Croatia and Japan advance in World Cup 2022

Croatia's Josko Gvardiol
Croatia's Josko Gvardiol

In a thrilling day of Group Stage elimination games in Qatar’s World Cup 2022, Japan defeated Spain 2-1 and Germany beat Costa Rica 4-2, the results settled Group E with Japan progressing in first place while Spain dropped to second. Germany was thus eliminated from the tournament. In Group F, Croatia held Belgium to a 0-0 draw eliminating them from the cup and taking second place in their group, while Morocco defeated Canada 2-1 to progress atop the group.

The day began with Croatia and Belgium playing a very competitive match in which both teams went for the win (a combined 26 shots, 8 on goal), but the Croatians did so with much more conviction and had some good chances to score. There were times when the Belgians seemed not to realize they were the ones who faced elimination with a draw. 

Luka Modric played another understated but devilishly impactful role, this time as master conductor, roaming the entire field from goal line to goal line directing his charges at every turn, and making his usual impeccable and unnervingly simplistic yet technically sublime passes that somehow calmed the Croatian defense when under siege or kick-started their offense when the opportunity presented itself. Croatian coach Zlatko Dalic has always had a secret weapon in his on-pitch proxy.

It must be mentioned that other than Modric (and in the absence of much impact from Kevin de Bruyne who had but a few moments of brilliance in the entire match) the game’s star was Croatia’s 20-year-old defender Josko Gvardiol who was literally everywhere—reaching to block, intercept, or otherwise clear the Croat lines of each and every Belgian attack that came his way and many that came from other directions but still saw him covering for a teammate.

It was not until the second half when their coach, Roberto Martinez, sent in Eden Hazard, Youri Tielemans, Thorgan Hazard, Jeremy Doku, and Romelu Lukaku to try and get the win his chosen starters had been unable to obtain. It is one of the mysteries of the Spaniard’s coaching of this golden Belgian generation that he so often seems to get the lineup screwed up in critical matches. But this time, his second choices almost worked.

In those latter 45 minutes plus stoppage, the Belgians sprung into more action than they had shown themselves capable of in their previous two and a half games. Lukaku alone had no less than four point-blank scoring opportunities, two with the keeper laying on the pitch, unable to influence the ball’s trajectory and the goal unprotected, and the Belgian’s star striker managed to flub each chance—hitting the post, missing a perfectly set up and open header, whiffing on a ball less than two yards from the open net, and getting his one shot on target blocked. To many observers, it almost looked like the gods were mocking the Red Devils. The resulting draw saw Martinez resign as team coach and put an end to Belgium’s Golden Generation as most of them will be aged out of the next cup.

For Croatia, it was a sublime moment as they once again played well above their FIFA Ranking and now have as their reward a matchup against Japan, while Morocco will be playing Spain.

In the day’s second early match, Morocco outclassed a game Canada, who despite their three-loss cup participation, and some truly amateurish play and coaching, managed to showcase their future potential. It was unfortunate that in a 2-1 scoreline the Canadians were unable to be the ones who propelled their score across the Moroccan goal line, that the game’s opening goal was an utter embarrassment for Canada’s keeper, and that the Moroccan’s second goal had a single African striker defeating three Canadian defenders for the score. Otherwise, in all honesty, and despite the aforementioned, it was the early African team’s lead that wreaked havoc on the Canadian’s psyches and stood as the major difference-maker in the game’s outcome despite the American’s game if at times untidy attempt at a comeback.

In one of the day’s second set of matches, Japan repeated their opening game feat against Germany only this time it was against a surprised Luis Enrique, who could not come to grips with the Japanese in-game change in approach. In the first half, the Spaniards took a one-goal lead on a team that had spent the majority of the match ceding possession and rarely counterattacking but keeping the score close. Sound familiar?

In the second half, the Japanese once again morphed from a holing formation and strategy to an all-out attack and formation, followed by reverting to a very well-organized defensive holding stance once they had earned the lead. The overall strategic plan was executed beautifully by coach Hajime Moriyasu’s men who obviously believe in his leadership and are skilled and athletic enough to execute it to perfection on the pitch—whether it be the right or wrong strategy.

For Enrique, as well as for Ansu, Pedri, Gavi, and their elders, it was a humbling experience of the type that either punctures your self-delusions and strengthens your future resolve or it simply deflates your ego and leaves you unsure of yourself. Fortunately, or unfortunately, Spain’s next game will be against Morocco, who play well and are very comfortable at their own level, knowing they can kick it up a notch when needed and play even with their betters.

In the simultaneous match of Group E Germany and Costa Rica (yes that same 0-7 Costa Rica) took turns leading the match and rewriting the group’s progression landscape until Germany pulled ahead for good. But the Europeans knew all along that if Japan (who trailed, then tied, then led) held on for the win the winning effort over the Central Americans was for naught, since the Germans would be tied with the Spaniards on points but well behind on goal differential.

For coach Hansi Flick the elimination added to and prolonged Germany’s poor spell and attempt to transition back to good soccer since their cup victory in Brazil 2014. In the match, it seemed the Germans wanted to score many goals and yet played as if the Central Americans would roll over and play dead. In fact, the Europeans were not up to the task against a team they obviously looked down upon and sadly misjudged.

In what was probably his final World Cup match, Costa Rican keeper, Keylor Navas, was his old magnificent self, and were it not for a couple of horrific point-blank, one-on-one Tico misses, Spain too might have been packing their bags. The Central Americans can go home with their heads held high, having overcome the catastrophic Spanish drubbing in their opening match to then defeat the Japanese and conclude by playing the Germans even for large swaths of their final match. For Navas and his veteran peers, it is the end of the road, but for small Costa Rica, it has been a wonderful, honorable, and extended ride among the higher reaches of our sport with a very distinguished squad.

It will be very interesting to see what the European media have to say about their vaunted national teams’ superiority when the likes of Costa Rica and Japan eliminate Germany and bested Spain and the likes of Morocco progress at the expense of Belgium. Similarly, it is always fun for fans to see teams who play well progress, regardless of national pedigree or FIFA Ranking, and in those terms, the advancement of Croatia, and Senegal without Sadio Mane, were fun to watch.


Photo: Croatia’s Josko Gvardiol, Shutterstock ID: 2147131507, by sbonsi.

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