While Russia were favourites to triumph in Group D before the FIFA World Cup United Arab Emirates 2013 kicked off, it was Japan who eventually steamrolled their way to the top. The vice-champions of Asia demonstrated their pedigree in the opening round of fixtures by outclassing the European champions with an impressive show of teamwork, while a superb Kosei Uryu strike sealed their 1-0 victory.
The Asian side then went on to dominate Venezuela in a 3-1 win before initially struggling in their final match against Tunisia, only to turn it around with two goals in the dying minutes of a 2-1 success. While that result meant that top spot slipped away from Tunisia, they still qualified in some style.
Boasting an impressively mean defence, the Carthage Eaglets initially rode their luck in a 2-1 win over Venezuela. However, a solid 1-0 victory over Russia ensured that the side built upon their good run in qualifying, which had resulted in an unprecedented third-place finish at this year's African U-17 Championship.
Russia, meanwhile, struggled to replicate the form shown in their impressive continental campaign. Fortunately for them, they turned things around just in time: their 4-0 rout of Venezuela in the final round of matches sealed qualification as one of the best third-place finishers.
Finally, the South Americans find themselves heading for home, despite showing promise in their first appearance on the global stage. Ultimately, a serious lack of inspiration in front of goal and the absence of Andres Ponce, their chief goal-getter in CONMEBOL qualifying, cost them dearly.
1 - Japan, 9 pts
2 - Tunisia, 6
3 - Russia, 3
4 - Venezuela, 0
Round of 16
Japan - Sweden (28 October, 17.00, Sharjah)
Brazil - Russia (28 October, 20.00, Abu Dhabi)
Argentina - Tunisia (29 October, 20.00, Dubai)
While Japan’s opening victory was undoubtedly the result of an impressive team effort, the crucial blow came via a moment of genius from Uryu: “I just instinctively tried my luck. In all honesty, I can’t really explain it that well,” the player told FIFA.com after his sumptuous 25-yard strike against Russia.
And it was this moment of inspiration, a quarter hour into the game, that kick-started the Asian side’s charge to the top of the group and set the tone for Russia’s faltering performances.
Among the 21 players who pulled on a Japan shirt, there were several individuals who stood out. Chief among them was Ryoma Watanabe, who struck twice against Venezuela and also notched the winner against Tunisia. Midfielder Yuki Aizu was the most-used Japanese youngster, meanwhile, playing 185 minutes in total as one of just four players to have taken part in all three matches - along with the opening scorer in the Venezuela match, Taro Sugimoto.
For Tunisia, meanwhile, Bahaeddine Othman was the defensive linchpin. Playing every minute of their three matches, the player displayed great composure and intelligence. Furthermore, Maher Gabsi proved decisive despite much less playing time, scoring only three minutes after his introduction against Russia.
Finally, it is impossible to overlook the exquisite performance of Russia’s Ramil Sheidaev in scoring a brace against Venezuela, while La Vinotinto playmaker and former Barcelona youth player David Zalzman also showed flashes of real talent.
6 – After scoring those two late goals against Tunisia, Japan finally ended a long-standing streak of defeats against African sides at the FIFA U-17 World Cup. Having previously faced African opposition six times, this was the first match the AFC nation had won.
"I’m still not satisfied with my team’s play; I think we can play better. For us, the real tournament starts now. What we have achieved up to this point is normal in my eyes - it’s what I was expecting from my players," Japan coach Hirofumi Yoshitake.