The group of European hyperteams has ended with Japan on top after they repeated the trick of matchday one with a searing come from behind 2-1 win over Spain.
Just as had been the case when they shocked Germany in the opening round of games, Japan had looked to be utterly overwhelmed at half time in the Khalifa International Stadium, fortunate to trail Spain only by Alvaro Morata's header. The substitutions of Hajime Moriyasu swung the tide once more as Ritsu Doan and Ao Tanaka struck to propel Samurai Blue to the summit of Group E.
Such a scenario would have been unimaginable after 45 minutes. Morata had risen highest to flick home a Cesar Azpilicueta cross from the right but Spain could have had so many more if the penalty box incursions and dominance of possession had carried through to the scoresheet. Down the right flank Luis Enrique's side were devastating, Gavi and Nico Williams combining to crash the byline and test Shuici Gonda at his near post.
With 73 percent possession and complete territorial control there seemed to be just one winner at the interval, where the footballing world was purring over Spain as potential champions. And yet there were moments in the second half where La Furia Roja were heading for the exit door as Costa Rica stunned Germany, at least for a few minutes.
By that time Japan had already taken the lead 30 miles away, Doan and Kaoru Mitoma making an immediate impact off the bench. The Japanese press out of the second half blocks stunned Spain, forcing a nervy clearance from Unai Simon. Doan pounced, thumping a left footed drive from outside the box.
Within three minutes they led again, Doan attacking down the right and firing a cross to the back post. Mitoma flicked it across from the byline -- VAR would conclude the ball had just stayed in play -- and the ball bounced off Tanaka to fire Japan towards victory.
For most of the second half this game was heading towards a scenario that would favor both sides at Germany's expense and yet there was little sense of Spain settling for defeat. Marco Asensio thumped a fizzing strike towards goal late on but Japan's defense was outstanding, only allowing the opposition in behind once as Gonda saved smartly from Olmo.
Top of the group, Japan will face Croatia whilst runners-up Spain will take on Morocco. Germany, who before 2018 had not been eliminated in the first round of a World Cup in 80 years, now face an early flight home for the second World Cup in a row.
Moriyasu's changes pay off
Over 150 years of international football few things have remained immutable tactical laws. In fact perhaps the only constant has been that at the outset managers name their strongest starting XIs and go to win the game from there on. Not Moriyasu, it would appear, who has clearly cottoned on to the tactical advantages of playing at an incomparably better level in the second half than the first.
Now, obviously, that may not be his true intent. but what it tells us about Japan might be. In every one of the three group games so far, Moriyasu has shuffled his deck at the interval, using these fresh legs to rock the opposition with intensity. When Mitoma and Doan charged at the backline, this tournament saw a Spain side blown off course for the first time. As was the case against Germany -- and arguably Costa Rica -- the players that came off the bench did so with a clearly defined role and offered a tangible benefit. Takuma Asano might not have taken his chance tonight but his hard running just slowed Spain down for a moment or two, giving the Japanese defense time to reset.
That defense, it should be noted, gave Japan a platform to win by buckling but never quite breaking. The result may have been the same but on this occasion Moriyasu's men were not beneficiaries of the same loose finishing that they had been in beating Germany. Spain carried huge amounts of pressure but turned that into 12 shots worth just 0.65 expected goals, a tally Japan significantly eclipsed.
A defeat that may suit Spain
Only in the very dying seconds did you find yourself wondering whether Spain might be prepared to accept the defeat that ensured they and Japan knocked Germany out. Just before then, however, they had crafted an opening for Olmo and seemed to finally be poking holes in the defense. Considering Luis Enrique was unaware his side had, for a few seconds at least, been bound for the exit door, it is hard to be certain that they were entirely aware of events 30 miles away.
Equally, come Friday morning they may feel a degree of thankfulness to Doan and Tanaka for firing them to the other side of the bracket. Resolute Morocco may well be a tougher test than an ageing Croatia might have been but beyond that the likes of Portugal, Serbia or Switzerland would make for nowhere near as intimidating a quarter final opponent as Brazil, a matchup with whom seemed inevitable on matchday one. With the possible exception of France, Spain are the best team in their bracket. That is a better position to be in than top of Group E.