Dubai: Japan are playing in their seventh consecutive World Cup, a streak which stretches back to their debut appearance in the competition at France 98. And in those 24 years, the team has improved leaps and bounds.
We shouldn’t be surprised. They had decent knowledge of the Germans as eight of their players are based in the Bundesliga including former Southampton defender Maya Yoshida, who plays for Schalke. Fans of the Premier League will recognise Takehiro Tomiyasu of Arsenal and Brighton’s Kaoru Mitoma.
Japan made it to The Round of 16 four years ago in Russia and suffered an agonizing defeat to Belgium. Having raced into a 2-0 lead, they lost 3-2 to an injury Nacer Chadli winner.
Against Hansi Flick’s new-look, younger side, they took their time to get into the game. It was a strange performance - we know they like to counter attack but they showed a real lack of ambition and the first half belonged to Germany who bossed possession and created several guilt-edged chances.
They went ahead thanks to a penalty from Gundogan and he came close to doubling their lead early in the second half but saw his well-struck shot hit the post.
Jamal Musiala was behind everything good the Germans did. He had been delivering in Champions League for Bayern Munich with his dribbling ability. Just when you think he can’t get through that tight gap, he already has. He makes football look fun and this was a chance to announce his arrival on the big stage - but Japan had other ideas.
They woke up in the second half and stung their opponents with two well taken goals. First, Kaoru Mitoma found Takumi Minamino whose cross-shot was palmed away by Manuel Neuer only for Ritsu Doan to smash home the equalizer. The Germans were rattled. Japan looked confident and began popping the ball about and looked the likelier team to win it. And they did.
They went ahead following a long ball over the top which Takuma Asano controlled instantly before shifting the ball to his right foot and burying his shot into the roof of the net from a tight angle. Cue pandemonium at the Khalifa International Stadium. Japan proved once again that they can play great football and take risks. Their overall game has improved in a huge way. This was the second huge shock of the World Cup after Saudi Arabia beat Argentina 2-1.
There was a time Japanese football lured stars like Gary Lineker when the J-League was formed in 1993. Three decades later the nation’s top flight is thriving but that hasn’t stopped a stream of the country’s best talent leaving. But this has only helped improve the national team.
Just ask the Germans.