Japan almost paid the price for resting players against Poland and only went through because Senegal had more yellow cards.
They finished level on points with the Africans and with the same goal difference, so it all came down to the Fair Play rules – Senegal had two more bookings, both earned by Torino striker M’Baye Niang.
The Blue Samurai were surprisingly top of the group going in and still unbeaten, having defeated 10-man Colombia and drawn a 2-2 thriller with Senegal. Despite not being qualified yet, Coach Akira Nishino rested several players. Poland had been tipped as dark horses, but were already out following two losses, so Lukasz Fabianski was given a start in goal rather than Juventus man Wojciech Szczesny.
Yoshinori Muto and Takashi Usami saw their shots parried, but Eiji Kawashima needed a fantastic save to scoop Sampdoria defender Bartosz Bereszynski’s header away just before it completely crossed the line.
Poland seemed utterly toothless, but still managed to take the lead through Jan Bednarek’s volley from eight yards on a Rafal Kurzawa free kick floated over the top. With Senegal and Colombia goalless in the other game, this result would put Japan out of the World Cup.
Kamil Grosicki and Maya Yoshida headers were off target, while Robert Lewandowski wasted a promising opportunity. Once news came through that Colombia had taken the lead and Japan would go through thanks to a superior Fair Play record, both teams visibly stopped playing. It was a massive gamble to take, as a Senegal equaliser would've changed everything.
Japan 0-1 Poland
Bednarek 60 (P)
Japan: Kawashima; H Sakai, Yoshida, Makino, Nagatomo; Yamaguchi, Shibasaki; G Sakai, Okazaki (Osako 47), Usami (Inui 65); Muto (Hasebe 82)
Poland: Fabianski; Bereszynski, Glik, Bednarek; Kurzawa (Peszko 79), Krychowiak, Goralski, Jedrzejczyk; Zielinski (Teodorczyk 79), Lewandowski, Grosicki
Ref: Sikazwe (ZAM)