Japan stunningly came from behind to inflict a 2-1 defeat upon heavyweight Spain in their final Group E fixture at the 2022 FIFA World Cup on Thursday night (1 December). Alvaro Morata found the back of the net for Spain while Ritsu Doan and Ao Tanaka scored for the Samurai Blue.
Japan’s second comeback win in Group E (previously 2-1 against Germany) allowed them to finish as group winners. Spain clinched second place ahead of four-time FIFA World Cup winners Germany, courtesy of their superior goal difference.
La Roja enjoyed a bright start at the Khalifa International Stadium, expectedly dominating possession and playing through the defensive lines. It took the 2010 FIFA World Cup winners a mere 11 minutes to break the deadlock against Japan. Morata got on the end of a tasty delivery from Cesar Azpilicueta and directed his header past Japanese goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda.
Unlike many teams, Spain was not carried away with the early goal. They maintained their shape and kept the ball moving with short, accurate passes, forcing Japan to chase shadows.
In the 22nd minute, Gavi expertly played Morata through on goal down the right side. The Atletico Madrid man did well to get his shot away from a tight angle but Gonda had his bases covered. Japan upped the ante past the 30-minute mark but rarely made inroads into the Spanish box.
Having been outplayed by their lofty rivals, Japan made a couple of substitutions at halftime, bringing on Ritsu Doan for Takefusa Kubo and Kaoru Mitoma for Yuto Nagamoto. The impact was instant.
Three minutes into the second half, Doan got on the ball at the edge of the Spanish box and dispatched a powerful strike. Simon was in a good position, but could not keep the ball from going in.
Three minutes later, Mitoma cut the ball back for Takana inside the Spanish box, who somehow managed to bundle the ball over the line. The referee initially ruled Tanaka’s goal out, as he thought the ball had gone out of play before Mitoma could cut it back. A VAR check came to Japan’s rescue and awarded them the goal.
Spain’s best effort in the second half came through substitute Marco Asensio in the 90th minute. The Real Madrid man caught the ball finely from distance, drawing a good save from Gonda. Luis Enrique’s side continued to hunt for an equalizer in the dying embers of the match, but a resilient Japan held on for another huge win at the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Here are three Spanish players who struggled and two who looked sharp in Thursday’s action-packed encounter at the Khalifa International Stadium:
Underperformed: Nico Williams
Nico Williams, brother of Athletic Bilbao forward Inaki, started his first match for his country at the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The jet-heeled forward tried to use his pace to his advantage quite a few times, but Japan expertly thwarted his advances. Williams spent most of his night hugging the right touchline, never looking like making a difference.
On Thursday, Williams failed to get even a single of his shots away, let alone land one on target. He failed to pull off two of his three attempted dribbles, misplaced both his crosses, lost possession five times, and lost three duels.
Performed: Cesar Azpilicueta
Enrique reinstated Chelsea skipper Cesar Azpilicueta into the starting XI for the clash against Samurai Blue. Azpilicueta used his vast experience to his advantage and kept the right flank sterilized. He also impressed with his distribution, dashed forward whenever possible, and assisted Morata’s header with an inch-perfect cross.
Against Japan, Azpilicueta completed 69 passes (97.2% accuracy), played a key pass, delivered three accurate long balls, and created a big chance. He also won two of three duels and attempted a tackle before being replaced by Daniel Carvajal at halftime.
Underperformed: Sergio Busquets
The team's captain, Sergio Busquets, was not at his best in the crucial Group E encounter. He looked nervy at times, misplaced a few passes, and was generally not as inventive as he usually is. Given his experience and quality, much more was expected from the veteran when the going got rough for his side in the second half.
Busquets misplaced seven passes against Japan. He also lost possession eight times, lost a ground duel, and committed a foul.
Performed: Alvaro Morata
Alvaro Morata, who made his first start at the 2022 FIFA World Cup on Thursday, was easily Spain’s best forward. He put pressure on the Japanese defenders, looked to play between the lines, and scored a thumping header to give his team the lead in the 11th minute.
The goal marked his third of the tournament, making him the joint-top scorer alongside Kylian Mbappe, Cody Gakpo, and recently-eliminated Enner Valencia.
Morata completed 12 passes (75% accuracy), delivered two accurate long balls, and won three of the four duels against Japan. He was fouled once and attempted a tackle.
Underperformed: Unai Simon
Over the course of Thursday night, Japan lodged only three shots on target. Unai Simon let two of them go past him. In the 48th minute, Simon made a hash of Doan’s shot from outside the box. The effort was at a nice height for him, but he could not deal with the shot’s power, pushing it into the top-right corner of his net.
Three minutes later, Simon attempted to collect Doan’s delivery from the right side, only to fail and be caught in an unfavorable position. The ball eventually found its way to Mitoma, who somehow kept it in to assist Tanaka’s goal.