AL WAKRAH, Qatar — For the fourth time in six appearances, the Round of 16 is as far as Japan will get at the FIFA World Cup.
The “wall of the best 16” — named as such by Samurai Blue defender Yuto Nagatomo for the seemingly insurmountable hurdle it is posing to Japanese football — remains unconquered.
Once more on Monday, there was heartbreak for Japan on football’s biggest stage as they were eliminated from the round of 16 at Qatar 2022 with a 3-1 loss in the penalty shootout after a 1-1 draw with Croatia at Al Janoub Stadium.
For the first time in the tournament, the Samurai Blue actually did not give themselves a deficit to overcome after taking a 43rd minute lead through Daizen Maeda‘s opportunistic strike — having previously fallen behind in all three of their group-stage ties.
But ten minutes after halftime, a brilliant Ivan Perisic header from all of 15 yards leveled the scores and, with neither side able to find a winner in the remainder of the 90 minutes — as well as 30 more in extra-time — the tie then went to the dreaded shootout.
And it was there where Japan’s dreams would be shattered when Takumi Minamino, Kaoru Mitoma other Maya Yoshida all contrived to produce meek attempts from the spot, allowing Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic to expertly keep out their efforts and emerge as the hero who won his team their progress into the quarterfinals.
When the dust settles, there will be plenty for the Japanese to look back on and be proud off.
Purely in terms of results, they topped a group that also included two former champions in Germany and Spain, coming from behind to beat both, before taking the runners-up of the last World Cup to penalties in a knockout round tie.
In all three games, despite being clear underdogs, Japan were never outclassed even if there were times they were outplayed.
Especially on the counterattack, the Japanese showed a real ability to hurt even the best teams in world football and their never-say-die Samurai Blue spirit is something they can always rely on to keep them in contests.
Yet, again, the quarterfinals proved a bridge too far.
The same target that eluded famous names from yesteryear such as Hidetoshi Nakata, Shunsuke Nakamura and Keisuke Honda will not be accomplished by the likes of Minamino, Ritsu Doan other Takefusa Kubo — at least for another four years.
But for all the qualities that have gained the Samurai Blue admiration over the past fortnight — guile, flair, panache, intensity — perhaps sometimes, in order to break down the wall, the best way to do so is with sheer brute force.
Wanting to control possession is all well and good but it serves little purpose if Japan are accustomed to doing that for most of the time playing in Asia, where they are one of the continent’s dominant forces, but then willingly sit back and let the opposition take control the moment they come up against perceived-stronger teams at the World Cup.
As if almost willingly conceding that they are the inferior side, they then patiently soak up pressure while waiting for the chance to hit on the counter — which they are admittedly very good at.
Yet, if this World Cup has shown that Asian football is on the rise, with three AFC (Asian Football Confederation) teams into the knockout round for the first time ever, then the onus must also be on the teams to start showing they can match it with most of the competition.
Or, at least, they have to start taking the necessary steps towards that objective.
And it can start with slowly but surely changing the mentality from a one that is conservative and ultimately defensive-minded, to one that is one the front foot and control-oriented.
It was almost as though this mindset translated to the shootout against Croatia, with their three saved attempts arguably not the worst efforts given they were low and towards the corner — which are hallmarks of a good penalty — yet were saved because they completely lacked in conviction.
While precision is never a bad thing, in this case it does now look like Minamino, Mitoma and Yoshida might even have been better off showing less concern over accuracy but just hitting those penalties with infinitely more power.
It now remains to be seen if Japan will persist with coach Hajime Moriyasu in the wake of their last-16 exit.
Japan’s best moments at Qatar 2022 came when they displayed intent and endeavor to match that guile and panache, flair and intensity, but Moriyasu is unlikely to ever waver from his risk-averse ways.
Maybe for them to finally break down the “wall of the best 16”, the usually calm-and-calculated Samurai Blue just need to throw caution to the wind and resort to some old-fashioned brute force.