In Focus: Supersub Doan is Samurai Blue's secret weapon
Japan’s route into the World Cup knockout stage has probably been the most impressive of all — and the Samurai Blue have no intention of going home just yet.
Hajime Moriyasu’s men gazumped Germany and stunned Spain to finish top of Group E, coming from behind on both occasions.
Key to both of those turnarounds was the introduction of Ritsu Doan from the bench, with the Freiburg winger finding the net in both sensational comebacks.
As his nation prepare to duel Croatia for a quarter-final spot, we put Doan under the spotlight.
One of the themes of this World Cup to date has been for matches to open up significantly in the latter stages following a cagey start.
In a similar way to England forward Marcus Rashford, Doan has played the role of supersub quite majestically.
Against the Germans, the 24-year-old had been on the pitch for less than five minutes when he expertly steered home a loose ball following Manuel Neuer’s save.
It was a moment of clinical composure that his team-mates had been desperately lacking prior to his introduction and proved the catalyst for a memorable turnaround.
He was rewarded with a start in their next outing against Costa Rica but was hooked after 67 minutes, unable to have a significant influence in the frustrating 1-0 defeat.
As a result, it was back to the bench for the crunch clash with Spain — but once again Doan made an instant impact when handed a half-time introduction.
Having been on the pitch for only three minutes, he expertly took down a high pass before unleashing a fierce strike past La Roja stopper Unai Simon from 20 yards.
Though the two strikes have parachuted Doan onto the international radar, many Dutch and German football fans will already be aware of his talents.
Having made waves rising through the ranks of Gamba Osaka in his home country, Doan joined Eredivise outfit Groningen in 2017 and quickly lit up the division as a teenager.
He managed nine goals and four assists in his maiden campaign, with his impressive performances eventually prompting the giants of PSV to make their move two years later.
Doan could not immediately establish himself in Eindhoven, however, and found himself loaned out to Bundesliga outfit Arminia Bielefeld — a side expected to be relegated having just achieved an unlikely promotion.
Yet the Japanese star proved key in Bielefeld’s dramatic survival, scoring five times and bagging three assists and earning himself a chance to impress at his parent club.
At PSV last term, he managed a 11 goals in 39 appearances but when an opportunity emerged to return to Germany this summer, it was something that all parties were keen on.
Freiburg were the side who lured Doan back to the Bundesliga, sealing a deal for just shy of £8million in early July.
After completing his switch, the player explained: "The talks with Freiburg were intense and convincing.
"I first got to know the club as a strong opponent with loud support from the stands, so I’m looking forward to being part of it myself and coming back to the Bundesliga."
Sure enough, he has looked right at home. Doan has featured in all 15 league outings to date, with his club surprisingly sat second only to Bavarian giants Bayern Munich.
He has also played a pivotal role in their comfortable passage to the Europa League knockout rounds, with seven goal involvements so far this term — a number that will surely only rise further.
The only question is whether his current employers will have their resolve tested this January.
Catching the eye
Given Doan has been with Freiburg for less than six months, he is likely in no rush to leave — but a move to one of Europe’s leading lights this winter would be hard to resist.
Aside from his two goals, his general performances for Japan in Qatar have been a perfect illustration of his well-rounded skill set.
Statistics such as his 3.44 attempted take-ons, 2.06 chances created and 4.12 tackles made per 90 minutes during the group stages all rank him alongside the very best wide attackers at the tournament.
Freiburg will be reluctant to sell given the sensational season they are enjoying and having tied him down to a long-term deal, will feel no immediate pressure to cash in.
Should Doan do his thing against Croatia this afternoon, however, their phone will be ringing off the hook next month.