One gamble too far for heartbroken Japan

SAMARA, Russia (Reuters) - Akira Nishino’s short time in charge of Japan has been defined by a succession of gambles and so it was perhaps fitting that his side departs the World Cup after risking it all in the last 16 against Belgium.

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It was a gamble in itself to install Nishino as coach two months out from the tournament, and since taking over the 63-year-old has shown a daring not associated with his predecessor Vahid Halilhodzic, nor indeed Japanese soccer in general.

After choosing to keep faith with many of the veterans who were in danger of losing their place under Halilhodzic, Nishino’s Japan opened their Group H campaign with a win over Colombia and a draw with Senegal.

Nishino threw the dice in their final group match against already-eliminated Poland, making six changes to the starting 11 and then, when a goal down, opting not to chase an equalizer, instead holding out for a result that would see them into the last 16 instead of Senegal due to a better disciplinary record.

Against Belgium in Rostov-on-Don, Nishino recalled his key players and went on the offensive, keeping to the promise of playing attacking football he made when he took charge.

The tactics initially paid dividends as Japan opened up a 2-0 lead over the fancied Belgians before the strength of the European side brought them level.

Deep into stoppage time, Nishino decided he was not done gambling and urged his players forward at a corner looking to clinch the winner.

When the set-piece came to nothing, Belgium broke forward on the counter, exposing Japan’s threadbare defense, and scored the winner with the last kick of the game.

“I don’t think the players were to blame, I think it was me who might have lost control of the game,” Nishino said.

“When the goal was conceded, I blamed myself, and I question my tactics.

“As for the result I am very disappointed. I am devastated.

“When we were 2-0 up, and I didn’t change my players, I really wanted to score another goal and we did have opportunities.”

Nishino’s desire to win may have cost his team a chance at reaching their first World Cup quarter-final but his attacking brand of football is sure to have been appreciated back home.

The JFA, meanwhile, came in for heavy criticism for sacking Halilhodzic so close to the tournament but Japan’s performances in Russia suggests it is a gamble that paid off.

Editing by Peter Rutherford