Senegal, Japan: underdogs aiming for a round of 16 spot
By KAREL JANICEK
YEKATERINBURG, Russia (AP) Senegal and Japan have been part of the uprising of the underdogs at this World Cup, in the mix among the lower-ranked teams that are surprisingly taking points from the favorites.
Defying expectations, Japan beat Colombia 2-1 in its opening match to become the first team from Asia to beat one from South America in World Cup history. Senegal followed up with a 2-1 victory over No. 8-ranked Poland to become the first African team to win in the 2018 edition after Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria and Tunisia all opened with losses.
Japan and Senegal have joined the likes of Mexico, which upset Germany, and Iceland, which held Argentina to a 1-1 draw.
Now they're playing each other, with the lead in Group H on offer for Sunday's winner.
The winner of their match in Yekaterinburg would be on the brink of advancing to the knock out stage, while a draw would mean both remain in contention.
That leaves the group favorites, Colombia and Poland, under pressure and in need of points when they meet later on Sunday to avoid an early elimination.
Japan coach Akira Nishino relies heavily on his players with past World Cup experience. The country first qualified for the sport's marquee tournament in 1998 and hasn't missed a World Cup since, reaching the round of 16 in 2002 and 2010. Japan did what it needed to do against 10-man Colombia to win, but chances will be harder to create against Senegal. Leicester City forward Shinji Okazaki might be available to start after recovering from a right calf strain. He was used as a substitute against Colombia.
"We need to be able to play to our full potential rather than being reactive to the opposition's strength," Nishino said.
Japan is enjoying the unexpected but highly welcomed support from Princess Hisako of Takamada, who visited the team's practice hub in Kazan to meet the players after she attended the match against Colombia. The first member of Japan's royal family to visit Russia in more than a century, Princess Hisako is likely again to attend Sunday's match.
Sadio Mane rarely threatened against Poland, but Senegal is hoping the Liverpool striker is able to use his pace and exceptional dribbling skills up front to score. The Lions of Teranga need his goals to meet the expectations and emulate the 2002 Senegal team that reached the quarterfinals on World Cup debut. To do so, a Senegal defense led by Kalidou Koulibaly has to stay as focused as they were against Poland, when they nullified the impact of star striker Robert Lewandowski.
"We're not too euphoric because we know it's going to be a difficult match against Japan," Senegal coach Aliou Cisse said. "It's a hard working team."
Japan is yet to register a win over Senegal. In the previous three friendly encounters Senegal has two wins - 2-0 in 2001 and 1-0 in 2003 - and the teams drew 2-2 in 1987.
Updated June 23, 2018