A Japan national team of entirely J.League players, past and present, produced one of the shocks of the 2022 FIFA World Cup on Wednesday, defeating four-time champions Germany, 2-1, in their Group E opener.
Ritsu Doan and Takuma Asano came off the bench and scored to lead the Samurai Blue to a comeback victory on a legendary day for Japanese football.
Manager Hajime Moriyasu, who won a trio of J1 crowns as Sanfrecce Hiroshima boss, had his team set up to defend sternly from the start and endeavor to make their chances count on the counter. They thought they had done just that on 8 minutes when Junya Ito's cross found a goalcrashing Daizen Maeda, who thrashed the ball home — but the flag went up for offside and the game remained scoreless.
Germany would assert their dominance on the half from then on, but Shuichi Gonda duly snuffed out much of the danger — that is until the half-hour mark when the Shimizu S-Pulse goalkeeper hauled down German left back David Raum for a penalty kick. Ilkay Gundogan converted from the spot and suddenly Japan's task to earn something from the opener looked like a daunting one.
It nearly turned into a two-goal advantage for Germany just before the break when Kai Havertz tapped in from short range in stoppage time, but the offside flag would this time give Japan a sigh of relief.
As half-time arrived, Moriyasu surely knew changes were necessary and the introduction of Takehiro Tomiyasu gave the team a new dimension and defensive solidity.
It was the 57th minute substitutions of Asano and Kaoru Mitoma, however, that really tilted the match in the Samurai Blue's favor.
While Die Mannschaft continued to trouble Gonda, Japan’s counter became even more dangerous going the other way as the German defense saw an increase of pacy attacks over the top and down the wings.
When Doan entered in the 71st minute, those attacks finally began to click.
Just moments after his inclusion, German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer parried an Ito shot into the path of Hiroki Sakai. Though the Urawa Reds man could not keep the rebound on frame, it was clear that Japan were beginning to find their groove.
Two minutes after Sakai’s miss, the Samurai Blue finally got the breakthrough.
Mitoma made a stellar progressive run with the ball before sliding in a pass for Takumi Minamino, who hit an excellent cross. Neuer was able to get a hand to it, but he could only get it as far as Doan, who smashed the rebound into the back of the net for the equalizer.
It was a famous goal and one made in Osaka, between Minamino, who came up at Cerezo, and Doan, a Gamba youth product.
A draw would have been a good result for Japan, but they were determined to get more and another of Moriyasu's substitutes made it happen.
Asano made a run in behind the Germany defense and was able to get on the end of a high long ball. He took it down with a spectacular first touch that kept him running at goal, held off the challenge of Nico Schlotterbeck, and slammed the ball past Neuer from a tight angle.
Asano, who won two J1 titles under Moriyasu at Sanfrecce, immediately ran behind the net, where he was mobbed by teammates. The comeback was complete and the Samurai Blue fans at Khalifa International Stadium went wild as Japan were on the verge of a massive three points against a juggernaut of international football.
Japan had to hold on for seven minutes, plus another seven in stoppage time, and they did just that, showing a maturity in the lead that may well have been developed from heartbreak four years ago.
When the final whistle sounded, the Japan players spilled onto the pitch. Comeback complete.
It will go down as a famous day in Japanese football history, from a team made up entirely of domestic league products, that has them off to a dream start in Qatar.