Honours even as Japan and Senegal play out thriller

This match was always likely to entertain, and it didn’t disappoint. With Senegal and Japan throwing Group H wide open by pulling off upset wins in their first games, their meeting in Yekaterinburg was both important and very intriguing. The two sides couldn’t be split in 90 minutes of open, end-to-end football. Twice Senegal pulled ahead. Twice Japan equalised. It wouldn’t have seemed right if one side had come out on top in a pulsating, absorbing and very competitive contest. It was World Cup football at its best.

Senegal started well, and they took an early lead through a series of Japanese defensive errors. Moussa Wagué found plenty of space to put a cross in, but his ball wasn’t very good and it picked out Genki Haraguchi. The Japanese winger had plenty of time to clear the ball, and he could have done any number of things. Unfortunately for Japan, he picked out the man he had abandoned to win the header, and Senegalese left-back Youssouf Sabaly found himself in plenty of space with the ball at his feet. He tried a shot, but it went straight at Japanese goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima. It shouldn’t have been a problem for Japan. Then Kawashima decided to punch the ball instead of catching it. Sadio Mané had followed Sabaly’s shot in, and Senegal’s star winger didn’t need to move as the keeper punched it straight into his knee and the rebound bounced into the back of the net.

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Japan celebrate after scoring their first goal through Takashi Inui. Inui finished with a goal and an assist, and his input allowed Japan to come away with a 2-2 draw.

Japan began to settle into the game as the first half progressed, and they levelled just after the first half hour. The goal started when a long cross-field ball found Yūto Nagatomo on the edge of the Japanese penalty area. Senegal were slow to react to Nagatomo’s heavy first touch, and the Japanese left-back was able to recover the ball near goal. He offloaded for Takashi Inui, and the left-winger’s exquisite curling shot beat Khadim N’Diaye’s desperate dive to nestle itself in the bottom corner. It was a stunning goal, and the Japanese were back on level terms after their slow start. Senegal nearly scored soon after when M’Baye Niang latched onto a dangerous ball, but Kawashima managed to make an excellent save to deny the dynamic striker. It was one of the only clear-cut chances in the first half which didn’t result in a goal, but the match wasn’t any less entertaining for the large breaks in goalmouth action.

The second half started slowly, with both teams settling back into the rhythm of the game and neither creating many early chances. Then, just after the hour, Japan took the ascendency. Japan had a stunning chance just after the hour when Yūya Ōsako had the opportunity to steer Gaku Shibasaki’s dangerous cross home. As hard as he tried, he couldn’t get his outstretched the leg to the ball, and the chance was gone. Japan followed that chance with a dangerous attack which was wasted by Ōsako’s poor cross from a promising position, and seconds later they nearly scored when Inui hit the bar against a stretched Senegalese defence. The Lions of Teranga were under pressure to respond, and respond they did.

Mané started it. He collected the ball on the left-wing with seemingly no options available to him and a defender standing directly in front of him. Then, with excellent vision and even better skill, he chipped the man corralling him and picked out Sabaly brilliantly in the box. The left-back held off his man, took a spin and put in a low cross which rolled through the area and sat up in a vacant part of the box. The chance seemed lost when Wagué stepped up. The 19-year-old right-back rushed into the box at pace, and with one touch he slammed the ball past Kawashima to put Senegal back in front. Once again, Senegal had presented Japan with a challenge. Once again, Japan fought back and responded.

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Moussa Wagué wheels away in celebration after putting Senegal in front during the second half. The lead provided by Wagué’s strike lasted less than 10 minutes. 

It didn’t take long. They had a great chance when Ōsako found space to shoot from a corner, but towering Senegalese centre-back Salif Sané got his body in the way and kept the shot out. A few minutes later, Keisuke Honda grabbed the equaliser after a bungle from N’Diaye. The Senegalese keeper jumped at a cross that Sané had already headed away, and he went crashing to the turf, unable to impact the play. When Inui kept the ball alive, and held possession on the by-line with N’Diaye lying helplessly on the ground, Senegal were in trouble. The assembled defenders couldn’t block Inui’s cross, and Honda, having come on just a few minutes before, easily finished the chance past last man Kalidou Koulibaly. With just over 10 minutes left the scores were level, and neither side was willing to give up on victory.

Neither side scored again, but the drama continued right to the final whistle as both teams continued to attack and neither manager felt comfortable settling for a draw. In the end, both defences faced some dangerous attacks but held firm. In the end, the sides shared the spoils after one of the games of the tournament, and placed themselves in a strong but not unassailable position going into their final games. After putting on such a thrilling show, it wouldn’t have been fair any other way.

Yekaterinburg – Central Stadium
Japan 2 (Inui 34, Honda 78)
Senegal 2 (Mané 11, Wagué 71)
Referee: Gianluca Rocchi (Ita)
Japan (4-2-3-1): Kawashima – H Sakai, Yoshida, Shōji, Nagatomo; Hasebe, Shibasaki; Haraguchi (Okazaki 75), Kagawa (Honda 72), Inui (Usami 87); Ōsako.
Senegal (4-3-3): K N’Diaye – Wagué, Sané, Koulibaly, Sabaly; B Ndiaye (N’Doye 81), A N’Diaye (Kouyaté 65), Gueye; Sarr, Niang (Diouf 86), Mané.

Top 5
1. Takashi Inui (Japan)
Inui was dangerous all game, cutting inside to good effect and playing a hand in both of Japan’s goals. His finish to level the scores in the first half was top class, and his pass to set up Honda’s late goal was a very nice piece of work. With a goal and an assist, he had a huge impact on the result.
2. Moussa Wagué (Senegal)
Wagué may only be 19, but the young right-back stepped up to the pressure of a crunch World Cup clash and passed the test with flying colours. He became the youngest African player to score at the tournament after storming into the box and finishing powerfully, and his defensive work was always solid. He looks like a great prospect.
3. Sadio Mané (Senegal)
Mané was quiet by his lofty standards in Senegal’s upset opening win over Poland, and he was never going to stay down for two matches in a row. He had his biggest impact early on when he scored a true poachers’ goal, but he stayed involved in the game and started the move which led to their second goal with a very good pass.
4. Yūto Nagatomo (Japan)
Nagatomo had a tough job marking the rapid Ismaïla Sarr, but he managed to keep the talented winger fairly quiet while simultaneously providing an attacking threat with his incisive overlapping runs. He combined well with Inui to put the Senegalese defence under pressure, and he showed his experience with some crucial pieces of defensive work.
5. Salif Sané (Senegal)
Sané towers above everyone else on the field, and he looked particularly imposing as he continually rebuffed Japanese attacks with his remarkable size and athleticism. He was almost unbeatable in the air, and he made life very difficult for the Japanese when they tried to score from set pieces.

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