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Japan goes on, Germany and Belgium go home

Japan is through to the knockout stage after winning a group that included Spain and Germany. No, that’s not a typo.

Japan is through to the knockout stage after winning a group that included Spain and Germany. No, that’s not a typo.
Image: Getty Images

Japan, Germany, Belgium all accomplished the absurd in different ways today. And that’s before we even get to Morocco winning their group. Let’s kick this pig!

Game of the day

Japan 2 – 1 Spain

I have to get to what Japan has accomplished here before going into the nuts and bolts of the match. They were the only team to lose to Costa Rica. And they won the group. They beat both Germany and Spain, and yet lost to Costa Rica. On one side of it, it’s completely explicable, as Japan are just more suited to not having the ball and attacking at speed after turnovers and mistakes and in the most direct fashion possible. On the other side of it…what the fuck?

For today’s match, FotMob has them having just 18 percent of possession for the game, and yet leading the expected goal count. Some of that is skewed by the last 10-15 minutes where Spain came to the realization that even the 2-1 loss would send both teams through and kind of play-acted trying to find an equalizer. “Oh man we’re really trying to score here, honest!” But still, Japan barely touched the ball and won, which was their plan, but still…what the fuck?

We’ll get to it more in the VAR section, but Japan’s winner is going to be shrouded in controversy for a while, especially in Germany, and has echoes of South Korea-Spain in 2002. The problem arises from it not being totally clear what the original call was on the field, so what there was and what there wasn’t clear enough evidence to overturn gets murky. But we’ll circle back.

In some ways this was the exact rerun of Japan’s match with Germany. The first half was all Spain, as Japan were just too passive and let them have the ball wherever they wanted it and move it wherever they wanted it. Alvaro Morata’s opener came after an extended period of Spanish pressure and possession, and he was basically unmarked in the box to head home.

But one aspect of this World Cup I should probably dive into more in the coming days is that it’s the first played with five subs for each team, which makes a huge difference for teams that either want, or need, to press furiously either as an ethos or to chase a goal. Part of Brazil’s tactics is that their front three can press borderline maniacally for 60-70 minutes because manager Tite can replace them all at that point without exhausting his supply of subs.

Twice now, Japan manager Hajime Moriyasu has made two subs at half, against Germany and Spain, which allowed his front three to kick into high gear and press furiously, and against Spain it resulted in both of their goals, scored by both of their substitutes.

So Japan win the group, they lulled both Germany and Spain into their web, and congrats to them for it.

Other results

Germany 4 – 2 Costa Rica

There was an absolute delirious three minutes in this one, when Costa Rica took the lead and at that moment they and Japan were going through and Spain and Germany were going home. But Kai Havertz equalized before the panicked message could get to the Spanish team, so we never saw Spain have to kick into high gear.

Though Costa Rica threw a scare into the world, they also surrendered 32 shots and 5.79 expected goals to the Germans, both numbers that should cause instant vomiting. The Germans clearly knew their best hope was to try and make up the goal-difference on Spain, especially once word came down that Japan had taken the lead. At worst, Germany needed to get their goal-difference over Japan’s in case Spain would be bothered to try and tie their game. They didn’t manage that, but they did boost their goals-scored, though it wouldn’t prove to be enough.

This being Germany, and this being their second straight exit at the group stage, sandwiching and Round of 16 exit at the Euros, will cause a pretty major autopsy back home. Their only crime really was falling victim to a couple swift Japan counterattacks, and the German defense being on the slow side is hardly a surprise.

Belgium 0 – 0 Croatia

It would appear Belgium got exactly what they wanted, which is to stop being around each other, stop having to play together, and everyone getting to go home. This certainly felt like an inside job after a while, as Romelu Lukaku literally couldn’t face the right direction in the second half, which sent Belgium out of the tournament.

Belgium piled up 3.07 xG, and didn’t score once. Most of that was due to Lukaku, a halftime sub, who collected 1.79 xG all on his own. Lukaku has barely played for Inter this year due to injury, and had only been on the field for nine minutes in the first two games. Some rustiness is understandable, which might explain why he missed this:

Lukaku missed a header a few minutes later that may have gone over the endline anyway before being crossed to him, but then toward the final whistle he just forgot to apply any kind of finish to this:

That goes beyond rustiness. This is one’s entire existence turning into putty.

