Japan squeeze into World Cup last 16 on disciplinary rule

Japan lost 1-0 to Poland on Thursday but survived to become the only Asian side to qualify for last 16 of the World Cup in Russia — and the first team ever to progress thanks to FIFA’s new disciplinary tie-breaker rule.

Japan made it through Group H in second place thanks to their players having been shown four yellow cards, two fewer than Senegal, who were eliminated, meaning there will be no African representatives in the knockout phase.

Senegal, who lost 1-0 to Colombia, ended up level on points, goal difference and goals scored with Japan so the teams were separated by the tie-break rule introduced at this World Cup for the first time.

Japan, who had only needed to draw against Poland to guarantee qualification, will next face a daunting task against the winners of Thursday’s Group G decider between England and Belgium.

Their advance, though, came only after a risky gamble paid off.

For after Colombia scored against Senegal in the 74th minute, putting qualification in Japan’s hands, coach Akira Nishino ordered his players to take no risks, an approach that slowed the game and earned resounding boos from the crowd.

“I decided that I was going to rely on the other match’s result. We were not happy about the situation of course. It was not intentional… However, it was a very tough and risky situation,” Nishino told reporters.

So risky indeed that had Poland scored another goal, Japan would have been sent tumbling out.

The Asian side were especially vulnerable as Nishino had excluded some of the squad’s most creative players, including midfielder Takashi Inui and Makoto Hasebe, from the starting line-up.

He said his decision to make six changes to his side was down to fatigue rather than any attempt to play for a draw.

Nishino, who took over in April after former coach Vahid Halilhodzic was fired, stressed he wanted his squad to play a freer, more attacking style in the last 16 against England or Belgium.

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