SAITAMA – Japan made a comfortable start to the final round of qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup with a 3-0 win over Oman on Sunday night.
Keisuke Honda settled Japan’s nerves in front of 63,551 at Saitama Stadium with an exquisite left-footed volley in the 11th minute, before goals from Ryoichi Maeda and Shinji Okazaki early in the second half made the game safe for the reigning Asian champions.
Japan plays Jordan in the same stadium next Friday before traveling to face Australia in Brisbane on June 12, and with two teams qualifying automatically from a group that also includes Iraq, manager Alberto Zaccheroni was understandably pleased at securing three early points.
“The players were all very aware of the importance of winning the first match,” said the Italian. “We wanted to take the initiative, and we knew that to break them down it would be up to us to find a way through.
“At the end of the game we were taking some risks and being aggressive. We created a lot of chances and stayed very solid in defense. I’m very satisfied at how well we played as a team tonight.”
Oman’s intention to defend in numbers and try to sneak a goal was clear from the outset, but the result never looked in doubt once Honda had broken the deadlock.
“We scored the opening goal at a good time, and again at the start of the second half,” said captain Makoto Hasebe. “The opposition didn’t really create any chances at all, and we kept looking for more goals. Now we have to recover properly and get ready for the next game.”
Maya Yoshida had two chances to put Japan ahead within the first five minutes, but when the opening goal did arrive it was one of real quality. Yuto Nagatomo escaped into space down the left wing before putting a cross into the area, and Honda met it with a perfectly executed volley that flew past goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi.
Shinji Kagawa had the ball in the net soon after only to be flagged for offside, and Okazaki missed a gilt-edged chance to double Japan’s tally when he headed a Nagatomo cross wide in the 31st minute.
Kagawa set up Nagatomo for a shot that deflected wide off a defender, and Okazaki had another header saved as Japan went in search of a second goal to take into the halftime break.
Although it never arrived, the home side would not have to wait long after the restart before the ball was back in the opposition net. Kagawa picked out Maeda with a curling ball into the box in the 51st minute, and the Jubilo Iwata striker recovered from a heavy first touch to squeeze the ball inside the post past Al Habsi.
Three minutes later, Japan had a third. The ball fell for Okazaki after Al Habsi had parried a shot from Maeda, and the Stuttgart forward bundled the ball home after the goalkeeper had kept out his initial effort.
Oman began to come out of its shell as the second half progressed, but a Honda drive that flashed just wide 10 minutes from time showed that the threat of more Japanese goals was ever present.
Al Habsi was on hand to make sure that did not happen, however, denying substitute Hiroshi Kiyotake with a stunning reaction save in the dying minutes.
“Of course we are disappointed, but we have to recognize that Japan deserved to win the game,” said Oman manager Paul Le Guen. “They were far better than us. We didn’t exist tonight. We have to realize that there is a difference between us and a high-level team like Japan. We have to improve to compete on such a level.”