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By Alexandra Ulmer and William Schomberg
VOLGOGRAD, Russia, June 28 (Reuters) - Japan lost 1-0 in a dull game with Poland on Thursday but still became the only Asian side to qualify for the World Cup’s last 16 — and the first team ever to progress thanks to FIFA’s new disciplinary tie-breaker rule.
Japan made it through Group H in second place thanks to their players having been shown fewer yellow cards than Senegal, who were eliminated instead to ensure there will be no African representatives in the knockout phase.
Senegal, who lost 1-0 to Colombia, ended up level on points, goal difference and goals scored with Japan so the teams were separated by the tie-break rule introduced at this World Cup for the first time.
Japan squeezed through because they had been shown only four yellow cards to Senegal’s six, ensuring that the Asian side will next face a daunting task against the winners of Thursday’s Group G decider between England and Belgium.
Japan excluded some of its most creative players, including midfielder Takashi Inui and Makoto Hasebe, from the starting line-up but coach Akira Nishino put that down to fatigue rather than any attempt to play for a draw.
“I decided that I was going to rely on the other match’s result. We were not happy about the situation of course. It was not intentional... However, it was a very tough and risky situation,” said Nishino.
Poland shook up the lethargic game - played in 36 degree Celsius (96.8 Fahrenheit) heat - in the 59th minute when Poland’s Rafal Kurzawa floated a free kick to the far post and an unmarked Jan Bednarek scored from close range.
Nishino introduced Inui minutes later, but Japan barely fought back and the game petered out in the dying minutes in farcical circumstances with both sides, content with the result, idly rolling the ball around in their own half amid the fans’ boos.
Still, Japanese fans were left toasting goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima, who in the first half made a spectacular save that denied Kamil Grosicki’s header.
Poland were relieved to have restored some pride by eking out a win but they finished at the bottom of the group as one of the tournament’s biggest disappointments.
The Poles reached the quarter-finals of Euro 2016, where they went out on penalties to eventual champions Portugal, and more had been expected after they had finished top of their qualifying group for the World Cup.
Their main man, striker Robert Lewandowski, powered in 16 goals during the qualifiers — but failed to score a single one in Russia, ending his miserable tournament with another spurned chance against Japan.
“The World Cup was not a success for us, but we’ll go home with our heads high because we won the last game... You have to win games right from the start. But it’s a lesson for us, we’ll learn our lesson,” Bednarek told Polish media. (Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer and William Schomberg Additional reporting by Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk Editing by Ian Chadband)