Group E leaders Spain will lock horns with second-placed Japan in an intriguing 2022 World Cup contest at the Khalifa International Stadium on Thursday evening. Both nations failed to claim maximum points in their last group game, with La Roja forced to share the spoils with Germany, while the Blue Samurai suffered defeat against Costa Rica. After recording a shock 2-1 comeback victory against Germany in their opening Group E fixture, many tipped Japan to come away with all three points from Sunday’s clash against Costa Rica. However, the Blue Samurai were condemned to a slender 1-0 defeat by their Central American counterparts, with Keysher Fuller scoring the decisive goal nine minutes from time to blow Group E wide open ahead of the final round of fixtures. Hajime Moriyasu’s side remain in the hunt to progress to the last 16 for the second successive World Cup, and know that a victory against 2010 world champions Spain will see them qualify.
A draw, meanwhile, could be enough to edge them through if Costa Rica fail to beat Germany or if the latter fail to win by two or more goals, but a defeat against La Roja would knock them out of the competition. Whether Japan, ranked 24th in the world by FIFA, can pull off another seismic shock on Thursday remains to be seen, but Moriyasu will be keen to ensure that his team put aside their most recent result and instead replicate their performance from matchday one. Japan have never faced Spain in a competitive fixture before, with their only previous meeting back in April 2001 when La Roja secured a narrow 1-0 friendly win. Spain missed the chance to book their place in the last 16 over the weekend after they were pegged back by a much-improved Germany outfit to draw 1-1 in Al Khor.
After scoring the final goal in a thumping 7-0 opening win over Costa Rica, Alvaro Morata broke the deadlock against Germany with his second goal of the tournament, flicking a first-time finish from close range past Manuel Neuer just eight minutes after coming off the bench. However, Die Mannschaft restored parity in the 83rd minute courtesy of a substitute of their own, as Niclas Fullkrug rifled the ball beyond Unai Simon to ensure that the spoils were shared between the two European giants. While recent media reports are suggesting that head coach Luis Enrique is set to step down at the end of the World Cup and return to club management, the 52-year-old is focused fully on his current job and his La Roja side require just a draw against Japan to reach the knockout rounds for the fifth time in the last six finals.
Spain will be confident of returning to winning ways on Thursday as they have never lost in five previous World Cup meetings against Asian opposition in 90 minutes – a penalty-shoutout defeat to South Korea back in 2002 is one small blot on their copybook. La Roja have also won their final group fixture in eight of their last nine participations at the World Cup, with a 2-2 draw against Morocco in 2018 the only exception during this run. Japan defenders Takehiro Tomiyasu and Hiroki Sakai are both doubtful with hamstring injuries, while midfielder Wataru Endo, who has been absent from first-team training, could also miss out due to a knee problem. Captain Maya Yoshida is poised to earn his 125th international cap, and the Schalke 04 defender is set to be joined in the back four by Miki Yamane, Ko Itakura and Yuto Nagatomo – the latter of whom has 140 caps to his name.
Either Ao Tanaka or Leganes’ Gaku Shibasaki is set to replace Endo in centre-midfield, while Ritsu Doan and Takuma Asano – who both scored in the shock win over Germany – will be hoping to start on the flanks, although Real Sociedad’s Takefusa Kubo will also be pushing for a starting berth. Eintracht Frankfurt playmaker Daichi Kamada is expected to continue in the number 10 role in behind either Daizen Maeda or Ayase Ueda. As for Spain, 18-year-old midfielder Gavi has been absent from training due to a minor injury and is a doubt for Thursday’s contest. In addition, captain Sergio Busquets – who is one booking away from a suspension – is set to be rested, so there could be two midfield spots up for grabs, with Koke, Carlos Soler and Marcos Llorente all hoping to start their first game in Qatar.
However, Manchester City’s Rodri could move up from centre-back to replace Busquets in the deep-lying midfield role, with either Pau Torres or Eric Garcia slotting into the heart of the defence alongside Aymeric Laporte. Morata will be pushing to start in attack after scoring two goals in as many substitute appearances, and he could join Ferran Torres and Dani Olmo in the front three, with Marco Asensio potentially dropping to the substitutes’ bench. Japan have been an unpredictable team so far in this tournament. They unexpectedly beat Germany in their first match, but then lost to Costa Rica, whom everybody expected them to beat. The Samurai Blue, who are currently level on points with Costa Rica, must beat Spain if they are to guarantee their spot in the last 16. They could still qualify with a draw, but this outcome would depend on the result in the group’s other game, between Germany and Costa Rica.
Spain will automatically qualify with either a draw or a win. If they lose and the other game ends in a win for either Germany or Costa Rica, then Spain will not qualify. La Roja were imperious in their first match against Costa Rica, thumping them 7-0 with six different players getting on the scoresheet. They then played out a high-quality 1-1 draw with Germany at Al Bayt Stadium on Sunday. The two teams have only ever played each other in a 2001 friendly, which Spain won 1-0. There aren’t many changes expected for either team, although Alvaro Morata may start ahead of Real Madrid’s Marco Asensio after scoring in Spain’s first two matches.