Japan pulls off 2nd World Cup shocker, advances with win over Spain

Japan players celebrate after defeating Spain 2-1 after the World Cup group E soccer match between Japan and Spain, at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022.

DOHA — Japan’s Samurai Blue pulled off its second shock of the Qatar World Cup over a European power, rallying with two goals in the second half to stun Spain 2-1 on Thursday night in Doha and advance to the knockout round as the unlikely top team in Group E.

“We bounced back after [the loss] to Costa Rica and came together as a unit,” Japan head coach Hajime Moriyasu said. “We stayed tough and fought to the end, and that gave us a better chance for victory. Even when the opponent had control of the ball, we showed we could transition from a good defense to a good attack.”

Second-half substitute Ritsu Doan scored his second goal of the tournament in the 48th minute and Ao Tanaka netted the winner three minutes later — following Kaoru Mitoma’s effort to controversially keep the ball from going over the end line — as Japan reached the round of 16 for the second straight World Cup and fourth overall.

The victory, combined with its 2-1 upset win over Germany in its opening match, gave Japan six points to finish first in Group E and set up a clash with Group F runner-up Croatia — the losing finalist in 2018 — on Monday in a bid to make the quarterfinals for the first time ever.

Spain also advanced as the second-place team ahead of Germany on goal differential after both finished with four points. Germany was eliminated despite defeating Costa Rica 4-2 in the other Group E match.

When the final whistle blew at Khalifa International Stadium, Japan captain Maya Yoshida raised both arms in triumph as the bench players rushed onto the field to celebrate yet another stunning victory. In a span of little over a week, the Samurai Blue had shocked the soccer world by defeating two of its perennial powers that have both previously won the World Cup.

”It was a tough match, but we never stopped believing in ourselves,” Moriyasu said.

Just like in the match against Germany, Japan was clearly the inferior side in the first half against Spain. At one point, the scoreboard flashed that Spain had 80% of the ball possession. Still, even with the Spanish having run of the field, Japan managed to go into the break having only given up Alvaro Morata’s header in the 11th minute.

It all turned around when Moriyasu sent in Doan and Mitoma to start the second half to boost the attack, immediately putting pressure on the Spain defense with their long speedy runs.

In the 48th minute, Junya Ito scrapped to win a header that sent the ball into the penalty area, where Doan latched onto it and never hesitated in drilling a left-footed shot from the top right corner of the box. The ball glanced off the fingertips of keeper Unai Simon and into the net for the equalizer.

Three minutes later, Doan sent a pass from the right side that went across the goal mouth and appeared to pass over the end line. But Mitoma stretched out and sent it back to the middle, where Tanaka kneed it home for the second goal. The goal was confirmed upon VAR review.

From there, it was a matter of keeping their composure and shutting down a Spanish attack by players who are raised from childhood on proper positioning and ball-handling.

“It looked like the opponent was surprised, and seemed clearly frustrated,” Ito said.

During the second half, word came that Germany had taken a 3-2 lead over Costa Rica in the other group game that was running concurrently. Should that score stand and the Samurai Blue give up an equalizing goal, they would finish behind Germany on total goals scored.

“With about a minute left, memories of the ‘Agony of Doha’ started coming back,” Moriyasu said.

The 54-year-old coach was referring to one of the darkest moments in Japan sports history. He was a member of the Japan team in October 1993 in Doha that, looking to qualify for the World Cup for the first time, gave up an equalizing goal in the last seconds of its final Asian qualifying match against Iraq to miss out on the 1994 tournament.

But nearly three decades later in the same Middle East city, the Japanese players bravely stood their ground. In the seven minutes of stoppage time, they remained aggressive, boldly fighting for possession and going on the attack.

“The times have changed,” Moriyasu said. “The players are playing in style of a new era.”