By Nick Mulvenney
DOHA (Reuters) – Spain and Japan started better than most at the World Cup but fans of both teams will approach their final Group E with their calculators in hand, still unsure whether they will stay in Qatar after Thursday
Spain are in a much stronger position at the top of one of the toughest groups of the tournament, having followed up their opening 7-0 thrashing of Costa Rica with a 1-1 draw with Germany in a battle of former world champions.
A draw at the Khalifa International Stadium on Thursday would guarantee Luis Enrique’s side a place in the round of 16, while a win would guarantee top spot in the group.
Japan started the tournament with an impressive 2-1 victory over the Germans, but they threw away their advantage with a half-hearted performance against Costa Rica, who clinched a 1-0 win with their only shot on target of the tournament.
A draw could also send the Blue Samurai into the Round of 16 for the fourth time in the last seven World Cups, but Germany could still advance so long as they beat the Costa Ricans by a sufficient margin.
Japan national team coach Hajime Moriyasu knows what he wants his team to do but seemed less certain about whether they would be able to do it.
“We’re going for the win, that’s all we need to think about,” he said after the loss to Costa Rica.
“Beating Germany doesn’t mean we can beat Spain, both teams won the World Cup and we have a lot of respect for them, but we beat Germany.”
The Japanese fans could have been forgiven a bit of jitters when Moriyasu promised another tactical shakeup against Spain after his conservative game plan backfired so spectacularly against Costa Rica.
Any World Cup group game where a result would suit both teams will always raise the specter of the so-called “Doom of Gijón” that took place 40 years ago in Spain.
FIFA adopted simultaneous games in the last round of the group stage specifically to ensure that there would be no repeat of the clash between West Germany and Austria in the 1982 World Cup, where a 1-0 victory for the first guaranteed the progress of both teams to the Algerian expense.
Another early exit in the first round of the tournament to four-time champions Germany could serve Spain well, but Luis Enrique has pledged to do everything for his team to win.
“Let’s not speculate,” he said after the draw with Germany. “We will use all our strength and go for the victory to secure the top spot in the group standings.”
How serious he is about this may only become apparent when his line-up is announced, following reports in Spain that he could rest captain and midfielder Sergio Busquets.