Spain advanced to the World Cup last 16 on Thursday despite a 2-1 loss to Japan, who amazingly won Group E on a wild night that saw four-time champions Germany eliminated.
Japan secured another incredible victory after defeating Germany in their first game, their progression from the “group of death” one of the country’s greatest achievements in football history.
For a few heart-stopping minutes, Spain appeared to be heading out when Costa Rica was leading in the other game, but the 2010 champions escaped after Germany did them a favor by beating Los Ticos.
Spain and Germany both finished with four points, but La Roja advanced on goal difference.
With a towering header, Alvaro Morata put Spain ahead early on, but Japan responded dramatically at the start of the second half.
The goals of Ritsu Doan and Ao Tanaka helped them mount a sensational comeback, just as they did against Germany.
Tanaka’s goal was highly debated after officials used VAR to determine that Kaoru Mitoma had kept the ball in play by a hair’s breadth to set him up.
In the final stages, Spain struggled to create chances against a tenacious Japanese defense, with the Asian side aware that conceding another goal would see them eliminated.
The Japanese players collapsed in celebration at full-time, exhausted and elated, while the substitutes raced on.
In the last 16, Spain will face Morocco, while Japan will face Croatia.
– Exciting night – Both teams made five substitutions, with Luis Enrique bringing in Morata to lead the line and making full debuts for Alejandro Balde and Nico Williams.
Japan started with five at the back in the hopes of keeping Spain at bay, but pressed high in attack to capitalize on any errors.
Spain is sometimes guilty of glaring defensive errors, as Pau Torres demonstrated with a sloppy touch that led to Japan’s first chance, which Junya Ito fired into the side-netting.
Morata put La Roja ahead in the 12th minute with a towering header from Cesar Azpilicueta’s cross, rekindling the connection that had occasionally worked for the striker at Chelsea since his arrival in 2017.
At the break, Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu replaced the ineffective Takefuso Kubo and Yuto Nagatomo with Mitoma and Doan, and it paid immediate dividends.
Balde lost the ball under pressure, and winger Doan hammered past Unai Simon, who could have done more to keep it out.
Japan had turned the game on its head three minutes later, Tanaka bundling home from close range after Mitoma had miraculously kept the ball in play as he crossed it — according to VAR.
Spain was stunned and struggled to respond, with Luis Enrique making a slew of substitutions in an attempt to regain control.
When Costa Rica took the lead against Germany in the other game to go 2-1 ahead, the coach, alone and perched on the edge of his technical area, was unaware that his team faced elimination for a few moments.
On a night that was far more terrifying than they had anticipated, Spain survived, progressing thanks to their superior goal difference — and Japan secured a hugely unlikely victory.