After conceding late to miss out on a victory against Germany, Spain finds itself with some work left to do against Japan to guarantee its spot in the round of 16 at the World Cup.
It doesn’t need much, though, as a draw on Thursday will be enough, and even a loss may allow La Roja to advance depending on the other Group E result between Germany and Costa Rica.
Japan doesn’t have it as easy, but a win will guarantee the Japanese a place in the knockout stage for a second straight time. It would be the first time Japan advances past the group stage in back-to-back tournaments. If Japan loses, though, it will head home no matter what. The Japanese opened their campaign with a surprising win over four-time champions Germany before losing to Costa Rica. They were eliminated by Belgium in the last 16 in Russia.
Spain, which conceded an 83rd-minute equalizer against Germany, may also go home with a loss if Costa Rica beats Germany or if the Germans win big to overcome Spain’s goal difference after La Roja's 7-0 opening win over Costa Rica.
A victory at Khalifa International Stadium will guarantee Spain first place in the group, and keep it on track for a possible matchup with five-time champions Brazil in the quarterfinals. Spain enters the final round with four points, one more than both Japan and Costa Rica. Germany has one point.
“We are not thinking about our opponents in the knockout rounds,” Spain midfielder Koke Resurrección said. “We need to beat Japan first and then we’ll see which team we’ll have to play against. If it’s Brazil in the quarterfinals, so be it, and we’ll try to prepare for it as best as possible.”
Germany’s chances of staying alive in Qatar will largely depend on Spain winning its match against Japan. Then a victory over Costa Rica would be enough for the Germans.
What may not help Germany is the fact that Spain coach Luis Enrique is expected to rotate some of his players after making only one change from the first to the second game — Dani Carvajal coming in for César Azpilicueta in the right back position.
Teenager Gavi, who started in the first two matches, trained separately from the group after the 1-1 draw with Germany because of a knock on a knee. He was expected to be available for Thursday’s match but was not likely to start.
Another midfielder expected to be rested is 34-year-old Sergio Busquets, the only remaining player from Spain’s World Cup-winning squad in 2010. Striker Álvaro Morata, who scored a goal in each of the first two matches after coming off the bench, could get a spot in the starting lineup against Japan.
Japan could see Ayase Ueda and Junya Ito playing together in attack from the start for the first time.
The under-23 squads of Spain and Japan met in the semifinals of the Tokyo Olympics last year, when Spain advanced before eventually losing to Brazil in the final. Several players from those squads made their senior teams in Qatar, including Marco Asensio, who scored Spain’s winner in extra time in the semifinal against Japan, and Japan’s Takefusa Kubo, who plays for Real Sociedad in the Spanish league.