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【Match Report】SAMURAI BLUE advance to the Round of 16 for the second consecutive World Cup with a comeback win over Spain

02 December 2022

【Match Report】SAMURAI BLUE advance to the Round of 16 for the second consecutive World Cup with a comeback win over Spain

On Thursday 1 December, the SAMURAI BLUE (Japan National Team) faced the Spain National Team in their final group stage match of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™. Despite conceding the lead in the first half, Japan came from behind to win the match 2-1, thanks to the goals scored by DOAN Ritsu (SC Freiburg) and TANAKA Ao (Fortuna Dusseldorf). With this win, Japan finished Group E in first place and advanced to the Round of 16 for the second straight World Cup.

Japan will now face Croatia, the runners-up of the last World Cup, on Monday 5 December.

Facing Spain, who led the group with a win and a draw, Japan started GONDA Shuichi (Shimizu S-Pulse) in goal, with ITAKURA Kou (Borussia MG), YOSHIDA Maya (FC Schalke 04), and TANIGUCHI Shogo (Kawasaki Frontale) forming the three-man defence line. Tanaka and MORITA Hidemasa (Sporting CP) were paired in the middle to serve as the defensive midfielders, while ITO Junya (Stade de Reims) and NAGATOMO Yuto (FC Tokyo) were placed in the flanks. MAEDA Daizen (Celtic FC) was named as the lone striker with KUBO Takefusa (Real Sociedad) and KAMADA Daichi (Eintracht Frankfurt) playing beneath him.

Spain, on the other hand, rotated five players since drawing 1-1 with Germany but kept Sergio BUSQUETS, GAVI, and PEDRI in the midfield, while giving Alvaro MORATA the start after the striker scored in back-to-back matches off the bench.

The opening goal came in the 12th minute, when Spain connected passes from the left to right side of the pitch to set up the cross delivered by Cesar AZPILICUETA, which was converted by Morata, who now has scored in three straight matches.

While Spain continued to dominate the ball possession, Japan sought for their opportunities from fast breaks but couldn’t find ways to create plays that would threaten the Spanish goal, as the match entered halftime 0-1.

In efforts to change the dynamics of the match, Head Coach MORIYASU Hajime introduced MITOMA Kaoru (Brighton & Hove Albion FC) and Doan to start the second half. With a more attacking look, Japan pressed aggressively from the front line to apply pressure to the Spanish defence line and goalkeeper Unai SIMON.

The substitution immediately came to fruition in the 48th minute, when Mitoma and Maeda collectively applied pressure to the Spanish defence line, inducing Simon to deliver a lobbing pass to the flank. Ito won the aerial battle to head the ball, allowing Doan to control the ball and fire a powerful shot from the edge of the box, which ricocheted off the hands of Simon before finding the back of the net.

Gaining momentum from this goal, Japan created another chance just three minute later. The play started from a long feed from Gonda, in which the ball was connected through Ito to Tanaka before Doan delivered a cross towards the goal. Maeda and Mitoma came crashing into this delivery, and with Mitoma making a sliding effort to redirect the ball back to the centre, Tanaka converted it into the open net.

After the play was reviewed by VAR to verify if Mitoma indeed kept the ball in play at the goal line, the goal was allowed to give Japan a 2-1 lead.

Needing a win to secure the top spot in the group, Spain made a double substitution to bring in Marco ASENSIO and Ferran TORRES in the 57th minute. After Japan made the swap between ASANO Takuma (VfL Bochum) and Maeda in the 62nd minute, Spain made another move in the 68th minute to bring in Jordi ALBA and Ansu FATI to add more depths to their offence from the left side. In response, coach Moriyasu immediately sent TOMIYASU Takehiro (Arsenal) off the bench for Kamada, shifting Ito to a more advance position while the Arsenal man filled in the right side as a wing-back.

Although it was Spain who dominate the ball possession, Japan showed great composure to keep the Spanish offence away from the goal area, while also anticipating for their chance to counter, as Mitoma, Doan, and Ito showed great movements down the line to penetrate the open space. In the 70th minute, Mitoma broke through the left side to deliver a well-timed pass to Asano, but the speedy striker was not able to make good contact with the ball.

With time running out, Asensio struck a shot from distance in the 89th minute, while Dani OLMO played a pass-and-go with Torres to break into the box in the 90th minute, but both attempts were denied by Gonda. After showing a tenacious defensive effort to hold onto their lead, Japan won the match 2-1, as Tanaka was named the MOM (Man of the match).

As a result, Japan finished the group stage with two wins and a loss, topping Group E with six points. Despite wining their final match 4-2 against Costa Rica to tie Spain on points, Germany was eliminated in third place as they trailed Spain in goal difference.

Japan will now face Croatia, runners-up of Group F, at the Round of 16, as they seek to reach the World Cup quarterfinals for the first time.

