Controversial, crazy two hours: Japan, Spain, Germany and Costa Rica involved in World Cup's greatest group denouement

Just when you thought you’d seen it all. If Wednesday’s Group C drama with Argentina, Poland, Mexico and Saudi Arabia wasn’t enough for you, then surely what we witnessed in Group E on Thursday has left you sated.

Japan's Kaoru Mitoma crosses for the second goal - but did the ball go out of play?
Japan's Kaoru Mitoma crosses for the second goal - but did the ball go out of play?

Exhilarating stuff, this shoot-out between Spain, Japan, Germany and Costa Rica. At one point between seven and nine pm, each of the teams were looking at progress to the last 16. At the end of a mad two hours, it was Japan and Spain who could breathe again. Their World Cup adventures continue. Japan 2-1 Spain, Costa Rica 2-4 Germany. But that only tells a fraction of a story.

Going into the final round of fixtures, it was simple for Germany. They had to win. Costa Rica could get away with a draw depending on the outcome of Spain v Japan. The Spanish looked pretty safe. Only a defeat against the Japanese would leave them vulnerable and that had to be coupled with a victory for Los Ticos. Hajime Moriyasu’s men knew a win would guarantee top spot. Anything less and the chasing pack could pounce on them.

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The easiest way to break down this barmy 120 minutes of entertainment is to go half-by-half. The opening period of each match was straightforward. Spain led at the interval against Japan courtesy of Alvaro Morata’s 12th-minute goal and all looked rosy in La Roja’s garden. Japan, however, were in trouble. Germany were playing well against Costa Rica and led as early as the tenth minute thanks to Serge Gnabry’s header. At 7.50pm, Spain as group winners were going through and Germany would join them in second place. Simple, right?

German subs on the bench react as they crash out of the World Cup.

The next hour or so was mental, though. No other way to describe it. Japan came back out with purpose. Ritsu Doan equalised. Then the real controversy occurred. Japan went on the attack and the ball flashed across goal. Celtic forward Daizen Maeda just missed it and Kaoru Mitoma slid in behind him and hooked the ball back across goal for Ao Tanaka to net. The goal was originally ruled out for the ball going out of play before Mitoma’s cutback but after the lengthiest of VAR checks, it was reinstated. TV pictures were inconclusive but from the clearest of angles given, the whole ball looked perilously close to being out. A definitive VAR graphic was not forthcoming, just to add to it all. Nevertheless, Japan were ahead and going through as group winners.

At the same time, Costa Rica equalised through Yeltsin Tejeda and then, remarkably, they took the lead as Juan Pablo Vargas scored. Now it really was bonkers. Both Germany and Spain – world titles galore between them – were going out.

Japan had shut the door on Spain. Luis Enrique’s team needed Germany to fight back. Never write the Germans off, they say. Costa Rica conceded seven to Spain and unsurprisingly, they couldn’t hold on. Kai Havertz scored a double and Niclas Fullkrug made sure. Four-two. Now Hansi Flick’s charges needed a favour. A late Spain goal would knock out Japan and send them through. It never came. The Samurai Blue finish as winners. Croatia next for them. Spain, only through on goal difference, play Morocco.

“Home before the decorations go up,” purred commentator Clive Tyldesley. You could taste the glee coming through the TV screen. Poor Clive deserves his moment, given the amount of times his beloved England have been skewered by Germany. The sequel to this blockbuster will be the fallout to Japan’s winner. The English TV pundits took great delight in revelling in a ball-over-the-line call going against them due to the Three Lions being denied a clear goal at the 2010 World Cup when they lost 4-1 to their old foes. But no doubt their German counterparts will want to see beyond-doubt proof that Mitoma kept the ball in play.