Japan will be looking to continue their 2022 FIFA World Cup fairytale run when they square off against Croatia in Monday’s last-16 fixture at the Al Janoub Stadium.
Currently 12th in the latest FIFA World Rankings, Croatia would have hoped for a group-stage run but will take consolation in reaching the knockout stages for the second successive tournament, following their stellar run to the finals in Russia four years ago.
After a goalless draw against Morocco in the Group F curtain-raiser on November 23, Zlatko Dalic‘s men bounced back with a 4-1 victory over Canada four days later to put their World Cup dreams back on track.
Needing at least a draw in last week’s group finale against Belgium, Croatia were a tad lucky to get the job done though, as Inter Milan striker Romelu Lukaku squandered a plethora of clear-cut chances to end the game goalless at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium.
The Checkered Ones, who are unbeaten in nine straight matches since June’s 3-0 loss against Austria in the European Championship, must now find a way past Japan, who have stamped their name as the giant slayers in Qatar.
Drawn in Group E alongside Spain, Germany and Costa Rica, Hajime Moriyasu‘s men finished as group winners with six points from a possible nine thanks to remarkable comeback victories over the 2010 and 2014 world champions respectively.
With the first hurdle crossed in fine fashion, Japan will now make a third attempt at a first-ever quarter-final appearance at a World Cup, having fallen short in 2002, 2010 and in Russia four years ago.
However, next up for the Samurai Blue is the stern challenge of going up against an experienced Croatia side who they have failed to defeat in each of the last two World Cup meetings between the nations.
Japan and Croatia squared off in Group H of the 1998 World Cup, where Davor Suker struck in the 78th minute to hand the Checkered Ones a 1-0 victory, before playing out a goalless draw in the 2006 edition.
The third and only other meeting between the nations came in a seven-goal thriller in June 1997, when Moriyasu’s side claimed a 4-3 victory to clinch the Kirin Japan Cup in Tokyo.