In the space of six second half minutes, Japan launched and completed an epic World Cup turnaround that saw them top Group E and beat Spain 2-1 on the night. The Spanish also scraped through on goal difference thanks to Germany 4-2 win over Costa Rica, but this was a night of Japanese delight.
It was a comeback of the most unlikely proportions. How can a side lose 1-0 to Costa Rica and then beat Spain and Germany to top a group? It sounds like something so unlikely that it couldn’t ever have been imagined ahead of the tournament, but this Japan team have become the neutral’s favourites as they’ve entertained us with every kick and become the centre of shocks.
The half-time changes by Hajime Moriyasu worked wonders. In the first period, Japan were so clearly second best that I’d penned a lovely piece about the resurgence of Alvaro Morata. But that one was sent to the scrap heap as Kaoru Mitoma and Ritsu Doan were introduced from the bench.
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Suddenly, just as we saw in the Germany game, Japan took the match by the scruff of the neck and their opponents couldn’t cope. They were everywhere, overrunning the same Spanish midfield which had passed them to death in the first half, gving La Roja a 1-0 lead thanks to Morata.
The striker proved that Spain are a different beast with a natural number nine on the pitch, even if he wasn’t wearing the famous digit on his back. His movement is absolutely outstanding and he simply isn’t interested in getting involved in the build-up play as he became only the second Spanish player to score in the opening three games of a World Cup, following Telmo Zarra in 1950, by heading in Cesar Azpilicueta’s cross.
But the positivity drained away from Spanish legs after the break. They lost the ball trying to play out from the back and substitute Doan came off the bench and took full advantage as he fired one in from the edge of the box. Unai Simon should have done better with his initial kick, and definitely should have done better with the shot as he got two hands to it but was beaten by power.
Seconds later, Spain were pinned against the ropes and Japan had the ball in the net again. Ao Tanaka bundled the ball in from close range, but it looked for all the world as if the ball had gone out of play. The assistant referee initially put his flag up but after a long Var review, the Japanese squad were left in ecstasy even if the host broadcaster couldn’t find the exact image that proved it once and for all.
It was a hugely controversial moment, but it is those sorts of margins that make the World Cup so exciting in its current form, and it's a crying shame that these final round of group games will be the last ones of the perfect 32-team format. Gianni Infantino and Fifa’s greed will rob us of nights like this in the future as 16 groups of three teams compete in 2026.
Japan, once they held the lead, decided to try to hold what they had and although Shuichi Gonda had to pull off a couple of saves, they had what they needed. Both teams did, even though Spain and Luis Enrique will have been furious to lose this game, and top spot in the group. As the full-time whistle blew there were huge celebrations from the men in blue. Those in red looked stunned, but they live on to fight another day. Top dogs Japan will face Croatia while Spain will lick their wounds before they take on Morocco.
This was the most fascinating night of the World Cup so far. Group E has been the most remarkable group, and Japan by far the most entertaining team. Both teams progressed on the night, but Moriyasu’s magic men have now beaten Spain and Germany in what has been the most incredible group stage we have seen in many a year.