Ekateringburg, Russia - Goals from Takashi Inui and Keisuke Honda saw Japan twice come from behind to earn a gutsy 2-2 draw with Senegal at the World Cup on Sunday, inching both teams closer to a coveted place in the knockout round.
Liverpool star Sadio Mane got the West Africans on the board early, largely thanks to some haphazard defending by Genki Haraguchi and some suspect goalkeeping by Eiji Kawashima, and Moussa Wague gave them the lead again in the second half.
Inui, who was everywhere for Japan, scored Japan's first after some fine work by Yuto Nagatomo and veteran Honda proved a super sub when he equalized just six minutes after stepping onto the pitch.
"We fought to the death," said Japan coach Akira Nishino. "Naturally we wanted to win but the way the team came from behind twice shows how much we have improved in attack. But we still want to see it out and win our last game."
A draw against Poland on Thursday would in fact be enough to secure Japan a place in the round of 16. The Poles, who were group favorites, can no longer progress after losing 3-0 to Colombia later on Sunday, with the South Americans set to take on Senegal on Thursday.
Japan and Senegal are joint top of Group H on four points, with Colombia one point behind.
Senegal boss Aliou Cisse put three up front for the match at Ekaterinburg Arena, his team's first against Asian opponents at a World Cup. It showed his attacking intent and his team repaid him with a goal after 11 minutes, although Haraguchi and Kawashima were at fault.
The ball was crossed to the back post and when Haraguchi's attempted clearing header dropped into the path of Youssouf Sabaly he was quick to shoot. Kawashima punched a shot he should have caught and the ball ricocheted off Mane's knee and in, giving Senegal a deserved lead.
After dragging themselves back into the game, it was a piece of sublime skill on the left that brought Japan even before halftime.
Nagatomo collected a long pass with wonderful mid-air dexterity, his first touch helping him elude two closing defenders before Inui arrived. Inui took a touch and bent his shot around the diving Senegalese keeper Khadim Ndiaye.
"I have been scoring in recent matches and that one was typical of my style," said Inui. "I was really disappointed because I could not really perform in the first match (against Colombia). I wanted to repay the coach for keeping faith in me and be of use to the team.
Senegal started the second half well but it was Japan who should have gone in front at the 60-minute mark when Yuya Osako failed to make contact with a cross inside the six-yard box.
Osako did better four minutes later when he laid on a sweet backheel that Inui struck off the crossbar.
Wague, who was at the center of Senegal's most enterprising play, then put them back in front.
Sabaly turned in the box and hit a low cross that was helped into the path of Wague by Mbaye Niang and the Belgium-based defender slammed past a helpless Kawashima.
After the goal, Nishino immediately pointed to Honda and six minutes later the recently installed manger was clenching his fist.
Honda was in just the right place to meet a ball ripped back from the byline by Inui, the blond-haired Pachuca man pumping it into the back of the net from just outside the six-yard box with the Senegalese defense in a shambles.
Honda has now been directly involved in seven of Japan's last 10 World Cup goals, scoring four and assisting three, this being his first goal in 16 international games.
"Inui's ball fell in a great position for me," said Honda. "I knew if I missed it would be a horrible scenario so I am happy I scored. I wanted us to seal qualification (but) this shows how tough the World Cup is."
Colombia got their campaign back on track with a convincing win over Poland in Kazan, their goals coming from Yerry Mina, Radamel Falcao and Juan Cuadrado.
In the day's first game, in Group G, Tottenham striker Harry Kane scored a hat-trick as England stormed into the last 16 with a 6-1 rout of Panama, a result which eliminated the Central Americans on their World Cup debut.