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Germany or Spain out of World Cup? Why Japan are Kryptonite to European giants

Sporting News 11/29/2022 Dom Farrell
© Provided by Sporting News

Germany could not say they weren’t warned.

In the eighth minute of their dramatic 2-1 Group E defeat to Japan, Ilkay Gundogan found himself ransacked in midfield and the Blue Samurai sliced forward.

Junya Ito surged down the right and put the ball on a plate for Daizen Maeda, whose eagerness to dine out on a World Cup goal saw him needlessly stray offside.

That was the danger. For all of Germany’s technical quality — there were no finer purveyors here than Gundogan, who garnished an astute overall display with the opening goal from the penalty spot, and the lavishly gifted teenager Jamal Musiala — they are a side vulnerable to pace and tenacity in transition, something of an irony given the nation’s traditional footballing strengths.

On the front foot, Germany still looked regal and if head coach Hansi Flick had an elite centre forward in his squad who he fully trusted then his side would probably have been out of sight. Chelsea's Kai Havertz, who is now curiously a stop-gap number nine for club and country, joined Maeda in being offside when he could simply have held his run to tap into an empty net. At 2-0 before halftime, it would have been game over.

MORE: Germany vs. Japan final score, result: Takuma Asano's late strike pulls off shock turnaround

Much like Argentina prior to their gob-smacking collapse against Saudi Arabia on Monday, Germany had been compromised by offside flags and their own wastefulness but at the midway point rested on the wrongful belief that the extra gears would come.

Japan head coach Hajime Moriyasu had presided over a display that flirted with timidity in its lack of ambition at that stage, with Ito and Maeda’s early foray a fading memory. However, he deployed his trump cards from the bench impeccably. 

Arsenal’s Takehiro Tomiyasu came on to bring his typical forthrightness to the backline, with three recoveries and a couple of clearances. Before the hour, Brighton’s Kaoru Mitoma entered the fray. Initially, he was pinned deep almost into the left-back position. Germany hit the post through Gundogan but then Flick substituted his goalscorer and his team’s control departed with the Manchester City playmaker.

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Mitoma’s pace and poise started to get Japan higher up the field. You could see Flick’s logic, with the athletic Leon Goretzka as a counter-point to growing ambition from their opponents, but Germany being looser on the ball gave Moriyasu’s men the opportunity to snap into those transitions they relish.

Takuma Asano came on alongside Mitoma. Half an hour later he would ensure he never has to buy a drink in Japan ever again. In between, Moriyasu showed he was having the sort of evening a coach might have only once in their career.

MORE: Watch every World Cup match live with fuboTV (U.S.-only free trial)

In the 71st minute, Ritsu Doan came on. In the 74th minute, Manuel Neuer pulled off an unbelievable save from Ito. Germany were rocking and in the 75th minute on came Takumi Minamino. 

Seconds after the latter change, Mitoma drew the lumbering Niklas Sule and slipped a pass to Minamino whose drive across goal was parried by Manuel Neuer for Doan to tap home.

Flick then fairly inexplicably removed Musiala, and Japan decided they had nothing else to worry about against flagging opponents. Sule switching off to play Asano onside for the winning goal spoke of scrambled minds. The hero of the hour still had to control a raking ball from Ko Ikatura and smash into the roof of the net. It was a finish out of the top drawer.

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Germany don’t operate on that level in World Cups too often nowadays. Since lifting the trophy in 2014, they have lost three out of four matches. They face Spain next and are in danger of a second consecutive group-stage exit.

Luis Enrique’s side, who smashed Costa Rica before drawing against Germany will relish the chance to claim a major scalp, but they should also fear Japan. Spain are a team with immaculate capabilities in possession, who lack a little in terms of pace and physicality and have an unsettled defence.

Remind you of anyone? 

Saudi Arabia proved to be a lethal surprise package for Argentina. By contrast, none of the qualities Japan used to hurt Germany were a secret. The galling thing for Flick was he and his team not being able to stop the pain. Spain could yet have a very similar problem.

Japan's status took a hit when they were defeated in a smash and grab 1-0 loss to Costa Rica, but their tactic of sitting back and hitting on the counter attack will be much more effective against a Spain side that love keeping the ball. And it's the World Cup after all, anything can happen!

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