Japan are through to the knockout stages of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, topping Group E after defeating Spain, 2-1, in yet another epic come-from-behind victory.
Goals by Ritsu Doan and Ao Tanaka in the first six minutes of the second half brought the Samurai Blue back from 1-0 down to once again deliver a famous night in the history of Japanese football at the Khalifa International Stadium.
Spain had the better of play early on as their star studded F.C. Barcelona midfield of Sergio Busquets, Pedri, and Gavi put Japan on their heels. The bulk of the first half was played in the Japan half and La Furia Roja found a way through in the 11th minute through Alvaro Morata’s head, taking a 1-0 lead.
Manager Hajime Moriyasu sent the Samurai Blue out to defend from the start, respecting Spain’s exceptional talent and not wanting to get caught out. While giving up the Morata goal was hardly ideal, they knew the match was very much within their grasp if they could make it to halftime without giving up another. They did that, thanks to some fine defending and Shuichi Gonda denying what would have been Morata’s second goal with an impressive save.
Japan have been more dangerous after halftime all tournament as Moriyasu has used his substitutes to supercharge the attack and it was no different against Spain. Kaoru Mitoma and Doan came on to start the second half and it paid off immediately.
An energetic press from Daizen Maeda yielded a 50-50 ball deep in Spanish territory and a brave header from Junya Ito put the ball on Doan's foot. He would cut inside before blasting a shot from 20 yards that powered past the hands of goalkeeper Unai Simón and into the net for an equalizer.
A draw had Japan in position to advance out of the group if Germany failed to win against Costa Rica in the other Group E game, but to be assured of qualification the Samurai Blue had to keep pushing for another.
Just three minutes later, that goal came.
Doan hit a ball across the face of the Spanish goal that nobody got to until it was nearly out of play. Just as it looked like going out for a goal kick, Mitoma was on hand for a historic moment.
At a full stretch, the former Kawasaki Frontale winger managed to get to the ball — which was on the line by mere millimeters — and redirect it back across the face of goal, where Tanaka nudged it over the line with his knee and sent Samurai Blue celebrations reverberating from Doha to Tokyo.
VAR took a look, checking to see whether the ball went out before Mitoma got to it, but ultimately ruled it a goal as Japan celebrated for a second time.
Tanaka’s tally proved crucial because Germany would ultimately take the lead on Costa Rica and ensure only a victory would suffice for the Samurai Blue.
For the next 39 minutes and seven of stoppage time, Japan fought for every free ball, dove in front of every Spain shot, and closed down every space. They knew the Round of 16 was within grasp and battled for every inch to take their place.
In the few moments where the Japanese rearguard was breached, Gonda came to the rescue, with the goalkeeper who is set to play in the J2 League next season making a particularly fine save on a drive from Real Madrid man Marco Asensio.
At long last, the referee lifted his arm and blew his whistle. The match was finally over and the Japan players and coaches stormed onto the field. They had done it. They had topped the group and advanced in Doha.
What was once a place associated with the Samurai Blue’s most infamous defeat — crashing out of the 1994 World Cup at the final hurdle of qualification — has now undeniably become a site of triumph as Japan defeated 2010 World Cup winners Spain just eight days after a shockingly similar 2-1 victory over 2014 champions Germany.
Moriyasu’s men have proven the pundits wrong and now move onto the knockout stages in consecutive World Cups for the first time ever.
Awaiting them there on December 5th will be the last edition’s runners up, Croatia.
The oddsmakers may not have Japan as the favorites in that one, but as this whole World Cup has shown, that’s why we play the games on the pitch.