Volgograd (Russia), Japan lost 0-1 to Poland in their final Group H contest here but still managed to go through to the FIFA World Cup pre-quarterfinals.
Following the loss, thanks to Jan Bednarek’s 59th-minute strike, Japan have four points — the same as third-placed Senegal but the Asian powerhouse are ranked second in the group on the basis of fair play (number of yellow and red cards collected).
Colombia, who defeated Senegal 1-0 in Samara, topped Group H with six points.
Poland have three points from three games and are in the fourth and final spot in the group.
Despite the importance of the game, Japan coach Akira Nishino made six changes to his starting 11 after repeating the same team for the first two matches, while Lukasz Fabianski and Kamil Grosicki were in the Polish side.
Grosicki’s pace almost created a chance for Robert Lewandowski in the 5th minute, but the striker’s touch let him down in the Japan penalty area, reports Xinhua news agency.
Japan took time to get into the game, but Shinji Okazaki headed wide in the 12th minute, Yoshinori Muto produced a smart save from Fabianski a minute later and Maya Yoshida also worked the keeper from the edge of the area.
Japan were leaving spaces in midfield and were almost punished in the 32nd minute when Grosicki’s header drew a good save from Eiji Kawashima in the Japan goal, although Japan responded quickly as Takashi Usami drew another stop from Fabianski.
There was a setback for the Japanese at the start of the second half when Okazaki had to be replaced by Yuya Osako after less than two minutes with what looked like a muscle problem.
However, Japan retained their attacking 4-4-2 formation with both wide midfielders pushing forward, almost allowing Grosicki and Lewandowski to combine in the 54th minute.
The game again settled into a pattern with Japan looking to attack, but never quite in control and were punished just before the hour when Jan Bednarek side-footed home a free kick from close range, getting the better of his Southampton teammate Yoshida in the process.
With Japan now needing a goal to qualify for the next round Takashi Inui replaced Usami, but they should have fallen 2 behind when Lewandowski fired another Grosicki ball over in the 74th minute and the Hull City winger almost forced Tomashi Makino to concede an own goal with another dangerous cross.
News of Colombia’s goal against Senegal clearly filtered through and with the result in the other Group H game meaning Japan would qualify through having fewer yellow cards than their rivals both sides appeared to draw a footballing truce for what was frankly an embarrassing last 10 minutes in which neither tried to score.