FIFA World Cup 2022 Preview: Japan vs. Croatia — December 5, 2022

Doha, Qatar; Japan midfielder Ao Tanaka (17) goes up for a header against Germany forward Thomas Muller (13) during a group stage match during the 2022 World Cup at Khalifa International Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Yukihito Taguchi-USA TODAY Sports

Croatia will face the surprise team of the tournament so far, Japan, in Al Janoub Stadium on Monday, with the prize of a place in the quarter-finals up for grabs.

Japan beat Spain and Germany to top their group while Croatia was perhaps fortunate to qualify after some wasteful finishing from Belgium in their final group game. The winner of this match will take on the winner of Brazil-South Korea.

Japan Key Player: Ao Tanaka

Ao Tanaka scored the winner against Spain to send Japan through to this stage, but the Fortuna Dusseldorf man is a strong defensive midfielder who earned a 78.3 challenge grade and an 80.8 aerial duel grade in the group stages. In a Japan team that will likely concede most of the ball and look to play on the counter, Ao Tanaka will be key to their defensive efforts.

Croatia Key Player: Josko Gvardiol

The 20-year-old RB Leipzig center-back made our Team of the Group stage after some impressive all-round performances. He is a progressive passer whose 81.6 passing grade ranks 11th at his position after the group stage. He also carries the ball well out of defense, as his 71.5 dribbling grade ranks second at his position.

He has been even more impressive defensively, with his 50/50 duel grade of 84.2 ranking second and his 82.2 challenge grade ranking 11th among center-backs. Gvardioal will hope to temper Japan’s fiery counterattacks and then advance the ball into dangerous areas for Croatia.

Matchup to watch: The midfield battle

Croatia has one of the best midfield lineups in international football with their dynamic trio of Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic. All three players have top-20 Passing grades among central midfielders, with grades of 88.5, 76.9, and 78.8, respectively. They will look to dominate the ball and control the tempo of the game. 

Kovacic may now be the best of the three. He’s a deadly dribbler, with his 78 dribbling grade ranking second at his position after the group stages. Kovacic also has the highest challenge grade of all players at the World Cup after the group stage (92.9).

If Ao Tanaka, Hidemasa Morita and the rest of the Japanese midfield can stop Croatia’s trio from controlling the game then it will give them a chance to pull off their next big upset.

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