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 Keyser 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 remains 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 fails to beat Germany or if the latter fails 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 his team put aside their most recent result and instead replicate their performance from matchday one.
Japan has 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 German 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 the spoils were shared between the two European giants.
While recent media reports are suggesting 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 requires 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-shootout defeat to South Korea back in 2002 is one small blot on their copybook.
La Roja has 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 center-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 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 center-back to replace Busquets in the deep-lying midfielder role, with either Pau Torres or Eric Garcia slotting into the heart of the defense alongside Aymeric Laporte.
Morata will be pushed 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’s possible starting lineup:
Gonda; Yamane, Itakura, Yoshida, Nagatomo; Tanaka, Morita; Doan, Kamada, Kubo; Maeda
Spain’s possible starting lineup:
Simon; Carvajal, P. Torres, Laporte, Alba; Koke, Rodri, Pedri; F. Torres, Morata, Olmo
Japan vs Spain Score Prediction
Japan’s wildly conflicting results at this tournament have befuddled many. Even their manager is unsure of their significance. “We’ve beaten Germany but it doesn’t mean we can win against Spain. Those countries are World Cup title holders, so we have a lot of respect for them,” Moriaysu said before immediately arguing: “But we won a match against Germany. Spain will be tough but there is a good chance for us to win.”
One thing to take from Moriyasu’s knotted reasoning is that Spain will certainly be tough. Japan has already demonstrated that they can cause problems speeding behind teams that like to keep possession. However, Enrique’s high-spec side should be able to muzzle this threat while posing considerable menace themselves.
Prediction: Japan 0-2 Spain