Spain were stunned by a Japanese blitz in the opening stages of the second half which left them clinging on to their hopes to reach the knock-out round, eventually settling for second place as they qualified from Group E at the 2022 World Cup.
Luis Enrique’s side took the lead with Álvaro Morata’s header on only 10 minutes, with former Madridista Morata being the closest there was to a Real Madrid link in the starting line-up as Marco Asensio and Dani Carvajal were benched.
After that, Spain eased off and despite having a host of chances, went into the break with the scoreline level.
On the other side, another game for Take Kubo at this World Cup, another time in which he’s taken off at half-time and Japan’s game suddenly improves. The Real Sociedad man managed just 13 touches and five completed passes in the first half, and it was little surprise that Hajime Moriyasu opted to switch things up at the break.
At the same time, Dani Carvajal came onto the field replacing César Azpilicueta as Luis Enrique switched his right-backs once again. To say that Carvajal did not enjoy his opening minutes on the field would be to put it lightly.
After only a couple of minutes, Japan’s high press was already putting him on the spot and it was such a manouevre that gifted Japan an equaliser with Carvajal playing the ball to Unai Simón before a failed clearance saw possession turned over. It was the Real Madrid man who was the first to panic in a series of disastrous decisions.
In the 50th minute, it was a cross that went ahead of Carvajal and reached two Japanese players at Spain’s far post to cut back to Ao Tanaka who converted to give Japan a shock lead. The Real Madrid right-back was one of four half-time changes, the only one from Spain, but looked off the pace in comparison to his Japanese counterparts.
Luis Enrique was furious on the touchline and called upon Marcos Asensio from the bench to replace goalscorer Álvaro Morata in the number nine role as has been the case in recent weeks.
However, Spain simply could not find Asensio in the central attacking role. Japan stepped off and allowed them to have possession with a very low block, but there was simply no way through for Spain who could not break down a congested central area.
Whereas against Costa Rica, Asensio was able to cause havoc in central areas, here he was denied space at all times. While he was involved in play, with more touches in 40 minutes than Morata had in 58, his touches were often of little consequence.
As can be seen in his heat and shot maps above, he was forced to drop deep and either try his luck with a shot from distance, which often ended up being blocked, or trying to link up play.
Carvajal’s impact was limited too. While Japan barely attacked other than the occasional counter, his contribution was limited to crosses as he overlapped Dani Olmo on the right.
The result means that Spain end the group stage in second position, having surrendered first place at the final hurdle. As a result, they will now face Morocco in the last 16 on Tuesday, while Japan will now face Luka Modrić’s Croatia on Monday.