Coaches and Players’ Comments

MORIYASU Hajime, Head Coach of SAMURAI BLUE (Japan National Team)
Facing one of the best teams in the world, we knew this was going to be a tough match for us, which indeed turned out to be a difficult one, but even after conceding the lead, the players fought tenaciously to keep the score within our reach. The patience and dedication shown by the players in the first half allowed us to enter the second half with great momentum. The players did the best they could to shift their mindset from the Costa Rica match, and their tenacity and determination to fight to the end boosted our chances of winning this match. This win was also made possible by the support of all our supporters, and I am happy that we were able to deliver this victory to them.
Our approach to this match was decided by the team. After finishing the first half 0-1, I told the players that the match was going according to our plan, that we have to continue to play patiently, and that we cannot afford to concede any more goals. We knew Spain was going to control the ball possession, so our top priority was to play good defence first, and then seek for our chances to exploit the space behind their defence line. When our second goal was under review by VAR, we were going to respect the judge made by the referees either way.
We were constantly getting updates on the other match played between Germany and Costa Rica, and although there were stints when we needed just a draw to advance, we were determined to win the match regardless of the situation. In the closing minutes of the match, I was getting flash backs from the time I played in Doha (at the 1994 Asian Qualifiers), but as soon as I saw our players press forward to win the ball, it reminded me that time has changed, and that we are in a new era of Japanese football. The fact that we were able to win against the likes of Germany and Spain, should give hope to not only Japan, but to all Asian countries competing in the world stage.

FP #3 TANIGUCHI Shogo (Kawasaki Frontale)
I prepared myself so that I can give my best at any given moment. I felt a bit nervous to be on the pitch for the first time (at the World Cup), but I think I was relatively calm. I am happy that we were able to achieve our goal of winning three points against Spain to advance through. We entered the match with the intention of keeping our opponents scoreless as long as possible, and even after conceding the first goal, we were determined to play patiently in order to keep the match within our reach. We reassured one another that we have a chance of winning during halftime. We tried to play to our strengths to trouble our opponents in the second half because we knew what Doan and Mitoma were capable of, and we were successful in doing so.

FP #17 TANAKA Ao (Fortuna Dusseldorf/Germany)
When I scored the goal, I had faith in both Maeda and Mitoma to keep the ball alive, so I am glad that I didn’t give up on them. I was given the opportunity to play as a result of other players’ injury, so I want to make the most of the opportunity to deliver results and to cement my place on the starting eleven. In that sense, I am really glad that I was able to score that goal. I have always trained with the vision of scoring goals, so I feel like my efforts have finally paid off. Having lost to Spain in the Tokyo Olympics, I am happy that we were able to return the favour. Although we were dominated in ball possession, winning the match is what matters the most in the World Cup, so we should feel confident and be proud of the fact we were able to earn six points out of this tough group.

FP #22 YOSHIDA Maya (FC Schalke 04/Germany)
I feel ecstatic, but our goal is to win one more. Teams like Germany and Spain will take advantage of even the slightest mistakes, and I feel like we let up a bit when we conceded the first goal. Our patience were being tested in the first half, but when we heard that Germany was up 1-0 against Costa Rica, we used that information as motivation and reminded each other that we only needed a goal to advance through. From our experience from the Germany match, we all knew we would have a chance if the score was 0-1. We were also aware that we had to score goals, so we were determined to exert maximum pressure from the start of the second half. Spain let up a little bit in that exact moment, but I think Doan did well to capitalise on that opportunity. Although it took a while for VAR to confirm the goal, we managed to double up soon afterwards. We were in the defensive end for the rest of the match, but everyone kept their focus to keep the lead intact. The fact that we were able to win against Germany and Spain gives us great confidence, but our goal is to reach the top eight. We must not rest on our laurels and strive to reach new heights. It would be fantastic if, in 10 or 20 years, players of the national team could look back on this match and say, "I am here because of that match."

FP #25 MAEDA Daizen (Celtic FC/Scotland)
The first half required a lot of patience on our part. After we gave up the first goal, it got even tougher, but I concentrated on keeping the pressure on, so that Spain couldn't start their attacks from Busquets. In the second half, our pressure worked effectively, and similar to our game against Germany, the fact that we didn't allow the second goal helped us secure this victory. However, we must keep in mind that during the knockout stage, we cannot afford to give up the opening goal. We are extremely happy with this outcome because I believe that everyone expected Germany and Spain to advance from this group. We must refocus and get ready to win our next match against Croatia because reaching the knockout stage is not our goal.

Luis ENRIQUE, Head Coach of Spain National Team
In football you deserve it or not and we didn't deserve it. I'm not happy at all. I would have liked to be on top and win but in five minutes Japan scored two. We were dismantled. We didn't have any danger in the first half and then at half-time I told them to be cautious because Japan had nothing to lose. We collapsed and they could have scored two more goals. I'm not happy at all. We have qualified but I have nothing to celebrate.

TASHIMA Kohzo, JFA President
Coach Moriyasu and the players put forth a fantastic team effort to win the match while being fully aware of their strategy. Similar to the match against Germany, the team did well to keep the first half at 0-1 and overcame a very challenging opponent. As we constantly received updates on the match between Germany and Costa Rica, it was really impressive to see how well the players handled themselves, particularly toward the end of the match. The players are getting better day by day. They have shown their professionalism to shift their focus from the Costa Rica match, which I think is a sign that they are competing against some of the best players in Europe and in the J.League. It is not just the coaches, but everyone involved in football has contributed to raising the overall level of Japanese football. We will now be up against Croatia to reach new heights. It is important for other Asian nations that teams like Australia and Japan move onto the next stage. We are rooting for Korea Republic to also make it into the Round of 16.

FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™

Tournament Dates: Sun. 20 November - Sun. 18 December 2022
[Group Stage]
1st Match: Wed. 23 November 16:00 [Local Time] vs Germany National Team
2nd Match: Sun. 27 November 13:00 [Local Time] vs Costa Rica National Team
3rd Match: Thu. 1 December 22:00 [Local Time] vs Spain National Team

Tournament Information

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