Japan once again sprung a World Cup shocker as they edged out Spain 2-1 in Thursday’s final Group E match at the Khalifa International Stadium. A goal from Ritsu Doan and a controversial winner from Ao Tanaka, both scored during the second half, managed to cancel out Alvaro Morata’s first half goal, ensuring that Japan would qualify into the round of 16 as Group E winners. Despite losing, Spain still went through as Group E runners-up as they had a better goal-difference than 3rd placed Germany, who went out despite beating Costa Rica 4-2.
With Costa Rica beating Japan 1-0 and both Germany and Spain playing out a 1-1 draw on matchweek two, all four teams in Group E had a shot of qualifying into the round of 16 coming into the third and final matchweek on Thursday.
Spain, though, had the advantage of only needing a draw to qualify into the knockouts and La Furia Roja went 1-0 up in the 11th minute, with Morata heading home a cross from former Chelsea teammate Cesar Azpilicueta from close range.
Around the same time, Germany seized control of their match against Costa Rica at the Al-Bayt Stadium, with Serge Gnabry scoring a header to give Der Panzer the lead.
As things stood, it was the European giants who were set to qualify out from Group E, with both Japan and Costa Rica missing out.
Things went chaotic in the second half, however.
Japan head coach Hajime Moriyasu sent on SC Freiburg star Ritsu Doan and Brighton & Hove Albion’s very own Kaoru Mitoma during the break, with the two playing a huge role in the Samurai Blue’s comeback.
Doan, who had sparked Japan’s turnaround in their 2-1 opening day win over Germany, once again came into his team’s rescue as his fierce shot in the 48th minute went beyond the reaches of Spain goalkeeper Unai Simon.
And only 142 seconds afterwards, Japan found themselves in the lead.
A low cross from Doan seemingly made its way out of the pitch, however a timely intervention from Mitoma allowed the ball to be swept towards the direction of Tanaka, with the Fortuna Dusseldorf player finishing things off from point-blank range.
There were plenty of protests as to the naked eye, Doan’s ball had gone out of play prior to Mitoma’s crucial pass to his former Kawasaki Frontale teammate Tanaka. However, VAR said otherwise – the ball was millimeters…no, nanometers away from being out of play before Mitoma’s boot made contact with it. It was an intervention that was perfectly timed – should Mitoma reached the ball only a few nanoseconds too late, then Tanaka’s game-clinching goal wouldn’t stood at all.
Adding more to the Spanish fans’ horror, a 58th minute goal from Yeltsin Tejeda and a 70th minute own goal from Manuel Neuer meant that Costa Rica are leading Germany 2-1.
For the next three minutes, the prospect of Costa Rica and Japan qualifying in the expense of Spain and Germany became very realistic.
However, normalcy was restored in the 73rd minute after Kai Havertz made it 2-2 for Germany, before the Chelsea winger completed his brace in the 85th minute to restore Der Panzer‘s lead. Werder Bremen striker Nicklas Fullkrug, who scored Germany’s equalizer in their draw with Spain, confirmed Die Mannschaft‘s victory with his 89th minute goal, much to the relief of the Spanish camp.
Despite successfully turning things around against Costa Rica, Germany were still eliminated from the World Cup after Japan had successfully defended their 2-1 lead over Spain all the way into full time. It was the second consecutive World Cup where the Germans were eliminated in the group stages, having been knocked out at the same stage back in Russia 2018.
As for Japan, their reward for winning Group E was a round of 16 tie against 2018 runners-up Croatia, who finished second in Group F, while a relieved Spain will go up against another dark horse in the form of Group F winners Morocco.