After beating two former champions, Japan will try to make more history. The stars of Croatia will have other ideas.
Who: Croatia vs Japan
Where: Al Janoub Stadium
When: December 5, 6:00 PM (3:00 PM GMT)
Japan’s sensational forays into the World Cup have already stunned Germany and Spain, but in the last 16 on Tuesday, they come up against a Croatian side that may be a little too streetwise for a heist.
Croatia have not shown the quality that took them to the final in 2018, but did what they had to do to get through their group and only showed signs of panic in their final game against desperate Belgium.
Captain Luka Modrić, who with Ivan Perišić and Dejan Lovren forms a first-rate but aging core of the team, says they are not afraid of anyone and will have done their homework on the Samurai Blue.
Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu may need to come up with something new tactically for the game at Al Janoub Stadium after taking the same approach in his first three games.
Inviting teams for 45 minutes and then switching to a more attacking formation and trying to score goals during the break worked perfectly against Spain and Germany, but was a failure in Japan’s loss to lowly Costa Rica.
At least Croatia is patient and will be happy to swing the ball around in front of the Japanese defence, looking for weaknesses without perhaps getting frustrated as Spain and Germany did.
They also likely have the technical savvy to make adjustments themselves when Moriyasu finally shows his hand with the switch to a back three and the introduction of pacy forwards like Kaoru Mitoma and Ritsu Dōan.
Moriyasu was praised for his substitutions and tactical changes in Qatar.
Three of Japan’s four goals in the World Cup have been scored by players who started on the bench, with substitute Mitoma playing the pass that netted the fourth.
Moriyasu compared his men to baseball players and said they all have a role to play, including as “starters, relievers and closers”. The Japanese coach will need to make at least one change to his defense after Kou Itakura picked up a second yellow card against Spain and injury clouds hang over his potential replacements Hiroki Sakai and Takehiro Tomiyasu.
Mixing two 0-0 draws with a 4-1 thrashing of Canada in the group stage, Croatia has reached the last 16 twice in their five previous visits to the World Cup final. They won both games, reached the semi-finals in 1998 and lost to France in the final in Russia four years ago. That is a fine record for a country that only returned to international football in the early 1990s.
Asked about Croatia’s winning mentality, midfielder Lovro Majer said it was innate, but also down to older players like Modric, 37, who brings years of experience to the team.
“We have a winning mentality in our blood,” Majer said on Saturday. “I think we have an excellent mix of experienced players who have done great things in their careers and younger players with new energy.”
Japan, on the other hand, has played three games of the last 16 in their five previous tournaments, but lost them all.
Yet 2022 has already been different for them. Japan had never beaten a former champion at the World Cup before. This time they have already defeated two. Loaded with confidence after those breakthrough victories, Samurai Blue will certainly not hesitate to make some more history for their country in Qatar.