Japan completed their second stunning comeback of the World Cup on Thursday, defeating 2010 champions Spain 2-1 to advance to the round of 16 alongside their defeated opponents and knocking out Germany in one of the best nights for Samurai Blue.
With the prospect of early World Cup elimination at half time, Japan set up a round of 16 clash with Croatia, the beaten finalists in 2018, while Spain had to rely on goal difference to get past Germany. Now they face Morocco.
Japan’s recovery was based on coach Hajime Moriyasu’s renewal of their team at half-time when they trailed 1-0.
Ritsu Doan came on and after three minutes he put in a shot from the edge of the box that Spain’s goalkeeper Unai Simon, whose poor clearance had created the danger in the first place, was unable to avoid.
As the rowdy Japanese fans barely caught their breath, Ao Tanaka scored from point-blank range in the 51st minute, connecting the ball after the other half-time substitute, Kaoru Mitoma, cut the ball from the baseline.
The VAR system took several minutes to confirm that the ball had not gone out before Mitoma’s touch. Replays suggested that part of the ball had not crossed the line and the verdict sparked wild celebrations similar to the scenes that followed Japan’s 2-1 comeback win over Germany last week.
“We played against Spain, one of the best teams in the world and we knew before the game that this was going to be very tough and difficult, and indeed it was.”
whose team lost to Costa Rica in their second game in Qatar.
“The players conceded a goal, but they persisted and in very difficult circumstances, they did very well,” he told reporters.
Spain seemed in complete control in the first half, but suddenly they were the ones clinging to their chance to stay in the World Cup while Costa Rica and Germany battled their own drama in the other Group E game.
Germany won 4-2, a margin of victory that wasn’t big enough to keep them in the tournament.
Álvaro Morata had put the Spaniards ahead when he scored his third goal in three games in Qatar, rising above the Japan defense to power a header past goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda in the 11th minute after a cross from his former teammate on Chelsea Cesar Azpilicueta.
In the closing minutes, full-back Dani Olmo came closest to equalizing, but Gonda easily caught his angled shot.
Japan’s impressive win meant they topped Group E, followed by second-placed Spain, who finished ahead of third-placed Germany on goal difference alone.
Japan fans cried at the end of the match, giving them the chance to go further than ever in a World Cup. Japan have previously reached the round of 16 three times, losing each time.
“There were a lot of fans who came from Japan, as well as those who stayed in Japan,” said coach Moriyasu. “We are giving this victory to the people of Japan and we are very happy about it.”
The Spain coach, Luis Enrique, who made five changes to his starting team to rest the starters, was not at all happy.
“We did not have any danger in the first half, then in the second half, I told them during half time to be cautious, because they would attack in the second half, they have nothing to lose,” he said. “I have nothing to celebrate.”
Japanese defender Kou Itakura received his second yellow card of the tournament and will be suspended for the match against Croatia.