1500 BST, Thursday 28 June, Volgograd Arena (Volgograd), BBC One
Group H table-toppers Japan look to book an unlikely spot in the 2018 World Cup knockout stages when they meet winless Poland in Volgograd on Thursday.
The Blue Samurai have racked up four points from their first two games, scoring four goals along the way. A meeting with Colombia in the first saw Japan become the first Asian side to beat South American opposition at a World Cup, winning 2-1.
A closely contested 2-2 draw with Senegal followed as Akira Nishino’s men improved their chances of progression.
For Poland, the World Cup couldn’t have gone much worse so far. The Poles have been out-of-sorts in their first two games and have only scored once, shipping five. Poland haven’t gone past the group stage since 1986, but a defeat on Thursday will be the first time in their history they have lost all three group matches.
Last Time Out
Japan 2-2 Senegal
In the second round of games, the Japanese played out an entertaining 2-2 draw with African nation Senegal. Japan twice went behind in the game, but twice recovered to draw level and take an important share of the spoils.
Liverpool star Sadio Mane gave Senegal the lead in fortunate circumstances as Japan goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima punched a cross into his leg. The impressive Takashi Inui brought his side on level terms with a curled strike ten minutes before the break.
Moussa Wague then restored the African sides’ advantage with a powerful finish into the roof of the Japanese net, as Senegal looked on course to take six points from six.
Substitute Keisuke Honda replied for Japan with only twelve minutes left on the clock when he turned in Inui’s cross after another poor example of goalkeeping.
Poland 0-3 Colombia
The Poles went into the clash with Colombia knowing the draw between Japan and Senegal meant that they would be sent packing were they to lose against the South Americans.
Poland’s confidence after the defeat to Senegal was evidently knocked as they started sluggishly in Kazan. Colombia, fresh from a frustrating loss of their own to Japan, came out with a point to prove and took the lead five minutes before the break when Yerry Mina headed in a James Rodriguez cross.
Radamel Falcao finally got his sought-after World Cup goal when Juan Quintero put the forward through, whilst the fit-again Rodriguez’s impressive vision came to the fore as his ball sliced through the Polish defence and Juan Cuadrado finished coolly to round off a much-improved Colombian performance.
Nishino may reward his sides’ resolute performance against Senegal by staying with the same starting XI, though Keisuke Honda has impressed from the bench in the two previous games, so he will hope for a start.
Shinji Okazaki has also been restricted to cameo roles as a substitute so far, and will hope to see his playing time increased.
The Poles have left a lot to be desired so far in this World Cup, and they have only one game left to salvage something worthwhile.
Adam Nawalka, along with the rest of the Polish population, will hope to see a lot more from Robert Lewandowski, who hasn’t had the most enjoyable tournament.
Key Battle: Shinji Kagawa (Japan) vs Grzegorz Krychowiak (Poland)
Much of Japan’s attacking threat is generated by Kagawa’s ability to create chances from the middle of the park. Playing in the number ten role, but coming deeper to collect the ball, Kagawa has proved a nuisance for both Colombia and Senegal, making three key passes in two games.
Playing in a midfield double pivot, Krychowiak is tasked with a creative role – linking midfield to attack – but it’s crucial that it’s not to the neglect of his defensive duties, particularly in terms of protecting a Polish defence that has looked porous.
KEY STAT: Krychowiak has completed seven tackles in two World Cup games.
Japan are playing with confidence, upsetting the odds and balance of the group so far in their opening fixtures, and Kagawa has played his part, but negotiating space with ball-winning Krychowiak will prove difficult.
Driven by a Honda
There’s no arguing with Keisuke Honda’s contribution to the Japanese World Cup campaign thus far.
Assisting Yuya Osako’s winner against Colombia, whilst scoring the equaliser against Poland, Honda has a goal and an assist to his name, and became the first Japanese player to score in his third World Cup finals – 2010, 2014 and 2018.
He lifted the Blue Samurai’s spirits after his introduction and, despite only having 13 touches of the ball, his experienced told and he was in the right place at the right time to net the equaliser.
It’s a tough decision between himself and Kagawa, but Honda certainly has made his case.
No source of inspiration
With only three games, the World Cup group stage doesn’t afford teams much time to get into their stride. Poland have been far too sluggish in their opening fixtures, and have been duly punished.
Creativity and attacking threat has been desperately lacking and star man Lewandowski has been a passenger, offering little threat.
This is their first World Cup appearance in 12 years, and they are in danger of disappearing with a whimper.
When the chance of a place in the knockout round couldn’t even motivate this group, there’s no reason to argue that pride will have a greater motivational effect.
Prediction: Japan 1-1 Poland
Poland have national pride to play for, which could make them dangerous opponents, with the likes of Lewandowski keen to return home with more than a red face, but there’s a serious shortage of desire and effort amongst the Poles and they’ll struggle to get anything more than a point off a Japanese side that have looked well organised and strong.
The advantage that the Japanese have is that with Senegal and Colombia playing one another, only a defeat to Poland would put them in any real danger of missing out, even then a victory for either side in the other fixture would see them progress, provided it’s by as many or fewer goals than a Colombian victory margin.
A draw is enough and the Blue Samurai will play for such a result. 1-1.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss all the action from Day 13 of the World Cup in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.
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