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Okazaki’s heroics push Japan closer to World Cup berth

by Gus Fielding

Kyodo

Shinji Okazaki struck a last-gasp winner as Japan moved onto the brink of 2014 World Cup qualification with a 2-1 victory away to Oman on Wednesday.

Hiroshi Kiyotake’s maiden strike for the national team midway through the first half looked to have done enough to give Japan all three points but the Omanis hit back 13 minutes from time through Ahmed Mubarak’s free kick.

Oman had been undefeated at home in the final round but their resistance was finally broken as Okazaki struck in the dying stages to move the Asian champions eight points clear at the top of Group B.

Japan resumes its qualifying campaign away to Jordan on March 26, when Oman are away to Australia.

“I’m glad I was able to score because I didn’t do much else all game,” Okazaki said. “We persevered and found a way to win in the end. We weren’t in control today so I hope we can dominate to beat Jordan next time.”

Japan, a 3-0 winner over Oman at home in June, was missing Manchester United midfielder Shinji Kagawa (knee) and Schalke defender Atsuto Uchida (thigh) and the team’s injury problems deepened when Yuichi Komano failed to pass a late fitness test after hurting his back in training on Sunday.

Hiroki Sakai replaced Komano at right-back but the Hannover man looked nervous in the early stages, and Oman squandered a glorious chance to take the lead when Fouzi Bashir fired Ismail Al Ajmi’s cross over the bar after 10 minutes.

Okazaki provided Japan’s main attacking threat early on but was thwarted twice by Oman goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi before Japan took the lead on 20 minutes.

Yuto Nagatomo did well to cross into the danger zone as the ball came off Omani defender Abdul Al Mukhaini and fell for Kiyotake to drill home from close range.

The goal allowed Japan to settle but the visitors were given a fright nine minutes before the break as Al Ajmi headed against the left post before Nagatomo cleared the ball out to safety.

Eiji Kawashima was given another test on 51 minutes when Mubarak let fly from distance to bring a smart save out of the Belgium-based keeper.

Kiyotake twice tested Al Habsi as Japan looked to double their lead and Sakai also went close before Oman leveled, but Okazaki netted in the 89th minute to silence the home crowd.

“Our goal was to win three points here, and I’m happy we accomplished what we set out to achieve,” Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni said. “Because of the climate, we couldn’t play the way we’re capable of playing. Oman showed a lot of heart but I’m proud of my team for not giving in.”