On Monday 5 December 2022, the third of four consecutive days of last-16 matches saw Japan (ranked #24) face Croatia (ranked #12), and Brazil (ranked #1) face South Korea (ranked #28), with the winners of both meeting in the second quarter-final.

The two matches were to deliver, in one case, a dogged performance which eventually proved successful and, in the other, a scintillating performance.

In the first match, Japan (who have never got past the last-16 round in a World Cup, but who did manage to defeat both Germany and Spain in their group here) played Croatia (who got to the final in Russia after defeating England in the semi-final, eventually losing to France. Would this be the year of Asian teams (with South Korea also through to the last-16 and playing later today), or would midfield maestro Luca Modric lead his team to the ultimate prize in this tournament? Japan went on the offensive from kick-off, forcing a corner in the second minute and Taniguchi heading just wide. After that initial onslaught on Croatia’s goal, Croatia started to get into a rhythm. On 7 minutes, Perisic was clear on goal but took too long and Gonda in Japan’s goal saved at point-blank. On 12 minutes, Maeda was inches short from connecting with a sublime cross by Ito which would have been a certain goal. On 19 minutes, Ito got another cross in but Livakovic saved comfortably. While Croatia’s midfield was exerting its superiority on the game, it was Japan’s wings who were posing a significant threat. 5 minutes later, Croatia had a free kick; the ball fell to Gvardiol but his shot was sliced and posed no threat. Petkovic then beat the offside trap but the defensive cover ensured he could neither get a shot in nor pass to a team-mate. Croatia then had a period in which they were sending high cross after high cross into Japan’s box, but none were connected with to seriously trouble Gonda. Japan then broke up their left wing but Croatia’s defence snuffed out the threat. On 40 minutes, Japan had another break down the left and were turning Croatia’s defenders inside-out, but could not get clear sight of goal to shoot. On 42 minutes, Japan did manage to get a shot in, with Maeda getting the touch to get the ball into the back of the net after a corner, cross and goalmouth scramble. 1-0 to Japan. 2 minutes added time. Croatia were awarded a corner but time ran out. HT Japan were leading 1-0. The main question people were asking was: could Japan keep up their high-tempo game throughout the second half? But there was another issue: in the Group stages, Croatia scored 4 goals against Canada but could not find the net in two scoreless draws against Belgium and Morocco. Within the first minute of the restart, Japan had a chance to extend their lead when Kamada hammered a shot from outside the box but if was well over the bar. Croatia were pressing higher. On 55 minutes, Perisic latched on to a cross to power a header beyond the reach of Gonda. 1-1 - game on! A minute later, Livakovic made a fingertip save to deny Endo’s rasping shot from outside the box. Perisic then had a break up the left wing but he could not get a shot in. The action was now end-to-end, with both teams knowing they could score. On 61 minutes, Croatia made the first substitution of the game, with Budimir coming on. Almost immediately, Gonda pulled off a flying save to deny Modric. On 67 minutes, the ball dropped for Budimir whose reflex header was wide of the post. Croatia made a second substitution with Pasilic coning on. One quarter of normal time remaining. On 74 minutes, Sakai cane on as Japan’s first substitution. Both teams were trying to play one-touch football and both were breaking up the centre as well as utilising the full width of the pitch. Doan then made a crucial tackle in his own box to deny Barisic a shot on goal. The match could go either way and the only surprise was that it was still just 1-1. Japan were more creative but Croatia had Modric and Perisic. Japan were trying to thread balls though Croatia’s defence but it was proving to he almost impossible, with their offside trap also holding firm. On 89 minutes, the referee brandished the first yellow card of the match, with Croatia’s Kovacic penalised for tough challenge. 4 minutes of added time: if it remained a draw, there would be extra time of 2 periods of 15 minutes each. FT 1-1. Extra time. On 8 minutes, Modric went off as Croatia threw on a couple more substitutes. Both teams had tired and were trying to conserve what energy they had left in their tanks; but they were still probing each other’s defences, looking for that one opportunity that could seal a win and avoid penalties. On 14 minutes, Mitoma burst up the field and blasted a shot which was parried by Livakovic; a corner followed and Japan finished the first period strongly. Croatia then took off Perisic as they indicated they wanted to win the match in extra time, not rely on penalties. Croatia were having more of the ball and Japan were relying on counter-attacks. Both sides were creating chances, but the players were visibly tiring. 1 minute added time. Croatia had once last chance but Majer shot wide. FT 1-1. It was now down to penalties, the first penalty shootouts of this year’s World Cup tournament. Japan went first to try to get the early advantage, but it backfired as Livakovic saved from Minamino, then from Mitoma. Croatia scored their first two, and Asano converted. But then Brozovic missed, handing Japan a reprieve. But then, Japan’s Yoshida also had his penalty saved! Croatia go through to the quarter-finals!

