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Japan Finally Plays A Good Game And Loses Anyway

Stefan Matzke - sampics/Corbis via Getty Images

The World Cup has a weird sense of humor, and no team in the tournament embodies this better than Japan. This is a team that played a mostly bad game against Germany and won, played an oddly passive game against Costa Rica and lost, and then played a mostly decent game against Spain and won, somehow coming out on top of the most top-heavy group in the tournament. As its reward, the Samurai Blue met an unremarkable but dangerous Croatia team in the round of 16. The Japanese responded by putting on their best total performance of the tournament. Naturally, they lost.

Japan's main problem at this World Cup has been its propensity for bad starts. Japan went into halftime in both the Germany and Spain matches already down a goal, and against Costa Rica, the easiest opponent of the group, the Japanese looked like they were hardly trying. So it was auspicious how ferociously Japan attacked the first 45 minutes against Croatia.

What Japan has been good at in every match this tournament is quick, flowing attacking moves that feature lots of neat interplay and pretty touches, and the Japanese attack was positively gushing in the first half. Croatia's fullbacks could not stay in front of Japan's wingers, especially Junya Ito, for whom the entire Croatian left flank must've looked like an all-you-can-eat buffet judging by the way he was feasting down that side. All it took was getting the ball out wide for Japan to go racing into Croatian territory. On the other end, the Japanese defused most of Croatia's attempts to create danger before it got too far. Japan only lacked a little precision when it came to setting up a clean look on goal, otherwise they were flying. Just as it started to look like that lack of fineness might prevent Japan from making its first-half superiority felt on the scoreline, the Samurai Blue sort of lucked into a go-ahead goal just before the break.

Japan's second half wasn't quite as good as the first, thought it certainly wasn't bad. Nevertheless, the Japanese couldn't maintain their consistency at preempting Croatia's forays forward, which exposed their major weakness: defending their own penalty area. Japan's lack of height, strength, and proactiveness in the penalty box meant Croatia was always just a half-decent cross away from a good chance. Croatia's equalizer in the 55th minute demonstrated this: a good cross, a excellent header, but some incredibly flat defending.

The rest of the second half was a little unsatisfying for both teams. The Japanese were able to get loose in transition fairly often, but they still missed that clarity of decision-making and accuracy of pass in the telling moment, which meant they couldn't come up with any great opportunities to get a would-be winner. Croatia bullied Japan whenever the ball got into the Japanese penalty box, but for some reason the Croats didn't spam crosses as much as you might expect, so they couldn't punish Japan's glaring flaw.

As is often the case in a short tournament where both teams are gassed, the match got really boring in the late stages of regulation time and throughout the 30 minutes of extra time. Neither team had the legs to win the game in open play, so the match went to penalties. Penalties are almost always unsatisfying as a way to determine a winner, mostly for how random they feel. This wasn't quite the case here. Japan's penalties were so uniformly shitty, and Croatian keeper Dominik Livakovic's saves so strong, that when Croatia won the shootout 3–1, it felt as deserved as these things can.

Nevertheless, it was a sad close to Japan's heroic and hilarious tournament. This was Japan's fourth time making it out of the group stage, and the difficulty of its task given this particular group makes it arguably Japan's most impressive World Cup showing to date. (Japan also won its group in the 2002 World Cup, though it benefitted from being the tournament's co-hosts.) It has to sting losing like this to a beatable Croatia team, but then again it has to sting for Germany having lost to a Japanese team it probably should've crushed in the tournament opener.

Japan competed hard all tournament, but only played well in particular stretches during the group stage, and somehow turned that punctuality into two enormous and shocking wins. Japan finally put together a complete match against Croatia, only to fall in spite of it. The World Cup may have a weird sense of humor, but by the end it tends to be more or less fair.

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