It may be happening again for Germany. The most consistent team in World Cup history, the ever-presents in the knockout stages for decades, are now threatened with a second consecutive early exit after another shock defeat to east Asian opposition. For South Korea in 2018, read Japan in 2022. After Germany’s worst World Cup in 80 years, this might be their worst in four. Perhaps even their worst ever. Lose to Spain on Sunday and they could be out in two games. At least it took a third to seal their fate in Russia.
If Saudi Arabia’s comeback against Argentina, Japan’s was almost as seismic, nearly as seminal. It was still more remarkable as Germany had enjoyed a first hour of utter dominance. Their inability to score a second goal came a greater cost than looked likely when Japan’s first half brought a mere 62 passes – fewer than Antonio Rudiger and Nico Schlotterbeck each managed – and one, off-target effort to Germany’s 13.
Yet Japan went from muted to magnificent. Their starters had scarcely impressed. Their substitutes did, scoring both goals, changing the game with their energy and excellence, leaving Germany stunned. Hajime Moriyasu felt the alchemist in the dugout as the men he introduced had an extraordinary effect.
Japan’s leveller came from a combination of two who had only been on for a matter of minutes, Takumi Minamino drawing a save from Manuel Neuer with a cross-shot and Ritsu Doan quickest to the rebound to slot home. It had a certain cruelty for Neuer. For 70 minutes, he had been a spectator, his last action on the global stage being to lose the ball on the left wing, 80 yards out of his goal as Heung-Min Son went on to score for South Korea in 2018. As Neuer became the first German goalkeeper to appear in four World Cups, he made a stunning save from Junya Ito, before Hiroki Sakai contrived to miss when he should have scored. Yet an early contender for stop of the tournament became a footnote, merely delaying Japan’s stunning progress.
They completed a turnaround when Ko Itakura’s free-kick was pumped forward and Takuma Asano reacted fastest, took the ball down with a delectable touch, evaded Schlotterbeck and rifled a shot in from an acute angle. Asano had brought verve from the moment he came on. His reward, some 20 minutes later, was to score a goal that feels destined to be among the most famous in Japan’s footballing history. This was their greatest-ever result in a World Cup and a team who seemed doomed by the draw with two European superpowers can now eye an extended stay in Qatar.
For Hansi Flick, whose last taste of the World Cup was the 2014 final when he was Joachim Low’s assistant, it must have made for a strange sight. There was a hint of nostalgia when he brought on Mario Gotze, the man who delivered the winner against Argentina then, but this time the super-subs wore Japanese shirts.
And yet it had begun so well for Flick. His side led through Ilkay Gundogan’s nerveless penalty. The Manchester City captain had been prominent in attack before then, drawing one save from Shuichi Gonda and a brilliant block from Maya Yoshida. He subsequently struck the foot of the post, with a smooth strike from 20 yards, in a display to justify his selection ahead of Leon Goretzka. Perhaps his substitution was another turning point.
Gundogan’s goal stemmed from sadly clumsy goalkeeping by Gonda, contriving to upend David Raum as he headed away from danger. The overlapping left-back had been picked out by Joshua Kimmich, finding the free man with a lovely cross-field pass, and it was typical of his influence.
Kimmich was ubiquitous at the start. When Antonio Rudiger headed narrowly wide, with Gonda diving in desperation, it was from Kimmich’s corner.
When the goalkeeper parried a crisp strike from 20 yards, it was from Kimmich. When the offside Kai Havertz had a goal chalked off, it all stemmed from a fine Kimmich shot that Gonda clawed away.
And Germany paid dearly for their failure to double their advantage.
Jamal Musiala almost capped a landmark appearance, as he became Germany’s youngest player in the World Cup since Karl-Heinz Schnellinger in 1958, with a wonderful goal, weaving his way past three defenders but clearing the bar with his shot.
Serge Gnabry was denied three times in 20 seconds by Gonda, redeeming himself for his culpability for the penalty and still finding time to deny Jonas Hofmann in the same passage of play.
It proved crucial. The goalkeeper, like the goalscorers, is destined for heroic status in Japan.