In the second match, Brazil played South Korea. Neymar had recovered from injury and Richarlison was also back in the line-up having been rested for their last group game, when they rested most of their first team, only to lose to Cameroon. And Son (captain) was again starting for South Korea, now the remaining Asian team left in the tournament, although he had not reached peak form in the group matches. South Korea made just one change, due to injury, from their last match in the group phase. Interestingly, there were hundreds of empty seats in the stadium, with Brazil fans much more vocal than their South Korea counterparts. Brazil were back in their famous yellow jerseys and blue shorts, with South Korea in an all-red strip. Brazil had the best of the ball on the early stages of the game, threatening down both flanks. Their fans did not have long to wait, with Vicinius Junior bending a cross past the outstretched South Korean goalkeeper, Kim Seung-gyu, and a number of defenders following sterling work by Raphinha down the right wing. 1-0 to Brazil on 7 minutes. Just 3 minutes later, the referee awarded a penalty to Brazil after Richarlison was adjudged to have been fouled. Neymar stepped up to take the spot kick and stroked the ball over the line after sending Kim Seung-gyu the wrong way (Neymar was now just one goal behind Pele’s national record). 2-0 to Brazil after 13 minutes. South Korea were in danger of being swamped and needed to settle down, find their rhythm and get on the scoresheet. But it was Brazil on the front foot and playing high-tempo football, looking dangerous at every turn. South Korea’s Hwang Hee-chan then forced Brazil’s goalkeeper, Alisson, into an acrobatic save to stop a long-range shot from rocketing into the top-right corner of the net. South Korea did manage to put a number of plays together with crisp passing and running into space, including a number of shots from far out, but Brazil seemed hungrier and were closing them down, hustling them into making mistakes. Neymar looked dangerous evert time he got the ball, but he was guilty of not passing more. On 28 minutes, Richarlison started and finished a majestic move, getting his name on the scoresheet after his brace in the first game. 3-0 to Brazil, with all 3 forwards scoring in the first half hour. But they were not yet finished. On 35 minutes, Lucas Paquetá volleyed Vicinius Junior’s cross past the despairing Kim Seung-gyu. 4-0 to Brazil, partly due to South Korea leaving gaps at the back in search of goals up front, with just a back-three in defence. But from now on it would need to be damage limitation because, surely, there would be no way back at all. And Brazil were in the groove, cruising (metaphorically), yet fighting for every scrap. Brazil could have had a 5th on 45 minutes but Lucas Paquetá wasted a glorious opportunity when bearing down on the goalkeeper. 5 minutes added time. Neymar could have had another one, and Richarlison too… HT 4-0 to Brazil. South Korea made 2 substitutions at half-time. Son almost scored just 2 minutes into the second half, but Alisson did enough to touch the curling shit around for a corner. On 54 minutes, Raphinha almost got on the scoresheet only for Kim Seung-gyu to prevent the goal-bound ball with an outstretched leg, and again on 61 minutes. 6 minutes later, Alisson made a wonderful one-handed save, and another in an ensuing goalmouth scramble, to deny Son scoring to get one back. On 70 minutes, Brazil made a couple of substitutions, with South Korea following suit. On 74 minutes, South Korea did get the ball into Brazil’s net, with substitute Paik Seung-ho firing a bullet through a packed box, beyond Alisson. 4-1 to Brazil. 5 minutes later, Cho Gue-sung was through with only the goalkeeper to beat, but Alisson stood his ground and saved well. More substitutions from both sides. Confusion between South Korea’s goalkeeper and defenders almost let in Brazil for their 5th, but it was not to be. Instead, it was South Korea who went in search of what would have been a second consolation goal. 4 minutes added time. FT 4-1 Brazil over South Korea.

Brazil will now face Croatia in the second quarter-final on Friday 9 December.

Meanwhile, today’s matches will see the fourth batch of last-16 games being played, with Morocco against Spain, and Portugal against Switzerland.