Not content with one jaw-dropping shock, Japan managed a second in feverish conditions here to beat a multi-talented Spanish side and claim another place for Asia in the last 16 of this increasingly unpredictable World Cup. Two goals in quick succession after half-time from Ritsu Doan and Ao Tanaka shocked Spain cold, taking their metronomic rhythms and throwing them into a bin bag that was then politely disposed of.
The Europeans still qualified for the knockout stages, in second place on goal difference ahead of Germany, but if this was a deliberate attempt to choose an easier path through the draw, nobody told that to their shellshocked players. The opening goal came early, in the 12th minute, by which point Spain had already had enough probing possession to have pushed Japan back into a nervous, flat back five.
The move was clever too, starting with combination play between Gavi and Nico Williams on the right. The teenager attempted a low cross that was cleared, but only out to the winger, who looked up and slipped the ball into space on the edge of the area vacated by defenders, but now occupied by Cesar Azpilicueta. The Chelsea man calmly floated a cross on to the penalty spot and Alvaro Morata headed the ball down, back across goal and past Shuichi Gonda.
There were no further clear-cut chances in the opening period but it felt all the time like one was never far away. Spain were dominating possession of course – with 80% of the ball in the opening 40 minutes and an additional 8% “in contest” according to the official stats – but the options Luis Enrique’s team were offering up were bewildering. Key to it all was the movement of Gavi and Pedri, the Barcelona pair operating like moons around Busquets, spinning in orbit, but with a trajectory hidden from the opponent.
Spain’s only enemy was themselves, the propensity for coughing up possession as they built from defence something that had nearly cost them against Germany and continued here. Busquets lost the ball on the edge of the box in the eighth minute, though nothing came of it, while Simon had to scramble a clearance off his own line on the half-hour after having dawdled too long on the ball.
At half-time Hajime Moriyasu made a double substitution, taking off the former Real Madrid man Takefusa Kubo and the veteran wing-back Yuto Nagatomo and replacing them with Brighton’s Kaoru Mitoma and Doan of Freiburg. The impact was immediate.
Under the cosh from a renewed Japanese press, the Spaniards’ achilles heel erupted just three minutes after the restart. A jittery Simon played a loose pass out to the left-back Alejandro Balde who was unable to clear before Doan was upon him, seizing possession and bundling towards the box. The midfielder unleashed a shot with all the power he could muster, which was way more than Simon could handle and the keeper palmed the ball into the roof of his net.
The atmosphere in the Khalifa Stadium kicked up a notch immediately and before anyone had had a chance to catch their breath Japan – who had looked set for a hiding just minutes before – were suddenly in front. Again it was Doan who made it, again bulldozing his way past a now bewildered Balde and crossing to the left hand side where Mitoma cut the ball back for Tanaka to bundle home.
Japanese players were delirious, their subs on the pitch, only for the goal to be ruled out by the referee Victor Gomes; the ball having apparently gone out of play as Mitoma kicked it. Of course the gods of VAR then deliberated – aided by the positional sensor in the Al Rihla ball – and they found the goal was good. The ball had stayed in by fractions, people’s fancy dress headdresses were coming off in disbelief.
A flurry of substitutions for both sides followed, with both Morata and Gavi withdrawn for Spain, but gone altogether was the Spanish composure as suddenly, ludicrously, they faced the possibility of elimination. For a minute or two it was even a reality, when Costa Rica took a brief lead against Germany.
In the 70th minute Japan created the next great chance of the game, springing a counter in which Mitoma played Takuma Asano clear through on goal, only for the substitute to slip and scoop his shot when, had he stayed upright, he would surely have been favourite to score. As the game entered its last knockings, Japan rediscovered the same determination that had seen them over the line against Germany a week ago, with blocks to deny Marco Asensio and a low save from Gonda holding a dangerous Dani Olmo shot. And when the final whistle came, all was bedlam.