No win, no problem - Japan fans keep faith for last 16

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese soccer fans did not get the win they wanted but took heart from their team’s grit as the Samurai Blue came from behind twice to draw 2-2 with Senegal, keeping their hopes of an improbable place in the World Cup last 16 on track.

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Japan looked on the verge of defeat in their second Group H match until veteran Keisuke Honda fired home the equaliser 12 minutes from time, sending supporters into a frenzy in the stadium and at sports bars across Tokyo.

“They’ve been great. I want them to keep playing hard,” Shintaro Sakamichi, a 23-year-old civil servant, said above the raucous cheers at the M-Spo pub in Shibuya, where some people brought drums, horns and giant flags to recreate a stadium feel.

“I thought the best they’d do against Colombia would be a draw but now I have higher expectations,” he said, referring to Japan’s 2-1 victory in their opening game.

The 61st-ranked Samurai Blue had been given little chance of advancing from a tough group after a poor run of form and the firing of head coach Vahid Halilhodzic just two months before the World Cup.

But their shock win over Colombia sparked expectations among supporters that the team - who had failed to win a match at the tournament four years ago - were ready to make an impact.

“I think we can make it to the quarter-finals,” said a beaming Yuki Isoda, a 24-year-old chiropractor wearing a blue Japan jersey.

That would be a first for Japan - the farthest they have advanced at a World Cup was the last 16 in 2002 and 2010.

Japan and Senegal go into their final group matches on four points ahead of Colombia, who have three after eliminating Poland with a 3-0 win on Sunday. Japan face Poland on Thursday.

The Japan-Senegal match kicked off at midnight Japan time, meaning many fans will be spending a blurry-eyed Monday in their offices, especially those stranded downtown after public transport service had shut down for the night.

Takamichi Masui, a 50-year-old hairdresser, said the lively atmosphere made it worthwhile.

“I got a lot of sleep today so I’ll make it through Monday, just at a lower gear. I’ll be back in high gear on Tuesday,” he said.

Reporting by Chris Gallagher; editing by Ken Ferris