Germany was knocked out of the 2022 World Cup on Thursday after a quite extraordinary finale to Group E, despite beating Costa Rica.
At varying points of the two games, fans of Spain and Japan as well as Costa Rica and Germany each thought that their countries might be on their way to the knockout phase.
Completely outplayed by Spain in the first half and trailing to Alvaro Morata’s first-half goal, somehow Japan stormed back to win 2-1 and top the group. Japan’s two goals – from Ritsu Dōan and Ao Tanaka – came in the space of three minutes early in the second half.
Germany won 4-2 against Costa Rica, despite trailing at one point, but it wasn’t enough with Japan and Spain going through to the last 16.
Nine goals, controversial VAR decisions, and the four-time World Cup winner dumped out of the competition at the group stage just as Germany were at Russia 2018 – these were two games that will live long in the memory.
Just hours after one European heavyweight, Belgium, had been knocked out, Spain and Germany faced the gauntlet, against Japan and Costa Rica, two teams that had been written off by most soccer experts as having little chance of reaching the last 16 before the World Cup started.
Nonetheless this was an evening that began with the possibility that all four teams were capable of progressing to the next stage.
Within the opening quarter of an hour of both games, both European sides looked destined to progress from the group.
At the Al Bayt Stadium, Serge Gnabry headed home in the 10th minute to give Germany a vital lead as it battled to rekindle its hopes of qualifying after a poor start to its campaign when it surprisingly lost to Japan.
Over at the Khalifa International Stadium, Morata headed home a sumptuous cross from right back César Azpilicueta to put Spain ahead.
In doing so, Morata became the second player to score in his first three World Cup appearances for Spain, after Telmo Zarra in 1950, according to Opta.
Following the goal, with both European sides sitting in the qualification spots, Spain and Germany dominated proceedings for the rest of the first half, with Spain enjoying 78% of the possession while Germany had 65% as they restricted Japan and Costa Rica’s openings respectively.
But the preeminence of the European teams was soon to be challenged – within minutes of the second half beginning in both games, the situation in the group had changed completely.
As he did in the famous victory over Germany, Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu used his substitutes masterfully, bringing on Dōan and his left-footed strike brought Japan level.
Moments later, Tanaka gave the Samurai Blue a shock lead which threw the group into jeopardy.
Tanaka’s goal didn’t come without controversy though. A VAR review ruled the ball hadn’t gone out of play before Tanaka tapped home the cross for a goal.
Just when things seemed like they couldn’t get any wilder – and totally against the run of play – Costa Rica leveled the scores against Germany as Yeltsin Tejeda smashed home a rebound after Manuel Neuer couldn’t hold a powerful effort from Kendall Waston.
But the mental maths for coaches, players and fans was only just beginning.
Costa Rica took a stunning lead as Juan Pablo Vargas prodded home after an frantic goalmouth scramble to leave Germany trailing.
With just over 20 minutes remaining in the two games, Spain and Germany – both recent World Cup winners – were in danger of going home.
Yet Costa Rica’s hopes were quickly dashed as a quickfire double from substitute Kai Havertz and a late Niclas Füllkrug goal ensured Germany – after a rollercoaster evening – would claim three points.
However, Spain’s 7-0 win over Costa Rica in its first group game ensuring a healthy goal difference was now proving key to the Luis Enrique’s side getting out of the group and condemning Germany to finish third.
Germany desperately needed a Spain goal to climb back into the qualification spots. But Spain was unable to break a resolute Japan defense down, and never really troubled Shūichi Gonda in goal, despite seven minutes of added time.