Colombia lose James Rodriguez but win Group H as fair play dooms Senegal

SAMARA, Russia -- Three thoughts on Colombia's 1-0 win vs. Senegal in Group H at the World Cup.

1. Yellow card accumulation denies Senegal

Colombia have turned their World Cup campaign around to win Group H, but the bigger story here was about how the group was lost.

When Yerry Mina scored the winning goal, towering to convert a superb header from Juan Quintero's corner, it meant Senegal had an identical record to that of Japan in terms of points, goal difference, goals scored and conceded and head-to-head results.

The next tiebreaker was fair play and, on account of two yellow cards picked up in added time at the end of their draw with Japan on Sunday, Senegal will leave Russia early. No World Cup group has ever been decided this way before and questions might be asked as to how effective this is as a way of separating sides of clear merit.

Neither side could afford to put a foot wrong and, accordingly, both were content to sit back in the early stages. Colombia fired the first broadside when Quintero's free kick was turned away to his right by Khadim Ndiaye, but they had their hearts in their mouths after 18 minutes.

That was when Davinson Sanchez, stretching to deny Sadio Mane a clear shot at goal, was penalised by referee Milorad Mazic and a spot kick awarded. It looked harsh at first viewing and VAR confirmed that Sanchez, who might have been sent off if the decision had been upheld, touched the ball. Thanks to replay, a disastrous intervention turned into a goal-saving tackle.

Rather more problematic for Colombia was the withdrawal of James Rodriguez, who appeared to have picked up an injury, on the half hour. He thumped the turf as Luis Muriel prepared to replace him; in a must-win game, Colombia were without their most creative player.

They struggled on, failing to create anything in the remainder of the half and finding cohesion hard to come by as the second period began. But an increasingly nervy atmosphere loosened when Jan Bednarek scored for Poland against Japan and then became frenzied when Mina nodded his splendid winner.

Colombia had made it through in the most tense and dramatic of circumstances.

2. VAR helps Colombia, but James' injury is a concern

VAR has affected the World Cup profoundly and here was a perfect example. Had Mazic's original instinct, that Sanchez had taken Mane's lower leg away, been unchallenged then Colombia could be out of the tournament and the recriminations would begin.

Instead, the technology reversed the initial call and, while for the traditionalist it might still jar, few can complain if the correct outcomes are delivered with regularity and efficiency. The World Cup would be shorn of talents like James, Radamel Falcao and Juan Cuadrado had the television not come into play; that, in itself, is a compelling argument for its use.

Whether we do see any more of James is, though, open to question. He was certainly not happy as he departed and Colombia will hope the damage is short-term. They were far from their creative best and had to ride their luck late on when David Ospina saved from M'Baye Niang and Ismaila Sarr lashed over.

Jose Pekerman's stars will need to be shining if they are to flourish in the round of 16 or beyond and it would be a shame if we were denied a second consecutive World Cup, in which Falcao and James could dovetail.

World Cup 2018 must-reads

- Make your daily picks with ESPN FC Match Predictor 2018!
- Who is going through? Round of 16 permutations and scenarios

- World Cup Daily live: Follow all the action on and off the pitch today
- World Cup fixtures, results and coverage
- Germany join list of holders to implode at the next World Cup
- Postcards from Russia: Searching for Putin's hidden railway
- Mexico need to reboot quickly to overcome high-flying Brazil?

3. Senegal suffer poor luck

What appalling luck this was for Senegal, who could never have imagined being eliminated on as fine a margin as fair play and would have probably gone through if Colombia's Carlos Sanchez had not been sent off so early against Japan in their opening game.

Aliou Cisse's side certainly had the potential to trouble bigger names in the knockout phase; now they go home and it means that all five African representatives at Russia 2018 have failed to go past the group stage.

It is a source of frustration because Senegal are undoubtedly a fine side and showed it vs. Colombia. A front four of Niang, Sarr, Sadio Mane and Keita Balde created enough half-opportunities -- and some better than that -- on the counter but, if there was a criticism over their three games, it is that they rarely looked clinical.

They have been superbly drilled by Cisse, defending and attacking in packs and possessing a physical punch that was shown when centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly landed a shuddering aerial challenge on Falbao early on.

They were also undone cruelly, perhaps unsettled by the reorganisation enforced by Moussa Wague's replacement of Youssouf Sabaly as Quintero lined up that decisive corner. Such fine margins decide matches at this level; Senegal may feel that every possible piece of poor fortune has hit them on their way out.