SAPPORO – Kazuki Ganaha struck twice as Japan ended the year on a high with a comprehensive 3-1 defeat of Saudi Arabia in the final match of its qualifying campaign for the 2007 Asian Cup on Wednesday.
Both defending champion Japan and the Saudis had already booked their spots in the July 7-29 finals but Ganaha’s double in front of almost 41,000 at Sapporo Dome ensured the home side claimed Group A bragging rights.
Japan, which had a 1-0 away loss to the Saudis in September, finished with 15 points and took the group by virtue of a better goal difference in head-to-head results against the Gulf side.
Rebuilding the team following a disappointing World Cup campaign under former coach Zico, Japan coach Ivica Osim made three changes to the side that beat India 3-0 in Bangalore last month.
Kawasaki Frontale striker Ganaha partnered Seiichiro Maki up front while Akira Kaji and Marcus Tulio Tanaka returned after injury-enforced absences.
Saudi coach Marcos Paqueta welcomed back Yasser Al Qahtani and Asian Player of the Year Hamad Al Montashari, who both recovered from injury and did not feature in the first meeting with the Japanese.
Japan played some of its best soccer of Osim’s young reign in a lively first half in Hokkaido and deservedly went in front after 20 minutes.
Ahmed Al Dosari cleared Maki’s header off the line following a Kengo Nakamura corner but Tanaka reacted quickest to ram home his first national team goal.
Yuichi Komano and Ganaha both had chances to extend the lead as Japan put together some slick moves and the latter made it 2-0 in the 29th minute when he glanced home Yasuyuki Konno’s cross from the right.
Saudi had not created any opportunities of note but Al Qahtani put his side right back in the contest after earning and converting a 33rd-minute penalty.
Australian referee Mark Shield pointed to the spot after Al Qahtani went down under a challenge from Konno and the Al Hilal striker dusted himself off to bury the ball past Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi.
Unruffled by the setback, Japan began where it left off in the second period and took just five minutes from the restart to regain its two-goal cushion.
Komano scampered down the left flank and sent a low cross in for Ganaha to prod home. Japan could have made it four but Tanaka missed a penalty in injury time Japan after Al Montashari was sent off for his second bookable offense.
Asia’s version of the European championships will be jointly hosted by Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia. The draw will be held on Dec. 19 in Kuala Lumpur.