Japan rise up to put Spain to the sword

La Roja progressed despite the defeat on a sensational night of World Cup action. 
Japan rise up to put Spain to the sword

Japan's Maya Yoshida celebrates with teammates after the final whistle. Picture: Nick Potts/PA Wire.

JAPAN 2 (Doan 48, Tanaka 51) 

SPAIN 1 (Morata 11)

FINE MARGINS decide games, and they don't get much finer than the hair's breadth decision that enabled Japan to beat Spain and send Germany home from the group stages for the second World Cup running.

When Brighton and Hove Albion forward Kaoru Mitoma cut back the ball from the byline for Ao Tanaka to bundle into the net with his knee in the 51st minute of an enthralling game, it was made for a dramatic turnaround.

The Japanese, hitherto heading out of the World Cup, had apparently completed an amazing comeback yet again to sink Spain and reach the last 16 at the expense of Germany, who were involved in their own topsy-turvy game against Costa Rica.

But the Spanish were livid, insisting the ball had gone out, VAR decided to intervene and for the best part of five minutes, footage and pictures were scrutinised to the nth degree. In the end, VAR decided Victor Gomes had not made a clear error in awarding the goal, Japan held out for a famous win to finish top of Group E, and Germany were on their way.

It is not the first time the Germans have been involved in 'over-the-line-or-not?' controversy, most famously when Geoff Hurst's second goal helped England win the 1966 World Cup final. West Germany raged bitterly for years that the goal should never have been allowed, but were happier to accept the referee's decision when he disallowed a Frank Lampard 'goal' against them in 2010 because he had not seen it clearly cross the goalline. The incident, in Blomfontein, was one of the drivers for the introduction of VAR, so perhaps Germany should accept the technology got it right, as it is understood the sensors in the German-made ball were involved in determining that Tanaka's goal should stand.

And when Germany reflect fully on their second successive World Cup failure, they will also look back a week to when they lost 2-1 to Japan, who produced a similar performance to get the same result against Spain.

Hajime Moriyasu's men may have enjoyed the rub of the green with that decision, but they certainly deserve their place in the last 16 having put both Germany and Spain to the sword.

Just like last week's win, this victory in the Khalifa stadium was not predicted, certainly by half-time when Spain were 1-0 ahead through Alvaro Morata's 11th minute goal and in total control, dominating possession and not giving their opponents a sniff of goal.

With Germany also leading against Costa Rica, Japan were at that point in third place in Group E.

But just as they did against the Germans, Japan came back to turn things around in a short space of time. Substitute Ritsu Doan, who'd scored the equaliser against Germany last week, did the same against Spain, shooting home left-footed from 20 yards with such venom that Unai Simon could only parry the ball into the net.

And three minutes later came the moment that created another huge World Cup upset and will be the subject of debate for some time to come. Pictures suggested that a sheet of rice would not fit between the edge of the ball and the edge of the line, making it a legitimate goal.

There was still plenty of time for Spain to make amends but they seem so obsessed with possession that they appear to have forgotten the way to goal.

GAME OF INCHES: Japan's forward Kaoru Mitoma crosses the ball for his team's winner. Picture: GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images
GAME OF INCHES: Japan's forward Kaoru Mitoma crosses the ball for his team's winner. Picture: GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images

The Japanese clung on to their lead tenaciously, tackling like demons, blocking shots, and running themselves into the ground.

Mayo Yoshida, the former Southampton defender, played a captain's role, repelling all boarders, and made a last-ditch clearance with Ferran Torres poised to strike in the dying minutes of the game.

Goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda also played his part, saving well from Gavi, Nico Williams and then Dani Olmo in stoppage time.

Luis Enrique's side could not find a way through, and after their 7-0 thrashing of Costa Rica in their opening game, which had put them among the tournament favourites, they have dropped five points from two games. Goalscoring was a problem again here last night, as it was against Germany earlier in the week, and Enrique has to find the right balance between dominating possession and creating genuine goalscoring chances. Morata, who had nodded home a Cesar Azpilicueta cross for his third goal of the tournament, still looks less than lethal and was replaced by Torres soon after Japan scored.

On the final whistle, the Japanese players, staff and fans celebrated a famous victory. Having won the Group, they now face Croatia in the round of 16 while Spain will play Morocco, surprise winners of Group F.

What a topsy-turvy tournament this is turning out to be.

And that goal will be debated long into the night all over Germany and beyond.

Japan 3-4-3 Gonda 8; Itakura 7, Taniguchi 7, Yoshida 9; Nagatomo 7, Morita 7, Ito 6, Tanaka 6; Kamada 6, Kubo 6, Maeda 6.

Spain: 4-3-3 Simon 6; Azpilicueta 6, Rodri 6, Pau Torres 6, Balde 6; Busquets 6, Pedri 6, Gavi 6; Nico Williams 6, Olmo 6, Morata 7.

Ref Victor Gomes (S Africa) 6 

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