The last group game days always contain material for conspiracies. Before the game between Spain and Japan, one theory went like this: Spain would want to finish runners-up in order to avoid tough opponents in the knockout stages. Well, if they really set out to do that, they put on a terrific performance. They gave up an advantage and ran helplessly towards the Japanese goal from a 2-1 deficit. And without result. They finished the game pale with fear. But: The Spaniards ended up second in the group – and met Morocco in the round of 16 at the beginning of the week. The Japanese, on the other hand, have to compete with the 2018 World Cup runners-up: Croatia.
Spain coach Luis Enrique decided to make five changes in the starting XI for the game against Germany. But the fact that he rotated so intensively offered no reason for conspiracy theories a priori. Among the five new players was only one player who had not yet played at the World Cup: central defender Pau Torres, who FC Bayern knew well from last year’s Champions League.
Dani Carvajal had to pay for his blunders against Germany, leaving César Azpilicueta; up front, Álvaro Morata and Nico Williams replaced Marco Asensio and Ferran; Luis Enrique’s fetish players stayed with the team: midfielders Gavi, Busquets and Pedro. On the left, Balde (FC Barcelona) was given preference over Jordi Alba – as was often the case with FC Barcelona recently. In other words, Luis Enrique sent a lot of youthful hunger and speed onto the field.
The game was initially as sweet as an Advent calendar chocolate for the Spaniards. Coach Hajime Moriyasu must be a big fan of Aikido, because his team’s orientation was a pure homage to defensive Japanese martial arts – buoyed by the hope of directing the opponent’s attacks in such a way that it becomes impossible to continue the attack. Only: That went quickly and badly wrong. Álvaro Morata made it 1-0 in the 11th minute, heading in from an Azpilicueta cross.
As the first half dragged on, it seemed that the Japanese continued to play their boot even after going behind – despite knowing that the result of the German game relegated them to third place. They seemed content that they weren’t beaten up by the Spaniards like the Costa Ricans did on the opening day of Group E. The Central Americans lost 7-0 to Spain. There weren’t any great opportunities. But the game changed radically after the Japanese discussed each other in the dressing room at half-time. And it turned out that the praline was filled with poison.
As in the first half, Spain goalkeeper Unai Simón played with fire on back passes. And burned himself in the 48th minute. He passed an impossible ball to Balde; the left-back lost a duel near the penalty area and Freiburg’s Ritsu Doan shot from 17 meters with brute force to equalize (48′). Just three minutes later, technological madness broke out. The ball was back in the Spaniards’ net: Ao Tanaka, a professional with the German second division club Fortuna Düsseldorf, had pushed it over the line. Apparently the ball crossed the baseline before Kaoru Mitoma’s pass. But after minutes of testing, the technology built into the ball signaled that the goal was legal.
Spain coach Luis Enrique was fuming – not so much because of the goal as because of his own team’s slowness. The Japanese bit; Luis Enrique came on as an offensive player. Then, the panic and roller coaster. Because the word spread in the stadium that Costa Rica was leading against Germany. Spain was also out with 20 minutes to go. Shortly afterwards, the German compensation. Spain were back in with fifteen minutes to go.
The Japanese got hooked on their aikido again. And watched as the Spaniards found no room for even a single remote vertical pass, a long-range shot, a dribble. And then there was the latent danger of the counterattack: Rodri stopped one of them on the center line with a foul. In the 84th minute, the renewed German leadership became known. Ferran tried from 18 meters, Olmo shot in the penalty area and Japan goalkeeper Shuishi Gonda saved. But the German 4:2 was almost more exciting. Because that meant Japan and Spain went into seven minutes of added time knowing they were both still in contention. At the expense of the DFB team.