In true FIFA World Cup 2018 fashion, Japan stunned Columbia 2-1 on Tuesday, in the opening game of Group H.
Wow. I called Group H ‘predictable’ before the tournament started, but it seems that these teams are doing everything in their power to prove me wrong. Colombia was defeated 2-1 by Japan today, in the inaugural match in Group H, which was a thriller.
Most of the pre-match chatter involved the surprise decision by Colombian coach Jose Pekerman to leave star player James Rodriguez on the bench.
Pekerman cited a lingering calf injury that Rodriguez has been struggling with all season, but it was still a surprise to see the breakout Bayern Munich star on the bench to start the 2018 World Cup.
Predictably, the first few minutes of the game started as many thought it would, with Colombia creating offensive chances through possession and Japan sitting back and absorbing pressure.
Yet three minutes in, all notions of a “typical” match were thrown out the window.
After a good spell of Colombian possession, which was spearheaded by a bright start from Colombian winger Juan Cuadrado, Japan won the ball back before sending a hopeful clearance up the field towards striker Yuya Osako.
Osako displayed great upper-body strength to out-muscle Colombian and Tottenham Hotspur center back Davison Sanchez before firing a low shot on Arsenal fringe keeper David Ospina.
Ospina’s well-timed save from close range forced the ball back to the top of the box, where it fell to Japan’s captain Shinji Kagawa. Kagawa fired a first-time effort on the open net, only to see the ball cynically blocked by the right arm of Colombian midfielder Carlos Alberto Sanchez.
VAR, which is being utilized for the first time at this World Cup, was not needed, with the infraction spotted by the referee, who gave the penalty and issued the second fastest red card in World Cup history to Sanchez.
Kagawa stepped up and slotted the ball home from the spot, to give Japan an early and stunning 1-0 lead over the favorites to win Group H. However Colombia, though a man down, did not go down quietly.
Striker Radamel Falcao saw a pair of chances fall calmly into the arms of Japanese goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima before Pekerman made a questionable decision to replace Cuadrado in the 31st minute with holding midfielder Wilmar Barrios.
Just after, Osako had a second clear chance of the game for Japan, as the ball fell to him just outside the six yard box. However, Osako wasted the chance, slicing the ball well wide as he appeared to be caught between two minds.
Colombia got a deserved goal back at the brink of half time, as Japan were rather complacent after going up a goal.
Another hopeful clearance was played upfield, this time from the Colombians, and Falcao won a controversial free kick at the top of Japan’s box.
Up stepped Juan Quintero for Colombia, who produced a moment of World Cup magic for the match favorites as he channelled his inner Ronaldinho and slid a low shot underneath the wall to beat Kawashima at his near post. 1-1 with 45 minutes to play.
Japan, who certainly did not take advantage of having an extra man, came out firing at all cylinders in the second half. Colombia’s tired legs showed, and Japan were clearly more confident possession.
Perhaps the best chance of the second half fell to Takashi Inui, who found himself free on his right foot inside the Columbia box. Inui fired a low shot, which looked to have Ospina beat, but a fantastic block from Sanchez sent the ball just wide.
Rodriguez finally made an appearance at the hour mark, replacing the goal scorer Quintero, and the budding Bayern star started brightly, finding space and forcing Japan momentarily back.
But it was not the Columbians’ day, as minutes later Japan got the goal it had been pushing for.
Japan’s Hiroki Sakai earned the Japanese a corner in the 71st minute. Substitute Keisuke Honda swung a teasing ball into the box, trapping Ospina on his line and allowing Osako to rise up and nod the ball off the far post and in.
It was a brilliant goal from a player who had created oodles of chances for Japan on the day, and it put the Japanese deservedly ahead.
Naturally, it was then crunch time for Colombia, and while the Columbians were able to create a few half chances through set pieces (I’m sensing a theme this World Cup), they were unable to find an equalizer.
Japan held off Columbia for the remainder of the game, taking advantage of their own man advantage and recording an ever-important opening game victory.
Japan’s victory comes on the heels of Mexico’s stunning upset of reigning World Champions Germany. It’s a result that, in my opinion, is not only the most surprising result of the group, but also the tournament thus far.
My Man of the Match
Columbia 8 — Shots — 14 Japan
Columbia 39% — Possession — 61% Japan
Columbia 15 — Fouls— 9 Japan
Columbia 2 — Yellow Cards — 1 Japan
Columbia 1— Red Cards — 0 Japan