Japan’s players are jubilant as the final whistle is blown at the end of their World Cup Group E victory over Spain on Thursday in Doha, Qatar. The Samurai Blue have been the stunning surprise of the tournament, defeating soccer powers Germany and Spain, and advance to face Croatia in the Round of 16 next week. (Associated Press)

Rafu Wire Service and Staff Reports

DOHA, Qatar.–Japan pulled their Qatar World Cup campaign out of the fire with another come-from-behind win over a soccer superpower, beating Spain 2-1 on Thursday to earn a place in the Round of 16.

After another first half in which his team were completely outplayed, Hajime Moriyasu called on super sub Ritsu Doan to again save the day at the Khalifa International Stadium.

Doan did his part, echoing his role in Japan’s 2-1 comeback win over Germany to open their tournament.

The Freiburg attacker more than answered Alvaro Morata’s early first-half goal, netting a stunning equalizer and following with a cross that led to Ao Tanaka scoring the Samurai Blue’s second.

The win for Japan combined with Germany’s 4-2 victory over Costa Rica means the Samurai Blue top Group E, what many labeled the tournament’s “Group of Death,” with six points.

“The team played tenaciously and with confidence,” said Moriyasu, who came under fire for Japan’s 1-0 loss to group underdogs Costa Rica on Sunday. “It was tough in the first half and also throughout the game, but the players believed they could do it and played as a team through to the end.”

Spain scraped through to the last 16 in second place on four points, ahead of Germany on goal difference.

Costa Rica joined the four-time champions in exiting from the group stage.

By the slimmest of margins, Kaoru Mitoma catches the ball before it goes out of play to pass it for a goal, during Japan’s World Cup Group E soccer match against Spain on Thursday. The goal was the difference in the match, a 2-1 victory that sent Japan into the Round of 16. (Associated Press)

Japan’s win sets them up for a final 16 meeting with 2018 runners-up Croatia on Monday, while Spain will meet Morocco, the winner of Group F.

Japan reached the knockout phase in consecutive World Cups for the first time.

“For Asia and for Japan, our victories over Spain and Germany, two of the top teams in the world, is something that give us great confidence and we are very pleased,” Moriyasu said. “Of course, there are many things we still have to learn, but Asia can win in the world stage, Japan can win in the world stage.”

The first goal came when Cesar Azpilicueta put a cross onto Morata’s head in the five-yard box, the Atletico Madrid player rising uncontested in a gaping hole between a grasping Ko Itakura and Maya Yoshida to put the Europeans into the lead.

Morata has now scored in each of Spain’s games in Qatar, twice off the bench and on Thursday as a starter, and he is in joint lead of the Golden Boot race with France striker Kylian Mbappe.

Spain had 78 percent of the possession in the first half and had six shots to Japan’s two.

The Samurai Blue’s best chance came from the foot of Junya Ito in the seventh minute. The Reims winger took a couple of touches when the ball fell to him on the right side of the box and blasted into the goal’s side netting.

Ao Tanaka got a knee onto Kaoru Mitoma’s cross to score his side’s second goal. (Associated Press)

Halftime sub Doan brought Japan back into the game in the 48th minute with a wonderful left-footed strike that caught Spanish keeper Unai Simon napping. The Athletic Bilbao stopper could only deflect a shot he should have pushed wide.

“That was my favorite area and I had decided I’d take a shot if I got the ball. I put all my power on it,” said Doan, who replaced Takefusa Kubo after the interval. “We had to go on the offensive and I was told to be aggressive.”

Doan popped up again immediately with the cross that led to Japan’s second.

The ball was brilliantly kept from crossing the byline by fellow substitute Kaoru Mitoma. The Brighton & Hove Albion player in England’s Premiere League dragged it back for Tanaka to knee into the goal in the 51st minute.

It took about two minutes for video review officials to confirm the ball hadn’t gone out of bounds before the goal.

Players from both teams looked surprised when it was announced that the goal counted, and the Japanese started running toward their bench again to celebrate with their teammates.

“From my angle I think the ball was clearly half out, but more than that I could not see because of the speed,” Tanaka said. “I was concentrating in scoring. There was always a possibility that it was out … But in the end it was a goal, so that was great.”

According to FIFA’s Laws of the Game, “all of the ball must cross all of the line,” meaning the whole of the ball must cross the entire goal line or the touch line to be considered out of play. This rule applies with or without the ball touching the ground.

Unlike tennis, where any ball touching a line is considered to be in play, soccer’s boundaries are defined by the vertical planes indicated by lines painted onto the pitch.

A review of the play led FIFA to reaffirm the goal, saying the “curvature of the ball” kept it in play. With their World Cup future hanging in the balance, Spain pushed forward in hopes of snagging an equalizer.

But Japanese keeper Shuichi Gonda made two 89th-minute saves to ensure Moriyasu’s men completed another stunning comeback.

Tanaka said the Samurai Blue squad had not let the disappointment of the loss to Costa Rica, which jeopardized their bid to reach the Round of 16, affect their mindset against Spain.

“We lost the last game and there might have been a sense of resignation (outside the camp), but we always believed,” Tanaka said.

 “It would have been ideal to keep (Spain) scoreless but we were resigned to conceding one. But the fact we could turn the game around after Ritsu’s goal is because we have the ability.”

After Japan’s two second-half goals, Luis Enrique said Spain “got into collapse mode.”

“We totally lost control during those five minutes. We panicked,” Luis Enrique said. “If they had to score more goals, they would have been able to do it. They got past us like an airplane.”

Morata became the first Spain player to score in the team’s first three matches at the World Cup since Telmo Zarra in 1950.

Spain had opened with a 7-0 rout of Costa Rica before conceding late in a 1-1 draw against Germany.

Japan, which lost to Costa Rica in its second match, was eliminated by Belgium in the last 16 four years ago in Russia. The Japanese have never gotten past the Round of 16 at the World Cup.

At a viewing party in Torrance, local soccer aficionado Yoshihiro Ishii praised Japan’s strategy of defending early and attacking late.

“Today’s match against Spain was also won with the same tactics,” Ishii said. “It was fun to watch the players’ concentration, especially the defense that stopped Spain’s fierce attack in the second half without letting the opponent take a shot.”

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