Dubai: Time has passed for Belgium’s golden generation and as much as we build up Germany they are just not the same team anymore. Indeed we have learned these and several other lessons at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar but the biggest surely has to be that you cannot write off Japan.
The Blue Samurai are the new comeback kings of international football thanks to some inspired substitutions by coach Hajime Moriyasu which have helped them claim two huge victories. The first was over Germany and then over Spain.
They have deservedly booked their places in the last 16 for a fourth time and will face Croatia next and I think they have a massive opportunity to reach the quarter-finals.
If anyone thought their 2-1 win over the Germans was a freak result they only needed to watch their brilliant performance that saw off Spain by the same margin.
In between they were beaten 1-0 by Costa Rica but were by far the better team in that match as they were in the other two and rightfully finished top of Group E.
Their super subs made the difference in both matches. Ritsu Doan got the equalizer just five minutes after coming on against Germany while against Spain he was on the scoresheet after just three minutes of coming off the bench.
Karou Mitoma also made his presence felt in a huge way as he hooked back Doan’s cross for Ao Tanaka to convert. It looked like the ball had gone out of play but none of technology saw anything wrong and the goal stood otherwise it would have signaled for a goal kick.
Japan knew a Spain equalizer would put their own progress in jeopardy. Fortunately for them, it never came but the result meant the two progressed from the group while Germany were eliminated yet again without making the knockouts just as they were in Russia 2018.
Japan’s attack was impressive but their defence deserved as much credit. Having taken the lead against the Spaniards they reset into their defensive shape and for the next 45 minutes they didn’t give Luis Enrique’s side a sniff of a chance. Japan were disciplined and structured and understood their game plan and executed it brilliantly.
The thousands of fans who made their way to Qatar will remember this tournament with very fond memories - but I think they can dream of even more daring deeds yet. Croatia had better watch out because Japan mean business.