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Colombia’s World Cup hopes were hanging by a thread against Senegal, but an unlikely hero emerged to fire them through to the knockout stages, or head them through.
Yerry Mina’s 74th minute goal, a bullet header from a corner kick, gave Colombia a tense, dramatic win and top spot in Group H.
Here’s a closer look at the performance that made the centre-back the Hero of the Day.
For the second straight World Cup, a young Colombian is emerging as a hero, with the 23-year-old Mina powering a header into the back of the net to keep his country’s campaign alive. It was poetic that he stepped up after the hero of the last World Cup, James Rodriguez, went off injured in the first half.
Aerial presence – All over the pitch, Mina was nearly impossible to beat. It begs the question how Senegal let him go unmarked for the goal, because he’d been winning headers all game long.
Passing – It’s clear how Mina is a fit at Barcelona. Defensively, he can still improve, but his distribution fits the mould for a Barca centre-back. Only teammate Davinson Sanchez had more pass attempts and completed passes here.
Mina is still unpolished as a defender – not entirely surprising considering his age – and it showed on occasion on Thursday. Though he has the pace to make up for most mistakes, he’s susceptible to being beaten on the dribble and isn’t the most assured tackler. It’s something that he’ll no doubt work on and improve as his career progresses.
Mina is still a work in progress as a player, but much hope has been placed in that progress by club and country. He began paying some of that faith back on Thursday. Shorn of their talisman, Rodriguez, Colombia were wondering who could win this crucial match for them. Enter Mina, who is now an instant hero in his homeland.
RATING – 8/10
Japan became the first side to qualify for the World Cup knockout stages on the basis of winning the fair play tiebreaker on Thursday, as they made it through to the round of 16 despite a 1-0 loss to Poland.
Senegal’s defeat to Colombia by the same score meant Japan only made it through by virtue of having picked up two fewer yellow cards than their rivals.
Here are the talking points as they became the only Asian side to reach the last 16.
JAPAN’S BIZARRE SELECTION GAMBLE NEARLY COSTS THEM
Akira Nishino took a huge gamble with his selection, making six changes to his starting XI and leaving out all the players who had scored for him so far in this tournament.
It made absolutely no sense. Japan’s spot in the knockouts was far from secure – indeed, they ended up qualifying by the skin of their teeth, getting essentially the worst good scenario to go their way. They needed a win or a draw to qualify, and they knew that a loss could have been fatal to their hopes. Opting against playing a first-choice XI was a bizarre decision from the Japan manager.
Perhaps Japan had decided there was no point in going for top spot in the group given the opposition would be either England or Belgium, neither of which would be preferable. But again, that sort of thinking is only acceptable when qualification is secure.
This is not even a decision that can be justified in hindsight. They were close to conceding a second goal, which would have knocked them out, on more than occasion, and relying on his less-tested players to avoid picking up bookings that would have eroded Japan’s fair play advantage was a foolhardy gamble. Nishino is lucky it worked.
NO WORLD CUP GOAL FOR LEWANDOWSKI
Robert Lewandowski topped all competitors in European qualifying with 16 goals – no mean feat when the competition includes pedigreed goalscorers like Romelu Lukaku and Harry Kane, not to mention Cristiano Ronaldo, who finished just behind the Polish striker. The Bayern Munich man also won the Bundesliga’s Golden Boot with 29 goals in the league.
He won’t be topping any charts this summer, however, after his disappointing World Cup came to an end without registering a single goal.
The service hasn’t been of the highest quality, but it was the same service that had led to his goals during qualifying. He can’t blame having to face better defences in Russia either, not when Poland’s qualifying group included Denmark. The truth is, he hasn’t delivered his best.
Lewandowski will be 33 when the next World Cup takes place – and there’s no guarantee that he’ll even be there. Even if form and fitness stay with him, Poland qualified for this summer’s tournament after a 12-year absence from football’s showpiece, so they can’t take their place at the World Cup for granted.
One of the best strikers of his generation may end up without a World Cup goal to his name.
INEXPLICABLE THINKING LEADS TO FARCICAL END
News of Colombia’s goal against Senegal took the edge completely out of this game. Japan knew they’d be through if the scores stayed the same in both games, and began playing the ball between themselves at the back. Poland, seemingly happy with a 1-0 win, obliged, doing the same when they had the ball and not pressing to regain possession when it was with Japan.
The jeers that rang around the stadium were well-earned. The way this game ended was a farce.
Japan settling for a 1-0 loss was somewhat understandable but still fraught with risk. They wasted the last 10 minutes on a gamble that Senegal wouldn’t score. Would they have just started trying again if Senegal had scored?
There was no reason to believe this was a smart gamble – Senegal scored twice against them, after all, as well as twice against Poland. Scoring and thus being in control of their own fate was surely the better option.
And why were Poland so obliging? It was nothing to them which of Japan and Senegal went through, and surely the captain and leader of the team, Lewandowski, was desperate for a goal? Whatever pride they were salvaging with victory was eroded by their complicity in this farce.
The Atletico Madrid forward has looked far from his best during the group stage of the competition, while his countrymen Olivier Giroud suggested Griezmann was not at his physical best after having endured a long season making almost 60 appearances for club and country.
Recently midfielder Paul Pogba, who has had his share of criticism to deal with, came to Griezmann’s defence.
“Don’t touch my Grizou,” Pogba said with a smile last week. “You’ve forgotten the Euro.”
The 27-year old was the top goalscorer at Euro 2016, however, five of his six goals came in the knockout stages.
“Just because he didn’t score in the last match doesn’t mean he’s not the same Grizou,” Pogba said after the 1-0 win over Peru.
Griezmann had spoken about his form as he aims to go all the way with France’s talented side in Russia.
“I hope to raise my level again in the last 16,” he said.
“It was the same at the Euro. It wasn’t until the last 16 that I hit my stride. So we’ll see. I have confidence in my game.”
Griezmann’s team mate at Atletico – Lucas Hernandez, too has leapt to the defence of the striker, saying he is rated among the world’s best and cannot be doubted.
“He’s fine. You should never doubt one of the best players in the world,” said Hernandez.
“Here’s hoping he shuts up everyone who is talking about him in the last 16.”
Meanwhile, France’s other attackers have struggled too, and placing the blame solely on Griezmann would be unfair.
Griezmann though has found linking up with Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele tough.
He did manage to look dangerous when paired alongside Giroud against Peru, but the pair couldn’t find their chemistry against Denmark, with Griezmann failing to even complete a single pass to the Chelsea striker during the first half.
“I felt good in the first half. I tried to drop back from time to time to pick up the ball,” Griezmann added. “In the second half I tried to be closer to the area so I touched the ball less often, but that’s the way I wanted to play.”
And now the Frenchman has snubbed the chance to join Messi at Barcelona, Griezmann will look to come out on top when he faces the Argentinian magician this weekend.