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Costa Rica are probably among the weakest teams at this World Cup, but it was impossible not to be impressed with Spain’s dismantling of the Ticos on matchday one. A 7-0 thumping went down as one of the largest victories in the history of the tournament, as Luis Enrique’s side made a major statement of intent in their opening encounter.
Another victory at the weekend would have sent Spain through to the last 16. They took the lead against Germany through Alvaro Morata just after the hour mark, but Niclas Fullkrug struck with seven minutes of normal time remaining to earn the Nationalelf a crucial point. On the balance of play, a draw was a fair result.
Spain are on the brink of securing a place in the knockout phase. A draw here would be enough for them to reach the last 16, while a win would guarantee their progression as the winners of Group E. Their impressive performances to date have not escaped the attention of the best online sportsbooks, which now make the 2010 champions third-favorites to lift the trophy.
Luis Enrique has done an excellent job since taking charge. Of all the teams at this World Cup, Spain are arguably the one that looks most like a club side. They are cohesive and balanced with a clearly defined style of play. They have top-class individuals but every squad member is willing to put his talent at the service of the collective.
The main doubt before the big kick-off was whether they would score enough goals, but Spain then hit seven past Costa Rica and created several good chances against Germany. They have the option of starting a traditional center-forward in Morata, or fielding Marco Asensio as a false nine. It is still early days in Qatar but Spain look strong.
It is not hyperbolic to say that Japan may regret their 1-0 loss to Costa Rica for years to come. Hajime Moriyasu’s men had already done the hard part. A come-from-behind victory over Germany on matchday one left them in a strong position in the group, needing just one more win to put them on the brink of the knockout phase.
Costa Rica were not expected to offer much resistance. Morale in the camp was low after that thumping by Spain, the nation’s joint-biggest ever defeat. But Japan turned in a remarkably underwhelming performance. The game looked to be heading for a 0-0 draw, only for Keysher Fuller to stun the Samurai Blue with a late leveler that Shuichi Gonda really should have kept out.
Japan had plenty of possession but there was a lack of urgency to their play, especially in the first half. It was almost as though they felt they did not really need to step up the tempo because a goal was bound to come at some point.
That laissez-faire attitude proved costly. Japan improved slightly after the break, but they still did not do enough to turn possession into clear-cut chances. A lack of cutting edge in the final third was clear for all to see, and Costa Rica grew in confidence as the minutes ticked by.
Japan are not dead and buried yet. But if Germany beat Costa Rica comfortably as is expected, the Samurai Blue would need to triumph over Spain to advance to the round of 16.
Between 2008 and 2012, Spain won three international tournaments without conceding a single goal in the knockout rounds. This current side is not as good as that one, but there are certain stylistic similarities - possession domination, pressing from the front and an ability to give up few clear-cut chances.
Japan will have their work cut out on Thursday. In most of the matches they play in the Asian Cup and Asian World cup qualifying, the Samurai Blue have most of the ball. Here, they will have to play on the counter-attack, something they have relatively little practice of doing.
It is true that Japan twice caught out Germany while playing on the break, but Spain’s defensive record suggests Moriyasu’s side will find it hard to breach their opponents’ backline. Japan’s chances of a positive result are further dented by the fact that Spain are not yet through to the knockout stage, so they will name their strongest possible side here.
Finally, Japan may find it hard to bounce back psychologically from the crushing blow that was the 1-0 loss to Costa Rica. Back Spain to win to nil on Thursday.
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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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