Japan through to World Cup knockout stage after stunning comeback victory against Spain
Japan beat Spain 2-1 to go through to the round of 16 as Group E winners, with Germany knocked out of the World Cup.
DOHA: David rarely slays Goliath twice.
But at the Khalifa International Stadium where they had vanquished giants Germany more than a week ago, the Samurai Blue stunned another fancied opponent on Thursday (Dec 1).
This time it was Luis Enrique’s Spain that were incisively carved open in the space of a few scintillating minutes.
In stunningly similar fashion to the game against Germany, two second-half goals gave Japan a 2-1 victory after going behind. This time, the goals came courtesy of Ritsu Doan and Ao Tanaka.
Things started so differently. A first-half header from Alvaro Morata - his third in as many games - gave Spain the lead in the first half, when they were utterly imperious.
As he had in the 1-0 defeat to Costa Rica, Japan manager Hajime Moriyasu rang in the changes, with Shogo Taniguchi, Ao Tanaka, Junya Ito, Takefusa Kubo, and Daizen Maeda all starting.
Japan looked to adopt the same tactics as they did against Hansi Flick’s Germany - soak up the pressure and hit their opponents on the counter.
But whatever plans they had came undone as Morata ghosted behind the Japan defence and knocked a header past Shuichi Gonda in the 11th minute.
As Spain dictated the tempo, Japan were reduced to chasing shadows in futile resistance.
With little action in the way of goalscoring opportunities, supporters entertained themselves with energetic Mexican waves instead.
The Japanese fans, among the most lively at the tournament, tried valiantly to drum up support for their team, but it seemed a losing cause.
As the half wore on, Japan continued to hassle their opponent, but Spain were remarkably unruffled.
Even when Spanish goalkeeper Unai Simon was closed down by Maeda, he managed to whip the ball down the flank, with Spain almost mounting an attack.
Throwing caution to the wind, Moriyasu brought on Ritsu Doan and Kaoru Mitoma at half time.
And it was Doan who made an immediate impact. Casual play from Simon saw the ball land up at the feet of the Japanese substitute and he smashed the ball into the back of the net.
A shell-shocked Spain were on the ropes when they were hit with a sucker punch in the 51st minute.
Doan turned provider this time as he drilled a cross through a crowded penalty box and Mitoma stretched to provide a cut-back.
Arriving on the scene was Tanaka, who bundled the ball into the net off his thigh.
While Mitoma’s cross looked like it might have crossed the byline, VAR ruled that it hadn’t after a lengthy wait.
As the Japanese fans roared, the swathe of red-shirted Spanish fans looked on in horror.
There are further cheers in the stands, as Costa Rica netted an equaliser against the Germans in the 60th minute. As Japan continue to grow into the game, there came another murmur of excitement.
Costa Rica had taken the lead against Germany. And as things stood, Germany and Spain were headed home. But more drama was in store, as Germany equalised minutes later. This time, Spain were safe even with a loss, and Germany were sent packing.
As their fans walloped the drums and chanted support for their team, Japan mounted desperate rearguard action.
Spain came desperately close to an equaliser - first, a ball in the penalty box was hooked clear by Maya Yoshida, before Gonda brilliantly held on to Dani Olmo’s effort.
And they held on, even as Germany went 4-2 up against Costa Rica. The Germans were eliminated behind Spain with an inferior goal difference.
The result means that Japan will next go up against Croatia, while Spain faces Morocco.
Moriyasu said before the tournament that the goal for Japan was to get beyond the round of 16. And in a group with four-time world champions Germany, and 2010 World Cup winners Spain, most had counted them out.
But they believed. Now, the sky is the limit.
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