Japan kicked off its bid for a place at the 2010 World Cup with a 4-1 win over a stubborn Thailand at Saitama Stadium 2002 on Wednesday night.
Yasuhito Endo gave the home side the lead in the 21st minute with a curling free-kick, after making a bright start to a match played in snowfall for the full 90 minutes.
But Teeratep Winothai hit an immediate reply for the Thais, stunning Japan with a 35-yard strike that no one — least of all goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi — saw coming.
Thailand held firm as Japan struggled to regain its momentum, but an increase in tempo after halftime saw Yoshito Okubo and Yuji Nakazawa notch well-taken goals to restore the lead.
Thailand had Narongchai Vachiraban sent off for two yellow-card offenses, but the home side was made to work hard for its win until Seiichiro Maki grabbed a fourth in injury time.
The match was Japan’s first competitive fixture since last July’s Asian Cup, and goalscorer Okubo was happy to take three points after more than six months of friendly matches.
“This match was a lot different from the friendlies we have been playing,” he said after the match, “so it was a tough game.”
“The important thing was that we won by a lot of goals, so we can take this momentum into the games to come.”
Coach Takeshi Okada kept faith with the outfield team that had begun the second-half of last Wednesday’s 3-0 win over Bosnia-Herzegovina, with Koji Yamase keeping his place in midfield despite the availability of striker Maki.
Kawaguchi returned in goal in place of Seigo Narazaki.
Japan went for the jugular straight from the start, with Naohiro Takahara, Kengo Nakamura and Nakazawa all finding themselves in good goalscoring positions within the first 10 minutes.
Keita Suzuki introduced himself with a series of early crunching tackles, giving Japan’s full backs a platform to push down the flanks and pin the Thais back.
A cute flick from Okubo made space for Takahara to fire off a shot in the 15th minute, and it was the Vissel Kobe striker’s busy industry that won a free-kick on the edge of the box soon after.
Endo guided the ball over the wall to nestle in the bottom corner of the net, and Japan had the lead.
But Thailand, which had not launched a serious attack of its own before the goal, hit back instantly as Winothai picked up the ball and turned toward the Japanese defense deep outside the box.
With Nakazawa and Suzuki unable to close him down, Winothai let fly with a rasping drive that whistled past Kawaguchi to give the Thais the equalizer.
The goal took the wind out of a shocked Japan’s sails, and the confidence that a good start had brought began to look as if it might freeze in the winter air.
Composure gradually returned to the home side, but wayward shots from Endo and Suzuki suggested the killer instinct was still missing.
Yamase went close soon after after more clever play from Okubo, but resolute defending from Thailand soaked up the pressure to keep the score level at halftime.
Japan’s midfield reasserted itself after the break, with Nakamura pulling the strings and spraying passes as Yamase surged into threatening positions.
The change of pace quickly regained Japan the lead.
Yamase picked up the ball beside the corner flag, before jinking his way into the box and letting fly with a shot. A clearance attempt from the Thai defense rebounded off Endo, and Okubo pounced for the goal.
Thailand’s reply to the second strike was not quite as constructive as its first, as Vachiraban wrapped an arm around Nakazawa’s neck to earn his second yellow card.
Facing only 10 men, Nakazawa took his revenge soon after, rising highest to meet a Nakamura free-kick to score Japan’s third and all but assure the win.
Okada sent on Maki for Yamase as Japan went in search of more goals, but Thailand’s resistance had not completely crumbled, and a corner from the visitors almost pulled a goal back 10 minutes from time.
Japan’s attack persisted, however, and Maki set the seal on the win with a diving header from a corner with the match deep into injury time.
Japan’s next World Cup qualifying match is away to Bahrain on March 26.
Two teams proceed from the four-team group, which also includes Oman.