SAITAMA, Japan: Japan survived severe early pressure from Zico’s Iraq to beat them 1-0 at home on Tuesday, taking a significant step towards qualifying for the2014 soccer World Cup in Brazil.
Ryoichi Maeda steered in a point-blank header in the 25thminute for the Asian champions, who lost playmaker Shinji Kagawa to a back strain an hour before kick-off.
“It’s three points, we’ll take it,” Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni told reporters. “It was an important result. We want to qualify for Brazil as quickly as possible.”
Iraq, shock Asian Cup winners in 2007 and now under the stewardship of former Japan coach Zico, could have scored twice before Maeda struck.
The Brazilian’s young side came agonisingly close to silencing the crowd of 60,000 in Saitama, both times having close-range efforts blocked.
Those misses proved costly as a quickly-taken throw-in released Shinji Okazaki, whose first-time cross was turned in by Maeda.
“We practised that move,” said Maeda. “Oka’s pass was perfect and I just had to get on the end of it. It was down to him. We knew we had to win but we still have to improve.”
A diving header from Keisuke Honda, brilliantly tipped against the post by goalkeeper Noor Sabri, almost doubled Japan’s lead in the second half.
Japan opened up an eight-point lead in World Cup qualifying Group B from Iraq, Australia and Oman, before Jordan hosted the Socceroos later on Tuesday.
“We have the quality to cover the holes if we lose one or two players,” Japan captain Makoto Hasebe said of Kagawa’s late pullout, which will be of concern to Manchester United.
“The teamwork was excellent and we got the three points we wanted but we can play better. We know there are some difficult games away waiting for us.”
Japan, who have played at every World Cup since first appearing in 1998, have 10 points after four matches in the final round of Asian qualifying.
Meanwhile, a stuttering South Korea remained on course to reach an eighth consecutive World Cup after they escaped Uzbekistan with a 2-2 draw after a poor display in their Group A qualifying clash in Tashkent on Tuesday.
The Koreans now lie top with seven points from three matches in the five-team World Cup qualifying pool but struggled badly in central Asia.
Twice Asian Player of the Year Server Djeparov caused the Koreans numerous problems with his set pieces as the visitors never really got going on a uneven pitch.
The Uzbeks dominated the opening stages and came close to taking the lead in the 12th minute when striker Ulugbek Bakaev’s hooked shot was cleared off the line by a scrambling Korean defence.
But from the resulting corner by playmaker Djeparov, Korean midfielder Ki Sung-Yueng headed into his own net after a near post flick on by Sanjar Tursunov.
The busy striker should have doubled the advantage 10 minutes later when he sidestepped two tumbling Korean defenders to fire a rasping left foot drive from 12 metres out but the visitors goalkeeper, Jung Sung-ryong, palmed behind.
The Koreans were struggling to get their passing going as the Uzbeks looked most likely to add to their lead only for some slack defending at the end of the half to cost them.
Ki made a amends for his earlier mistake to float a deep free kick into the Uzbek box which captain Kwak Tae-hwi met ahead of the onrushing home goalkeeper. Uzbek defender Artyom Filiposyan then smashed the ball into his own net as heat tempted to clear.
The second half started out with neither side able to stamp their authority on the game before a bizarre move saw Korea take the lead in the 56th minute.
Experienced striker Lee Dong-gook was put through down the right but instead of shooting from inside the penalty area he tried to side foot a first time pass across goal only to woefully over hit the ball towards the touchline.
Fullback Park Joo-ho kept the ball in, however, and his cross was expertly controlled by Lee with his left foot before the striker fired the ball into the corner of the net with his right.
The lead lasted barely two minutes before another Djeparov corner proved the Koreans’ undoing, Tursunov sneaking in behind Park to head unchallenged into the far corner from the near post.
Both sides had chances to win the game at the death but Lee had his shot saved after running on to a ball over the top, with Tursunov then firing a shot agonisingly wide of the far post with team mates rushing in.
The point was the home side’s second from three matches but they remained behind Qatar (four points) and Iran (four points) in the pool. Bottom-placed Lebanon were hosting Iran on Tuesday looking to add to their one point in the group.