SAITAMA — A freak injury-time goal gave Japan a 1-0 win over Bahrain on Sunday night to send Takeshi Okada’s men through to the final round of World Cup qualifiers on a high.
Japan failed to convert a glut of chances throughout a rain-drenched match at Saitama Stadium, but Atsuto Uchida finally broke the deadlock when he headed from outside the box and watched as the ball hit the ground and bounced over Bahrain goalkeeper Sayed Jaffer into the net.
Shunsuke Nakamura’s missed 5th-minute penalty looked as if it had set the tone for a night of wasteful finishing from the home side, but Uchida’s late intervention clinched first place in Group 2 and exacted revenge for defeat at the hands of the same opposition earlier in the campaign. Both teams had already secured their passage to the final qualification round going into Sunday’s match, but Okada was satisfied with the commitment his players showed with nothing but pride to play for.
“The players went in search of a goal until the very end, so I am very happy,” he said.
“We didn’t play badly in the first half and created lots of chances, but it was just a case of finishing.
“We will have a tough time in the final round but I think we can continue to grow with each game. I hope we can get stronger and win games.”
Captain Yuji Nakazawa admitted the 1-0 reverse to Bahrain in March had been playing on the players’ minds.
“Me and (Marcus) Tulio (Tanaka) had spoken to each other about trying to keep a clean sheet,” he said.
“We wanted to play well and get a result because all the players were so disappointed by what happened last time.”
Okada named Nakamura in his starting 11, despite the Celtic playmaker needing painkilling injections in his ankle to get through Japan’s previous match against Thailand.
The manager also handed a debut to VVV-Venlo midfielder Keisuke Honda, and gave Hisato Sato his first cap since his club, Sanfrecce Hiroshima, was relegated to the second division last year.
Sato made an immediate impact as he chased a through-ball into the Bahrain box in the 4th minute, and referee Nazri Abdullah Mohamed had no hesitation in pointing to the spot when Sayed Mohamed Adnan chopped the striker down as he homed in on goal.
But Jaffer frustrated the home crowd as he leaped to his left to punch Nakamura’s penalty to safety, despite strong suggestions that the goalkeeper had moved off his line before the kick was taken.
Honda and Keiji Tamada combined well to carve out a series of chances, and Tulio went agonizingly close to breaking the deadlock when he went up for a header at the back post in the 17th minute.
Tamada fluffed a golden opportunity when he dallied with the goal at his mercy on the half-hour mark, and defender Husain Mohammed had to be alert as Uchida darted into the Bahrain box soon after.
Fouzi Aaish let fly with a rasping drive as the visitors reminded Okada’s men they would not have it all their own way, before Yasuhito Endo thumped the crossbar from a free-kick in first-half injury time.
With the Bahrain goalkeeper stranded, the rebound fell to Honda waiting free practically on the goal line, but somehow the 22-year-old contrived to get the ball tangled in his feet and the moment was lost.
Aaish tested Seigo Narazaki again from distance as the second half got under way, and the ‘keeper was lucky to escape soon after when he palmed a Bahrain shot into the danger area with strikers lying in wait. Japan upped the tempo in search of the opener, and Nakamura released Koji Yamase into the box only for the substitute to flick the ball across an empty six-yard box.
Tamada flashed a shot over the bar, and another past the post minutes later but still the goal would not come.
Yamase made another desperate attempt as he launched himself at a diving header with the clock ticking down, until Japan launched one final attack and Uchida bamboozled Jaffer to notch an unlikely winner.