Japan adds another thrilling chapter to World Cup story with improbable victory over Spain

Ko Itakura (left), Ritsu Doan (center) and Takehiro Tomiyasu celebrate with a Japanese flag after the team advanced to the World Cup round of 16 on Thursday. | KYODO
Japan is in the last 16 of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Japan is in the last 16 of the World Cup after getting through a Group E featuring Spain and Germany.

Japan is in the last 16 of the World Cup after coming from behind to beat former world champions Spain, ranked seventh in the world, and Germany, ranked 11th, to top Group E and set up a showdown with Group F runner-up Croatia.
The more accurate the sentence becomes, the more improbable and fantastical it feels, as though it flowed from the pen of Terry Pratchett or J.R.R. Tolkien.
But Kaoru Mitoma’s last-gasp pass to create Ao Tanaka’s game-winning goal took place at the very edge of the pitch at Doha’s Khalifa International Stadium, not on a 10,000-kilometer disc perched atop four elephants riding a turtle.
And it was 11 Samurai Blue players who held the line in seven agonizing minutes of stoppage time to prevent what would have been a heartbreaking Spanish equalizer, not a desperate army of men defending Helm’s Deep from hordes of rampaging orcs.
With enough truth added to it, fantasy and myth can transcend into history — and on a most improbable of Thursday nights, Japan found the strength to turn to a new blank page and refresh its supply of ink with a stunning 2-1 result.
“It was a tough game but the players always believed they could do it, and the team fought together,” Japan head coach Hajime Moriyasu said. “It’s early morning in Japan, but everyone’s thoughts reached us and helped us win.
“The players showed that they can fight on the global stage and they’re bringing us to a new landscape. Now we want to go out and get our place in the best eight.”
Thursday’s result could not have carried the weight it did had the Samurai Blue not written themselves into a corner just four days earlier with a disheartening 1-0 defeat to Costa Rica, seemingly flushing away the momentum built by the team’s Nov. 23 win over Germany.
Nothing less than a win over Spain would allow Japan to maintain control of its destiny, with a draw leaving fate to chance — or, more precisely, to the other Group E closer between Germany and Los Ticos.
Were Japan to have tied with or even lost to Spain, a spot in the last 16 would still have been possible with a narrow German win or draw, while a Costa Rica victory would have sent Moriyasu’s men back to their hotel in order to pack for the flight home.
Japan manager Hajime Moriyasu is now hoping to guide the Samurai Blue to the World Cup quarterfinals. | AFP-JIJI
The 54-year-old coach, beset at all sides by criticism after Sunday’s loss, was further pressured by injuries throughout his squad. Center back Takehiro Tomiyasu and defensive midfielder Wataru Endo were unfit for the starting lineup, leaving Japan at a potential deficit against the pass-happy “tiki-taka” style favored by Spain coach Luis Enrique and exemplified by his team’s 7-0 rout of Costa Rica to open its tournament.
Japan’s shape fell somewhere between a three- and five-back formation, with Junya Ito and Yuto Nagatomo providing cover on the flanks to the defensive trio of Ko Itakura, captain Maya Yoshida and Shogo Taniguchi.
The Samurai Blue attackers occasionally attempted to press the Spanish back line — with Daizen Maeda utilizing his speed and tenacity — but for the most part focused on the same bend-but-don’t-break tactics that served the team well against Germany.
“In the first half we were focused on forming a defensive block and preventing (Spain captain Sergio) Busquets from creating plays,” Maeda said. “From the start of the second half we pressed, and we did it as a team. Everything clicked and it worked well.”
An 11th-minute header by an unmarked Alvaro Morata put the Spaniards ahead and suggested that more goals would come from the players in red. But despite maintaining 78% possession and completing nearly 1,000 passes, Spain’s lead held at 1-0 going into the halftime locker room, leaving open the possibility of another Japanese second-half miracle.
After saving his key substitutions for around the hour mark in the first two games, Moriyasu finally went bigger and bolder, pulling off Yuto Nagatomo and Takefusa Kubo and sending on Ritsu Doan, who scored the equalizer against Germany, and Mitoma to kick-start Japan’s offense.
It was — as anyone begging for the pair to be included in the starting lineup could have anticipated — a master stroke that took just three minutes to create another unforgettable Doan moment that he welcomed with steely resignation.
“I came into the game knowing that a draw wouldn’t be enough,” Doan said. “I was happy after I scored but it wasn’t the right mood for me to smile like I did against Germany.”
The Freiburg midfielder’s left-footed strike from a meter outside the penalty area to tie the game in the 48th minute was, in and of itself, a remarkable goal. But it was all the more impressive considering the buildup, which featured no fewer than four of his teammates.
The sequence began with Celtic cult hero Maeda pressuring goalkeeper Unai Simon as Mitoma and Daichi Kamada held down the left side of the pitch, forcing Rodri and Dani Carvajal to retreat and feed the ball back to the keeper.
As Maeda rushed the goal line, Simon passed right to Alejandro Balde — who was bossed in the air by Junya Ito, leaving the ball loose for Doan to collect and dash to the edge of the box before rocketing his shot off Simon’s hands and into the back of the net.
“The patience we showed in the first half paid off in the second half,” Ito said, reflecting on his efforts on both ends of the ball. “I knew I had to run hard for this team and help prevent Spain from scoring a second goal.”
An even more improbable sequence that may go down as one of this World Cup’s most controversial came three minutes later.

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