Japan aim for World Cup history against Croatia

Japan aim for World Cup history against Croatia

Japan went to Qatar for the 2022 FIFA World Cup and all they’ve been doing since touching down is make history. Never before had the Samurai Blue beaten a former World Cup champion at the tournament, but Japan then took down four-time winners Germany and beat 2010 champs Spain in the space of eight days.

Never before had the Samurai Blue made it to the knockout stages in consecutive World Cups, but after making the Round of 16 four years ago, this Japan team topped Group E and booked their place in the next phase.

Now, Japan must prepare for a clash with Croatia with another “never” in front of them - never in the history of the Samurai Blue have they made the quarter-finals of a World Cup.

Getting past last edition's runners-up will require the same determination and teamwork that has carried Japan this far. Both of their wins came after going into halftime trailing 1-0, but they defended well enough to see out the storm and used second-half substitutes to turn the matches around.

In the first win, it was the introductions of Ritsu Doan, Kaoru Mitoma, Takuma Asano and Takumi Minamino that turned the match as all four came off the bench to contribute to goals. Then, in the group finale, Doan and Mitoma did the honors yet again in substitute roles.

Japan’s ability to use their depth to change matches in the final 45 minutes could prove especially valuable against Croatia, who rely on older players and had 10 men start all three of their group stage matches. If the Croatian legs get heavy, the Samurai Blue have proven they have the ability to win matches with rested attackers from the bench.

The challenge for Japan may be holding Croatia in check and being able to get to their potent bench.

With world class players like Luka Modric, Mateo Kovačić and Joško Gvardiol, this Croatia team has a formidable spine and an ability to turn games on a moment's notice. That ability helped them to a second-place group finish ahead of Belgium, who were ranked No. 1 in the world coming into the tournament.

Managing the first part of the match against such a good team will be the big task for manager Hajime Moriyasu’s men. Maya Yoshida has led the defense well, while the midfield will have to be especially sharp against Modric and Kovačić.

That sounds like a tall task for Japan, but, as we’ve seen, tall tasks bring out the best in the Samurai Blue.

History said they couldn’t beat Germany. It said they couldn’t beat Spain. It said they couldn’t make the knockout stages.

But Japan have spent their entire time in Qatar making history. The knockout stages are just another opportunity to do it again.