Following Japan’s dramatic exit from the World Cup this week, TW takes a look back at some of the team’s highlights and lowlights from the tournament in Russia.

Osako the Hero as Japan Stuns Colombia

Japan was handed an early gift in the opening game when Colombian midfielder Carlos Sanchez handled the ball inside the box, giving Samurai Blue a penalty and reducing the opposition to 10 men after just three minutes. Shinji Kagawa calmly dispatched the spot-kick, but Japan failed to capitalize on their numerical advantage in the first half and let Colombia back in the game as the impressive Juan Fernando Quintero squeezed his free-kick past the despairing goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima who laughably tried to claim the ball hadn’t crossed the line.

Much more positive in the second half, Japan was rewarded for its endeavours in the 73rd minute when Yuya Osako rose brilliantly to meet substitute Keisuke Honda’s pinpoint corner. Osako then displayed his defensive capabilities with a superb block from a James Rodriguez shot as Japan held on for a vital victory. It was a major boost for a team that had been written off by many before the World Cup began.

Honda to the Rescue

Japan versus Senegal was one of the most entertaining games of the first round. A topsy-turvy match that could have gone either way, the 2-2 draw was probably a fair result. Senegal took the lead through Sadio Mane after another error from Kawashima. Japan hit back later in the half when Takashi Inui, the team’s most exciting player, beautifully side-footed home after good work from Yuto Nagatomo down the left.

With the scores level, Osako, the hero from the first game, missed a glorious opportunity after Gaku Shibasaki put it on a plate for him. It proved costly as full-back Moussa Wague fired home to give Senegal the lead. Japan rallied and once again drew level thanks to super sub Keisuke Honda who became the sixth player in history to have scored and assisted at three World Cups along with David Beckham, Arjen Robben, Rudi Voller, Asamoah Gyan and Grzegorz Lato. His strike meant that Japan led the group ahead of Senegal courtesy of fewer bookings.

Japan Sneak Through After Playing Anti-football

Confidence was high amongst Japanese supporters going into the game against Poland. A point was all that was required to guarantee qualification and the opponents had already been eliminated. Manager Akira Nishino bizarrely decided to leave out six of the players who’d served him so well in the first two games, including the team’s most dangerous attacker Takashi Inui and playmaker Shinji Kagawa. It was a decision that backfired. Japan was toothless in attack, causing a Polish side, which was there for the taking, few problems. Poland wasn’t much better, though did manage to take the lead after 59 minutes through defender Jan Bednarek.

Fortunately, a goal from Colombia’s giant centre-back Yerry Mina in the other game meant Japan was still going through thanks to having fewer yellow cards than Senegal. Deciding to sit on the result, Nishino took off striker Yoshinori Muto to bring on defensive midfielder Makoto Hasebe. The message was clear: don’t attempt to attack, just keep the ball and hope that Colombia could hold the lead against Senegal. It was a huge risk. A goal from the West African side would have knocked the Asian team out. In the end it just about paid off. Japan went through, but the negative tactics employed by the manager damaged the team’s reputation.

Chadli Breaks Japanese Hearts 

In a tournament full of surprises, Japan looked on course to cause the biggest shock of them all. Given next to no chance before the second-round clash with Belgium, Nishino’s men started on the front foot despite being up against a side ranked number three in the world. After a relatively comfortable first half, Japan came out in the second full of confidence and took the lead following a wonderful finish from winger Genki Haraguchi. The second goal was even better. A lovely bit of skill from the excellent Shinji Kagawa teed up Takashi Inui who struck a crisp drive past Thibaut Courtois from 25 yards.

A fluky header by Jan Vertonghen got Belgium back in the game before the much maligned and oft-derided midfielder Marouane Fellaini equalized with a header. Both teams went looking for a winner and right at the death Honda hit a well-struck and dipping free-kick that had to be palmed away by Courtois. The former AC Milan man rushed over to take the resulting corner, but a disappointing delivery ended up in the hands of the goalkeeper who then launched a terrific counter-attack that ended with Nacer Chadli stroking the ball home in the dying seconds. In truth it was bad game management from Japan. Committing too many players forward, the defence was left exposed and with the considerable height disadvantage Honda would have been better keeping the ball in the corner. At the same time the 61st ranked team in the world deserve credit for being so positive and not sitting back. It couldn’t have been more different from the insipid display against Poland.

The Cleanest Team in Russia

After the Belgium game, the devastated Japanese players bowed and waved to fans before going in to get changed. They left the locker room spotless, cleaning the benches and tables. They also wrote a note to their hosts which read “Спасибо” (Russian for thank you).

It was a lovely touch by a squad who had been a credit to their country through the tournament. They played, the final 15 minutes against Poland aside, with a real a verve and intensity. There was no diving, cynical fouls or haranguing of the referee.

The fans also left their mark on the World Cup clearing the stands after each match Japan played. The heart-breaking defeat to Belgium didn’t even stop them. They weren’t the only supporters to get in on the act. Inspired by what they saw, Colombian fans decided to do the same after the clash with Samurai Blue, and in the following game that day Senegal supporters also cleaned the stadium after their 2-1 win over Poland. Hopefully we’ll see more of the same in Qatar in four years’ time.

Japan’s Player(s) of the Tournament

A number of Japanese players enhanced their reputations in Russia and none more so than Gaku Shibasaki. The creative midfielder dictated play from the middle of the park setting up numerous opportunities for Japan’s attacking players. Following his performances this summer there are likely to be numerous clubs interested in signing the 25-year-old, who only joined Getafe from Tenerife last season.

Fellow Spain-based player Takashi Inui was Japan’s other standout performer at the World Cup. The left-winger scored two fine goals and was a constant threat for opposition defences. Real Betis did a great piece of business getting his transfer in early. Competition for his signature would have been fierce had they waited until the tournament was over. He will be missed at Eibar.

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