World Cup: Japan fall short to exit in cruellest fashion

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It was the most agonising way for Japan to go out of the World Cup.

Their players slumped to the turf as 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.

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.

They will feel they deserved better than this after a superbly disciplined performance, with Maya Yoshida marshalling their back line and Eiji Kawashima – a goalkeeper who has been relegated in both Scotland and France in the past three seasons – making 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, of Fortuna Duesseldorf in Germany, somehow beat the giant frame of Thibaut 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.

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

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

Jan Vertonghen, undone by Gaku Shibasaki’s through ball for Japan’s opening goal, 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 assist.

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.

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.

Source: VIR