Japan advances despite loss

By Pan Pylas

The Associated Press

VOLGOGRAD, Russia — Nice guys don’t necessarily finish last at the World Cup.

Fair play, a newly implemented tiebreaker in the group stage of the world’s biggest soccer tournament, was put into use for the first time Thursday and Japan came out as the beneficiary.

Despite losing 1-0 to Poland, the Japanese were able to advance a round of 16 match against Belgium because they received fewer yellow cards than Senegal, which lost to Colombia by the same score at the same time.

Once Colombia had scored in Samara, Japan knew it had done enough to advance even though it was losing late in its match. The Japanese players slowed play down to almost nothing, softly passing the ball back and forth in little triangles in their own end to waste time.

“My decision was to rely on the other match,” Japan coach Akira Nishino said. “I’m not too happy about this but … I forced my players to do what I said. And we went through.

“It was an ultimate decision for me to make. We did not go through with victory, but we just relied on the other match and I feel that it was slightly regrettable but I suppose at that point I didn’t have any other plans.”

The fans at the Volgograd Arena showed their displeasure by booing and whistling loudly over the final minutes. Poland, happy to get a victory after two losses, did little to pressure the opposing side.

Both Japan and Senegal finished the group phase with four points, had the same goal difference and the same amount of goals scored. They also played to a 2-2 draw on Sunday. Starting at this year’s tournament, disciplinary records — known as fair play — were added by FIFA as a tiebreaker. Japan had four yellow cards in its three group matches while Senegal had six.

Overall, Japan committed only 28 fouls in three group matches, among the fewest in the tournament. Senegal committed 44 fouls.

Poland, which had already been eliminated, got its goal from defender Jan Bednarek in the 59th minute. He beat his marker at the far post and volleyed in a swerving free kick from Rafal Kurzawa.

When Bednarek scored, Japan was facing elimination. However, Colombia’s goal in the 74th minute of the other group match meant Japan was in second place and would advance.

As the game continued, it barely got above walking pace.

“It was for us more important for us to get into the next round than to win the match,” Japan midfielder Gotoku Sakai said.

Nishino made six changes to the starting lineup ahead of the match, saying some of his players were fatigued. All four of Japan’s scorers in the previous two games were left on the bench, but the Japanese still had more of the chances in the first half.

Poland had an early chance to take the lead in the 32nd minute when Japan goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima stopped a header from Kamil Grosicki. Scampering across his goal before diving, Kawashima clawed the ball to safety just before it had crossed the line.

Robert Lewandowski then had a chance to put Poland ahead 2-0 — a result that would have allowed Senegal to advance — in the 74th minute after a swift counterattack but his effort flew over the bar.

Tunisia tops Panama

SARANSK, Russia — Tunisia captain Wahbi Khazri and Fakhreddine Ben Youssef ensured their nation’s World Cup slump wouldn’t enter a fifth decade.

Khazri’s hard, rising shot in the 66th minute lifted Tunisia to a 2-1 triumph over Panama on Thursday night. It came about 15 minutes after the Rennes striker’s pinpoint pass produced Ben Youssef’s equalizer on a redirection off of his right instep.

“We wanted to snatch the victory and I wanted to score and I did,” Ben Youssef said. “This is great day for Tunisia.”

Panama is still looking for a maiden World Cup victory — or draw, for that matter. But it took its first ever lead in World Cup play in the 33rd minute through an own-goal when Jose Luis Rodriguez’s hard, left-footed shot deflected off of Tunisia’s Yassine Meriah.

Both Group G teams were already eliminated going into the match. Tunisia hadn’t won a World Cup game since a 3-1 victory over Mexico in 1978. The Carthage Eagles then failed to win any of their next 13 World Cup matches, a streak that ended in somewhat expected fashion.

Belgium’s tough draw

KALININGRAD, Russia — England barely seemed troubled by losing. Belgium appeared to be a reluctant winner.

Such was the curious conclusion to the group stage at the World Cup on Thursday. Neither team needed to win and there was good reason for neither to even want to win.

Belgium did collect the three points, beating England 1-0, and secured first place in the group on Adnan Januzaj’s curling shot. But that might not turn out to be the desirable outcome since the victory diverted Belgium onto the tougher potential path to the final.

Although Belgium gets what appears to be an easier match against Japan in the round of 16, it could get trickier with a victory in Rostov-on-Don on Monday. Brazil, Portugal, France and Argentina are possible future opponents.

“I don’t think you can plan the ideal scenario,” Belgium coach Roberto Martinez said. “You have seen big nations coming very close to elimination, or already eliminated.”

Thanks to a pair of opening victories for both, England and Belgium entered the Group G match knowing they were already in the second round. Belgium made nine changes and still won. England lost the top spot after dropping Harry Kane, the tournament’s leading scorer, and seven others.

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