The giant slayers of the 2022 World Cup, Japan, are now eyeing their first-ever World Cup quarter-final as they face the runner-ups of the previous World Cup at the Al Janoub Stadium in Al Wakrah on Monday.
The Blue Samurais qualified for the Round of 16 by producing the biggest surprises of this World Cup as they beat four-time World Champions Germany 2-1 in their opening game and then Spain in their final matchday of the group stages by the same margin. They topped a group that was supposed to be the group of death, with Spain and Germany thought to be pre-tournament favourites to end at the top.
Croatia, on the other hand, were forced to the second spot of their group by a brilliant Moroccan side that beat Belgium in their group stage meeting.
Japan manager Hajime Moriyasu has plenty of options under his sleeves as both their wins came through the substitutes he brought on during the match. With a lot of attacking options in the squad, the Japanese can hope for their first-ever World Cup quarter-final qualification.
Japan forward Ritsu Doan, who scored one goal each against Spain and Germany, said their bench had the ability to rattle the Croats.
“It’s 11 against 11 but as players we talk about us playing with 26 against 11. The rules changed to allow five substitutes and I think we should be thankful for that. We have players who can change games,” he said.
Japanese defender Ko Itakura picked up his second yellow card of the tournament against Spain, resulting in him missing the action in the Round of 16. Takehiro Tomyasu is likely to replace him in the starting XI. Takefuso Kubo has been reported to be suffering from muscular problems and is doubted to be featured in the squad.
As for Croatia, coach Zlatko Dalic confirmed they will have their side at full strength, but there’s a potential that their veteran midfielder Luka Modric or Dejan Lovren would miss the next match in the quarter-final should any of them concede a yellow card in their match against Japan.
The finalists of the previous edition will enter the match as favourites, but Dalic’s side should be cautious and wouldn’t be too confident seeing their opponents’ performances against the European giants. Japan, on the contrary, have a penchant for sitting back and striking through lightning-speed counter-attacks, which might cause Croatian defenders some problems.
The two sides have faced each other twice in World Cups, where the Croatians are still unbeaten against Japan as they won their first meeting 1-0 in the 1998 edition before a goalless draw in the 2006 edition. Overall, in their three meetings, both sides have won one game each.