SAITAMA — An own goal in the second half gave Japan a priceless 1-0 victory over Bahrain in a Group B qualifying match for the 2006 World Cup at Saitama Stadium 2002 on Wednesday night.
As Japan piled on the pressure in the quest for three precious points, Bahrain playmaker Mohamed Salmeen tried to kick the ball for a corner, but succeeded only in finding the corner of his own net.
It was a bizarre goal, coming in the 71st minute, and continued the good fortune for Zico and his team after last-gasp victories over Oman and North Korea at the same venue in earlier qualifying games.
But the players and fans in a crowd of 61,549 were not complaining, as the three points lifted Japan above Bahrain into second place in the four-team group.
Iran, which beat North Korea 2-0 in Pyongyang earlier in the day, leads the standings with seven points from three matches.
Japan is second with six, two points ahead of third-place Bahrain. North Korea has no points from three defeats, and only the top two qualify automatically for the 32-team lineup in Germany.
After surviving a tense four minutes of injury time, a relieved Zico said: “It was a tough game but we earned three valuable points.
“I encouraged them to keep going throughout the game, and now we must continue winning match by match.”
Japan’s next two games are both away, to Bahrain and North Korea in June, before the powerful Iranians visit Japan in August.
Midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata, however, was not banking on qualification just yet, as he experienced the highs and lows of the 1997 campaign which led to Japan’s first World Cup appearance in France the following summer.
“We still have a long way to go,” said Nakata. “We achieved our objective so we are very happy. It was a good home game after a tough away one (in Iran), and I would like to thank the supporters.”
The only goal of the game followed a Shunsuke Nakamura free kick on the right wing. Central defender Yuji Nakazawa looked set to pounce on the loose ball just a few meters from the goal, and Salmeen panicked and rolled the ball inside, rather than outside, the post.
Trying desperately to salvage a point, Bahrain substitute Duaij Naser tested Japan ‘keeper Seigo Narazaki twice in the closing minutes, first with a fierce shot on the turn and then with a header, but Japan survived.
After beating North Korea 2-1 and losing by the same score in Tehran, Japan’s qualifying campaign is back on track.
As expected, Zico’s starting lineup showed three changes from the team that lost to Iran on Friday.
Defender Makoto Tanaka and left wing-back Alessandro Santos returned from suspension, and center-forward Takayuki Suzuki recovered from a right ankle injury to partner Naohiro Takahara.
The trio replaced the suspended Shinji Ono, plus Atsuhiro Miura and Keiji Tamada, who were on the bench. But the fresh faces did not bring immediate rewards, as Japan struggled to find any attacking rhythm.
In contrast, Bahrain looked the more composed and confident team, without ever threatening the Japan goal.
Japan’s early frustration was evident in the 13th minute when Nakamura was shown the yellow card for a foul on Salman Isa Ghuloom, but the home side finally started to move up a gear midway through the half.
Nakamura let fly with his weaker right foot, but the effort was just off target, and then Japan proceeded to batter Bahrain’s goal for a full five minutes with a succession of corner kicks, throw-ins and free kicks.
Bahrain resembled a boxer on the ropes, rocking and ready to be floored, but Japan could not find the knockout blow and the chance was gone.
In general, Japan gave the ball away too often, notably Santos on the left wing, and Nakamura’s set-piece play was poor.
Japan finally had a sight of goal in the 61st minute, but Takahara’s acrobatic left-foot volley flew over the bar after Santos had crossed from the left. Shortly after, the Germany-based striker turned smartly in the box but pulled his left-foot shot wide of the near post.
Zico made his first change in the 69th minute, sending on Tamada for Suzuki, who had looked sluggish against Bahrain’s well-drilled offside trap.
Tamada made an instant impact, winning the free kick which led to Japan’s goal.
Once again, though, Japan’s performance was far from convincing. Zico will point to the three points, and second place in the table, as compensation.