Japan scraped through to the knockout round of the World Cup via FIFA’s fair-play tiebreaker, advancing from Group H despite a 1-0 loss to Poland on Thursday in Volgograd.
Samurai Blue are the first team in World Cup history to claim a spot in the knockout round through this tiebreaker, the last one before the drawing of lots, as they had accumulated two few yellow cards than Senegal in their three group matches. Japan and Senegal finished level with four points, no goal difference and four goals scored, and their 2-2 draw meant all the head-to-head tiebreakers were rendered moot.
After conceding Jan Bednarak’s goal in the 59th minute and receiving word Colombia had scored to take a 1-0 lead over Senegal shortly thereafter, Samurai Blue slowed their play to a crawl knowing they would go through on the fair play rule.
Poland was happy to comply having gotten its goal, and the last 10 minutes of the match saw little action as Japan retained possession without going forward to press for an equalizer while risking a potential group-shifting goal in Samara.
It is the third time Japan has reached the round of 16, continuing a pattern of alternating between going home after group play and advancing in making the last six World Cups.
Samurai Blue, who will play either Belgium or England on Monday in Rostov-on-Don, failed to score a goal in their previous two knockout matches, but only conceded one as they lost to Turkey as co-hosts in 2002 and were eliminated on penalties to Paraguay in 2010.
Poland’s consolation victory puts a small bright spot on an underachieving trip to Russia in which the Orly were tipped to make the knockout round for the first time since 1986. Bednarak volleyed Rafal Kurzawa’s free kick from six yards past Eiji Kawashima inside the right post.
It is Poland’s third straight group play exit, having also failed to progress in 2002 and 2006 in which it also won meaningless third matches.
In a match with few clear-cut scoring chances, Japan was the brighter side early as Shinji Okazaki put a header wide in the 12th minute before Lukasz Fabianski did well to get down and parry Yoshinori Muto’s effort from 20 yards that tried to pick out the lower left corner.
Kawashima made a fantastic save in the 32nd minute, ranging to his right to claw out a header by Kamil Grosicki, with goal-line technology confirming the ball did not completely cross. Two minutes later, Fabianski was equal to the task on a sharp-angled shot by Takashi Asami.
Japan did an excellent job bottling up Poland striker Robert Lewandowski, who was the top scorer in Europe during World Cup qualifying with 16 goals. He failed to score in Russia, finishing with just two shots in this match and nine overall while placing three on target.
The only other time in World Cup history FIFA reached this deep in the tiebreaker list was in 1990, when lots were drawn to determine the group runner-up between Ireland and the Netherlands.