Liverpool forward Sadio Mane took advantage of an awful fumble from Samurai Blue goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima to deflect in an 11th-minute opener. New Real Betis winger Takashi Inui levelled things up in style on 34 minutes when he curled a shot into the bottom corner.
Japan dominated chances after the interval and Inui rocked the crossbar, but fell behind when 19-year-old Eupen full-back Moussa Wague provided an emphatic finish to end a fine move. Samurai Blue were then able to fight back for a second time when Pachuca forward Honda tapped in at the back post after a scramble.
The result at Ekaterinburg Arena left both teams on four points at the midway point in the fight to make the round of 16.
HONDA IS REVVING UP
A giant figure in Japanese football came up with a huge equalising goal.
Honda’s composed finish earned a fully merited share of the points and kept Samurai Blue well in the mix.
It also earned the 32-year-old former CSKA Moscow and AC Milan attacker a piece of history as the first Japan international to register in three World Cups.
This ended a personal scoreless spell which stretched back to September 2016’s 2-1 home defeat to the UAE when the final round of AFC qualifying began in inauspicious circumstance. Vitally, it followed an assist off the bench for Yuya Osako’s winner against Colombia.
Honda’s fallow period made him a central character in sacked head coach Vahid Halilhodzic’s failed purge of the old guard. April’s ruthlessness from the Japan Football Association appears to have been vindicated.
FLAWED BUT FULL OF PROMISE
The fans in Ekaterinburg were not starved of entertainment.
Plenty of end-to-end action saw the sides share 22 attempts, of which the Lions of Teranga were denied the lion’s share by Japan’s 15.
Each combatant also boasted one goal of requisite class and one of great fortune.
These foibles make it a fool’s errand to predict who will ultimately progress on Thursday when Group H reaches its conclusion.
Ensemble, on peut le faire.🇸🇳✊🏿 pic.twitter.com/SECVNbDtyS— Senegal Football🇸🇳 (@SenegalFootball) June 24, 2018
ANOTHER KAWASHIMA CALAMITY
Japan cannot say they weren’t warned.
Fresh from letting Juan Fernando Quintero’s low free-kick slither in at his near post for Colombia, Kawashima made another wrick.
Last week’s mistake ultimately could not stop Samurai Blue gaining a historic first-ever victory for an Asian nation against South American opposition at the World Cup.
This time, however, it was a costly one.
Frustration among their supporters comes from the presence on the sidelines of emerging Kashiwa Reysol shot stopper Kosuke Nakamura.
On current ability, the 2017 J. League Best XI member appears the safer choice.
The Three Lions roared into a 5-0 half-time advantage at Nizhny Novogorod thanks to John Stones’ double from set-pieces, Jesse Lingard’s superb curled effort and Kane’s cool brace from the penalty spot.
The latter-mentioned skipper luckily completed his first brace for England when he deflected in Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s shot. Consolation for Panama was found when substitute Felipe Baloy stretched to knock in his nation’s opening World Cup goal.
England usurped their final Group G opponents Belgium, who they play on Thursday, at the top via goal difference. Panama are eliminated after two heavy defeats.
Here are our player ratings:
Jordan Pickford – 6: Had the best seat in the house as the Three Lions tore Panama to bits. Remained alert to bravely block rampaging right-back Michael Murillo.
Kyle Walker – 6: There was never any risk of another penalty clanger from the makeshift centre-back. Made one brilliant sliding block near the start to safeguard the clean sheet.
John Stones – 7: Hadn’t scored twice in a season before August 2016’s move to Manchester City, never mind two in one game. Only worry was his sloppy giveaways of the ball.
Harry Maguire – 7: The towering Leicester City defender caused utter chaos in the Panama penalty box for every set-piece. Defending didn’t come under microscope.
Jordan Henderson – 7: Is exerting a growing influence at international level after previously underwhelming. His set-piece led to Stones’ scrambled second.
Kieran Trippier – 8: The Tottenham Hotspur right-back continues to reward head coach Gareth Southgate’s faith. England’s first three goals at the tournament came from his corners.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek – 5: It doesn’t look like the injured Dele Alli needs to worry about his starting spot. Only had one shot and key pass, but this shot was fortuitously deflected in by Kane.
Jesse Lingard – 7: Made up for his profligate display against Tunisia with a breathtaking goal from the edge of the penalty box. His energy makes England’s attack come alive.
Ashley Young – 6: A nondescript display from the Manchester United wing-back. Left praise for Trippier. Swapped sides later on to facilitate substitute Danny Rose.
Raheem Sterling – 6: This was a neat display from the City attacker, but it lacked punch. Really should have buried header in build-up to club-mate Stones’ second.
Harry Kane – 8: England’s captain is now the top scorer at World Cup 2018 thank to this hat-trick. His two penalties were perfect, his third requiring a sizeable slice of fortune.
Fabian Delph – 6: Got minutes into his legs thanks to near 30-minute cameo. Did nothing of note.
Jamie Vardy – 6: England were already counting down the clock when the Leicester strike came on. Had no shots.
Danny Rose – 6: Given final 20 minutes to make an impression. Was deepest defender for Panama’s consolation.
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.
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.
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.