Not content with one jaw-dropping shock in Group E, Japan managed a second in feverish conditions to beat a multitalented Spain side and claim another place for Asia in the last 16 of this increasingly unpredictable World Cup.
Two goals in three minutes just after half-time – one that was scored by the very finest of margins – shocked Spain cold, taking their metronomic rhythms and throwing them into a bin bag that was then politely disposed of. The Europeans still qualified for the knockout stages, in second place on goal difference ahead of Germany, but if this was a deliberate attempt to choose an easier path through the draw, nobody told that to their shellshocked players.
For Japan this was a landmark achievement, not so much for the fact of qualifying – it is their third round of 16 in the last four World Cups – but for the manner with which they did it. A narrow defeat by Costa Rica was sandwiched by victories over two European powerhouses, the world champions of 2010 and 2014. The players remained on the pitch for a long period after the stands of the Khalifa International Stadium had begun to empty, soaking up the moment with ebullient travelling fans and a crowd of photographers.
Statistics show that Japan averaged possession of just 18% over the course of 90 minutes and they completed 175 passes to Spain’s 991. But in the brief evisceration that occurred shortly after half-time, Japan deservedly won the match. For all of Spain’s technical control, much of it beautiful to watch, they did not do enough to affect the match. Spain now go on to face a well-organised Morocco side, who finished top of Group F. Japan will play Croatia.
Spain dominated from the off and scored early. Forced back into a flat, nervous-looking back five, Japan were unable to close the spaces around their penalty area and after Gavi had seen a low cross half-cleared in the 12th minute, Nico Williams worked it back to César Azpilicueta on the edge of the box. His cross was looped and precise, finding Álvaro Morata on the penalty spot. He buried a header back across Shuichi Gonda for his third goal of the tournament.
The teenaged Gavi, alongside his 20-year-old Barcelona partner Pedri, were the stars of the first half, orbiting around their midfield anchor Sergio Busquets with a trajectory hidden from their opponents. Spain’s only enemy in the opening 45 minutes was themselves, the propensity for coughing up possession as they built from defence a trend that had continued from the Germany game.
Japan went into the interval a goal down but, in the mind of their coach, Hajime Moriyasu, the plan was working. He made a double substitution at the break and both Brighton’s Kaoru Mitoma and Ritsu Doan of Freiburg were instrumental in changing the match.
An already aggressive Japanese press increased in intensity the moment the second half whistle blew and the Spaniards’ achilles heel was evident three minutes after the restart. A jittery Simón played a loose pass out to the left-back Alejandro Balde, who was unable to clear before Doan was upon him.
The midfielder descended on to the box and unleashed a shot with all the power he could muster, which was way more than Simón could handle as the keeper palmed the ball into the roof of his net.
The atmosphere in the stadium kicked up a notch immediately and before anyone had a chance to catch their breath Japan – who had looked set for a hiding just minutes before – were in front. Again it was Doan who made it, again bulldozing his way past a now bewildered Balde and crossing to the left-hand side where Mitoma cut the ball back for Ao Tanaka to bundle home.
Japan’s players were delirious, their subs on the pitch, only for the goal to be ruled out; the ball had apparently gone out of play as Mitoma kicked it. The gods of VAR then deliberated – aided by the positional sensor in the Al Rihla ball – and they found the goal was good. It had stayed in by fractions, and Japanese fancy dress headscarves were coming off in disbelief.
A flurry of substitutions for both sides followed, with Morata and Gavi withdrawn for Spain, but gone altogether was the Spanish composure as suddenly, ludicrously, they faced the possibility of elimination. For a minute or two it was even a reality, when Costa Rica took a brief lead against Germany. Luis Enrique said he would have had a heart attack had he realised.
Marco Asensio and Dani Olmo had opportunities for an equaliser blocked and saved, but Japan had the clearest chance to score when Mitoma played Takuma Asano clear through on goal, only for the substitute to slip and scoop his shot. Japan managed to channel the same determination that had seen them over the line against Germany and, when the final whistle came, all was bedlam.