Sadio Mane must stand tall for Senegal and other talking points for Japan clash

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Group G’s surprise pacesetters, Japan and Senegal, meet on Sunday with an alluring prize of all but securing passage to World Cup 2018’s knockouts rounds reward for the victor.

Poland and Colombia were expected to run away with the pool. But surprise 2-1 defeats were inflicted last week on the former by The Lions of Teranga, and the 10-man latter by Samurai Blue.

Another three points for either at Ekaterinburg Arena should provide a critical advantage heading into next Thursday’s final matches.

Here are the talking points:

TIME TO SHOW WHO’S THE MANE MAN

The Lions of Teranga did not have to roar their way past whimpering Poland.

Gifts were presented to Aliou Cisse’s men – and they were gratefully received.

Such good fortune is unlikely to be repeated in Ekaterinburg. Emphasis will now turn to what Senegal can do to force the issue, rather than wait for their opponents to comprehensively crack.

Central to this drive will be Liverpool superstar Sadio Mane.

The 2017/18 Champions League’s joint-second top scorer failed to exert a requisite influence against the Poles.

Mane had the third-most touches for his nation, with 52. But from the left wing of a 4-4-2 formation, this only translated into: two key passes, two shots of which one was on target, one dribble, one inaccurate cross and two dispossessions.

The best service supplied to Torino striker M’Baye Niang all night came via Poland defensive midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak’s perplexing lobbed back pass that came up well short for the eventual clinching goal.

Mane and fellow wide man Ismaila Sarr need to correct this state of affairs against Samurai Blue if hopes of repeating 2002’s debut charge to the quarter-finals are to remain.

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SAMURAI BLUE SHOW CHANGE CAN BE A FORCE FOR GOOD

Eyebrows were raised in April when Japan decided to dispense with Vahid Halilhodzic, the man who’d taken them to a sixth-successive World Cup.

A win percentage of 54.3 from 35 matches cannot be knocked, neither the Bosnian’s largely comfortable – at least on the pitch – path through Asian qualifying after the shock of their opening home defeat to the UAE during the final round.

But would a spiky 66-year-old who engendered open disharmony within his squad, and the Japanese Football Association at large, been able to conjure the win against Colombia?

Even though Japan played against 10 men for nearly the whole 90 minutes, this match was still a test of character. Especially after Juan Fernando Quintero’s daisy cutter of a free-kick to level the scores before half-time, following Shinji Kagawa’s opener from the penalty spot after Carlos Sanchez’s third-minute red card for handball.

That Werder Bremen-bound forward Yuya Osako was able to head in the decider – in the process gaining Asia’s first-ever triumph against a South American nation at any World Cup –  spoke volumes about the belief now found within the roster.

Replacement Akira Nishino’s greatest successes as head coach at Gamba Osaka came a decade ago.

Yet he appears to have reinvigorated Borussia Dortmund playmaker Kagawa after he was cast towards the scrap heap under the previous regime – among others.

The aggressive tactics that brought Gamba to success also drained the life out of the numerically disadvantaged Colombians. Halilhodzic’s dour containment might have seen precious points drain away.

Nishino’s reluctance to place constraints on his players will be utilised again versus Senegal and goals should follow. Especially if Leicester City forward Shinji Okazaki is fit enough to start after calf troubles.

2014’s miserable early exit will then be banished – and in some style.

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CARRYING HOPES OF THEIR CONTINENT

Asia’s journey at World Cup 2018 is in danger of being a short one.

Japan’s 2-1 triumph against Colombia was only the continent’s second win. Both have required significant fortune – Japan’s through Sanchez’s instant dismissal, Iran thanks to Morocco substitute Aziz Bouhaddouz’s 95th-minute own goal.

South Korea have been eliminated from Group F. Saudi Arabia are long gone from Group A, with the wounds of the 5-0 opening night humiliation to hosts Russia still raw.

For Iran in Group B and Australia in Group C, valiant displays do not appear likely to translate into advancement.

No Asian countries made it to the knockout stages four years ago, or even won a game. Progression, however minute, has been made from this low point.

Samurai Blue have only made the round of 16 twice from five previous entries – on home soil in 2002 and during 2010’s event in South Africa.

For statements about the ‘world’s game’ not to ring hollow, success this time needs to be felt beyond Europe and South America.

Japan now find themselves flagbearer for this mission.

Hidetoshi Nakata of Japan and Ergun Penbe of Turkey

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Philippe Coutinho provides blessed relief in our Brazil player ratings after late Costa Rica win

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Philippe Coutinho and Neymar struck in second-half injury time to edge past obstinate Costa Rica and ignite Brazil’s World Cup 2018 campaign.

