| Giovanni Hernandez of Colombia (left) celebrates with Jorge Lopez after scoring the matchwinner during their Confederations Cup match against Japan Sunday. (Reuters)
St Etienne: Playmaker Giovanni Hernandez sent Colombia into the Confederations Cup semi-finals by rifling home the winner in a 1-0 victory over Japan in group A Sunday.
Colombia, who join group winners France in the last four, needed all three points at the Stade Geoffroy Guichard to go through and seized them in the 68th minute when Hernandez pounced after a mix-up in the Japanese midfield.
Japan, who had gone into the game requiring only a draw to qualify, got eliminated from the eight-nation tournament after having kept the South Americans in check before Hernandez’s strike.
France, who next face the group B runners-up, crushed New Zealand 5-0 in Sunday’s other game in Paris. Colombia will play the winners of group B, currently led by Cameroon, who have already qualified.
Colombia deserved their win for having chased the game against a well-organised Japan side which showed discipline at the back, until the blunder, and more class going forward.
Although they failed to create a clear-cut scoring chance, Francisco Maturana’s men kept the Japanese defence on its toes throughout the first half.
The South Americans, whose best moves all passed through Hernandez, came closest to scoring with an angled chip shot from Victor Aristizabal which beat Seigo Narazaki but sailed over the bar.
Japan’s defence otherwise looked comfortable with the Colombian pressure while skipper Hidetoshi Nakata provided the menace at the other end.
The creative midfielder should have done better with a glancing header from Nobuhisa Yamada’s cross, but made up for it with a deft through-ball for Yoshito Okubo, who jinked twice before firing wide.
The match finally sparked into life within minutes of the restart when Yamada provided a long ball from the right flank and Naohiro Takahara met it with a header that slammed against the post with Oscar Cordoba beaten.
Colombia replied immediately when a defensive lapse allowed Aristizabal a half-volley which Narazaki blocked superbly with his legs.
But Hernandez made no mistake in the 68th minute after a mix-up between Yasuhito Endo and Tsuneyasu Miyamoto.
Miyamoto gave the ball away, Hernandez pounced and then swivelled to steer a low shot past Narazaki.
Japan promptly laid siege on a Colombian defence which, though missing skipper Ivan Cordoba through suspension, weathered the storm to book their place in the last four.
Colombia, who had lost 0-1 to France and beaten New Zealand 3-1, finished with six points to Japan’s three, while France topped the group after three wins.
Zico rues blunder
Japan coach Zico was left to rue the defensive blunder which cost his side a place in the semis. “In several of our matches recently, we’ve played good football but then lost — and it’s been the same again tonight,” said the Brazilian.
“To succeed in football, you have to be good in every aspect of the game and tonight we made a few errors in the middle of the park. The Colombian goal came from a small mistake which had major consequences. They found out where our weak points are.
“But we have to look forward,” Zico insisted. “Japanese football is making progress and my players will have learned a lot from this Confederations Cup.”
A delighted Colombia coach Francisco Maturana said: “We’re really pleased with the result. Japan were really tough opponents and the quality of their team has made our achievement all the more important.”
At the Stade de France in Paris, the hosts rode two first-half goals by Olivier Kapo and Thierry Henry and a third by Djibril Cisse in the 71st minute put the former world champions firmly in control.
Midfielders Ludovic Giuly and Robert Pires completed the rout with goals in injury-time.
The European champions proved too strong for the All Whites, who ended the tournament with three defeats from three, a repeat of their performance four years ago.
Giuly, making his first appearance in this year’s tournament, set the hosts on their way to victory by setting up Auxerre’s Kapo for a close-range strike in the 17th minute.
Three minutes later, the Monaco playmaker outsprinted defender Gerard Davis and delivered a pinpoint cross for Henry to head home at the far post.
France then eased off the gas before Cisse, who hit the woodwork in the first half, slotted home a third goal from Henry’s cross.
Goalkeeper Mickael Landreau, called into the side an hour before kick-off after Fabien Barthez became a father, denied New Zealand a consolation with a superb late save.
France then added two further goals in stoppage time through Giuly and Pires.
Coach Jacques Santini was content with his side’s effort. “One of our goals was to keep our winning streak going and to play our semi-final here in Paris,” said Santini. “It wasn’t an easy challenge as we had a very tight schedule.
“All the guys have played at least one match so far and we will have time now to prepare for the next tie. I’m happy with the way we dealt with the schedule,” added Santini.
“We are improving swiftly and I’m pretty sure we will be in an even better shape on Thursday. Whoever our next opponent will be we’ll have to cope with it. But what makes me happy is that we played a very collective way.
“All the goals we scored were the result of moves involving a great number of players. They were not mere individual efforts.”
Santini said Monaco midfielder Jerome Rothen is out for the rest of the tournament because of an ankle injury sustained during the 2-1 victory over Japan on Thursday.