From the beginning, we were clear that if you were able to discover a method to pull it off, the goal should be to finish in second place in Group E. It’s possible that Spain was aware of the dramatic divergence in routes that lead to the World Cup final as well, but the way things transpired on Thursday night put Spain in danger of not moving to the next round at all. Regardless, a valiant effort by Japan on Matchday 3 generated chaos that we could not have predicted.
The way things turned out, Japan had a second half that will go down in history, they staged a comeback to overcome a former World Cup winner for the second time in the group, they won the “group of death,” and now they will face Croatia in the round of 16, while Spain will take on Morocco. Japan is the third team in the history of the World Cup to be trailing at half time and come back to win two games in a single edition, joining Brazil in 1938 and Germany in 1970 as the other two teams to accomplish this feat.
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An early warning was given by Japan when they regained possession in a potentially hazardous area close to the Spain goal. In the eighth minute of play, Sergio Busquets was dispossessed at the top of the box by Japan. They moved the ball to Junya Ito, but he was unable to get his shot inside the near post with the help of his teammates. The comeback that was going to happen in the second half was going to be started in the same way.
But even in those first few minutes, Spain was already putting pressure on it very immediately. lvaro Morata scored his third goal of the tournament after heading in a ball that was sent to him by right back César Azpilicueta. Morata has scored 24 goals in all competitions for Chelsea, and Azpilicueta has assisted eight of those goals. However, this was the first time Azpilicueta has ever helped Morata for Spain.
Morata entered the game with two goals in 69 minutes throughout Spain’s first two matches of the tournament. He grabbed his third goal in the 11th minute against Japan, which made him the second Spaniard after Telmo Zarra in 1950 to score in each of his first three World Cup appearances.
Additionally, it earned him nine goals in important tournaments, which corresponded to the precise number of goals that were projected at that time in the game:
Spain was in the lead, and Spain had the advantage. They simply didn’t do much more than that and were pleased with controlling the ball for the remainder of the half, and who could blame them? There wasn’t much of a danger since Germany was also leading after the first half.
That shifted completely in a matter of minutes.
In the 48th minute, Japan exerted more pressure on Spain within their own penalty area, and it paid off when Ritsu Doan scored Japan’s first goal on a beautiful finish. After another three minutes had passed, Ao Tanaka scored Japan’s second goal, a goal that will be dissected for as long as Japan is still competing in the tournament because of the question of whether or not the ball had been out of play when the goal was scored.
While all of this was going on, Costa Rica was working toward scoring a goal of their own in the 58th minute, which meant that Japan would advance to the next round as the top team in the group of death, followed by Spain in second place. And then another to take the lead in the 70th, and with that Spain would have been eliminated from competition. Germany was in the most dreadful position, but Spain was rescued by the four-time winners three minutes later when they scored the first of three goals that helped lessen the anxiety for Spain.
There was a lot going on in the second half of Group E matches, and maybe what got buried in the frenzy was how Japan fared strategically. A part of it was the selective reporting in the media. Prior to the start of the game, Japan had just one shot despite having 16 high turnovers. They scored twice out of six shots against Spain, including the game’s first goal, which was crucial:
High Rates of Turnover in Japan
The World Cup game that Japan won with the lowest percentage of ball possession in recorded tournament history was the one they played in and won with 17.7% of the ball. As a result of this victory, Japan will go to the knockout stage for a second consecutive time for the first time in their nation’s history. This achievement comes on the heels of Japan topping their group for the first time since they hosted the tournament 20 years ago. And what a bunch they had to beat to get there!