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Japan stun Spain with thrilling comeback to snatch top spot


The last lost cause; a victory of historic proportions. A set of literal inches; a night of monumental drama. A former World Cup winner is out. Another no longer looks like potential champions. Japan, against this, has emerged as one of the stories and revelations of this tournament.

Kaoru Mitoma’s heroic pursuit of a ball that appeared to be out of play saw Ao Tanaka score a goal for history on another night that will go down in football history. It didn’t just mean that Japan did to Spain what they did to Germany with another 2-1 comeback. It meant they finished ahead of both in the group to subject Germany to the humiliation of elimination and Spain to the embarrassment of finishing second after having almost everything their way.

Now they seem flawed and vulnerable instead of imperious and victorious, as well as pathetically dependent on a German favor.

It was, truly, a night where justice was served after all kinds of trial and error. They all got what they deserved. Japan have all their value as group champions, as they were the only team that gave everything they had. Spain did not deserve to win either the match or the group given how arrogantly complacent they became with their own quality. Germany couldn’t beat Japan and just barely managed a win against Costa Rica.

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It ended up being what Spain needed. They are nothing like favorites anymore. An irony, however, is that they may have a more lenient path. However, they should not take Morocco too lightly with this evidence. Meanwhile, Japan will like to take on anyone when they take on Croatia.

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Qatar has more memorable moments, more nation-defining performances, with which the country will always be associated. That’s sports washing. It makes it all the more apparent that, on the pitch, this was football at its purest, with all its glorious unpredictability.

After so many twists, it’s remarkable to think that the evening really began with utter predictability. Germany led Costa Rica. Spain had returned to make such a comfortable game for them.

It even came from something tried and trusted. César Azpilicueta and Álvaro Morata had often teamed up at Chelsea, particularly with a fine goal against Manchester United, and this was very similar. The right-back deflected in a cross that was so well-hit and engaging that it made it almost impossible to miss, and Morata duly delivered.

It would be easy to make a joke about what the striker often does, but this has been a good World Cup for him, individually, as he has managed three goals in three games to become joint top scorer.

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Spain did not maintain anything similar to that sharpness. Unai Simón was once again so careless.

A casual laxity had begun to creep into his game even before that, with Sergio Busquets playing a low ball into his own box. Junya Ito jumped on him to set up Tanaka, and the ball went just wide.

It should have been a warning for Spain. It was ignored.

Instead, Japan evidently saw that it could reach Spain. The transformation after halftime was remarkable. With Spain reverting to a more casual and passive style of possession, Japan simply chased after them with bad pass after bad pass, bad call after bad call.

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Kaoru Mitoma recovers the ball for his team’s second goal

(AFP via Getty Images)

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Simon, again, was at the center of it all.

Inexplicably, he had attempted a kick close to his own goal, leaving him no choice but to go for what he had refused to do and simply clear it. Ritsu Doan, as a substitute, just sent him back.

The striker struck a bolt of lightning that went right through Simon’s hands. As good as the shot was, it could be argued that the goalie at the time had gotten his hands and feet wrong.

He was not the only one. Spain could not recover. Previously so imperious on the ball, they suddenly found themselves on the inexperienced, inexperienced side that their age suggests. And suddenly they were about to leave too.

Japan just overwhelmed them. They had the extra oomph. They went a little further than Spain did not, literally. Mitoma nearly got to a ball that seemed certain she was out of play, and somehow handed it over for Tanaka to loot.

Having been undone in surprisingly quick time, Spain had so much time to think about it that the moment inevitably went to VAR. Replays suggested that he was right over the line. The technology indicated no.

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Ao Tanaka celebrates scoring Japan’s second goal

(fake images)

Japan had done it again. Now they were winning the group again.

Spain was stunned, but apparently did not dare to respond. Now there was a residual passivity in their game that they couldn’t get out of. It was as if they didn’t realize that, at that moment, a single Costa Rican goal could have eliminated them.

It didn’t turn out that way, but not by any kind of design. Instead it was chaos as Spain found themselves briefly outside the top two.

Luis Enrique finally brought in the electric Ansu Fati for his first appearance at this World Cup, but he couldn’t wake up Spain on his own.

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Players from Japan celebrate after the team’s qualification for the round of 16.

(fake images)

Spain could not pass alone.

They needed Germany to do them a favor. It was supposed to be the other way around. It was supposed to be very different.

It is possible that it can serve Spain. This could be the jolt they need. This could sharpen them for a more forgiving path.

It’s just that, in this evidence, there are no certainties. Japan, by contrast, have shown that they are ready to take on anyone.

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