Both of the host nations kicked off their campaign today, with Japan starting things off against Belgium in front of a 55,000 capacity crowd in Saitama (plus several hundred million watching on their TV sets). The magnitude of the event weighed heavily on the home side, and in a nervous start they handed over the initiative to their opponents. Keeper Narazaki was forced to make a good save from Wilmots, and Verheyen and Goor put efforts wide.
Japan improved in the second half as their confidence grew, but they were stunned on the hour mark when Wilmots beat the keeper with a spectacular bicycle kick. Two minutes later though they recovered when Suzuki ran on to a long ball to poke an equaliser past De Vlieger, and the crowd went wild when Arsenal man Inamoto ran through the defence to put his side ahead eight minutes after that.
Belgium showed their tenacity though, and Van Der Heyden took advantage of a rapid breakaway to lob the ball over the advancing keeper and level the scores once more with a quarter of an hour to go. With five minutes left on the clock Inamoto won the ball in the area and ran on to get what looked like a winner, but his celebrations were cut short when the referee ruled out the goal, supposedly for a previous foul. Even so it was a good performance by the home side, and they must have hopes of reaching the second round at least.
Spanish league players: None.
Russia comfortably won their opening game and move to the top of group H. The absence of "the tsar", Alexander Mostovoi, could have been a problem, but they didn't need him against a Tunisia side who had had a string of bad results in their run up to the finals and were under the command of their fourth coach in a year. Brave words before the match by new boss Ammar Souayah were not converted into actions, and although the North Africans put in an enthusiastic performance they could not convert the chances that fell to them.
Russia started well, and Tunisian keeper Boumnijel had to punch away a free kick from Karpin after striker Bestchastnykh was fouled. The Europeans piled on the pressure, and they finally got their reward when Titov finally squeezed the ball past the keeper early in the second half. Then five minutes later Jamaican referee Peter Prendergast awarded a penalty to the Russians when Jaidi fouled Sychev, and Karpin stuck it away. Russia lead the group, and will play co-hosts Japan in their next match.
Spanish league players: Oviedo's Onopko captained the side and played the full match, as did Celta's Karpin who scored the penalty and was the inspiration of his team. Karpin's team mate Mostovoi was not risked due to a light injury, but will hopefully be available for the next matches. Real Sociedad's Khokhlov came on at half time, and the man with the most unpronounceable name in football, ex Racing Santander striker Bestchast-whatsisname, played the first hour.
Co-hosts Japan recorded their first ever World cup victory and are now well situated to move through to the second round. Their enthusiasm and non-stop running were a match in the end for Russia's more professional approach, and the backing of the 60,000 plus crowd urged them on to a famous win. Both sides created chances in a frantic first half, but most efforts were off target. Russia felt hard done by that they did not get a penalty when Suzuki bundled over Semshov in the area, but the referee waved play on.
The only goal came six minutes in to the second half when Inamoto found himself in front of goal after Koji Nakata's cross was flicked on, the Arsenal midfielder burying the ball in the back of the net. Russian substitute Bestchast-whatever-hes-called put the ball into the side netting with the goal at his mercy, and at the other end Hidetoshi Nakata rattled the crossbar from 30 metres out. There were a nervous few minutes for the local fans as Russia threw everything forward, but unlike the game against Belgium, their side held on. Japan head the group pending Belgium's game with Tunisia tomorrow.
Spanish league players: Russia sadly missed Alexandre Mostovoi, who was still injured. Oviedo's "for sale" Onopko captained the side, and he and Celta's Karpin once again played the full game. Real Sociedad's Khokhlov came on early in the second half and very nearly scored the equaliser in the dying minutes.
Tunisia and Belgium both have a lot to do after cancelling each other out in a 1-1 draw. The North Africans had lost their opening game to Russia and needed a result to prolong their stay in Japan. And this time they put in a much better display, almost grabbing a victory in a second half which they dominated for much of the 45 minutes.
The first strike though was by the Belgians, their veteran midfielder getting his second goal of the competition with less than a quarter of an hour gone after Verheyen nodded the ball across. Tunisia got the ball in the net three minutes later, but were disappointed when Australian referee Mark Shield disallowed the goal as he had already blown for a free kick just outside the area seconds earlier. Bouzaiene didn't let it go to his head though, and calmly bent the kick around the Belgian wall and into the top corner of De Vlieger's net for the equaliser.
The keeper had to tip another effort from Jaziri away later in the half, and after the restart Ghodhbane hit a screaming volley only inches wide of the upright. The experienced Europeans slowed the game down after that, and although both sides did go close with late efforts in injury time, they opted to take a point each and hope for victories in their last games to keep them in with a chance.
Spanish league players: None.
Co-hosts Japan recorded a historic second victory in a row to advance through to the second round as group H champions. Coming in to the game with four points, Philippe Troussier's side could even afford to lose by a single goal to Tunisia and still go through. However they wanted to finish top to meet Turkey and avoid a difficult tie with Brazil and the manager put out his best available side, as did their opponents who had to win by two clear goals to stay in the competition.
The first half was a dull affair, with the two sides looking nervous having so much to play for. Both managers decided to make changes at the break, with Souayah replacing Melki with Baya and Troussier resting Yanagisawa and his top scorer Inamoto, bringing on Ogasawara and Morishima. As it happened the substitutions worked out better for the home side, and within three minutes of the restart Morishima gave them the lead after some sloppy defending by the North Africans.
The midfielder almost got a second a few minutes later when his header hit the post, but Parma forward Hidetoshi Nakata put the crowd at ease heading Ichikawa's cross low past Boumnijel. Zitouni still had time to put a spectacular overhead kick just wide and then hit the bar with another effort, but Tunisia were out and face the long haul home.
Spanish league players: None.
Belgium's bad start to the World cup is now behind them, and they marched through to the second round with a 3-2 victory over Russia. Only one of these two teams could go through, and the East Europeans had a one point edge over their rivals. The game swung in Belgium's favour in the seventh minute though when Walem beat Nigmatullin with a well struck free kick. Russia came forward and after going close a couple of times, made it all square when Bestchast... you know who I mean... followed up after De Vlieger had saved from Sychev early in the second half.
Now it was Romantsev's side who were in second spot, and Karpin just failed to get on the end of Titov's pass to kill the game off. It was a vital miss, and only four minutes later substitute Sonck headed Belgium back into the lead from Walem's corner. Then with eight minutes to go Wilmots did effectively put an end to proceedings with his third goal of the tournament. Sychev gave the Russians a late hope with a last minute goal, but it was not enough and they are on their way home. Belgium may follow soon as they now play Brazil in the next round, but at least they have given their fans something to celebrate for now.
Spanish league players: Mostovoi didn't make it. The Celta star misses out completely on the World cup after failing to pass a late fitness test for this match. Russia's fate may have been different if he had been available. Once again Onopko captained the side, making his 100th appearance, and Karpin played all but the last eight minutes. Khokhlov made his first start and had a hand in Russia's first goal, and ex Racing striker Bestchast... oh what the heck... got his first and only goal in the competition.