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FIFA World Cup: After Germany, Japan stun Spain 2-1 to finish top of Group E

Trust Japan to light up a second half in the 2022 Qatar World Cup. After turning the tables on Germany from a goal down at half-time, Japan repeated the seemingly improbable against Spain in a stunning 2-1 victory that took them into the Round of 16 as Group E table toppers.

That appeared far from likely after 45 minutes at the Khalifa International Stadium on Thursday. With Alvaro Morata scoring his third goal in his first start of this World Cup, Japan stared at elimination. But strikes by Ritsu Doan (48th minute) and Ao Tanaka (51st) in a sizzling second-half performance saw them sail into the knockouts above Spain from a group where fortunes fluctuated across both matches. Spain, after a cracking start to the campaign against Costa Rica followed by the Germany draw and this loss, held on to the second spot on goal difference to Germany (also 4 points) who beat Costa Rica 4-2.

An energetic Japan, with five changes to the starting XI after the Costa Rica defeat sandwiched between their two memorable wins, began the contest with a couple of early entries into the opposition box. However, it was Spain with the first strike, a neat header by Morata off a sublime cross from Cesar Azpilicueta putting them ahead in the 11th minute.

The 30-year-old Atletico Madrid striker had played super sub so far in this tournament, coming off the bench and finding the net against Costa Rica and scoring the lone goal against Germany. As half-time approached, Spain unsurprisingly enjoyed 78 per cent possession while Japan had zero shots on target. The precious few times that Japan had the ball, they were quick in giving it away.

As things stood at the break with Germany leading the other match, Japan faced an exit. They had sprung to life in the second half against Germany, and needed a similarly special rallying act to stay on.

It came in the form of Doan, the half-time substitute who’d also found the equaliser against the Germans in the 75th minute. Against Spain, it took just three minutes into resumption. A sloppy Spain defence was pressed hard by Japan before a solid left footer by Doan from outside the box brushed past goalkeeper Unai Simon’s hands and into the net.

Less than three minutes later, Japan nudged ahead through a technological call on millimetres. Tanaka was right in front of the goal to a ball that was deemed to be pulled back in and crossed by substitute Kaoru Mitoma near the far post. It was checked for whether the ball had gone fully out of play. VAR concluded it did not. Japan twice celebrated their second goal.

Stunned and briefly facing elimination after Costa Rica took the lead from Germany, Spain coach Luis Enrique rung in the changes. But for all their possession play, Spain hardly looked like the side that dominated the first half while Japan continued to ask questions. With Germany restoring order, Spain were saved the blushes and even though they had a couple of chances towards the end, Japan held on. Not just for the win but a dramatic entry into the Round of 16.

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