Not many would have predicted that the Samurai Blue would beat both Spain and Germany to top Group E in qualifying for the knockouts, but so impressive has the team been that not many would now raise an eyebrow if Japan was to progress to the quarterfinals for the first time in its history.
Japan plays 2018 finalist Croatia in the last 16 at the Al Janoub Stadium on Monday at 10 a.m. E.T. in the first of two last 16 games on the day, with the later match featuring tournament favorite Brazil and South Korea.
First to the match in Al Wakrah. Croatia is a team undefeated in nine of its last 10 World Cup matches. Its only loss in that run coming in Russia four years ago when a Kylian Mbappé-inspired France secured a 4-2 win in the final.
Coach Zlatko Dalić told reporters Sunday that the country had performed brilliantly over the years and become a force in world football.
“The population of Croatia is four million and the results we have achieved on the world stage are miraculous,” said Dalić, per Reuters.
“We are continually present in tournaments and World Cups, and that itself is a great success. We have become a world football force.”
While Croatia, unbeaten in Qatar, has never lost in the last 16 in its previous two World Cup matches at this stage, Japan has never progressed beyond the round-of-16, suffering defeat in 2002, 2010 and 2018.
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Defender Yuto Nagatomo said memories of the defeat by Belgium four years ago, when Japan let a 2-0 lead slip and lost to a stoppage-time goal, will drive the players on this time.
“I have never forgotten about that battle against Belgium. Sometimes, scenes from the match suddenly come back to me and the last four years have been very tough,” the full back told reporters Sunday.
“But I think we have grown mentally as well as physically and … as far as I can see, this team is the best and the strongest that has ever competed for Japan at the World Cup.”
Can previous meetings between these two countries help give us a sense of what may happen on Monday? Perhaps not. Since 1997, they have played each other three times, with Japan winning a friendly 4-3, but losing to Croatia in the group stage at France 1998. At the 2006 World Cup in Germany, the two teams played out a 0-0 draw.
According to sports data company Gracenote, Croatia has a 58% chance of winning this match, while Japan’s chances stand at 42%.
But Croatia is a possession-based team, which might suit Japan given it beat Germany and Spain with 17.7% and 26.1% possession respectively.
Dalić added: “They will apply the samurai warrior philosophy. So will we. If we want to go further, we must apply that same attitude, do our best and never underestimate anyone.
“Japan have the least ball possession in the world, but they make great transition. This is the most perseverant, persistent opponent. They simply do not give up. We have a similar mentality, Japan and Croatia. We stand on equal ground.”
On paper, the day’s other knockout match is easier to predict as five-time champion Brazil takes on South Korea at Stadium 974 in Doha.
Though Brazil lost to Cameroon 1-0 in its last group match, it is still the overwhelming favorite to progress to the quarterfinals, where either Japan or Croatia will await.
With progress to the knockout stages already secured, manager Tite made nine changes to the team that won 1-0 against Switzerland, which could account for the country’s first loss to an African nation in a World Cup. Though that should not take anything away from Cameroon’s performance.
A dramatic 2-1 comeback win over Portugal, with Hwang Hee-chan scoring the added-time winner, secured South Korea’s spot in the last 16. Prior to that match, the Taegeuk Warriors had only won one of their previous 11 World Cup matches.
Victory for South Korea this time, however, would be monumental, especially as it seems likely star forward Neymar will be fit to play after recovering from an ankle injury.
But the tournament favorite has suffered a number of injuries to key players in Qatar, with Alex Telles’ knee injury against Cameroon leaving Brazil short of full backs. Telles and forward Gabriel Jesus were ruled out for the rest of the tournament by the Brazilian FA on Saturday, while it is unclear when usual starting full backs Danilo and Alex Sandro will recover from their injuries.
The two countries have never played each other at a World Cup, but have met seven times – Brazil winning six times and South Korea winning once in 1999. Their most recent encounter was in June in Seoul, which Brazil won 5-1.
But as the only Asian country to have reached a World Cup semifinal, South Korea has pedigree – and it also has Tottenham star Son Heung-min, its talisman and one of best players in the English Premier League.
South Korea’s Portuguese coach Paulo Bento told reporters Sunday: “We’re up against world-class players, we are not intimidated. In our squad, we have world-class players.
“One match, it’s not an entire tournament, we have one chance … Most important is we show we are a team that wants to win, wants to compete and fight until the last whistle.”
Japan vs. Croatia: 10 a.m. ET at the Al Janoub Stadium
Brazil vs. South Korea: 2 p.m. ET at the Stadium 974, Doha
US: Fox Sports
UK: BBC or ITV
Germany: ARD, ZDF, Deutsche Telekom
Canada: Bell Media
South Africa: SABC