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Kagawa leads way as Japan beats Azerbaijan

by Gus Fielding

Kyodo

Shinji Kagawa showed exactly why he has Manchester United and a host of other leading European clubs on his trail Wednesday, scoring with a cracking finish to put Japan on the way to a 2-0 win over Azerbaijan in a warmup for next month’s World Cup qualifiers.

The Borussia Dortmund star struck three minutes before the interval and also had a hand in the second goal, scored by Shinji Okazaki, before making way for Arsenal starlet Ryo Miyaichi to make his eagerly anticipated senior national team debut midway through the second half at Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa.

Hiroki Sakai and Hideto Takahashi also won their first caps and CSKA Moscow midfielder Keisuke Honda had a solid outing after a nine-month injury-related absence in Japan’s last game before three World Cup qualifiers against Oman, Jordan and Australia.

Coach Alberto Zaccheroni on Thursday will name his squad for the home qualifiers against Oman and Jordan at Saitama Stadium 2002 on June 3 and 8, respectively, and the trip to Brisbane to meet Australia on June 12. Japan are also drawn against Zico’s Iraq in Group B.

“Everything fell into place for the goal,” Kagawa said. “But we had a bundle of chances and we probably should have scored more.”

Takayuki Morimoto, recalled as cover for injured Southampton striker Tadanari Lee, started up front with Honda in the hole alongside Kagawa and Okazaki.

The Novara hitman thought he had fired Japan in front in the 17th minute, but the linesman was quick to raise his flag for offside, and Kagawa went close moments later when he drilled just wide of the left-hand post.

Honda, looking sharp in his first national team game since scoring in a 3-0 win over South Korea last August, nearly brought the home fans to their feet with a 30-meter free kick that hit the woodwork and Azerbaijan goalkeeper Kamran Aghayev before going out for a corner.

Morimoto only lasted 37 minutes and left the field with an injury and was replaced by Ryoichi Maeda, much to the delight of Jubilo Iwata fans among a crowd of 30,276.

Japan’s dominance finally paid off on 42 minutes with a wonderfully worked goal set up by Honda and Makoto Hasebe.

Hasebe collected Honda’s flick to pick out Kagawa with a raking pass, and the 23-year-old bamboozled Maksim Medvedev with a clever piece of skill before burying the ball inside the far post.

Azerbaijan missed a good chance to level two minutes into the second half, Jihan Ozaraka creating space with a surging run and blasting into the side netting before Japan doubled their lead.

Honda got on the end of Kagawa’s cross to head the ball into the danger zone for Okazaki to scramble home.

“I played just like I always do,” Honda said. “Every game I’m in I expect to win, and we did just that so I’m happy. I think I can play a lot better and so can the rest of the team.

“If we play up to our potential, we’re good enough to win all three games.”

The crowd reserved one of the biggest cheers of the night for Miyaichi as he came on for Kagawa shortly after the hour mark, but the 19-year-old was unable to respond with a goal.

“I was a little nervous out there, but I’m thrilled to have set foot on the pitch for the national side,” Miyaichi said. “I expect the qualifiers to be nothing short of difficult.”