SAMARA, Russia (Reuters) - Japan’s gambles keep paying off.
It was a gamble to replace their coach two months before the World Cup, it was a gamble to make sweeping changes to the starting line-up for Thursday’s match against Poland, and it was a gamble to settle for a 1-0 loss and hope Senegal couldn’t steal their spot in the last 16.
These wagers all came off as the Samurai Blue progressed to the knockout stages on Thursday at the expense of Senegal, who they edged out on fair play rules alone.
Before the match, coach Akira Nishino made six changes to the team that drew with Senegal in their previous game, including leaving out influential Borussia Dortmund playmaker Shinji Kagawa.
Having gone a goal down, the Japanese passed the ball around tamely among themselves in the final minutes of their last group H game against Poland in Volgograd, even while knowing that a Senegal equalizer against Colombia in Samara would knock them out.
The high-risk strategy paid off but left Nishino a little sheepish.
“We did not go for victory but just relied on the other match,” he told reporters. “That was slightly regrettable but I suppose at that point I didn’t have any other plans.”
“I am really not happy about how we played today but...we wanted to go through to the round of 16 and we have, and that is the only salvation that I get.”
The coach clearly had the support of his players, though, who executed the plan to a tee.
“The results are everything,” said veteran midfielder Keisuke Honda after the game.
“It was brilliant managerial judgement. I would not have been able to do that if I were the manager.”
Nishino’s decision has also been applauded back home, where Japanese fans marked the team’s progression with celebrations on the crowded Shibuya crossing in Tokyo and by jumping into the canal that runs through central Osaka.
“It was a high-stakes decision, but in reality this was a victory for teamwork,” wrote former Japan defender Yutaka Akita in sports daily Nikkan Sports.
“Being able to use so many players in World Cup games that aren’t dead rubbers will improve the atmosphere.”
“With a risk-taker like this at the helm, I don’t think it’s just a dream to think that Japan can now get to the quarter-finals for the first time,” he wrote.
Even Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga appeared impressed at Nishino’s move.
“It must have been a deliberate strategy after paying due attention to the rules,” Suga said, according to Kyodo News.
“The important thing is that they made it through the group stage.”
Not everyone was happy, though.
“The overall defending was worse than in previous games and the team wasn’t able to switch into attacking mode,” former Basel defender Koji Nakata said in the Sports Nippon paper.
“They were also vulnerable to the counterattack after conceding the goal, and there are lots of things to work on before the next game,” he said.
While Thursday’s gamble may have paid off, the fact remains that Japan will indeed need to produce something special if they are to beat Belgium on Monday for a place in the World Cup quarter finals for the first time in their history.
Reporting by Jack Tarrant; Editing by Hugh Lawson