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Japan come from behind in stunning win against Germany

Japan blew the Group of Death wide open with a 2-1 win at the Khalifa Stadium.

Germany 1 

Japan 2

FIRST GERMANY WERE muzzled by Fifa and now they have been struck dumb by Japan. 

Here Germany led and cruised for an hour before their profligate front-line and porcelain defence contrived to allow Japan a way back into the game, who were thrust to a stunning victory by substitutes Ritsu Doan and then Takuma Asano.

The shock was made all the more seismic for the contours of the game: Germany were so comfortable for much of the game, but the full-back issues Jogi Lowe couldn’t conceal at the last Euros were brutally exposed again. 

It is a horrifying result for Germany in what was their first-ever competitive meeting with Japan, meaning they are already behind the eight-ball with a group game against Spain to come. The prospect of a second-straight group stage exit for a side who had hitherto Russia never failed to progress is suddenly a real and startling possibility. 

The game’s build-up was against swamped by off-field issues. Germany have been under intense pressure back home to change course and wear the outlawed One Love armband, with a major sponsor ditching the German FA and the Vice-Chancellor calling on the players to defy Fifa and wear it anyway. Amid pre-game rumblings that the players were planning a riposte of some kind, they each covered their mouths when posing for their team photo, a protest not broadcast on the stadium’s big screen. The tone around the pressure exerted by Fifa on players over the armband issue is assuming an ominous timbre, and the German players’ protest is consistent with Belgium captain Jan Vertonghen’s words that he feels “controlled” and is “afraid to even say something about this.” 

river The pre-game German protest.

“It wasn’t about making a political statement – human rights are non-negotiable”, tweeted the German FA following their players’ choreography. “That should be taken for granted, but it still isn’t the case. That’s why this message is so important to us. Denying us the armband is the same as denying us a voice. We stand by our position”

So to quote what is becoming this World Cup’s official tagline: and now on with the football. 

Judging by the team-sheet, cumbrous centre-half Nicklas Sule was surprisingly picked at right-back – a situation in which Germany have struggled since Philip Lahm’s retirement – but in reality he formed a back three with Antonio Rudiger and Nico Schlotterbeck when Germany were in possession, which was the vast majority of the first-half. It was a fabulously adventurous set-up by Germany, with David Raum of RB Leipzig flying forward from left wing-back and Serge Gnabry slotting in at right wing-back. Raum was a constant attacking threat, redolent of Robin Gosens’ single-handed shredding of Portugal at last summer’s Euros. 

But where Lowe erred in shoving Joshua Kimmich out to right wing-back to facilitate that system, Flick kept Kimmich in midfield and reverted to a back four out of possession. The benefits of keeping Kimmich midfield were plain to see for Germany’s opening goal, as he floated a sumptuous pass to Raum as he broke forward into the penalty area. Raum may have been fouled by Japan goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda in their first tangle but was most certainly in the second, the goalkeeper clumsily barging into Raum’s back as he was moving away from goal. There was a pause for a pointless VAR check before Ilkay Gundogan rolled the penalty beyond Gonda. 

Germany’s system was not without its risks and Japan occasionally exploited it before half-time, often through the industry of Germany-based Daichi Kamadal. Initially Kamada thought he had assisted a shock lead goal after only seven minutes, but his cross was turned in by a blatantly offside Daizan Maeda. Germany were denied a goal of their own by an equally obvious offside, when Kai Havertz turned in Serge Gnabry’s driven cross just before the break. 

The rhythm and pace of Germany’s inter-play was too much for Japan at times, with the lithe Jamal Musiala hurtling challenges with balletic grace. At one point early in the second half he wriggled through a barely perceptible gap in the penalty area and shimmied by another couple of challenges before robbing us all of a classic goal by shooting over the bar. Moments later he loped away from another challenge and ushered the ball to Gundogan, whose shot hit the foot of the post. 

Gavin Cooney
Reports From Qatar

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Flick, perhaps sensing his side’s vulnerability with only a one-goal lead, brought in Leon Goretzka and Jonas Hoffman to switch to a permanent back four, though first Japan needed a string of heroics from Gonda to hang onto the initiative. Twice he denied Gnabry with flying, splayed saves, also blocking Hoffman’s shot. 

That back-four switch was not an act of pragmatism by Flick but one of vulnerability, which Japan audaciously pounced upon. They should have equalised before they did, Manuel Neuer’s adamantine left arm stretching out to claw away Junya Ito’s shot from the box. But minutes later Neuer could only parry a cross into the path of Doan, who rifled in an equaliser. The initial cross had come down Germany’s right side, exposed with Sule now firmly out of position at right-back. 

Seven minutes later, Japan exposed an issue at left-back too. In a passable tribute to Shane Long, Asano scurried onto a long ball over the German defence and caught his control right, though took the ball to a razor-tight angle before somehow spearing the ball above Neuer but beneath the crossbar. 

spqatar-doha-2022-world-cup-group-e-ger-vs-jpn Japan celebrate their winning goal. Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Japan shrieked for a penalty for as Rudiger pull back in the box but it went unrewarded, but Germany toiled in trying to rescue the game, a Goretzka shot whistling wide the closes they came. Neuer ran forward for a couple of set pieces as in the game’s frantic end, but Japan stood tall. 

Germany, having wrestled with their conscience before the game, must now do so with the very real prospect of early elimination. 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney  / reports from the Khalifa International Stadium, Qatar

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