DOHA, Qatar — It’s not how Spain imagined reaching the knockout phase of the World Cup: finishing the group stage with a loss and having to rely on other teams to help it advance.
Spain survived but heads into the round of 16 against Morocco with bruised confidence after losing 2-1 to Japan.
“We have to recover emotionally,” Spain coach Luis Enrique said after the match Thursday. “We will be playing against one of the surprise teams of the World Cup and we will have to be fully prepared. There are only 16 teams left in the tournament and you have to play better. It’s going to be very difficult.”
Few expected Spain would have such a hard time getting through the group stage in Qatar after opening with a 7-0 thrashing of Costa Rica. It had also played well against Germany despite conceding a late equalizer, and a draw against Japan in the final group game would have been enough to send Spain through to the round of 16.
But after going into what Luis Enrique called “collapse mode” in a five-minute span after halftime, Spain was in danger of an embarrassing early exit, which it avoided thanks to Germany’s 4-2 win over Costa Rica in the other Group E match.
Players were anxious on the bench knowing that if Costa Rica won the other match, Spain would be eliminated. Luis Enrique said he would “have had a heart attack” had he known that at one point Costa Rica took the lead over Germany, temporarily pushing Spain out of second place in the group.
PHOTOS: Spain in recovery mode after losing to Japan at World Cup
It was a big scare, and now La Roja is going into recovery mode ahead of its match against Morocco on Tuesday.
“We have to analyze what happened and fix what we didn’t do well,” Luis Enrique said. “I need to try to get the players cheered up again.”
Spain is trying to win its first major title since the 2012 European Championship. It won its lone World Cup trophy in 2010 in South Africa.
By finishing second in its group, Spain avoided 2018 runner-ups Croatia in the round of 16, and possibly world champion Brazil in quarterfinals and Lionel Messi’s Argentina in the semifinals. On its side of the bracket now, Spain has teams like England and defending champion France, which it could meet in the semis.
“It doesn’t matter, the opponents keep changing,” Luis Enrique said. “We wanted to finish with a win and in first place. There’s nothing to celebrate.”
The coach made five changes to his lineup from the 1-1 draw against Germany, bringing in Alejandro Balde, Pau Torres, Nico Williams, César Azpilicueta and Álvaro Morata, who scored in the first half for his third goal in as many matches in Qatar.
Azpilicueta, who was substituted at halftime with a knock on his leg, made the cross for Morata’s goal. Balde was to blame for Japan’s equalizer after losing possession near the penalty area.
“I considered that these 11 were the best ones for this match, I have trust in all of my players,” Luis Enrique said. “But looking at how things turned out afterward, maybe I wouldn’t have picked the same 11. But it’s easy to say it now.”
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