Takashi Inui dazzles again but Japan fall heartbreakingly short vs. Belgium
On a heartbreaking evening, Genki Haraguchi put Japan ahead early in the second half and then Takashi Inui added a second shortly after. The Samurai Blue looked set for a first ever quarterfinal before Jan Vertonghen and Marouane Fellaini put Belgium back on level terms, and then substitute Nacer Chadli won it for the Red Devils 3-2 in the final seconds.
Japan worked extremely hard and had some good periods. Even when they were put under serious pressure by Belgium, the team kept their shape and defended with discipline and energy. At times, they made one of the best teams in the world look slow and laboured, and were attacking until the last seconds.
None until Belgium's first goal, which was the result of poor defending, and it was then disappointing how quickly the second came. Letting slip a 2-0 lead can never be celebrated, but Japan paid the price for their attacking ambitions and should not be criticised too much for that.
Manager rating out of 10
7 -- After the changes made for Poland, Akira Nishino returned to his favoured starting lineup and was rewarded with an energetic, determined and clinical display. The controversies of the group stage were erased. That Japan were heartbroken to lose to one of the best teams in the world shows how well they played.
Player ratings (1-10; 10 = best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK Eiji Kawashima, 6 -- The French-based No. 1's erratic display mirrored his up-and-down group-stage performances. The 35-year-old didn't put a glove wrong in the first half, but his weak punch allowed Belgium back in the game and he looked a little suspect after.
DF Hiroki Sakai, 7 -- Continued a fine tournament at right-back. The Marseille man was given some problems in the first half by the likes of Eden Hazard but kept his composure and found some space behind his opposite number on a number of occasions.
DF Maya Yoshida, 7 -- Had his hands full with Romelu Lukaku and made a couple of misplaced headers, but this was an assured performance from the Southampton defender who made a few vital blocks -- midway through the second half was especially impressive -- and last-ditch tackles. Could not quite stave off the Belgian onslaught.
DF Gen Shoji, 6 -- The Kashima Antlers man stayed focused to help keep Lukaku as quiet as possible. Used possession well in the biggest game of his career to date, though perhaps should have been a little more aggressive as Belgium came back.
DF Yuto Nagatomo, 8 -- Was everywhere. In defence, the former Inter Milan star cut out crosses and got in some late blocks and cleared headers, and he got forward on a number of occasions to put some quality balls into the area.
MF Genki Haraguchi, 7 -- Worked hard in the first half without really catching the eye, but then he made a run early in the second half and found the net with a fine finish.
MF Makoto Hasebe, 7 -- Put in a real captain's performance, and his experience was needed in the second half as Japan came under serious pressure. Was swatted aside, however, by Fellaini for Belgium's equaliser but had a good game.
MF Shinji Kagawa, 8 -- One of his best performances for his country in recent years. Set the scene with an early sight of goal and was always looking for the ball. When he didn't have it, he dropped deep to help out in midfield, and when he did, the Borussia Dortmund man made things happen.
MF Gaku Shibasaki, 5 -- After a promising group stage, struggled to get to up to speed. Was a little wasteful in possession, especially in the first half. Improved in the second before being subbed off.
MF Takashi Inui, 8 -- As lively on the left wing as you would expect from Japan's best performer in the group stage, the Spanish-based wide man burst into life early in the second half. First came the assist and then a delicious goal to out Japan 2-0 ahead.
FW Yuya Osako, 6 -- Didn't have much to work with, but put in a real shift to keep the defenders busy. Perhaps should have done better with a fine chance at the end of the first half.
MF Keisuke Honda, N/R -- Was lively when he came on, almost putting Japan ahead after a Kagawa pass and earning that fateful corner with a fine long-distance free kick.
MF Hotaru Yamaguchi, N/R -- Was unable to have much impact after coming on, though was caught on Belgium's late counter.
Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.