In bizarre circumstances, Japan has qualified for the round of 16. Japan and Senegal ended up tied in every conventional way — points, goal differential, goals scored, and head-to-head — but Japan had fewer yellow cards. They’re the first team in World Cup history to advance on the fair play tiebreaker, thanks to Senegal’s high number of bookings.
But Japan had no way of knowing this was a likely scenario going into the day. It required Colombia defeating Senegal by the exact same margin that Japan lost to Poland by. If Senegal had scraped a draw or Japan lost by multiple goals, the Japanese would be going home.
And yet, despite the high number of realistic scenarios that would have gotten them eliminated, Japan failed to put their best foot forward on Thursday.
Reason No. 1 Japan stinks: Their lineup
For their match against Poland, Japan made an astonishing six changes.
Some of them were defensible — Makoto Hasebe and Takashi Inui were on yellow cards, Gen Shoji had a bad game against Senegal — but others are hard to explain.
Neither of Japan’s creators, Shinji Kagawa or Keisuke Honda, started the game. They weren’t on yellow cards. Yuki Osako and Genki Haraguchi, who have been effective going forward, weren’t on yellows either. And while it’s understandable that manager Akira Nishino wanted to avoid a suspension for Inui, he’s been Japan’s best player at the tournament. Generally, teams play their best players in games where they likely need to avoid defeat to avoid elimination.
Nishino was apparently betting on Senegal-Colombia definitely having a winner and his team not getting blown out. The probability of those things both happening wasn’t high. He was essentially gambling.
Reason No. 2 Japan stinks: They played for the fair play tiebreaker
Senegal didn’t have to do much to screw Japan. They just had to score one goal. A 1-1 draw in the Senegal-Colombia game would have knocked the Japanese out of the tournament. Instead, Japan just counted on that game staying the same and did ... this.
The #JPN vs #POL is amazing. #JPN, clearly aware of the outcome right now, is sitting deep and not even attempting a hard or physical challenge on its opponent, knowing full well two bookings are the difference.— Luis Miguel Echegaray (@lmechegaray) June 28, 2018
Japan didn’t play to score a goal, which would have guaranteed its progression regardless of the result in the other match. They played to not concede again and not get a yellow card. Again, it worked, but it wasn’t a terribly high probability event, and Japan had no way of knowing whether Senegal was generating decent chances or not.
Nishino and his team didn’t play to win the game. They didn’t even play to avoid a loss in the game. In this writer’s opinion, Japan sucks ass.