In their second Group A match in the FIFA Confederations Cup, France once again showed they know how to win even when they are outplayed for long stretches. Jacques Santini’s totally revamped side never got to grips with their inspired Asian opponents but took all three points anyway thanks to a Robert Pirès penalty and a superb piece of finishing by Sidney Govou. Japan gave a superb account of themselves, but left empty-handed despite Shunsuke Nakamura’s stellar free-kick. They now meet Colombia on Sunday to decide which side goes through to the semi-finals alongside the hosts.

The two coaches adopted radically different approaches. While Zico stuck with the same eleven men who walloped New Zealand (3-0), Jacques Santini sent out a completely different team to the one that started against Colombia, with only man of the match Olivier Dacourt surviving the cut. It is perhaps no surprise then that Japan made the better start, with Nakamura twice threatening to open the scoring. First Willy Sagnol had to be alert to keep him out (8’), then the attacking midfielder saw his volley cannon off Mikaël Silvestre’s skull and away from danger (12’).

The passionate home fans were getting right behind their heroes, yet despite lots of tidy possession the Bleus struggled to carve out many clear-cut chances in the first period. Sidney Govou did get ahead of his defender to head wide from a Steve Marlet cross (26’), but that was more or less as good as it got for the home side until the last few minutes of the half. Then, on 42 minutes Jérôme Rothen swung over a corner, Junichi Inamoto tugged on Jean-Alain Boumsong’s shirt and Australian referee Mark Shield did not hesitate in pointing to the spot. Stand-in captain Robert Pirès sent the keeper the wrong way (1 : 0, 42’) and the French rather fortuitously went in ahead at the break.

Visibly pumped up by their half-time pep talk from Zico, the Japanese surged forward at the start of the second period. Inamoto nearly equalised with a header that shaved Barthez’s post (51’). Then, fully 30 yards out, Nakamura stepped up to curl an exquisite free-kick in off the post and Japan were level (1 : 1, 60’). The Asian Blues were right on top now, playing some inspired football, and the frustrated crowd in the stade Geoffroy-Guichard began chanting Thierry Henry’s name. Things were beginning to go seriously awry for the home side, but as so often happens in this beautiful game, the team with their backs to the wall scored against the run of play Silvestre drilled a breathtaking crossfield ball between four defenders, Govou controlled magnificently with his right and slammed the ball past Seigo Narazaki with his left (2 : 1, 66’).

The Nippon side were far from discouraged at the unfortunate turn of events. First Hidetoshi Nakata shot just over (68’), then Yasuhito Endo struck a cute free-kick onto the bar (71’), and finally wonder performer Nakamura dragged the ball away from two defenders and shot just wide (76’). Zico’s boys were playing like their coach and mentor and right up to the final whistle posed a real threat, but it was to be all to no avail. The French held on to secure their place in the semi-finals and Japan now face Colombia for a place in the last four. On the basis of this evidence at least, they must start favourites.