NATAL, Brazil — Greece promised goals that didn’t come. Japan pressed for a victory that eluded it yet again.
The ultimate result of what has turned out to be a rarity at this World Cup — a 0-0 draw — is that Colombia is guaranteed to move on to the knockout rounds and Greece and Japan are still clinging to life in Group C.
Reduced to 10 men after captain Costas Katsouranis was sent off in the 38th minute with his second booking, Greece held on for a critical result in the group by returning to the rock-solid defence that Colombia had blistered for three goals in an opening loss.
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"My players were brilliant," said Greece coach Fernando Santos. "They worked hard after the red card. Without the red card we probably would have won the game."
Both teams inserted new strikers in search of goals and a first victory, but ultimately the main objective was survival and both achieved that with one match left in group play. Japan would have been eliminated with a loss.
Once Katsouranis was sent off after a rough challenge on Makoto Hasebe, Greece withdrew into a defensive setup and held firm. Even short-handed, Greece was better organized against Japan and avoided any critical mistakes.
Japan defender Atsuto Uchida said he could sense Greece building a wall around the goal as soon as Katsouranis was sent off.
"I had a bad feeling about it. It happens a lot in soccer, when a team goes down to 10, they know exactly what they need to do. And that also happens to be exactly Greece’s way to fighting — to fight by defending," Uchida said.
Japan pressed forward after halftime and had several chances to score.
The best came in the 68th minute when Shinji Kagawa played a long pass over the top to Uchida, who sent it back across the middle to Yoshito Okubo, who blasted the volley over the net.
Greece goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis also was forced to make a diving save in injury time to preserve the draw and the point for Greece.
Greece came in determined to turn around its dismal scoring history in the World Cup — 18 goals conceded against just two scored — inserting Kostas Mitroglou up front. Greek players had even promised goals against Japan.
But Mitroglou’s best effort was an early volley that spun off his foot and he didn’t even make it to halftime.
After taking an elbow in the side in the 30th minute, Mitroglou collapsed to the ground. He got up and walked off under his own power but soon determined he couldn’t continue and was taken off for Theofanis Gekas in the 35th minute.
Things got worse for Greece just moments later when Katsouranis was sent off. Greece retreated into its half of the field for most of the second half. Japan had 68 per cent of ball possession.
Katsouranis will be suspended for Greece’s final group match against Ivory Coast.
"It was a terrible start, losing a man," Greece defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos said. "But we have a point and we have hope … if things go well, let us get four points with a win in the next game — and if God decides that we are eliminated because of the other result, so be it."
Japan, which had been beaten up in a physical matchup with Ivory Coast in a 2-1 opening loss, once again had to deal with a bigger, stronger and much taller opponent.
Coach Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni dropped Kagawa from the starting lineup in surprise move, putting veteran striker Okubo up front with Europe-based star Keisuke Honda.
Okubo had one of Japan’s best chances to score in the first half but sent his header over the crossbar in the 33rd minute
Zaccheroni was frustrated Japan didn’t use its speed to exploit the spaces left by Greece being short a player. A win over Colombia won’t guarantee Japans moves on to the next round. If Ivory Coast beats Greece, Japan will go home.
"We played too slowly," Zaccheroni said. "This is not a positive result. We absolutely needed to win."