If Germany is to avoid the blight of consecutive visits from the World Cup group stage, it will need to earn a positive result against a Spain team that looked like the most dangerous team of the tournament after the opening round of fixtures.
Finishing bottom of the group at Russia 2018, a tournament Germany went into as defending champions, was a historic low for the four-time World Cup winners. It was the first time in 80 years that the German national team had failed to advance to the knockout stages of the tournament.
Now with coach Hansi Flick at the helm after Joachim Löw finally stepped down after 15 years in charge, a repeat of that performance in Russia is surely unthinkable.
But after the shock 2-1 defeat to Japan in its opening game, it is once again a distinct possibility.
Former national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann accused Germany’s players of thinking they were “going to travel” after taking the lead against Japan through İlkay Gündoğan’s first-half penalty.
Germany’s failure to capitalize on its dominance kept Japan in the game and, perhaps most concerning for the four-time champion, Flick was unable to successfully counter Hajime Moriyasu’s tactical changes that eventually led to the comeback.
The result means the game against Spain is do or die for Germany, as defeat would confirm an early flight home from Qatar. It’s certainly an unwanted situation for Flick and his men, especially after Spain’s 7-0 demolition of Costa Rica in their opening game.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether the Spaniards’ statement victory was more a case of Luis Enrique’s men being unstoppable or their opposition being objectively awful, with Costa Rica edging out hosts Qatar for the tag of the World Cup’s worst team so far. .
Germany will certainly provide a far more accurate indicator of the Spain side’s chances in Qatar, but the win has understandably fueled serious optimism that the team is a genuine contender.
World Cup team camps have traditionally been somewhat austere, private affairs, but Spain head coach Luis Enrique has taken an unconventional approach to spending time behind closed doors.
The 52-year-old, who recently posted an Instagram photo of himself looking in remarkable shape, has been taking part in regular Q&As with fans via live streaming service Twitch and has vowed to keep it up as long as Spain remain In the competition.
Enrique even revealed that he is happy for his players to have sex during the World Cup – previously, other national team coaches have infamously banned the team from engaging in intimate activities.
The vibes are certainly good in the Spain camp and victory over Germany would ensure passage to the round of 16 with a game to spare.
In Group E’s other game, Japan knows victory over Costa Rica will guarantee its place in the knockout stages.
The Samurai Blue produced an all-time great World Cup upset by beating Germany for the first time in its history and will want to avoid going into the final group game against Spain needing a positive result.
Costa Rica, meanwhile, will be playing for pride as much as points against Japan after the Central Americans suffered a humiliating seven-goal drubbing against Spain.
Los Ticos Having generally enjoyed themselves on the World Cup stage, the high point of that historic quarter-final run at Brazil 2014, manager Luis Fernando Suárez will be keen to prove that the opening day result was just a bad day at the office.
It’s fair to say that Canadian head coach John Herdman’s comments after their 1-0 defeat to Belgium did not sit well in Croatia.
When asked what the message to his players was at full-time, the Englishman said he told them “they belong here.”
“And we will go to Croatia,” he added.
In response to the bullish remark, the Croatian newspaper 24 Sato ran a picture of a naked herdsman on its front page, with only a Canadian maple leaf to protect his modesty.
Canada stretched a sluggish-looking Belgium for much of its opening game and had a glorious chance to take an early lead from the penalty spot, but star man Alphonso Davies had his effort saved by Thibaut Courtois.
Belgium then found the breakthrough on the counterattack thanks to Michy Batshuayi’s clinical finish and Canada, despite sustained pressure, had no response.
Croatia, runners-up four years ago, stumbled to a goalless draw against Morocco in their opening game and will be hoping for a much-improved performance against the Canadians.
Now 37 years old, captain Luka Modric is likely to play in his last World Cup and the Croatia talisman looked off the pace against the North Africans, arriving late to too many challenges and somehow avoiding a yellow card.
So much of what has made this team such a threat over the years goes through Modric and the Real Madrid man will need to be at his absolute best for Croatia to emulate what they produced in Russia four years ago.
Belgium, too, will be looking for a huge improvement on its scrappy opening round win against Canada, as the country’s “golden generation” of stars embark on what is likely to be their last realistic shot at making a deep run at a major competition.
In midfielder Kevin De Bruyne, Belgium have perhaps the world’s best player but, like the rest of his teammates, the Manchester City star was well below his usual standards against Canada.
Morocco, however, looks likely to provide another stern test for Roberto Martinez’s Belgium side.
The team looked compact and organized against Croatia and perhaps even felt as if there was a chance to get all three points after creating a couple of brilliant chances.
The Atlas Lions have only progressed past the World Cup group stages once in their history, and the side will likely be confident of earning a positive result against Belgium and taking another step towards emulating the 1986 team.
Japan vs. Costa Rica: 5:00 p.m. ET
Belgium vs. Mexico: 8:00 p.m. ET
Croatia vs. Canada: 11:00 a.m. ET
Spain vs. Germany: 2 PM ET
US: Fox Sports
UK: BBC or ITV
Germany: ARD, ZDF, Deutsche Telekom
Canada: Bell Media
South Africa: SABC