DOHA - Japan staged their second stunning turnaround of the World Cup to beat 2010 champions Spain 2-1 on Thursday with two quick-fire goals and advance to the last 16 along with their beaten opponents, dumping Germany out in the process.
The prospect of an early World Cup exit for Japan was transformed into one of the greatest nights for the Samurai Blue after coach Hajime Moriyasu revamped his side at halftime.
Ritsu Doan, one of the substitutes, hammered in a shot from the edge of the box in the 48th minute which Spain goalkeeper Unai Simon - whose poor clearance had created the danger - could not keep out.
Three minutes later, Ao Tanaka scored from point-blank range after the other halftime sub Kaoru Mitoma cut the ball back from the byline.
The VAR system took several minutes to confirm the ball had not gone out before Mitoma’s touch, sparking wild celebrations by the Japan players and their fans similar to the scenes that followed their 2-1 comeback win over Germany last week.
“No one in the world believed that Japan would finish top of this group – no one,” said defender Yuto Nagatomo.
“But we believed, and we believed during the game today. We showed the world what Japanese guts looks like.”
Nagatomo said the game went “according to plan” despite Spain scoring an 11th-minute opener through Alvaro Morata.
“We knew there was a chance we would concede a goal, and we knew that if that happened and we fell to pieces and conceded another it would be a very difficult game,” said Nagatomo.
“We were prepared for that situation and we held it together. Not one player fell apart.”
Japan, who have never progressed beyond the first knockout round, will face Croatia in the last 16 and Spain will meet Morocco.
Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu praised the perseverance of his players.
“Spain are one of the best teams in the world and we knew before the game that this was going to be very difficult, and indeed it was,” the enigmatic Moriyasu told reporters.
“But the players persisted and they persevered and they turned the tide of the game. Everybody was excited that we were able to play as one again.
“There were many fans who came all the way from Japan, as well as those that stayed at home. We are gifting this win to the people of Japan, and we are very happy about it.”
Spain had looked in total control in the first half but were suddenly clinging to their chance of staying in the World Cup as Costa Rica and Germany battled out their own drama in the other Group E match which ended in a 4-2 win for Germany, not enough to keep them in the tournament.
Morata had put the Spaniards ahead when he scored his third goal in three games in Qatar, rising high above Japan’s defence to power a header past goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda in the 11th minute after a cross by Cesar Azpilicueta.
“(It was) five minutes of total lack of control, of panic, even,” said Spain coach Luis Enrique.
“They scored two goals against us, and if they had needed to score two more, then they would have scored them too, I’m sure.
“This is a World Cup and when a team like Japan does not have anything to lose, well, they decide to risk it all and flew past us like they were aeroplanes.
“The situation was under control once Japan decided to recover their previous position on the pitch and shut up shop at the back.”
The breathtaking 2-1 win for Japan - who also beat Germany 2-1 after going behind in their opening match of the tournament - meant they topped Group E, followed by Spain in second who finished ahead of third-placed Germany only on goal difference. REUTERS