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Japan stunned Germany and Spain to advance as the winners of Group E
In the end Croatia scraped through at the expense of Belgium in Group F
This is a difficult game to predict and there could be value in tipping the underdogs
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Japan pulled off not one but two major upsets in the group stage of World Cup 2022. On matchday one, they came from a goal down to score twice against Germany and win 2-1. On matchday three, they repeated the trick against Spain to secure the top spot in Group E against the odds.
Indeed, the best online sportsbooks did not anticipate the Samurai Blue qualifying for the last 16, let alone doing so as group winners. When they lost 1-0 to Costa Rica in their second assignment, most Japan fans feared the worst.
But Hajime Moriyasu’s men once again worked their magic to secure a knockout phase berth at the expense of four-time winners Germany.
Given their exploits to date, it would be foolish to write Japan off. This team seems to thrive as underdogs, a situation they do not experience much at a continental level. In World Cup qualifying in Asia, Japan are almost invariably the favorite. The same is true of the Asian Cup, the next edition of which will be hosted in Qatar in a little over a year’s time.
At the World Cup, however, Japan have to be adaptable. They are part of this competition’s furniture now, and against teams like Costa Rica, they are expected to dominate possession and be proactive.
But Japan are still not in Spain or Germany’s class, at least in terms of individual players. Against the European giants, they adopted a more reactive approach.
In both of those games, Japan looked to be in trouble at half-time. But Moriyasu’s side has an extraordinary ability to absorb pressure before attacking in short, sharp bursts. Their goals against Germany came in the space of eight minutes. In the victory over Spain, three minutes separated strikes by Ritsu Doan and Ao Tanaka. It does not take long for Japan to do damage.
By the end of their decisive match against Belgium, Croatia could count themselves a little fortunate to have picked up the result they needed. A draw was always enough for the 2018 runners-up to advance to the knockouts, and the game duly ended 0-0 to send them through.
However, Zlatko Dalic and his players had the wasteful finishing of their opponents to thank for their continued participation in the competition. Romelu Lukaku alone spurned four golden opportunities in the final few minutes. The expected goals finished 2.7 vs 0.6 in Belgium’s favor. On the balance of play, they did more than enough to advance.
Croatia were in a potentially difficult position. Knowing that a draw is enough to progress does not bring the same clarity of purpose as the win-or-bust scenario Belgium faced. We had previously seen how this worked to the advantage of Senegal and the USA, both of whom had to emerge victorious and went on to do just that.
Yet it was still an unimpressive showing from the Vatreni, who also underwhelmed in another 0-0 draw, this time against Morocco in the first week of the World Cup.
In between those two scoreless stalemates, Croatia thrashed Canada 4-1. After falling behind, Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic, Marcelo Brozovic, and the rest of the side passed holes in opponents who were, quite frankly, very naive without the ball.
But that was Croatia’s sole positive performance in the group phase. Despite what looks like a reasonably kind draw on paper, there is work to do if Dalic’s charges are to advance to the quarter-finals.
Of the XI that began Croatia’s draw with Belgium, five featured in the World Cup final four years ago. It would be wrong to say that there has been no regeneration of the side since that fantastic achievement in Russia, and it is not as if the likes of Modric, Brozovic, and Ivan Perisic are not worthy of their places in the current team - quite the opposite, in fact.
Yet it has been noticeable over the last couple of weeks that Croatia are not a particularly fast team. This was not an issue against Morocco, who sat back, or Belgium, whose squad is also aging. But although they collapsed as the game wore on, Canada’s energy and dynamism caused Croatia huge problems in the opening exchanges of their meeting in Al Rayyan.
If Japan are to progress, they will need to get in Croatia’s faces and play at a high tempo. If they allow their opponents to pass the ball around at a slower pace, they will probably lose the match. Speeding things up could be a route to success.
As far as we see it, there is not much to choose between these two sides. But the odds favor Croatia by quite a margin. The value, therefore, lies in backing Japan - not necessarily to win after 90 minutes, but to reach the quarter-finals for the first time in their history.
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Teams: Japan vs Croatia
Location: Al Janoub Stadium, Al Wakrah, Qatar
Time: Monday 5 December 2022, 10:00 AM EST
How to Watch: Fox Sports, Telemundo, fuboTV
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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