Coach Akira Nishino raised a few eyebrows after making six changes to the Samurai Blue line up that started both games against Colombia and Senegal and secured four points in the process.
Qualification to the next round was far from guaranteed, as a defeat to Colombia coupled with a Senegal win or draw against Poland in the other matchday three fixture would have seen Japan eliminated. Eventually, Nishino’s men went through thanks to a better disciplinary record despite the defeat as Colombia beat Senegal.
Pressing high creates chances
Japan were the better side in the opening half, registering three shots on target compared to just one for Poland. Yoshinori Muto and Shinji Okazaki responded to being handed starting spots up front with energetic performances.
The attacking duo put their tenacious nature to work, constantly applying pressure on the Polish defence and winning the ball back five times in the first 45 minutes, including three times in the final third.
The Samurai Blue’s hard work in attacking areas produced chances, but Okazai headed wide inside the first quarter of an hour, Gotoku Sakai’s shot was denied by Lukazs Fabianski minutes later and so was Takashi Usami’s effort from a narrow angle just before the end of the half.
Two of the three goals Japan conceded in the tournament prior to Thursday’s encounter came from crosses, and Nishino’s men showed their vulnerability to crosses once more against Poland. Polish coach Adam Nawalka had his men playing to Japan’s weakness, as his players sent as many as 17 crosses on the night, six of which found their target.
Goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima was forced into a wonder save at the half hour mark from Kamil Grosicki’s header, but there was little he could do as the winning goal for Poland inevitably came from a cross. Defender Jan Bednarek was left unmarked inside the box and comfortably converted home the cross from Rafal Kurzawa’s free-kick.
Nishino will have a lot to ponder as his side is pitted against a Belgium side featuring physically imposing players such as Romelu Lukaku, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld who are all capable of getting on the end of crosses to deliver goals.
Selection headache for Nishino
Despite the defeat, Japan achieved their objective by edging out Senegal to the second Round of 16 qualification ticket. But there were also other positives for Nishino in the performance against Poland.
Having opted to relegate three midfielders to the bench, including two of his most experienced in Makoto Hasebe and Shinji Kagawa, Nishino got the response he was looking for as the substitutes fought hard to prove they were worthy of starting.
The spirited performance of Okazaki and Muto will give the coach further selection headache, albeit of the good type, as he looks to find his best set-up in an attempt to reach the quarter-final for the first time in their history against one of the title favourites.