Who: Croatia vs Japan
Where: Al Janoub Stadium
When: December 5, 6pm (15:00 GMT)
Japan’s sensational raids at the World Cup have already stunned Germany and Spain, but in the last 16 on Tuesday, they come up against a Croatia side that might just be a little too streetwise for a mugging.
Croatia have not shown the quality that got them to the final in 2018, but did what they needed to do to get through their group, only showing any signs of panic in their last match against a desperate Belgium.
Captain Luka Modrić, who with Ivan Perišić and Dejan Lovren forms a high-class but ageing core to the team, says they fear no one, and they will have done their homework on the Samurai Blue.
Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu might need to produce something new tactically for the clash at Al Janoub Stadium, having taken a similar approach to their first three games.
Inviting teams onto them for 45 minutes then switching to a more offensive formation and trying to snatch goals on the break worked perfectly against Spain and Germany, but was a bust in Japan’s loss to lowly Costa Rica.
Croatia, if anything, have patience and will happily stroke the ball around in front of the Japan defence probing for weaknesses without, perhaps, getting frustrated as Spain and Germany did.
They probably also have the technical smarts to make adjustments themselves when Moriyasu finally shows his hand with the switch to a back three and the introduction of pacy forwards like Kaoru Mitoma and Ritsu Dōan.
Moriyasu has won praise for his substitutions and tactical changes in Qatar.
Three of Japan’s four goals at the World Cup have been scored by players who started on the bench, and substitute Mitoma played the pass that set up the fourth.
Moriyasu has likened his men to baseball players, saying they all have roles to play including as “starters, relievers and closers”. The Japanese coach will have to make at least one change in his defence after Kou Itakura picked up a second yellow card against Spain, and injury clouds hang over his potential replacements Hiroki Sakai and Takehiro Tomiyasu.
Croatia, who mixed two 0-0 draws with a 4-1 thrashing of Canada in the group stage, have reached the last 16 twice before out of their five previous visits to the World Cup finals. They won both those games, reaching the semi-finals in 1998 and losing to France in the final in Russia four years ago. That’s a fine record for a country that only returned to international football in the early 1990s.
Asked about Croatia’s winning mentality, midfielder Lovro Majer said it was innate, but also down to older players like Modric, 37, offering years of experience to the team.
“We have a winning mentality in our blood,” said Majer on Saturday. “I think we have an excellent mix of experienced players who have done excellent things in their careers and younger players with new energy.”
Japan, by contrast, have played three last-16 matches in their five previous tournaments but lost them all.
Yet 2022 has already been different for them. Japan had never before beaten a former champion at the World Cup. This time, they’ve already beaten two. Charged with confidence after those breakthrough wins, Samurai Blue will certainly not stint in effort as they look to make a little more history for their country in Qatar.