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Spain should thank their lucky stars for advancing

At first looking like the best team in the tournament, Spain just squeaked by and should be thankful they're in the knockouts at all.

Spain started this World Cup brilliantly, pulverizing Costa Rica 7-0. The youngsters like Pedri, Gavi, and Ferrán Torres played such an amazing game, and they became many people’s favorites to win the whole thing.

But for about three minutes on Thursday, they looked like they were about to be knocked out from the group stage. Costa Rica had a brief lead against Germany, and if it had finished that way Spain’s loss to Japan would have knocked them out of the tournament entirely.

If Germany hadn’t made a comeback, the Spaniards would be going home right now. It is such a stark contrast to where they were a week ago, and it is worrying to see.

Rotating the squad was a mistake from the start

After beating Costa Rica and drawing with Germany, Spain came into the Japan game confident that they’d be advancing with ease. For them to be eliminated, it would have needed extreme scenarios like losing to Japan and Costa Rica winning or Germany winning by a huge margin. 

So Luis Enrique rotated the squad and gave some of the bench players a chance to play. His logic was simple: There was a very little chance of Spain losing, so why not use some fresh legs and rest some players for the knockout stage.

Enrique made four changes to the starting eleven against Germany, fielding the likes of Pau Torres, Álex Baldé, Cesar Azpilicueta, and Nico Williams. Things looked great for them in the first half as they completely dominated possession and Álvaro Morata scored an early goal to give Spain the lead. Everything was going to plan when they returned to the locker room during halftime, but that changed quickly. 

Three minutes of madness 

Japan manager Hajime Moriyasu made two changes at halftime that changed the game entirely. He brought on forwards Ritsu Doan and Kaoru Mitoma, who energized Samurai Blue’s attack and caught Spain off guard. Doan ended up scoring an equalizer in the 48th minute and Mitoma saved the ball off the line for Ao Tanaka to score the second goal in the 51st minute–a goal that took VAR a while to decide and caused a lot of debate amon fútbol fans online on whether the ball went out of bounds or not.

Enrique made five changes to start the comeback, but by that time it was too late and Spain ended up losing. Although they are still going to the knockout stage, they will be going as a second-place team–which means they will be playing first-placed Morocco instead of second-placed Croatia.

This situation could help Spain

The loss to Japan was disappointing and showed Spain has a lot to improve to challenge for the Cup, but this could turn out to be advantageous for La Roja. Finishing second in the group means they are avoiding Croatia in the round of sixteen and potentially Brazil in the quarterfinals. Instead, they will be playing Morocco and then potentially Portugal in the quarterfinal, and either France or England in the semifinals. All of these teams have plenty of flaws themselves that Spain can exploit. 

Overall, this World Cup has been unpredictable and this result was a wake-up call for Spain to not underestimate any team. But unlike their European counterparts like Germany, Belgium, or Denmark, Spain is still in the competition, and still has a chance to win it all if they can fix their issues. 

Playing Morocco won’t be easy, especially with the big support they have in Qatar. Spain will now have to treat every game like a final and give 110% to have a chance.