face Poland next, which is now a must-win when Pekerman would have budgeted for a draw. Qualification looks tough from here.
The Lions of Teranga roared into an early lead shortly before the break when a shot from Everton’s Idrissa Gueye took a huge deflection off the unfortunate Thiago Cionek.
They extended that lead midway through the first half, but in controversial fashion as M’Baye Niang sprinted back on to the field of play after injury and immediately intercepted an awkward looking backpass from Grzegorz Krychowiak, beating former Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny and Southampton defender Jan Bednarek to the ball to slot into an empty net.
Confusion reigned while many of the Polish players were disgusted, they protested in vain to referee Nawaf Shukralla.
Poland created little, but ensured there would be a frantic finale when West Brom midfielder Krychowiak headed home brilliantly from a deep free-kick at the far post.
What looked like a straightforward one-two finish for Spain and Portugal in Group B was ripped wide open last Friday as the two European powerhouses shared the spoils while Iran rocked Morocco with a 95th-minute winner.
Expect Iran to pack bodies behind the ball with the knockouts now a genuine possibility but Spain, despite their Cristiano Ronaldo-shaped frustrations, looked as slick as ever in that 3-3 thriller with Diego Costa’s added snarl.
Below are some of the players who could well come to the fore in Wednesday’s clash in Kazan …
DAVID DE GEA v ALIREZA BEIRANVAND
David De Gea’s form has not come into question since he was the fresh-faced and wide-eyed 20-year-old replacement for Edwin van der Sar at Manchester United.
While he is adored by all who walk Sir Matt Busby Way, De Gea’s own journey with Spain since filling Iker Casillas’ long-worn shoes two years ago has not been appreciated quite so much in his homeland.
The former Atletico Madrid keeper has made two mistakes in quick succession – a mishandling of a tame shot in a warm-up game against Switzerland before that rather high-profile blunder to the delight of Ronaldo last Saturday.
A favourite of deposed coach Julen Lopetegui, his recent blunders are not a true depiction of his form in a Spain jersey. There is a feeling though that the 27-year-old is naturally placed under more suspicion because he has spent almost his entire career in a foreign country.
“I think that the players who leave Spain are not paid as much attention as those who stay in Spain and people forget about us a little,” De Gea noted last year. A national darling may survive a third blunder but this expat may not.
There’s no such troubles weighing down on the shoulders of opposing goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand, to whom the pressure of a World Cup is nothing compared to the challenges life has thrown at him.
Born to a nomadic family, Beiranvand fled to Tehran as a teenager and cycled through menial jobs and a spell sleeping on the streets.
How the Persepolis stopper must have reflected on his journey that has taken him to St Petersburg and on to filling a huge role in Iran’s smash-and-grab victory over Morocco.
The 25-year-old made a fine save from a goalmouth scramble and, most importantly, was the reassuring presence Team Melli needed at the back.
Morocco lacked any semblance of physicality up front, however – it’s time for Beiranvand to get up close and personal with …
DIEGO COSTA v SARDAR AZMOUN
Diego Costa. Football’s most-feared Rottweiler certainly isn’t the traditional face of a Spain side but he’s added a growl to a unit that has done little but purr.
There was some debate over whether Iago Aspas or Rodrigo, two nimbler No9s ostensibly more suited to La Roja’s goals by a thousand passes mentality, but all talk has been squashed by Diego’s big boots.
Scratch the surface of his two-goal display against Portugal and it is interesting to note that Costa didn’t win a single aerial ball but found a team-mate with nearly 90 per cent of his passes.
Okay, he only made 16 – but it is clear that Spain did not feel the need to change stylistically to accommodate their razor-edge and Costa assimilated himself only too well.
During the warm-up games Costa noticeably slowed down play at times (though he did provide a sumptuous assist for Aspas versus Tunisia). At the World Cup the Atleti hitman has started fast and furious.
His counterpart, Sardar Azmoun, ploughed a lone furrow in the absence of ingenuity behind him but he nevertheless fashioned those scraps into a promising performance.
However, when he was dished up his one, golden chance the 23-year-old failed to convert, looping a rebound over the bar after his initial effort was saved.
Nevertheless many of Azmoun’s 23 international goals so far have come via his head and he made his presence known by winning seven aerial duels against the Atlas Lions.
It’s a statistic that a diminutive Spain need to be keenly aware of as surely Team Melli’s only mode of attack is to pump balls up to their star man and bypass a midfield battle that they will have lost before the game even starts.
SERGIO BUSQUETS v MASOUD SHOJAEI
One’s the best No6 of his generation, the other is a journeyman veteran who plays in Greece – only a World Cup would throw two players of such contrasting careers together.
If Shojaei can get close to Busquets though – and plenty of ‘better’ players may as well be on a different planet when facing him – Iran could hope to somewhat stifle Spain’s midfield.
The 34-year-old was chief heel-snapper for Iran against Morocco and broke up plenty of promising passages of play as Hakim Ziyech and Younes Belhanda meandered into his path.
La Roja will be far more surgical with their passing triangles in midfield – they are a trigonometry teacher’s dream – but Shojaei is adept at playing the enforcer.
Indeed, he only made 15 passes in the opener before Carlos Queiroz withdrew him in the 67th minute while on a yellow card.
Busquets made nearly four times that amount versus Portugal and drew three fouls as players the calibre of Joao Moutinho and William Carvalho struggled to stem his flow.
The former Barcelona maestro quite literally uses his head for Costa’s second. Iran will need everything short of a ball and chain to contain him.