Poland defeated Japan 1-0 in their World Cup Group H finale, but thanks to Colombia's 1-0 victory over Senegal and the never-before-used fair play tiebreaker, Akira Nishino's side ended second in the group and qualified for the knockout stage for the first time since the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Japan entered the day knowing a win or draw would secure its knockout place but that a loss would open the door for both Colombia and Senegal to pip the Samurai Blue to the last 16. That's very nearly how it played out, until Yerry Mina's 74th-minute goal for Colombia in the simultaneous finale tilted the scales back in Japan's favor.
Right from the start, Japan had to deal with some early pressure from Poland, having to clear a corner in the first minute of play. Some nerves were cleary visible as Japan gave the ball away in the 5th minute, forcing a fast counter-attacking play from Poland, who entered the box looking to finish it off, but the Japanese defense cleared. Regardless, it was clear that Japan was feeling the tension.
After 10 minutes of play, however, the Asian side found some rhythm as a great chance from outside the box forced a good save by Lukasz Fabianski. Most of the action was coming from the left wing and Gōtoku Sakai forced another stop from the Swansea stopper in the 12th minute.
Despite the improvement, Poland was still threatening, especially in the air when once again, another corner was won by the Europeans but ending in the hands of Eiji Kawashima. As we closed in on 25 minutes of play, Adam Nawalka's side was clearly on the front foot.
In the 31st minute, Kawashima made what was arguably the save of the tournament when he reached out to deny Kamil Grosicki's header. His dive just about saved a goal as the ball nearly went in but his efforts denied the Polish star.
With five minutes to go in the first half, Japan closed the half with more possession in the final third but Poland's strong defensive unit contained and stood firm. It was a tense 45 minutes, filled with imperfections and an unbelievable save from the Japanese stopper.
Poland kicked off the the second half with the same energy as the first, as Japan hoped to counter in the wide areas. Poland broke away in the 53rd minute but the through ball just outside the box was too much and Kawashima picked it up with ease.
Moments later, however, Poland took the lead thanks to Jan Bednarek's finish from a set piece in the box. As it stood, Japan was out of the knockout stage.
With 20 minutes left, Japan searched for the equalizer, and in the 71st minute, Maya Yoshida connected from a corner but his attempt went wide of the goal. Time was running out for Japan and things were not getting easier as Poland was not backing down as it searched for a second. Japan, however, had life as Colombia scored.
With five minutes left in regular time, Japan, clearly aware of the situation, was sitting back and just holding on to the loss, hoping to rely on the tiebreaker by not even forcing a foul.
As the final whistle blew, the Asian side qualified to the round of 16 thanks to fair play points, having accumulated two fewer yellow cards in the group stage.
For a recap from the other Group H finale between Senegal and Colombia, read on here.
Here were the lineups for both teams:
Here are the rosters for both sides:
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
Goalkeepers: Bartosz Bialkowski (Ipswich Town), Lukasz Fabianski (Swansea), Wojciech Szczesny (Juventus)
Defenders: Jan Bednarek (Southampton), Bartosz Bereszynski (Sampdoria), Thiago Cionek (SPAL), Kamil Glik (AS Monaco), Artur Jedrzejczyk (Legia Warszawa), Michal Pazdan (Legia Warszawa), Lukasz Piszczek (Borussia Dortmund)
Midfielders: Jakub Blaszczykowski (VfL Wolfsburg), Jacek Goralski (Ludogorets Razgrad), Kamil Grosicki (Hull City), Grzegorz Krychowiak (West Brom), Rafal Kurzawa (Gornik Zabrze), Karol Linetty (Sampdoria), Slawomir Peszko (Lechia Gdansk), Maciej Rybus (Lokomotiv Moscow), Piotr Zielinski (Napoli)
Forwards: Dawid Kownacki (Sampdoria), Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich), Arkadiusz Milik (Napoli), Lukasz Teodorczyk (Anderlecht)
Manager: Adam Nawalka