Japan show spirit, Senegal profligate but both boost round-of-16 chances
EKATERINBURG, Russia -- Three points on Japan and Senegal's 2-2 draw in Group H at the World Cup.
1. Japan, Senegal boost qualification chances
What a World Cup this has been. This was another brilliant game, one in which both sides attacked with intensity and abandon, and the 2-2 result might turn out to benefit Japan and Senegal. Both have four points at the top of Group H, with Senegal ahead having scored one more goal, and have a fine chance of making it through to the second phase.
Senegal will be more disappointed not to have won this game, having gone ahead twice through Sadio Mane and Moussa Wague, but Japan will be encouraged after coming back both times; Takashi Inui then Keisuke Honda bagging equalisers.
The qualifiers from this group will play either England or Belgium, which is much of a muchness: Belgium are probably stronger but, either way, they will have a tough time of it in the second round. However, looking beyond that, it is one of those groups where there is value in finishing first. For example, there is every chance Germany and Brazil will be in the same half of the draw as the Group H runners-up.
While they were the better team in the opening stages, Senegal's first goal had a strong whiff of fortune. Youssouf Sabaly's curled shot was straight at Eiji Kawashima in the Japan goal but, for reasons best known to him, he elected to punch. Mane, lurking like a good poacher, got the fortune his anticipation deserved as the ball ricocheted off his knee and into the net.
Senegal took control the game and never looked in much danger of conceding until, that is, they did. Yuto Nagatomo ran across the area and ceded possession to his colleague Inui, who swept a perfectly judged shot into the far corner. It was a goal as smartly executed as it was surprising.
After the break, things were more even, with both sides passing up very presentable chances. Senegal who re-took the lead when youngster Wague pounced on a cross at the far post to ram into the roof of the Japan net.
From there the win should have been theirs, but Japan came back again. Yuya Osako collected a loose ball after Senegal keeper Khadim Ndiaye had missed a cross and returned it low across the area to substitute Honda, who was there at the far post to slot home.
2. Senegal lack consistent finishing touch
This seems like a churlish thing to say after a game in which they scored twice, but might Aliou Cisse be slightly concerned about his side's finishing? Senegal's first three goals in this tournament weren't quite gifted to them, but did come about as a result of some good luck and heinous defensive errors.
Against Poland, they benefited from an own goal and the other strike came as a result of mistakes and a favourable refereeing decision, while their first in this game had a chunky element of luck to it, with Mane's knee jabbing the ball home after a goalkeeping mistake. As the game went on, their wastefulness continued: Mbaye Niang missed a good chance, while the execution and ending to some fine moves was absent.
Another point to consider was, in a World Cup dominated by set pieces, Senegal's were terrible. Corners would often hit the first man, while a free kick with about 20 minutes to go summed it up: Mane and Badou Ndiaye discussed what to do with the chance, around 30 yards from goal on the right, eventually settling upon a short pass. The only problem was it went straight to a Japan defender, who set in motion a counter-attack.
Wague's fine finish was an outlier, a rarity in a fine all-round performance that stuttered at the business end of the pitch. If Senegal are to go deep in the tournament, they will have to do better.
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3. Japan succeeding in spite of rocky preparation
If nothing else, you cannot fault Japan's spirit and mental fortitude.
This is a team that had to deal with the turmoil of a coaching change two months before the start of the tournament, with the high-ups at the Japanese FA deciding that Vahid Halilhodzic was not the man to take their team into the tournament. His relationship with players, fans and the board could go no further, so Akira Nishino was brought in as a safe pair of hands.
Even then, having to adjust in such a short space of time was, to offer a considerable understatement, not ideal. We are often told that stability is key in football and that only with a clear plan and clear minds will a team succeed, but this Japan team have dismissed that theory as a nonsense.
Despite what went before, they won their first game, admittedly against a Colombia team without James Rodriguez and which played with 10 men for much of the match. And in this game they came from behind twice to draw with a Senegal XI more seasoned and high-profile and, crucially, who have had the same coach for three years.
Perhaps it is proof that international football is ruled by chaos, that logic does not apply and nothing really makes sense. But Japan, written off before the tournament, now go into the final round of group games with a good chance of not only qualifying, but finishing top.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.