The pre-tournament favourites dominated play, but appeared set for a damaging second-successive draw in Group E only for the onrushing attacking midfielder Coutinho to strike during injury time. Neymar then recovered from a cancelled penalty call to volley in from close range.

Here are our player ratings:

BRAZIL (4-3-3)

Alisson – 6: The Real Madrid-target was a spectator at Saint Petersburg Stadium. He had zero saves to make. Might worry about fine performance of Keylor Navas at other end.

Fagner – 6: Did a competent job at right-back in place of the injured Danilo of Manchester City. His cross caused Gabriel Jesus to hit the crossbar.

Thiago Silva – 6: Used experience to sweep up any punts from the back by Costa Rica as they desperately tried to relieve pressure. Bigger tests will come, starting with Serbia.

Miranda – 7: Concentration remained sharp to deny Bryan Ruiz twice with key headers. Would have been happy to retain head coach Tite’s faith after Switzerland error for leveller.

Marcelo – 5: Had the most touches for Brazil as the ball kept coming to his left flank. But the Los Blancos left-back’s end product was uncharacteristically poor.

Paulinho – 5: The Barcelona centre midfielder made no impression on proceedings. Usual driving runs from deep did not occur. Only offered lateral passing options, which Costa Rica relished.

Casemiro – 5: Suffered a bloodied nose in the early stages when he took a ball to the face. Defensive attributes weren’t required and his presence did nothing to speed up Brazil’s torpid ball rotation.

Philippe Coutinho – 8: Brazil appear to have a new saviour. Play funneled through him and was locked in duel with Madrid goalkeeper Navas before nutmegging him at death.

Willian – 4: This was not the Chelsea winger’s day. Hooked after 45 ineffectual minutes and replacement Douglas Costa did far better. Spot in XI is at serious risk.

Gabriel Jesus – 6: Rattled the crossbar with a second-half header and mis-control played in Coutinho for the late, late winner. Movement was better than against Switzerland.

Neymar – 5: A second match in a row that the world’s most expensive player has underwhelmed. But this time, got his goal at the end. Showed petulant side for penalty ruled out by VAR.

SUBS

Douglas Costa – 7: Was much better than Willian. His pass sparked Neymar’s penalty incident, plus he later teed up the superstar for his pressure-relieving goal.

Roberto Firmino – 6: Rose high to win header that eventually led to Coutinho’s breakthrough. Awful finish ruined amazing move.

Fernandinho – N/A: City battler was given last few minutes to shore things up after first goal.

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Shootout between Shinji Okazaki and M'Baye Niang is key tactical battle for Japan v Senegal

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Group H’s surprise pacesetters, Japan and Senegal, meet on Sunday with an alluring prize of all but securing passage to World Cup 2018’s knockouts rounds reward for the victor.

Poland and Colombia were expected to run away with the pool. But surprise 2-1 defeats were inflicted last week on the former by The Lions of Teranga, and the 10-man latter by Samurai Blue.

Another three points for either at Ekaterinburg Arena should provide a critical advantage heading into next Thursday’s final matches.

Here are the key tactical battles:

SHINJI OKAZAKI V M’BAYE NIANG

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It wasn’t just the final whistle that was a welcome sight for Japan in the final stages of their historic win against Colombia.

Peripatetic Leicester City forward Okazaki played the final five minutes to show he had recovered from a sore calf that at one stage threatened his participation in the competition. This was the 32-year-old’s 114th international appearance.

Torino’s Niang took advantage of a touch of fortune to break his international duck at the eight attempt. With Stoke City striker Mame Biram Diouf so underwhelming, responsibility rests with him to fire Senegal into the round of 16 for the first time since 2002.

GAKU SHIBASAKI V IDRISSA GUEYE

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A midfield battle to relish awaits at Ekaterinburg.

Getafe’s Shibasaki was inspirational against Colombia as Japan became the first Asian side to defeat South American opposition at any World Cup. No Samurai Blue star made more key passes (two), while his four tackles was the second highest and his two interceptions was joint top.

Standing in his way on Sunday will be Everton’s Gueye – unless he’s dismissed early doors like Espanyol’s Carlos Sanchez.

Gueye’s shot was deflected in by defender Thiago Cionek to force the opener, although his tally of just one tackle was far less than last season’s Premier League average per game of 3.5.

YUTO NAGATOMO V ISMAILA SARR

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Players at contrasting stages of their career will clash on Sunday.

Internazionale-owned left-back Nagatomo, 31, should win his 107th international cap when the Lions of Teranga come to town. His ceaseless drive was on show against Colombia, whom he made a leading six clearances against.

Sarr is only 20-years old. But his supreme technique and fleet of foot on the right flank have already attracted the likes of Barcelona, whom he turned down last summer to join Rennes.

No Senegal player made more dribbles or was fouled more than him against Poland (both two). The key now is to better his zero accurate crosses from three attempts.

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