Japan's World Cup run ends on penalties against Croatia

Japan's World Cup run ends on penalties against Croatia

Japan’s amazing run at the 2022 FIFA World Cup came to an end on penalty kicks in the Round of 16 after the Samurai Blue went toe-to-toe with 2018 runners up Croatia for 120 minutes.

Manager Hajime Moriyasu made changes to his starting eleven for this knockout stage tie, sending the Samurai Blue out in a back three — a move aimed at solidifying the center of defense and allowing two wingbacks to fly up the pitch to find advantages on the flanks.

Moriyasu’s plan clearly worked straight from the start. Yuto Nagatomo and Junya Ito were a constant threat and Croatia struggled to keep Japan’s wings from overrunning them. It nearly paid off with an early goal, but a cross from Ito just missed the streaking Daizen Maeda in front.

Maeda would ultimately find the back of the net just before halftime, however. Ritsu Doan whipped in a terrific cross that found captain Maya Yoshida, who was able to hit the ball across the goal and find Maeda, who rippled the net and gave the Samurai Blue a well-deserved lead.

On the other side of halftime, though, the tide would change. Moriyasu made no changes at the break, and though Japan continued to close down space around Croatia’s excellent midfield, even a good approach and execution can be undone by a terrific individual play. That's exactly what Croatia got when a speculative cross found Ivan Perišić, who was able to head the ball with amazing power and accuracy from 16 yards, perfectly into the corner of the net.

With the match level, Japan were in need of a goal once more and Moriyasu brought on Kaoru Mitoma and Takuma Asano, players who had won them matches in the group stage with their attacking prowess off the bench.

Mitoma immediately made an impact and nearly scored when he went on a mazy run through the Croatia midfield before unleashing from 20 yards. His powerful shot was too near Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livaković, who made the save, but it was clear that Mitoma would be a danger man all the way to the final whistle.

With neither team able to find a second goal, the match went to extra time. That played into Croatia’s hands, as they won three matches in extra time or penalty kicks at the 2018 World Cup and thus had ample experience in these situations.

Japan did not back down against the more experienced Croatian side, though. They defended resolutely through the first and second extra-time stanzas, even getting forward and giving themselves chances to nab a winner as Wataru Endo and Takumi Minamino both had shots that threatened the Croatia goal.

Despite their attempts, Japan did not manage a goal in extra time and penalty kicks would have to be the way to decide the contest.

There, the Samurai Blue were undone by an excellent Livaković, who saved three Japanese penalties on four attempts, while Mario Pašalić, Marcelo Brozović and Nikola Vlašić converted their spot kicks to put Croatia through on penalties.

While Japan’s World Cup run is over, they leave Qatar having made history.

Never before had the Samurai Blue beaten a former World Cup winner; this time, they beat four-time champion Germany and 2010 winners Spain to top Group E and make the knockout stages in consecutive tournaments for the first time ever.

It was a remarkable performance from the Samurai Blue, which was made up entirely of players who play in the J.League or began their careers in the domestic competition.

They showed the very best of Japanese football, and the excitement for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup and 2026 FIFA World Cup is sure to be through the roof after this electric run in Qatar.