Farewell Samurai Blue. Japan have enriched the World Cup with stunning comebacks against old champions, indefatigable spirit and a passionate desire to upset the football hierarchy, but the formidable weight of history proved too great in Qatar. Their own, and Croatia’s.
History repeated itself in this last‑16 tie as Croatia prevailed in a penalty shootout after extra time. As they do. Six of their past seven knockout games at major tournaments have lasted 120 minutes, with the exception of defeat against France in the 2018 World Cup final, and the smallest country left in the competition are defying the odds yet again. Japan exited agonisingly short of a first ever quarter-final appearance. As they do.
Four times Japan have reached the last 16 and four times they have tasted defeat, twice on penalties. Hajime Moriyasu’s team were showered with praise after defeating Germany and Spain to top a difficult group but, facing their own fans and a chance to break new ground in the shootout, they froze.
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The goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic was the Croatia hero with three saves from Takumi Minamino, Kaoru Mitoma and the captain, Maya Yoshida, each penalty struck low and without conviction. Moriyasu and his Croatia counterpart Zlatko Dalic understandably singled out the Dinamo Zagreb keeper as the contest’s defining influence but Livakovic put it best himself. “I don’t think these penalties were too difficult to defend,” he admitted. “They shot in a strange manner. These were not perfect penalties.”
Japan’s spot-kicks were as tame as the preceding 120 minutes. The game itself was a monumental letdown before the Croatia substitute Mario Pasalic sent his country into the quarter-finals with the decisive penalty. The veteran defender Yuto Nagatomo had evoked the spirit of the Samurai on the eve of the game, promising bravery and a never‑say‑die attitude from Japan. But this was less warrior, more hypnotherapist treating an insomniac. Incense burning in the corner.
The game had penalties written all over it long before the painful reality arrived for Japan. Moriyasu’s team merited their half-time lead on account of sharper distribution, movement and intelligent set pieces, although it was a low‑quality affair throughout. There was a subdued atmosphere in the stands where thousands of seats remained empty in the 44,325-capacity arena and 42,523 was given as the official attendance. Not a chance.
There was a sluggish first‑half performance from Croatia too with Dalic’s players showing signs of tiredness in their fourth game of the tournament. Their dulled edges allowed Japan to avoid punishment for several defensive errors.
Samurai Blue took the game to Croatia initially. Shogo Taniguchi sent a glancing header wide from a well‑worked short corner involving Junya Ito and Wataru Endo. Ito frequently beat Borna Barisic for pace and his deliveries from the right unsettled the Croatia defence. Daizen Maeda and Nagatomo both just failed to connect with one inviting cross along the face of goal. Daichi Kamada squandered another decent opportunity, slicing over after Hidemasa Morita, Maeda and Endo had combined impressively to release him inside the Croatia area.
Croatia’s brightest first‑half moments stemmed from Japanese errors rather than their gifted midfield of Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic. Ivan Perisic and the lumbering Bruno Petkovic, handed his first start of the World Cup, were unable to capitalise.
Japan established a deserved lead shortly before the break from another smart corner routine. Ritsu Doan, rewarded with a start for his goalscoring substitute appearances against Germany and Spain, played it short to Kamada. He found Morita, who returned possession to Doan. Taniguchi met the attacking midfielder’s inswinging cross with a glancing header that struck Petkovic and fell perfectly for Maeda, and the Celtic striker gave Livakovic no chance from close range.
At that stage the World Cup was drifting away from Croatia and the 2018 runners-up were heading home with a whimper. But they produced the second‑half improvement that was desperately required to drag another tournament knockout tie to extra time.
Croatia levelled 10 minutes after the restart and in style when Perisic met Dejan Lovren’s deep cross with a precise, powerful header into Gonda’s bottom left-hand corner. It travelled some distance too and brought Perisic his 10th goal at a major tournament, overtaking Davor Suker’s Croatian record of nine.
Shuichi Gonda tipped over to prevent Modric edging Croatia ahead with a dipping shot from 25 yards and Livakovic did likewise to deny Endo at the other end. Otherwise there was precious little incident or finesse as the tie drifted towards extra time, where the ordeal continued.
Nikola Vlasic and Brozovic scored their spot-kicks before Marko Livaja casually hit a post but, with Japan losing their nerve and Livakovic excelling, beaten only by Takuma Asano during the shootout, it fell to Pasalic to send Croatia into familiar territory.