SAITAMA – Japan shook off the late withdrawal of injured Manchester United star Shinji Kagawa to beat Iraq 1-0 and move to the brink of qualification for the 2014 World Cup on Tuesday.
Japan went into the match at Saitama Stadium having taken seven points from its opening three games of the five-team final qualifying round, but a lower back problem suffered by attacking midfielder Kagawa in Monday’s training session deprived the home side of one of its most potent weapons.
A headed goal from Ryoichi Maeda midway through the first half was enough to make the difference against a lively Iraq team that created several scoring chances, however, putting Alberto Zaccheroni’s side within touching distance of a fifth consecutive World Cup appearance.
“First and foremost, it is very important that we were able to take all three points,” said Zaccheroni. “It was a tough game and we wanted to get a second goal. We weren’t able to do that but we fought hard to protect our lead until the end.
“We want to get our ticket to Brazil as soon as possible, and now we have to start thinking about the next game.”
Iraq, coached by former Japan manager Zico, showed an attacking ambition that gave the home side arguably its sternest test of the qualifying campaign so far, and captain Makoto Hasebe was pleased to see his team come through unscathed.
“This was a big win for us,” said Hasebe. “They had a lot of chances but we were able to keep our concentration and see it out to the final whistle. Next we have some tough away games, and we will need the support of our fans to get through them.”
Hiroshi Kiyotake took Kagawa’s place on the left of an attacking trio alongside Keisuke Honda and Shinji Okazaki behind lone striker Maeda, with Yuichi Komano and Masahiko Inoha replacing the suspended Atsuto Uchida and Yasuyuki Konno in defense.
Japan almost got off to the worst-possible start, with Ahmed Ibrahim drawing a point-blank reaction save out of goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima after getting his head to a corner in the second minute.
Kiyotake went close with a header at the other end 10 minutes later, before Hammadi Ahmed spurned a glorious opportunity to put Iraq ahead when he fluffed his lines at the back post.
But Maeda gave Japan the foothold it needed after a tense opening when he broke the deadlock in the 25th minute. Komano found Okazaki with a quick throw-in, and the Stuttgart forward delivered the perfect cross for Maeda to head home from close range.
Kawashima denied Iraq a way back into the match before halftime with a good diving save from Ahmed Yaseen, and the home side had even more to think about when 2007 Asian Cup MVP Younis Mahmoud came off the bench in the 63rd minute.
Honda headed a Yuto Nagatomo cross over the bar as Japan went in search of a second goal, and the CSKA Moscow player was again denied when goalkeeper Noor Sabri touched another header against the post in the 80th minute.
Iraq regrouped for one last push before the final whistle, but in the end it was Japan celebrating another win as a place in Brazil moved one step closer.
“We knew that if we played our game then we would do well,” said Zaccheroni. “We did our job tonight.”