Nobody expected Japan to be here, having been placed in a group alongside Spain and Germany, as well as Costa Rica, but Samurai Blue defied all odds and finished top with six points. That isn’t to disrespect Japan, who are more than a capable team, it’s purely because everybody expected the European heavyweights to come out on top.
Japan made their statement to the tournament in their very first match, coming from a goal down to beat Germany 2-1 thanks to goals from Ritsu Doan and Takuma Asano. However, in their next game, Japan were brought down to earth with a poor performance against Costa Rica which saw them lose 1-0, conceding from the only shot on target they faced. It meant Japan realistically had to win to ensure their spot in the last 16, and that’s exactly what they did, again coming from behind with goals from Doan and Ao Tanaka – the latter a slightly controversial strike as many believed the ball had gone out of play, but VAR awarded the goal and pictures later revealed showed that it was just in.
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Croatia, meanwhile, are one of seven teams in the last 16 to still be unbeaten at the World Cup – though their record isn’t as impressive as it may sound. The 2018 runners-up were poor in their opening game against Morocco, a goalless draw in which they were seriously frustrated, a far cry from the run in Russia.
However, the big moment for Croatia came in their next game, as they beat Canada 4-1 coming from a goal down to put them top of the group on goal difference. In their final game, Croatia needed just a point to seal passage into the last 16 as it would have prevented Belgium from overtaking them and another goalless draw against the Red Devils did the job – though they slipped down to second with Morocco beating Canada.
Both of these sides scored four goals in the group stage but Croatia in particular were not encouraging in front of goal. Zlatko Dalic’s men scored all four of their goals against Canada, managing just six shots on target from 16 shots in their two games against Belgium and Morocco. Japan, meanwhile, struggled for shot accuracy against both Costa Rica and Germany with 23.08% and 33.33% respectively – and all four of their goals came after half-time.
With so much on the line, the last 16 is likely to be a tight affair, especially as both of these sides look to keep their journey going. With Croatia struggling in front of goal against teams not called Canada, and Japan only turning up against the biggest of boys, we may be going all the way.