YEKATERINBURG, Russia, June 25, 2018 (News Wires) - Attack-minded Japan have defied sceptics who said they would flop at the World Cup and instead go into their final group game on Thursday needing just a draw to reach the last 16.
Japan sacked their coach just two months before the World Cup, throwing their preparations for Russia into chaos.
Following a series of poor friendly results and reported clashes with senior players, the Japan Football Association (JFA) gambled in getting rid of Vahid Halilhodzic and replaced him with JFA technical director Akira Nishino.
The move in April was deeply controversial, coming so close to the World Cup, even if not quite on the scale of the risk taken by Spain, who dumped their coach on the eve of the tournament.
Philippe Troussier, a former coach of the Asian side, told AFP before the tournament that a team bereft of confidence had "no chance" of reaching the knockout stages.
Japan may still fail to get out of Group H, but they have surpassed expectations and play already eliminated Poland with their fate in their own hands.
It has been a roller-coaster few weeks for Japanese fans.
Friendly defeats to Ghana and Switzerland following Nishino's appointment deepened the sense of foreboding, although Japan did beat Paraguay just before the World Cup.
From there they became history-makers when they beat 10-man Colombia 2-1 in their opening game, the first Asian side to defeat a South American team at a World Cup.
They followed that up with a 2-2 draw against Sadio Mane's Senegal on Sunday, a game in which Japan had enough chances to win but ended up twice chasing the match because of poor defending.
Even Senegal coach Aliou Cisse admitted the Asians were the better side.
In the Colombia victory in particular Japan were rewarded for Nishino's adventurous approach.
On the eve of the Senegal showdown, in which Japan were again the underdogs, Nishino revealed that at half time against Colombia some of his players wanted to settle for 1-1.
"But I said that we could win and we will win so we went for victory and that is why I gave them attacking tactics and that is why we are top of the group," said Nishino.
Behind the rather dour demeanour, Nishino has shown himself to have a dry wit.
Asked before the Senegal match how he would counter their strength and height advantage, he replied tongue-in-cheek: "For the past several days I have been telling my players to gain five centimetres and five kilos, but it failed, so we need other measures."
Unfortunate to be 2-1 down on 71 minutes, Nishino made what turned out to be a masterstroke against Senegal.
He immediately hauled off the ineffectual Borussia Dortmund attacking midfielder Shinji Kagawa and replaced him with 32-year-old Keisuke Honda in a like-for-like change.
He also replaced midfielder Genki Haraguchi with Leicester City forward Shinji Okazaki as he went for broke.
Six minutes after coming on, Honda equalised.
Knowing that victory would effectively seal a spot in the next round, Nishino threw on attacking midfielder Takashi Usami in the dying minutes.
Japan looked more likely to win, though Nishino said he was content with a point.
"I suggested some improvements and I thought we could go for the win and I told them that (at half time)," said Nishino, a former Gamba Osaka coach criticised in the past for his buccaneering approach.
"In the second half we wanted to win and after twice equalising I put on Usami. There was an option to put on a defender, but I chose to attack."
YEKATERINBURG, Russia, June 25, 2018 (News Wires) - Seven teams have won their first two World Cup matches, and six of them are through to the next round. The exception is Mexico. El Tri still may need points to secure a place in the round of 16 for a seventh consecutive World Cup.
Victories over defending champion Germany and South Korea weren't quite enough. If Sweden beats Mexico on Wednesday and Germany beats South Korea, three teams would be tied atop Group F with six points, sending it to tiebreakers that start with the best goal differential.
Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa said there wasn't any panic when he and his teammates learned they had unfinished business in their final game.
"We knew that we were going to play for first place against Sweden," Ochoa told reporters Sunday. "This result wasn't going to change anything."
If Mexico and South Korea both win, Mexico would win the group and every other team would be tied with three points.
Sweden hasn't made it to the second round since 2006. And like Mexico, six points wouldn't necessarily be enough to advance. The Swedes might end up needing to win by two goals, depending on what Germany does.
Mexico upset Germany 1-0 in its opener and then dispatched South Korea 2-1. It looked like those results would be enough for Mexico to advance, but then Toni Kroos scored deep into extra time to give Germany a 2-1 win over Sweden, setting up the various scenarios that will come into play during Tuesday's simultaneous matches.
Swedish midfielder Jimmy Durmaz was subjected to racial attacks from fans on social media after the loss to Germany. Durmaz entered the game as a substitute, and his foul gave Germany the free kick that set up Kroos' game-winner.
Durmaz was born in Sweden to ethnic Assyrian parents who emigrated from Turkey. He's been called a "terrorist," and vitriol has also been directed at his family. The online abuse was reported to police.
