Dubai: By beating two of the last three champions on their way to the knockout stages, Japan had been the story of the World Cup. But, they were up against Croatia who were the story of the last World Cup by reaching the 2018 final.
With a place in the last eight at stake something had to give at the Al Janoub Stadium in the last 16 clash and after 120 minutes and penalties it was Croatia who went through.
Japan had an extraordinary group stage to qualify for this game. First they beat Germany, ranked 11th in the world, 2-1. Then they lost 1-0 to Costa Rica, who are 31st in the world. And then they beat the eighth top team Spain 2-1. Croatia had gotten the point they needed in their last group game against Belgium to qualify for the knockout stages. They also drew 0-0 with Morocco, as well as thrashing Canada 4-1 but had looked slow and ponderous in all of their matches, and that is how they started against Japan.
The Blue Samurai had a huge early chance when Junya Ito played a corner short to Wataru Endo who immediately whipped in a cross. It fell to Shogo Taniguchi six yards out, but the defender’s header went wide. Japan then got lucky when Ivan Perisic latched onto a woeful backpass from Takehiro Tomiyasu but he took too long to decide what to do and his shot from a tight angle was saved.
Joy to watch
Back came Japan as Ito put in a beautiful cross which just needed a touch. Croatia decided to slow the game down with two banks of four hardly crossing the halfway line as they knew Japan were a threat on the counter.
Japan continued to be a joy to watch. They were positive and full of running and deservedly took the lead from Daizen Maeda. Three Japan players linked up for a corner and Ritsu Doan swung in the final cross. It hit a couple of players and landed at the feet of the Celtic man five yards out and he made no mistake.
Half time came and Croatia knew they somehow had to lift their energy levels to get back in the game. They had to be more positive and attack Japan but it was from out of nowhere that Perisic scored his 10th major tournament goal to draw them level. Josip Juranovic pulled the ball back to Dejan Lovren who clipped in a cross from deep and Perisic rose to head the ball into the bottom corner.
But Japan – in the last 16 for the fourth time – were not going to go away and still looked like the better side as Doan continued to cause problems by playing through the lines. They were bidding to become the third Asian side to reach the quarter-finals after North Korea in 1966 and South Korea in 2002 and with 19 of their 26-man squad playing their football in Europe it was clear why they were more than a match for Croatia.
After 90 minutes we were still all square and so the tie entered extra time. Japan were given a boost when 37-year-old Luka Modric – making his 159th international appearance – was substituted. With Croatia’s creative spark gone, this was Japan’s chance to take the initiative and they almost regained the lead but Kaoru Mitoma shot straight at the keeper after a lung-bursting 50 yard run.
It went to penalties and history backed Croatia. They won both of their previous World Cup shootouts against Denmark and Russia in 2018, while Japan lost their only previous shootout in the competition against Paraguay in 2010.
Takumi Minamino took Japan’s first but it was easily saved while Croatia’s Nikola Vlasic fired home. Kaoru Mitoma missed Japan’s second while Croatia’s Marcelo Brozovic gave them a 2-0 lead. Takuma Asano pulled one back and then Marko Livaja saw his effort hit the post. Captain Maya Yoshida had to score but failed and up stepped Mario Pasalic to send Croatia into the last eight.
It was heartbreak for Japan who had played so well in the tournament but they let themselves down with several poorly struck penalties.