Japan shocked the world with their comeback win over Germany in their opening game. But after a surprising loss to Costa Rica, few expected a repeat of their Matchday 1 heroics against Spain. Despite having only 18% possession, history repeated itself with two second-half Japanese goals, followed by a steely determination to repel their more high-profile opponents. Samurai Blue had a highly contentious decision to thank for their second goal — which inadvertently sealed Germany’s exit from the tournament. Ao Tanaka’s goal was given only after a VAR check when the ball had appeared to be out of play prior to being crossed for the Fortuna Düsseldorf man to finish. Japan has had an average of 33.7% possession across those three games, with a total of 10 shots on target, and 15 shots on goal allowed.
Having looked like an aging side at the Euros, an infusion of youth, allied to an experienced core has revitalised Croatia. Their tournament began with a goalless draw with defensively resolute, Morocco. The Blazers fell behind after just two minutes against Canada, but responded with four goals of their own, putting them top of Group F, and knowing that they only required a point from their final match to ensure qualification. Croatia got that point against top-seeded Belgium, with Romelu Lukaku unable to convert a series of late chances for the Red Devils. The technically gifted Croats have had 53.7% possession on average so far in the tournament, recording 16 shots on target, while allowing only seven.
Japanese coach, Hajime Moriyasu jettisoned his usual 4-2-3-1 formation for a 3-4-3 system against Spain and has earned plaudits for his decisive substitutions which have positively impacted games. Croatia are likely to opt for a 4-3-3 set-up. This will be the third World Cup meeting between these two sides, and the fourth encounter overall. Japan beat Croatia in the Kirin Cup a year before Croatia got the better of them in the 1998 World Cup. Eight years later these two sides played out a 0-0 draw in a group game. Japan have already exceeded expectations for a team ranked 24th in the world, whereas 12th-ranked Croatia are where most observers expected it would be. Another Japanese win wouldn’t be close to their biggest upset of the tournament, but it would put them in unchartered waters, with a first-ever World Cup Quarter-final appearance.