DUSHANBE – Japan put one foot through the door to the final round of World Cup qualifying with a comfortable 4-0 victory over Tajikistan on Friday.
Alberto Zaccheroni’s side drew first blood late in the opening half through Yasuyuki Konno’s first strike for Japan, and Shinji Okazaki added to the damage with a brace in the second half when Ryoichi Maeda also chipped in.
“The result was the most important thing today. We want to have already qualified for the final stage before we play our last game against Uzbekistan, so the win was crucial,” Zaccheroni said.
“In the Middle East and Central Asia the players are physically very strong and in today’s match we were not helped by a poor playing condition. Away games in Asia are always tough.”
The three points kept Japan on top of Group C with 10 points from four games. If Uzbekistan beats North Korea later Friday, Japan is through to the final qualifiers for Brazil 2014.
The first half turned out to be anything but stellar for Japan, which struggled to adapt to the awful condition of the pitch at Dushanbe Central Stadium.
Until Konno broke the deadlock, it was the hosts who orchestrated the best chance of the game as Dilshod Vasiev hit the left-hand post, sparing the blushes of the Japanese defense.
Japan tried to build up much too neatly despite the poor surface, and target man Mike Havenaar, who opened the floodgates in last month’s 8-0 whitewash at Osaka, was often left out of the loop in the attack much to Zaccheroni’s frustration.
Konno took matters into his own hands in the 36th minute, winning possession with a man of a tackle along the left wing to kick-start the break.
Captain Makoto Hasebe then lobbed into the box for Kengo Nakamura, whose stinging shot from close range was denied by keeper Alisher Tuychiev.
But Konno was in the right place at the right time, beating everyone to the rebound to poke in his maiden goal in national team colors.
“I’m delighted to score my first Japan goal,” said Konno. “The loose ball just happened to fall to me. I just hit it with everything I had and it went in.”
The Asian champions asserted their superiority better in the second half, and Zaccheroni went to his bench for the first time after 56 minutes, sitting Havenaar for Ryoichi Maeda — a substitution that would pay dividends during the closing phases.
Five minutes later, Japan doubled its lead as Shinji Kagawa drifted wide left on the counter before crossing to Okazaki, who nodded in his 25th goal in 48 international appearances.
However the home side, needing at least a draw to have any chance of reaching the final round, would not go away, proving to be a much tougher test as Zaccheroni had predicted.
Zaccheroni’s men, though, kept their poise and purpose the rest of the way to close out the victory, with Maeda drilling home Japan’s third from the edge of the box in the 82nd minute to quiet the crowd. Okazaki completed the scoring in the second minute of additional time.
“I got great passes (for my goals) and just had to put them away,” said Okazaki. “I’m glad I could take my chances. Winning was first and foremost. We were still able to put passes together and get forward, despite the state of the pitch. I am really glad we won.”
Hasebe added, “There were a few scary moments at the start and it was a tough game. I’d be lying if I said the pitch didn’t affect us but the conditions were the same for both teams.”