Japan v Croatia
Croatia and Japan meet for the third time in World Cups but for the first time beyond the group stage as Japan look to break new ground and Croatia look to meet expectations by reaching the last sixteen.
After defying all the odds to beat Spain and top the group Japan have shown their best and their worst in this tournament already. When little is expected from them and the pressure is off, they tend to relax and do better than expected – hence wins against the 2010 and 2014 World Cup winners already in Qatar 2022.
But, as we also saw, when expectations are high, and an opponent is perhaps under-estimated, Japan fail to impress. A 1-0 loss to Costa Rica, all be it when going for a 0-0 draw and losing to the only goal attempt of the game after a defensive error showed us that Japan are fallible, especially when they sit back and are unadventurous.
Japan’s strength is in their quality of passing and movement going forward, and this is what they should concentrate on against Croatia. Surely, they now have nothing to lose, nothing to prove against a team that will be expected by most World Cup watchers to be able to get a result against them. Or is Japan now expected to be able to kill off a team way above them in the FIFA rankings? They’ve beaten 7th and 11th, so the squad must now be thinking they have a great chance against 12th-ranking Croatia.
While Croatia’s progress in their final game against Belgium might have stressful, due to the chances Belgium created, it also felt in little doubt as Croatia move from facing the Red Devils to the Samurai Blue.
Japan represents an opponent who, while they have taken some huge scalps in the group, Croatia will expect to defeat and feel that they have the inside track on with the numerous members of the coaching staff and contacts who have worked in Asian football and in Japan itself.
Zlatko Dalic, ahead of the game, has already spoken about the need to press Japan high and to outwork them to avoid the sort of shock result that Germany and Spain have already fallen foul to. Unlike most sides in the knock-out stages, it also feels as if Croatia enter with a settled starting eleven, with the only real question being about whether Marko Livaja or Bruno Petkovic starts up front.
Having scored two goals already in this tournament, we know that he is not afraid to shoot – the winning goal against Spain was testament to that.
Should he start, chances are that this bet could be paid up by half time, but even if he is a substitute, he won’t be afraid to have a go from anywhere; unlike some Japanese players who remain hesitant to make that final decision.
With three defenders already on yellow cards (and Ko Itakura missing this game after seeing two already), and Wataru Endo also on a yellow card, it will be down to Hidemasa Morita to be the one putting himself about and closing down midfield moves, especially against Luka Modric.
He will not be afraid to get stuck in and do the necessary if a player looks likely to burst through, and multiple fouls seem likely as I feel he will be playing more aggressively than in previous games, knowing others cannot afford to take the same risks in case they miss out on a potential quarter-final matchup against Brazil or South Korea.
Against Spain and Germany, Japan had 18% and 26% of possession respectively. With Croatia similarly likely to be dominant in possession, then it’s fair to look at those two games to gauge the potential midfield productivity. Between Spain and Germany’s deeper central midfielders, they averaged 83 passes per game.
As such, it would be a surprise were Modric not to match that average during this game, given how hungry he is for the ball and the likelihood of him going deep to receive the ball from the defence. While the 113 passes of Pedri against Japan may be slightly beyond Modric, he will still be the busiest of a Croatian midfield that will be having one of their busier days.
Written by an Andy verified content writer
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