SAITAMA – Keisuke Honda scored a dramatic injury-time penalty to book Japan’s place at the 2014 World Cup after a breathless 1-1 draw with Australia on Tuesday night.
Japan needed only a point to qualify for the tournament for a fifth straight time in front of 62,172 expectant fans at Saitama Stadium, but a goal against the run of play from Tommy Oar gave Australia a stunning 82nd-minute lead.
With time running out on Japan’s chances of punching its World Cup ticket at home for the first time, however, Australia conceded a penalty for a Matt McKay handball, and Honda stepped up to ram it home and start the celebrations.
“The players did fantastically well,” Japan manager Alberto Zaccheroni said. “The crowd was also brilliant and the fans’ support really helped us. If you look at the game it wouldn’t have been such a surprise for us to have won, but we were hit by something unexpected and this group showed its strength to make it happen in the end.
“The reason for me coming to Japan was to qualify this team for the World Cup,” the Italian added. “It’s a relief to have achieved that, and now we want to go on and shock the world.”
Japan has now become the first country to qualify for next summer’s tournament in Brazil having also achieved the same feat four years ago, but that would not have been the case had Honda not kept his cool in the 91st minute.
“I really felt the pressure from everyone,” said Honda, who joined the team only a day earlier after playing in Saturday’s Russian Cup final with CSKA Moscow. “It’s a shame that we couldn’t win the game, but it’s great that we have made it to the World Cup.”
Yasuhito Endo almost gave Japan a sixth-minute lead when his curling free kick flew just wide of the post with goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer struggling to cover, before the Gamba Osaka midfielder lashed a shot centimeters over the crossbar 10 minutes later.
Schwarzer denied Shinji Kagawa with an incredible reflex save as Japan continued to press, but Australia settled as the first half wore on and it took a crucial intervention from goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima to keep out Robbie Kruse in the 34th minute.
Kagawa chipped a delicate shot that kissed the angle of post and bar as the Manchester United forward grew in influence after the halftime interval, and Honda twice tried his luck from free kicks to keep the Australians on the back foot.
But Oar threw Japan’s plans into turmoil when he gave the Socceroos a shock lead with less than 10 minutes left, hitting a speculative shot that looped up off a defender and sailed over Kawashima’s hand into the net.
Japan’s lifeline came with the 90 minutes over. The ball ricocheted off McKay’s hand in a penalty box scramble, and Honda kept his cool to send the crowd into rapturous celebration.
“We were unlucky to concede the goal but we still had some time left,” said Honda. “I talked to Shinji (Kagawa) about trying to force the opposition into opening up space. It was a bit of a lucky penalty, but it was good that we got there in the end.”