Japan frustrate Senegal as Group H puzzle remains hard to solve
African side on the brink of qualification until Keisuke Honda’s late intervention
Keisuke Honda scores Japan’s second goal against Senegal. Photograph: Andrew Coulridge/Reuters
Japan have brought their oldest ever squad to a World Cup and all that experience counted for something as they summoned the spirit and attacking intuition to twice drag themselves back into a match that challenged them in every way.
There had been many a cliche about the stylistic difference between African and Asian football in the pre-match discourse, and Japan’s concern about dealing with the physical strength of Senegal was well founded. But they had confidence they could find a way for their own talents to make a difference, and their energy and forward thinking drive pushed them to another promising result.
Their first equaliser came when the two shortest men on the pitch combined. The second was delivered by Keisuke Honda, once the golden boy of Japanese football, who looked pleasantly surprised by his intervention before sending kisses towards the heavens. Senegal regretted an opportunity missed from a display where they did not hit full stride.
Control of Group H – whose qualifiers will meet England and Belgium from Group G – in the knock-outs, was at stake, and at the end of this topsy turvy encounter nobody was any the wiser who might end up progressing, even though this draw keeps both teams tied on top of the group for now.
Japan’s coach Akira Nishino had been drilling the message that his players had to be wise and use their own strengths to counter the power play they expected of Senegal. But they looked uneasy at the start, standing off any Senegalese advances, and it took only 11 minutes for Japan’s defence to panic and Sadio Mane to be the grateful beneficiary. Genki Haraguchi tried to clear a cross but could only glance a backward header weakly into Youssouf Sabaly’s path. His shot was parried by Japan’s goalkeeper Eji Kawashima straight to the lurking Mane. Liverpool’s attacker didn’t have to do anything except be at the right place at the right time. The ball simply bounced off hims knee and in.
It was not the first time the Japan keeper had erred at this World Cup and Senegal were in the mood to surge forward and test him again. But for all their dominance Senegal missed some accuracy in their final ball around the box.
Japan’s equaliser came like a sudden flash of neat precise football.. Yuto Nagamoto burst into the box and controlled a long pass, dinking on for Takashi Inui to set himself to curl a low shot past Kadim Ndiaye. Inui was one of the players Nishino had namechecked in a joke about how he wanted his smaller players to grow a few centimeters for this particular contest. In all seriousness, though, he stressed how quickness of thought and quality of passing could make the difference and that sweetly worked goal was a case in point.
Who could take the initative? The two teams traded half chances. Japan really grew into the game, gaining confidence. They conjured two brilliant opportunities to take the lead. Gaku Shibaski drilled a perfect ball across goal and Osako, matchwinning hero of the opening game against Colombia, arrived with perfect timing onto the edge of the six yard box. What an extraordinary moment for a fresh air kick. The striker looked aghast. He recovered to play his part in the next move, skilfully backheeling the ball for Unui, who cracked a shot against the crossbar.
Japan’s efforts were obliterated when Senegal stopped drifting and found a way to express themselves. Mane instigated it all, delaying and cajoling until he found Sabaly running into space. The Bordeaux man danced into position and drilled the ball across goal. Niang helped it on to Moussa Wague. The teenager hammered in from an acute angle.
Japan’s spirit was not so easily dented however. Again they fought their way back into the game. This time Ndaiye, Senegal’s goalkeeper, had a moment to forget as he flapped at a cross, Inui drove the loose ball back, and Honda seized the moment to pick his spot.
Japan: Kawashima; Hiroki Sakai,Yoshida, Shoji, Nagatomo; Haraguchi (Okazaki 75), Hasebe, Shibasaki, Inui (Usami 87), Kagawa (Honda 72); Osako. Booked: Inui, Hasebe.
Senegal: Khadim N’Diaye; Sabaly, Koulibaly, Sane; Wague, Ndiaye (N’Doye 81), Alfred N’Diaye (Kouyate 65), Gueye; Sarr, Niang (Diouf 86), Mane. Booked: Niang, Sabaly, N’Doye.