ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia (Reuters) - Japan coach Akira Nishino said his players were lost for words after their crushing 3-2 defeat by Belgium on Monday in the World Cup last 16 when they were on the cusp of making history but threw away a two-goal lead late in the second half.
“I told the players to go and take a shower because they were just standing there not able to do anything,” said a dejected Nishino after Nacer Chadli’s winner deep in stoppage time from a lightning quick counter attack after a Japan corner.
“I do not want to really admit it but this was a tragedy, but I have to accept this defeat as a fact. I feel devastated, very disappointed,” he added.
“The players played to the best of their abilities, we were able to show good football on the pitch but our aim was to go to the next round so I cannot call this a success.”
After surviving a spell of Belgium dominance in the first half, Japan came flying out of the blocks in the second and Genki Haraguchi gave them a shock lead which Takashi Inui quickly doubled with a scorching long-range strike.
But just when Japan looked set to break the barrier to the quarter-finals after two last 16 exits in 2002 and 2010, Jan Vertonghen and Marouane Fellaini levelled for Belgium, who stand 58 places above the Asian side in the FIFA world rankings.
Nishino’s side went all out to try and restore their lead in an attempt to avoid extra time but they were punished for their adventurous approach by Belgium’s deadly counter-attack.
“It’s not just that we played well, but we had to win this game, we wanted to win, our team were strong enough and we were able to match Belgium and I believed we could beat them,” he said.
The coach, who took charge of Japan two months before the World Cup started after Vahid Halilhodzic was sacked, said he and not his players were at fault for their late collapse.
“When they scored I questioned whether I was in control in the game, and thought that I should be blamed and not the players. I blamed myself, I questioned my tactics,” he added.
“I wanted my players to have a different mentality to Japanese teams in the past, I think we succeeded in having a different mentality but there was something missing in our skills and powers.”
Belgium will face Brazil in the quarter-finals on Friday.
Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Ken Ferris