Japan fall short to exit World Cup in cruellest fashion


ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia, July 3, 2018 (BSS/AFP) – Keisuke Honda said Japan
could be proud despite exiting the World Cup in the most agonising manner.

Their players slumped to the turf after Nacer Chadli slammed the ball into
the net at the end of a 94th-minute counter-attack, the last move of the game
in Rostov-on-Don allowing Belgium to clinch a stunning 3-2 victory and a
place in the quarter-finals.

Among the pre-tournament favourites in Russia, Eden Hazard and the
Belgians march on to a last-eight meeting with Brazil after scoring one of
the latest winning goals in a World Cup game.

But a crushed Japan head home having been two goals ahead midway through
the second half on a steamy night on the banks of the Don River.

“As you see, we were not afraid to play against Belgium and we showed that
for 90 minutes but unfortunately we couldn’t win the game,” said Honda.

The 32-year-old had come off the bench late on and forced a fine save from
Thibaut Courtois from a free-kick in stoppage time just before Japan conceded
the deciding goal.

“Belgium deserved to win the game, but I am proud of the team because the
starting members played really aggressively,” he said.

“I think all Japanese people also are proud of us, so I am satisfied about
the team.”

While Honda was dignified in defeat, Japan are entitled to feel they
deserved better after a superbly disciplined performance.

Maya Yoshida marshalled their back line and Eiji Kawashima — a goalkeeper
who has been relegated in both Scotland and France in the past three seasons
— made several vital interceptions.

There was plenty of technical quality on display as well, with the two
goals scored early in the second half by Genki Haraguchi and the excellent
Takashi Inui both worthy of the biggest stage.

Winger Haraguchi, who plays in Germany, somehow beat the giant frame of
Courtois to find the far corner and put Japan ahead just after the break.

Then Inui — operating on the other flank and who has just signed for
Spanish side Betis — showed what he can do with a magnificent strike from
outside the area after being teed up by Shinji Kagawa.

Japan looked to be heading for the quarter-finals of the World Cup for the
first time in their history.

– Little consolation –

But a side who scraped through the group phase only by virtue of receiving
fewer yellow cards than Senegal were finally undone in the last quarter of
the game.

The Samurai Blue contained Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku for
more than an hour, yet it was the substitutes sent on by Belgium coach
Roberto Martinez who made the difference.

Jan Vertonghen, undone by Gaku Shibasaki’s through ball for Japan’s
opener, was fortunate to see his header loop over Kawashima and in under the
crossbar to pull one back in the 69th minute.

Five minutes later, however, it was Marouane Fellaini, the classic Plan B,
on for Dries Mertens, who headed in the leveller from Hazard’s stellar

Belgium’s captain had stirred, and his side had the momentum.

At 2-2, it was a repeat of the last World Cup meeting of these teams, at
the 2002 tournament in Japan.

Akira Nishino’s side could have settled for taking the tie into extra time
but instead they were punished for taking a chance on a last corner kick, and
Chadli, another substitute, finished off the move.

Honda, though, insisted Japan could not have approached the game any other

“I don’t think we can defend against Belgium. Our strength is to keep the
ball. If we didn’t try to do that and play aggressively, I don’t think we
would have scored and they could have scored four or five,” said Honda.

Nishino — only appointed in April after the controversial sacking of
veteran coach Vahid Halilhodzic — deserves credit for taking Japan so close
against one of the finest sets of players around.

That will be little consolation just now, however.