That doesn’t mean Belgium deserved much, as they were a hard watch for most of their games. They spent the first half trying not to concede, as a goal against would have meant death, but it was still hard to figure out what Roberto Martinez was trying to do. He did finally un-crowbar Eden Hazard out of the starting lineup and inserted Leandro Trossard, but where he was playing, where Kevin De Bruyne was playing (again stationed wide right most of the game), where Yannick Carrasco was playing, no one could tell you. It looked something like a 4-2-huh-maybe that guy? Not a huge shock that Martinez resigned from the job before everyone got back to the dressing room.

Canada 1 – 2 Morocco

So we all had Morocco winning the group here, yeah? Absolute gimme.

Morocco has ended this one before anyone was able to get their illegal beer. I had always suspected that Canadian keeper Milan Borjan was a boob, and his sweatpants act during qualifying suggested as much. He gave away the first goal by passing the ball directly to Hakim Ziyech when he was already 30 yards out of goal, leaving about as simply of a finish as one can have from 45 yards.

Borjan probably could have done better for Morocco’s second, a low shot that he was slow to react to. Canada fought well after the break to try and find a tying goal and get a first ever World Cup point, but as has been the case for most of the tournament they just couldn’t find the final touch.

Goal of the day: Costa Rica’s second goal was utterly hilarious and Germany at their keystone kops best defensively (and I’m always up for a good laugh at Germany), but we like excellence here, and Ritsu Doan’s leveler for Japan is the pick:

Save of the day: Been ignoring the keepers here for a while, but Keylor Navas’s save deserves its own section…

That was almost certainly Navas’s swan song at the World Cup, and that’s how to go out on your shield.

A Eulogy for the departed

Germany – As stated above, there is going to be a fair amount of navel-gazing in Deutschland over yet another early exit. It is probably worth asking how much Munich’s dominance in the Bundesliga is affecting things, as the part of the national team that comes from there doesn’t get a whole lot of looks against teams that can match them. But it can’t be that simple.

In the end, the World Cup can still come down to just three games, and Germany’s can be boiled down to the second half against Japan where they gave up two goals and couldn’t find another. We knew they needed a striker. We knew their defense was slow. The other two results they mustered are more than acceptable. It was a tough draw, it’s a strange World Cup, and this exit probably isn’t a treatise on the state of German soccer. Sometimes, shit happens. It’s just funny that it’s finally happening to Germany, who seemed immune for pretty much their entire existence.

Costa Rica – They got a look at the biggest upset in this tournament possible for three minutes, but have now left the US as the only CONCACAF representative in the second round. In the end they were pummeled by both Germany and Spain, and caught Japan cold. They are a squad in need of overhauling to a new generation. And they can do that, because it’s going to be an awfully soft landing for them now. The US, Mexico, and Canada won’t be in the qualifying process next time, CONCACAF will get additional spots thanks to the 48-team tournament in 2026, and they’ll be the favorites to claim one. Life isn’t so bad.

Canada – The other CONCACAF dry heave. Canada will be disappointed that everything that worked so well for them in qualifying just went to shit when the tournament came around. They gave up only seven goals in 14 games of the last round of the Ocho. They surrendered seven in three games here. Cyle Larin and Jonathan David couldn’t miss in qualifying. Neither scored in this tournament. Stephen Eustaquio getting hurt complicated their midfield plans (though Atiba Hutchinson getting tire tracks on his innards against Croatia), but their manager leaving them outnumbered in the center against Croatia was the complete opposite of John Herdman pressing every right button in getting Canada to the World Cup. You have to say that every facet of this team simply froze when the brightest lights came on.

Belgium – They didn’t want to be there, and now they’re not. They couldn’t wait to tell you how old they were and how they had no chance to win, and they were right. They may not have a next generation to turn the team over to now, and they feel like a team you’ll talk about with your friends at the bar in 10 or 15 years and just say, “Man, how did they fuck this up?” Only Roberto Martinez could have the best midfielder in the world in Kevin De Bruyne and decide to try to build the team around Eden Hazard, who only eats from the training table now.

Did VAR fuck anything up?: Maybe? Japan’s second goal is definitely a weird one. At the time that Ao Tanaka turned in the cross to give Japan the lead, it certainly felt like the goal had been ruled out. He stopped celebrating, everyone turned to the ref, and the announcers said something about the flag going up. So it certainly felt like the goal was never given. If that’s true, where is the evidence that the ball didn’t go out to overturn that?

Is that enough? Is this?

Or was the goal given and that wasn’t enough to rule it out? It would have helped if the refs on the field made a definitive call instead of waiting for the VAR.

Also, I’m pro-VAR on offside calls but this one against Croatia is…well, hard to defend:

Maybe it’s art and you can just read into it what you want. I don’t know anymore.

 

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