Split-second decisions are so often what decides elite sport.
On a roasting-hot day in Saransk, Carlos Sanchez’s impulsive use of the arm to block a goalbound shot ultimately cost his side immensely in an engrossing fixture that saw Japan upset 10-man Colombia to take revenge for their 4-1 humping four years ago.
In the end it was a result that places Colombia in trouble, having begun the tournament as the team fancied to top the fascinating clash of cultures that is Group H. And while circumstances dictated that they didn’t outplay Japan, they matched them at times when short-handed, showing immense character and cool heads after former Aston Villa man Sanchez had lost his, receiving a red card for deliberate handball in the opening minutes.
It was as bad a start as Jose Pekerman, the wily, veteran coach of the Cafeteros could have hoped for. Sometimes passion clouds the mind and with tens of thousands of Colombians making the long trip to Russia to support their team and their triumphant national anthem still ringing in his ears, Sanchez acted with his heart not his head. And then his hand.
A goalbound shot from Shinji Kagawa was deflected wide by Sanchez’s upper arm and a penalty awarded. The resultant red card condemned Colombia to 85 minutes of 10-vs-11, a punishing task against an opponent with the industry and spark of Japan.
Kagawa converted from the spot and the uphill task got steeper but in many ways it levelled the sides. At full strength - albeit with James Rodriguez only fit for a place on the bench - Colombia could reasonably be expected to overpower the Samurai Blue but with James watching on from the sidelines and Sanchez from the dressing room, Japan knew they had their shot.
They dominated possession and particularly so in the second half where their playmakers Takashi Inui and Kagawa could pick up the ball in advanced positions. Pekerman had his side playing well enough that, at times, you mightn’t have known they were a man short but as the game wore on the Japanese were able to make it count, creating more chances and finding Yuya Osako a more potent spearhead than he had appeared in recent games.
As frustrating as it was for Colombia to go behind and a man down so early, they rallied impressively and would equalise through Juan Fernando Quintero. The former wonderkid’s career had gone so badly off the rails two years ago that he was considering retirement but he has enjoyed something of a renaissance since returning to South America with Independiente de Medellin in his homeland and now River Plate in Argentina.
His goal, a free kick snuck under the Japanese wall and inside the post, was a stroke of genius that only ever comes from a player with confidence in his ability. Now that his belief is restored, Quintero could prove a potent weapon for the Colombians and they will need that if they are to qualify after suffering a defeat to what widely were considered to be the weakest side in the group.
Pekerman called on 2014 Golden Boot winner James Rodriguez with half an hour to go, placing the fate of a nation in his hands.
But Japan only came on more strongly and eventually got the goal their dominance had probably merited, Osako heading home from Keisuke Honda’s corner as David Ospina hesitated to come for the ball like a nervous traveller in the queue at passport control.
Carlos Bacca was thrown into the mix to try and add extra potency to Colombia’s attack but Japan managed the game well, creating more chances than their desperate rivals as the closing stages petered out.
Quintero’s goal was a stroke of genius that shows the power of instinct but Sanchez’s nano-second of irrationality cost Colombia immensely in their opening game.
The knockout stages are not out of the question for the Colombians, who showed enough to be positive about in a difficult situation. But in a tough-looking group things just got a lot more difficult. They will need a hand from Poland and Senegal, but never from Carlos Sanchez.
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