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Soccer: 5 things learned after Japan's 2-1 comeback against Spain

From left, Kou Itakukra, Ritsu Doan and Takehiro Tomiyasu celebrate after Japan's 2-1 win over Spain in a World Cup Group E football match at Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar, in the small hours of Dec. 2, 2022. Japan advanced to the round of 16. (Kyodo)

DOHA (Kyodo) -- Japan secured their passage to the World Cup round of 16 in Qatar with a dramatic 2-1 comeback win over powerhouse Spain on Thursday.

    The match completed a Group E rollercoaster ride for the Samurai Blue that started with a historic 2-1 victory against four-time champions Germany before a shock 1-0 loss to Costa Rica. Here are five things we have learned following Japan's latest World Cup showstopper.

    Wild, wild World Cup

    Perhaps we should have expected the unexpected from a winter World Cup in a desert nation, in the middle of the European football season, but this year's edition has delivered some of the biggest surprises the tournament has ever seen.

    Among several gripping group battles, none have been more scintillating than in Group E, which saw all four teams fighting for survival until Japan and Spain eventually emerged from the rubble, with Germany and Costa Rica headed home.

    Better with their backs to the wall

    Japan have scored all four of their goals in Qatar after trailing at the interval, while looking like a more focused, determined team as they battled back in the second half.

    That was the case against Spain, with the Samurai Blue going into the break behind 1-0, having barely created a chance, before coming out of the dressing room rejuvenated.

    Their final group-stage game carried added pressure after they missed a golden opportunity against Costa Rica to clinch a knockout-stage berth in a loss that generated a storm of criticism.

    Moriyasu answers critics (again)

    Hailed as a mastermind in the wake of the opening triumph over Germany, manager Hajime Moriyasu's short spell as the darling of the sporting press ended abruptly with the defeat to Costa Rica that once again put him in the firing line.

    Should Japan have exited at the group stage, the upset loss to the Central American underdogs may have come to define the 54-year-old's legacy. Instead, another gutsy win over former World Cup champions has given him the opportunity to take the Samurai Blue further than any previous manager.

    Doan a difference-maker

    In a bold move, Moriyasu brought on Ritsu Doan to start the second half in place of Takefusa Kubo, one of the few Japanese players who looked capable of presenting an attacking threat in the opening 45 minutes against Spain. The decision paid immediate dividends, with Doan turning the match on its head with his 48th-minute strike, in a reprisal of his starring role off the bench against Germany.

    Sky's the limit for the Samurai Blue

    Having beaten two recent champions on their way to topping what many considered the tournament's Group of Death, the Samurai Blue can feel capable of meeting any challenge that awaits them in Qatar.

    While the highs have been punctuated by disappointment, if Moriyasu's men can harness the type of play that propelled them to the victories over Germany and Spain, they loom as a formidable opponent for any of the teams still alive in the tournament.

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