Okazaki strikes twice as Japan rolls over Latvia

by Gus Fielding

Kyodo

Shinji Okazaki struck twice as Japan made a winning start to 2013 with a comprehensive 3-0 victory over Latvia on Wednesday in a tuneup for next month’s World Cup qualifier away to Jordan.

The Stuttgart striker rattled in off the post to open the scoring late in the first half and sealed victory with a cool finish, seconds after Keisuke Honda had doubled the Asian champions’ lead at Home’s Stadium in Kobe.

Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni fielded a near full-strength side, with 10 of his starting 11 plying their trade in Europe. Gamba Osaka midfielder Yasuhito Endo, Japan’s most-capped player, was kept on the bench and Bayer Leverkusen’s Hajime Hosogai instead got the nod to partner with captain Makoto Hasebe in midfield.

Japan had the better of the early going, but Manchester United dangerman Shinji Kagawa, back in the fold after missing the 2-1 World Cup qualifying win away to Oman in November, blazed the Blue Samurai’s first chance over the bar after being picked out by Hiroshi Kiyotake’s rightwing cross on 19 minutes.

Honda tried his luck but could only direct his 25-meter effort at Latvia goalkeeper Andris Vanins, who then denied Okazaki when he got both hands to the Stuttgart striker’s 32nd-minute header.

But Okazaki was not to be denied a second time and got his foot to Atsuto Uchida’s cross to divert the ball in off the near post four minutes from halftime.

Zaccheroni replaced Hosogai with Endo and also brought on Ryoichi Maeda for Kiyotake for the second half, and Japan’s pressure was further rewarded when Honda doubled the lead, starting and finishing a neat move with Kagawa on the hour mark.

Latvia was still reeling from that blow when Okazaki put Japan out of sight, collecting Kagawa’s pass and slotting home his 31st national team goal.

Okazaki was given thunderous applause with nine minutes left as he made way for VVV Venlo striker Yuki Otsu to make his senior national team debut.

With three games of Asian qualifying remaining, Japan has 13 points in Group B, eight points clear of Australia, which has played a game less, Iraq and Oman.

Zaccheroni’s men can qualify for their fifth World Cup finals in a row with victory in Amman on March 26 over Jordan, who they thrashed 6-0 in June last year.

A draw will be enough to advance to Brazil if Australia draws with Oman.

Japan has one more warmup before that, against Canada in Doha on March 22.