December 7, 2022
AL WAKRAH, Qatar — For 120 minutes, Japan was certainly Croatia’s equal. But when their World Cup round-of-16 match came down to a penalty shootout, Croatian goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic proved the dominant force.
Livakovic saved three shots in the shootout and 2018 runner-up Croatia advanced to the quarterfinals with a 3-1 win over Japan after the two teams played to a 1-1 draw on Monday at Al Janoub Stadium in Al Wakrah, Qatar.
It ended an inspiring run by the Samurai Blue that included by stunning victories over European powers Germany and Spain in the group stage which won over fans around the world and earned them a place in the knockout rounds as group winner.
“We showed that Japan has entered a new era in which it can triumph against the world,” coach Hajime Moriyasu said. “I firmly believe that we will eventually get over the wall and into the last eight.”
With South Korea’s loss later in the day to Brazil, it marked the end of the Asian presence in the first-ever World Cup held in the Middle East.
The Samurai Blue, looking for a first-ever win in their fourth trip to the World Cup knockout stage, opened the scoring through forward Daizen Maeda in the 43rd minute. But Croatia struck back with Ivan Perisic’s header 10 minutes into the second half.
From there, neither team could net the winner in the remainder of regulation time nor the two 15-minute periods of extra time, sending it to the first shootout of the tournament.
Livakovic saved three of the four penalties fired at him — off the feet of Takumi Minamino, Maya Yoshida and Kaoru Mitoma — while Croatia converted three of the four shots it took, with Mario Pasalic netting the decisive strike past Shuichi Gonda.
After Pasalic’s shot slapped against the back of net and the Croatians began their celebrations, Japan’s veteran team captain Yoshida only stood motionless in place.
“In the four years [after the last World Cup], I tried different things and gave myself challenges, so I’m really disappointed that I didn’t get the result at the end,” Yoshida said, wiping away tears.
Unlike in the wins over Germany and Spain, Japan was the aggressor in the first half and set the flow for the match. Just as it looked like the match would go into halftime scoreless, Japan’s offensive strategy paid off.
A corner kick from the right side into the box eventually fell at the feet of Maeda. It was the first time Japan opened the scoring in a match.
“We had the perfect flow in the first half,” midfielder Wataru Endo said. “In the second half, we wanted to get a second goal while putting up a stiff defense and prevent a goal.”
But it took just one opening for Croatia, which had launched its share of attacks, to finally get on the scoreboard. In the 55th minute, Perisic slipped his marker and put a perfectly angled header past Gonda into the far right corner of the net.
For the shootout, Minamino was the first to raise his hand. He had come on as a substitute in the 87th minute and only got off one shot. In 45 matches since Moriyasu took over as coach, he had scored a team-high 17 goals for Japan.
But it could not have gone worse. His face seemed tense as he walked into the penalty area. When the whistle blew, he took a short run-up and aimed a low shot to the right that Livakovic easily stopped near the middle.
Mitoma suffered the same fate, and after Takuma Asano finally scored to give the side some hope, Livakovic denied Yoshida to all but seal Japan’s fate.
At the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Japan suffered a heartbreaking 3-2 loss to Belgium in the round-of-16. Japan had jumped out to a 2-0 lead, only to allow the Belgians to rally by falling back into defensive mode.
After that experience, Moriyasu adopted a strategy of avoiding as much as possible trying to kill time through ball possession, and to ensure a team depth where he could substitute players without depleting its strength.
In the group stage, he made vast changes to the lineup for the match against Costa Rica, and his system seemed to come together for Monday’s match.
“It was supposed to go according to the plan,” Yoshida said of the defeat.
Still, there is no doubt that Japan has taken a step closer to where it wants to go.
Midfielder Gaku Shibasaki said, “I can’t say clearly what the difference is with the best-eight, but I don’t think it is impossible [of making it].”