SAITAMA – Maya Yoshida headed in an injury-time goal to get Japan’s bid to qualify for a fifth successive World Cup off to a winning start with a 1-0 victory on Friday night.
Alberto Zaccheroni’s side went into the qualifying competition hotly tipped to claim a place at Brazil 2014 after winning the Asian Cup for a record fourth time in January, but North Korea looked to have thrown a wrench in the works with a miserly defensive performance amid typhoon conditions at Saitama Stadium.
Second-half shots against the crossbar from debutant substitute Mike Havenaar and Yasuyuki Konno suggested it was not going to be Japan’s night, but defender Yoshida pulled the iron out of the fire as he got on the end of a cross four minutes into injury time.
“We started playing long balls more after Havenaar came on, and it was great that we got there in the end and took the three points,” said Yoshida.
Japan now travels to face Uzbekistan in Tashkent on Tuesday, with two teams from a preliminary-round group that also includes Tajikistan progressing to the final Asian qualifying round.
“North Korea gave it everything they had, but we stayed patient and kept going until the end and thankfully it paid off,” said Zaccheroni.
Japan almost got off to the perfect start when Yoshida went within a hair of turning in a second-minute Yosuke Kashiwagi free kick, but it was not long before the heavens opened and a sudden downpour made life difficult for both sets of players.
Japan continued to create chances amid the rain, however, and Shinj Kagawa should have done better after finding himself with the ball at his feet in the North Korean penalty area in the 20th minute, only to dwell too long and allow the defense time to close him down.
The Borussia Dortmund attacker did better with a shot from the edge of the penalty area that whistled just past the post 10 minutes later, but North Korea’s sharp tackling and solid defending continued to stifle Japan as Kashiwagi blazed the final chance of the first half over the bar.
Makoto Hasebe tested goalkeeper Ri Myong Guk with a long-range drive immediately after the interval, and Hiroshi Kiyotake came off the bench to replace Kashiwagi on the hour mark as Zaccheroni went in search of another way to unpick the lock.
The North Koreans, however, refused to lie down, and midfielder Ryang Yong Gi set Japanese hearts fluttering with a shot over the bar minutes later.
Kiyotake had two shots deflected over in quickfire succession, and Yasuhito Endo curled a free kick agonizingly wide of the post after Hasebe had been fouled on the edge of the box in the 70th minute.
Havenaar then hit the bar with a sweet strike of his right foot, and goalkeeper Ri had to be at full stretch to keep out a Shinji Okazaki header with the match moving into its final 10 minutes.
There was a late red card for North Korean substitute Pak Kwang Ryong in a frantic finale, and also just enough time for Yoshida to crash over the winner in late, dramatic style.
“It’s difficult to play away from home, but the players did very well,” said North Korea manager Yun Jong Su. “But it’s very difficult to lose a goal right at the end, especially one that came from a corner that shouldn’t have been given in the first place.”
Japan midfielder Kengo Nakamura could be back in action in two weeks after extensive tests on a fractured toe revealed the injury was not as serious as initially thought, the Japan Football Association said Friday.
“The crack in the toe is small and not as deep as first thought. He could be back in two weeks,” JFA media officer Hideki Kato told reporters ahead of Japan’s opening 2014 World Cup qualifier against North Korea.
The recently recalled 30-year-old Kawasaki Frontale star sustained the injury to the big toe on his right foot during last weekend’s 3-2 defeat away to Kashiwa Reysol in the J. League.
Recalled to the national team for the first time since winning his 52nd cap against South Korea last October, Nakamura on Wednesday pulled out of the squad for the North Korea game and next Tuesday’s match away to Uzbekistan in Group C.
Honda has surgery
CSKA Moscow on Friday said Japan international midfielder Keisuke Honda underwent surgery on his right knee in Spain on Thursday night.