After emerging as unlikely winners of a bruising World Cup group, Japan have a battle-tested Croatia team with a world-class midfield led by superstar Luka Modric between them and a first-ever quarterfinal berth.
Compared to the Samurai Blue, Croatia's path to the round of 16 was relatively straightforward. A 0-0 draw with Group F winners Morocco, a 4-1 victory over Canada and a goalless, if nervy, encounter with Belgium were enough to put them through.
In the all-important third game against the No. 2 world-ranked Belgium, Croatia were fortunate not to go behind on multiple occasions when Romelu Lukaku either hit the post or failed to convert opportunities.
After the game, longtime Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic admitted as much.
"It is to be expected that such a great team as Belgium had so many chances, and I have to say that we were lucky that they did not take their chances," the 56-year-old said in the postgame press conference on Thursday.
Given Japan have had to expend much energy, both physical and mental, in their heart-stopping wins over Germany and Spain, the game against 2018 World Cup runners-up Croatia at Al Janoub Stadium in Al Wakrah on Monday may turn into a battle of attrition.
Dalic has made just one change to his starting lineup in the tournament, when he was forced to replace an injured Nikola Vlasic with Marko Livaja. The switch has worked, though, with Livaja scoring in Croatia's win over Canada.
Many of the players who carried Croatia almost to the mountaintop four years ago in Russia remain an integral part of the squad.
Modric is now 37 years old but is still Croatia's key figure. Ivan Perisic, who scored in the 2018 final, and Marcelo Brozovic both still form a resilient backbone for the team that, like Japan, have reached the knockout stage at two consecutive World Cups for the first time.
Importantly, Dalic has brought in new talent like 20-year-old defender Josko Gvardiol to revitalize his squad. The Leipzig player's last-ditch intervention to thwart a near-certain Lukaku goal in the 91st minute of the Belgium match demonstrated his worth.
"The most important thing is for us to get some rest, we are exhausted," Dalic said Thursday. "I do believe none of my players will be injured or suffer any consequences" from the game against Belgium, he added.
That is one advantage Croatia will hold over Japan in their final 16 clash.
Against Spain, Japan defender Ko Itakura picked up a yellow card in his second consecutive game, meaning he is unavailable for selection against Croatia.
That poses a problem for Hajime Moriyasu's injury-blighted defense.
There is uncertainty over whether Hiroki Sakai can return from his hamstring complaint, while Takehiro Tomiyasu has also been injured and has not played more than 45 minutes in either of his two appearances off the bench at this tournament.
Moriyasu has started 36-year-old Yuto Nagatomo and 34-year-old Maya Yoshida in all three games so far, but the former has been substituted early in each. Without Itakura, he can turn to Hiroki Ito, Shogo Taniguchi and possibly Wataru Endo, who has experience in central defense, in a new-look backline.
Japan and Croatia have met on two occasions at previous World Cups, with the currently 12th-ranked Europeans never losing.
Their most recent meeting was in Group F of the 2006 World Cup. They drew 0-0 in their second match of the tournament, with Croatia going on to finish third in the group and Japan last.
Since that 2006 meeting, Croatia have tasted the lows of missing the World Cup final completely in 2010, and the highs of taking on France for the trophy in 2018.
They line up against Japan having lost just one of their most recent 19 internationals and one of their last ten World Cup matches, making them another in a tournament of tough tests for the Samurai Blue.
Former Ballon d'Or recipient and five-time Champions League winner Modric believes he and his teammates are a significant challenge for anyone.
"It will be difficult, but Croatia will also make it difficult for them," Modric said of their round of 16 opponents.
"We have been quite consistent in our matches and I believe we deserve to be going through to the round of 16."