DOHA, Qatar -- It's a simple task for Germany in its final game of group stage: beat Costa Rica on Thursday or the four-time World Cup champions will go home early for a second consecutive tournament.
Germany was knocked out as reigning World Cup champions in group play four years ago in Russia.
But even a victory might not be enough. Germany is in last place in Group E and, depending on the outcome of Japan versus Spain, goal difference deficit might come into play. Germany has scored two goals through its two games, a 2-1 loss to Japan in its opening match and 1-1 draw against Spain.
“We have a lot of humility,” Germany midfielder Thomas Müller said. “There isn’t much reason to be really euphoric.”
Germany had the same struggles in Russia in 2018 after opening with a 1-0 loss to Mexico before beating Sweden 2-1. Germany would have advanced with a win over South Korea in the final group game, but the defending champions lost 2-0 and went home.
“Now we have to do it differently,” Müller said. “When the football world looks at Germany versus Costa Rica, I think we’re the favorite for those looking from the outside. It’s clear we have to win. Naturally we have respect.”
Costa Rica earned a surprise win over Japan last week and now control its own fate. Costa Rica will advance with a victory over Germany, and even a draw would be enough for Costa Rica to reach the knockout stages if Spain beats Japan in the group’s other game being played at the same time.
“We didn’t come to sit around and take pictures of Qatar,” Costa Rica coach Luis Fernando Suárez said before the tournament.
Spain still has some work left to do.
The 2010 World Cup champions routed Costa Rica 7-0 in their opening match in Qatar, but a 1-1 draw against Germany in the second game made things interesting again.
The Spanish will face Japan on Thursday and the winner will be guaranteed of reaching the round of 16. Spain could also advance with a loss, depending on the result of Germany's match against the Costa Ricans.
If Spain wins the group, the team would face the second-place from Group F. That could be Croatia, Belgium or Morocco. After that, a match against Brazil is possible.
“We are not thinking about our opponents in the knockout rounds,” Spain midfielder Koke Resurrección said. “We need to beat Japan first and then we’ll see which team we’ll have to play against. If it’s Brazil in the quarterfinals, so be it, and we’ll try to prepare for it as best as possible.”
Spain coach Luis Enrique is expected to rotate some of his players after making only one change from the first to the second game — Dani Carvajal coming in for César Azpilicueta at right back.
Teenager Gavi, who started the first two matches, trained separately from the group after the 1-1 draw with Germany because of a minor knee injury. He was expected to be available for Thursday’s match, but wasn't likely to start.
Another midfielder expected to be rested is 34-year-old Sergio Busquets, the only remaining player from Spain’s World Cup-winning squad in 2010. Striker Álvaro Morata, who scored a goal in each of the first two matches after coming off the bench, could get a spot in the starting lineup against Japan.
The Japanese are trying to advance to the knockout round for the second straight World Cup. They could see Ayase Ueda and Junya Ito playing together in attack from the start for the first time.
There should be some young faces on the field when two veteran teams meet in a decisive Group F match.
Croatia, which reached the World Cup final four years ago but lost to France, needs only a draw against Belgium to ensure its place in the round of 16. The Belgians and their aging “Golden Generation” likely need a victory, but a draw may be enough depending on the result in the other group game between Morocco and Canada.
The youngsters could make the difference.
Joško Gvardiol is a 20-year-old center back who joined the national team last year. Nicknamed “Little Pep” because of the similarities between his last name and that of Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola, the physical Gvardiol has already become a mainstay in the defense for Croatia.
“At the age of 20 he has demonstrated that he can play at a great level,” Croatia teammate Mateo Kovačić said. “He just needs to continue doing that.”
On the other side is 21-year-old midfielder Charles De Ketelaere. The baby-faced De Ketelaere, or “CDK” as he’s referred to, has only played off the bench so far at this tournament. But he has been impressive with Italian champion AC Milan this season, drawing comparisons to former club great Kaká for his dribbling ability and precise crosses in the playmaker position.
“Some of the young players that haven’t been in the game, they are growing behind the scenes. I can feel that they can be called on when needed,” Belgium coach Roberto Martínez said. “I thought the players that came on against Morocco, they did their jobs, they performed well.”
Morocco is on the verge of reaching the knockout stage of the World Cup for the first time since 1986 and coach Walid Regragui made it clear why the team is in such a position.
“There are other coaches that like to make you think that they’re magicians, they’re the ones, they’re puppeteers,” Regragui said through an interpreter on Wednesday. “The players are the ones that make the coach and not the other way around.”
Morocco would advance with a victory or a draw on Thursday against already-eliminated Canada and also could reach the round of 16 with a loss depending on the result of Belgium’s match with Croatia.
Regragui, who replaced Vahid Halilhodžić in August, said if his tactics hadn't worked against Belgium, “it was something that probably would have had plenty of Morocco after my skin.”
Canada has lost all five World Cup matches it has played in its history, failing to score in its only other appearance in 1986. After outplaying Belgium for most of their opener this year, but losing 1-0, they took an early lead against Croatia but lost 4-1.
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