WC 2022: Comeback kings Japan cannot be underestimated in the round of 16

Host Nation: Qatar Dates: November 20-18. December Coverage: Live on BBC TV, BBC iPlayer, BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC Radio Wales, BBC Radio Cymru, BBC Sounds and BBC Sport website and app. Day by day TV listingsFull coverage details

Of all the unexpected lessons so far at this World Cup, perhaps the biggest is that you write Japan off at your peril.

Their next opponents, Croatia, beware – because the Blue Samurai have emerged as the comeback kings in Qatar and their inspired substitutions have already claimed two big sacrifices.

Japan’s brilliant recovery to beat Germany in their first match of the tournament had felt like a freak result as they followed up with a limp defeat to Costa Rica that left them outsiders to reach the last 16.

But back at the Khalifa International Stadium, also the scene of that stunning opening win, Hajime Moriyasu’s side produced a brilliant repeat performance against Spain to emerge as unlikely winners of Group E.

They became only the third team in World Cup history to lose at half-time and come back to win two games in the same tournament, after Brazil in 1938 and West Germany in 1970, and did so in memorable style.

Japan’s super subs make the difference again

Japan’s substitutes had scored both goals against Germany and they played an important role here too – only with an even more immediate impact.

“When it counted, they made the effective changes,” former England goalkeeper Karen Bardsley said on 5 Live. – They took advantage of the chances they had.

They certainly did. Ritsu Doan equalized within four minutes of coming off the bench in the Germany game – this time barely three minutes had passed since he came on at the start of the second half when he broke free from the edge of the box.

Another substitute, Karou Mitoma, made himself present just 142 seconds later when he slid to hook Doan’s low cross back across goal for Ao Tanaka to convert.

This time there was more than a hint of controversy involved too, with the ball appearing to go out of play before Mitoma reached it, and the fact that it required intervention from the Video Assistant Referee before the goal stood only added to the drama – and also provoked much debate.

“There is great technology today for ‘big football,'” Moriyasu said afterward. “If it was really out there, it would be a goal kick.”

The Spanish supporters were less than impressed when the VAR decision was announced, but it would not be the only time they stared in disbelief at the big screens around the stadium.

An updated group table was flashed every time there was a goal in the Costa Rica v Germany game, and at times it was hard to keep up with who was going through and who was going out.

Japan’s fans were spared much of that drama, despite the fact that another goal from Spain would have jeopardized their own progress.

Even more impressive than that quick response was the way they reverted to their defensive shape for the next 45 minutes to protect their lead, narrowly allowing the Spaniards a sniff despite having just 18% possession.

“All credit to Japan, they’ve been absolutely outstanding,” Bardsley added.

“There’s a lot to be said for being disciplined and structured and understanding your game plan and executing it to the best of your ability.

“That methodology and approach throughout the group stage has seen them through to the knockout rounds.

“It was strange that they lost to Costa Rica the way they did, but they put the ball in the back of the net when it mattered.”

What now? A best World Cup finish?

It was a night to remember for the thousands of Japanese fans in attendance, but they can dream of further daring deeds to come.

Their side are in the last 16 of the World Cup for the fourth time, but they have never gone further and Moriyasu is determined Croatia will not extend that record when they meet on Monday.

“Big thanks to all our supporters, the people of Japan, for their support,” he added.

“Thanks to them, we managed to get through this difficult game. I’m happy that I was able to deliver the win to everyone, and in terms of a finish, the new goal for us is the last eight.

“The players are showing us a different and new view of being able to compete on the world stage and we would like to set a new record in the quarter-finals or better.”

That’s their next goal and even if they’re behind against Croatia, you know they won’t give up.

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