Croatia and Japan meet on Monday in a rarity at the World Cup: a knockout round game without one of the heavy hitters in it.
That’s not to say Croatia and Japan do not have pedigrees: Croatia, after all, made an improbable run to the final in 2018 before losing, 4-2, to France, while Japan has reached the knockout stage for the fourth time.
But in a round of 16 in which the winners so far have been the Netherlands, Argentina, France and England, a game between teams that even now have odds of 40-1 and 80-1 to win the whole tournament, sticks out.
Croatia has managed to get this far despite two 0-0 draws, against Morocco and a sluggish Belgium, sandwiched around an easy win over Canada. Luka Modric, the player of the tournament four years ago, is 37 now but still in the veteran-packed squad. The top scorer thus far, with two goals, is Andrej Kramaric.
Japan’s World Cup performances have been confounding. First it beat Germany, a pretournament favorite. Then it lost to Costa Rica, perhaps the field’s weakest team, which had lost its previous game by 7-0. Japan looked doomed after falling behind Spain, 1-0, but fought back to win the game and the group.
Japan likes to run fast and pass quickly in a relentless style that can wear down opponents. Its top scorer, with two goals, is Ritsu Doan.
The winner of this game gets a great reward: a berth in a World Cup quarterfinal. And also a not so great reward: in all probability a game against Brazil.