After a disappointing World Cup campaign in 2014, Japan kicked off Group H with a precious victory against 10-man Colombia.
Colombia was one of the stories of the last World Cup, and the 2014 quarterfinalists looked to get their 2018 run off to a strong start against Japan.
But in the end, it was the Asian nation that redeemed itself after a disappointing World Cup in Brazil when it failed to win a single match, including a 4-1 loss to Los Cafeteros. An early red card to Colombia's Carlos Sanchez set the tone for Japan, which scored on a Shinji Kagawa penalty kick to take the early lead. Juan Quintero pulled Colombia level on a free kick, but Yuya Osako's late header off a corner kick sealed the victory and the three points.
The match got off to a stunning start, when Sanchez was sent off in the third minute with the second-fastest red card in World Cup history. He denied Kagawa a goal-scoring chance with a deliberate handball and was promptly ejected.
As a result, Kagawa scored the penalty and Colombia was forced to play with 10 men after four minutes of play. It was the second fastest sending off in the history of the tournament.
After the penalty, Radamel Falcao had a fantastic chance to equalize but his attempt inside the box went straight into the hands of the stopper. Regardless, the sending off gave Colombia a bigger incentive to push regardless of the numerical disadvantage.
Japan, however, had the luxury of testing its patience, controlling the movement while looking for a second goal. In the 30th minute, Jose Pekerman replaced Juan Cuadrado with Boca Juniors' star Wilmar Barrios with the hope of strenghtening the midfield after losing Sanchez earlier. The truth was that Los Cafeteros were completely disjointed as the red card totally shook them.
In the 38th minute, Quintero made it 1-1 on a beautiful free kick that went under the wall and sneaked in. It was a great way to end the half as Colombia entered the dressing room with a new sense of belief despite playing with 10 men.
The second half started in expected fashion as Pekerman's squad relied on the counter while Akira Nishino's team controlled most of the possession. A great stop from David Ospina kept it 1-1 in the 53rd minute as Japan kept pushing with no avail. The Arsenal stopper came to the rescue once again as Inui's shot was pushed away.
Just before the hour, 2014 Golden Boot winner James Rodriguez entered the game as he replaced Quintero. With 20 minutes left in the game, the South Americans remained stubborn at the back not allowing much creativity in the final third and forcing long shots that forced very little from the Colombian stopper.
However, just before the 75th, Osako grabbed the lead for Japan thanks to another set piece as he outjumped his Colombian marker to score from a corner.
In the end, the second goal was the final dagger for Colombia as playing with 10 men for almost the entire match was too much thus tiring the team towards the final minutes of the game. After losing 4-1 to the same opponent back in 2014 and not able to win a single game in Brazil, Japan's victory was all about redemption.
Here were the lineups for both teams:
Here are the rosters for both sides:
Goalkeepers: David Ospina (Arsenal), Camilo Vargas (Deportivo Cali), José Fernando Cuadrado (Once Caldas)
Defenders: Cristian Zapata (Milan), Dávinson Sánchez (Tottenham), Santiago Arias (PSV Eindhoven), Óscar Murillo (Pachuca), Frank Fabra (Boca Juniors), Johan Mojica (Girona), Yerry Mina (Barcelona)
Midfielders: Wílmar Barrios (Boca Juniors), Carlos Sánchez (Espanyol), Jefferson Lerma (Levante), José Izquierdo (Brighton Hove & Albion), James Rodríguez (Bayern Múnich), Abel Aguilar (Deportivo Cali), Mateus Uribe (América), Juan Fernando Quintero (River Plate), Juan Cuadrado (Juventus)
Forwards: Radamel Falcao (Mónaco), Miguel Borja (Palmeiras), Carlos Bacca (Villarreal), Luis Fernando Muriel (Sevilla)
Manager: Jose Pekerman
Goalkeepers: Eiji Kawashima (Metz), Masaaki Higashiguchi (Gamba Osaka), Kosuke Nakamura (Kashiwa Reysol)
Defenders: Yuto Nagatomo (Galatasaray), Tomoaki Makino (Urawa Reds), Wataru Endo (Urawa Reds), Maya Yoshida (Southampton), Hiroki Sakai (Marseille), Gotoku Sakai (Hamburg), Gen Shoji (Kashima Antlers), Naomichi Ueda (Kashima Antlers)
Midfielders: Makoto Hasebe (Eintracht Frankfurt), Keisuke Honda (Pachuca), Takashi Inui (Eibar), Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund), Hotaru Yamaguchi (Cerezo Osaka), Genki Haraguchi (Fortuna Dusseldorf), Takashi Usami (Fortuna Dusseldorf), Gaku Shibasaki (Getafe), Ryota Oshima (Kawasaki Frontale)
Forwards: Shinji Okazaki (Leicester), Yuya Osako (Werder Bremen), Yoshinori Muto (Mainz)
Manager: Akira Nishino