By Yoo Jee-ho
AL RAYYAN, Qatar, Dec. 2 (Yonhap) -- Japan roared into the knockout stage of the FIFA World Cup on Thursday by rallying past Spain 2-1, further burnishing their reputation as the giant slashers in Qatar.
Japan came storming back with two goals in the first six minutes of the second half at Khalifa International Stadium in Al Rayyan, west of Doha, erasing a 1-0 deficit en route to their second upset win in Group E. They topped the group with six points, with Spain joining them in the round of 16 with four points.
Germany also finished with four points after defeating Costa Rica 4-2 but Spain finished comfortably ahead of them in goal difference, 6-1.
Japan, world No. 24, began the group stage by beating 11th-ranked Germany 2-1. They then lost to Costa Rica 1-0, and their knockout hopes appeared to be in jeopardy on Thursday after Alvaro Morata's 11th-minute header gave Spain a 1-0 lead. Spain, world No. 7, were in complete control, trying to kill Japan's World Cup dreams softly with pass after short pass.
But Japan gave Spain a taste of their own medicine with effective high pressing to begin the second half. Substitute Ritsu Doan made an immediate impact with the equalizer in the 48th minute, after Junya Ito won the ball off Alejandro Balde deep in the attacking zone. Doan pounced on the ball and unleashed a left-footed shot past Unai Simon.
Another second-half sub, Ao Tanaka, put Japan ahead for good only three minutes later. Doan's initial shot attempt appeared to roll past the end line, but Kaoru Mitoma saved it with a sliding cross toward the goalmouth. Tanaka volleyed it home past a confused Simon, who apparently thought the ball had gone out of play. After a lengthy video assistant referee review, however, the goal stood.
Japan will be playing in the knockout stage for the fourth time. In the round of 16, they will play Croatia, runners-up from Group F. Spain will face Group F winners, Morocco.
There were a record six teams from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) to start this year's World Cup, with the host country Qatar joined by five qualifiers: South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Australia.
Australia finished second in Group D for their first knockout trip since 2006, while Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Iran were all sent home before Japan became the second AFC team in the next round.
The AFC has not yet had more than two countries in the knockout stage of a World Cup.
South Korea, the last Asian side to wrap up group play, will try to become the third AFC team in the knockouts on Friday. They will go up against Portugal in Group H at 6 p.m. Friday at Education City Stadium in Al Rayyan, or midnight Saturday in South Korea.
South Korea must beat Portugal and get some help from the other Group H match of Friday between Uruguay and Ghana.
South Korea are chasing their third appearance in the knockout stage, after reaching the semifinals in 2002 and the round of 16 in 2010.
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