In a show of unity, the team and coach Janne Andersson stood with Durmaz as the player read a statement Sunday before a training session, calling the attacks "completely unacceptable."
"I am proud to play in the Swedish national team," Durmaz said. "I will never let any racists destroy that pride. We must all stand against all forms of racism."
A two-goal victory by Sweden would guarantee it a spot in the next round. But that's easier said than done.
Sweden has just two goals for the tournament, by Andreas Granqvist and Ola Toivonen.
Marcus Berg, who had eight goals in qualifying, has been held scoreless despite a team-high six scoring opportunities through two games.
While Mexico's defense has been solid, Ochoa is the biggest reason that El Tri have given up just one goal in the tournament.
Known by supporters as "The Great Wall of Ochoa," he has been a steadying presence for Mexico and has a tournament-high 14 saves. He stopped nine shots against Germany and five against South Korea. Denmark's Kasper Schmeichel is next with 10 saves.
NIZHNY NOVGOROD, June 25, 2018 (News Wires) - Switzerland is a strong favorite to beat Costa Rica and reach the knockout stage for the third time in the last four World Cups
Even a draw would be enough on Wednesday for the Swiss in their final Group E match against Costa Rica, which lost its first two games and has already been eliminated.
The real tension revolves around three Swiss players who are being investigated by the governing body FIFA for politically charged hand gestures during a 2-1 victory over Serbia in their last group game. The gestures were intended to mimic a two-headed eagle, which is an Albanian national symbol.
The players are Granit Xhaka, Xherdan Shaqiri and Swiss captain Stephan Lichtsteiner.
NIZHNY NOVGOROD, June 25, 2018 (News Wires) - Panama have learned some harsh lessons in their opening two fixtures at the World Cup and should use the baptism of fire as a foundation for improvement, coach Hernan Dario Gomez said.
The central American nation are making their debut appearance in Russia and have been overwhelmed in their first matches, losing 3-0 to Belgium in Sochi last week and then 6-1 to England at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium Sunday.
“I’ve had to play against two spectacular opponents. But that’s absolutely fantastic because that’s how you learn and draw conclusions and that’s how you can tell where your team is,” the Panama coach said.
“There are tremendous teams here at the World Cup, all with tremendous physical fitness, with lots of tactics and good technique, good pressing and organisation, speed on the pitch.
“I’ve really enjoyed watching the games at this World Cup and been very, very happy to be here. It’s just such a pity that we’ve been knocked out.”
Gomez, who coached his native Colombia at the 1998 finals in France, and Ecuador four years later, said he sought to impress upon his players the need to take heed of the conditioning of their opponents and their disciplined approach to the game.
“We are making history. We can be an example. We can leave a legacy for Panama in the future. It’s pivotal to be at a World Cup. It’s one of the most wonderful things that can happen in your career,” he added.
Panama will be looking for a first World Cup point when they take on Tunisia in their final Group G game in Saransk on Thursday. Tunisia have also been eliminated.
VOLGOGRAD, Russia, June 25, 2018 (MENA) - Egyptian football national team's director Ehab Lehita denied media reports published on a foreign website about the retirement of Egyptian winger Mohamed Salah from international football.
In statements to reporters, Lehita stressed late Sunday that Salah did not speak with any of Egypt's technical staff about his willing to quit international football.
Salah only uses his official Twitter account to make statements and express his own views, Lehita added.
Speaking about the controversy surrounding Egypt's choice of Grozny as their base, Lehita said that it was FIFA which put Grozny on the list of cities to host the Egyptian national team.
Lehita stressed that Egypt's mission in Russia has nothing to do with policies of states or religious matters.
Salah has been reportedly considering whether to quit international football after being publicly blasted for posing with Chechnya leader Ramzan Kadyrov for a picture.
VOLGOGRAD, Russia, June 25, 2018 (MENA) - The Egyptian Football Association (EFA) described reports questioning measures taken for selling tickets for national team matches at the 2018 World Cup as baseless.
The World Cup ticket sale is governed by specific controls set by the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), EFA said in a statement late Sunday.
Just 1,050 tickets were allocated for EFA, alongside additional 30 tickets for Uruguay clash and 50 others for Russia match, the statement read.
The remainder of the tickets were offered online according to 17 groups named by EFA, including a special group for families of the national team's members, it added.
Up to 550 persons were registered in these groups, each of whom had the right to bring tickets for one to three of his relatives, EFA said.
The smart cards for these tickets were sent directly to the addresses listed on the booking form without going through EFA, while the same tickets are printed upon arrival to Russia, it added.
All tickets include a list of names and details of their owners at FIFA ticket office, EFA said.
All legal measures will be taken against rumor mongers, it added.