SAITAMA – National team manager Alberto Zaccheroni admits he was thinking about substituting Keisuke Honda shortly before the star forward booked Japan’s ticket to the 2014 World Cup with a 91st-minute penalty in Tuesday’s 1-1 draw with Australia.
Japan became the first team to reach next summer’s tournament in Brazil after picking up the point it needed at Saitama Stadium, with Honda holding his nerve to bury the spot kick after Tommy Oar had given Australia a shock lead with a freak goal in the 82nd minute.
Zaccheroni admitted he had doubts about Honda’s fitness after the 26-year-old joined the squad only a day earlier having played in last Saturday’s Russian Cup final with CSKA Moscow, but the manager was left thanking his better judgment after Honda’s late intervention clinched qualification on home soil for the first time in front of a crowd of 62,172.
“Honda got a little bit tired and I was thinking about who I could bring on for him as a substitute,” said Zaccheroni. “But we decided to keep him on because he is such a threat in the air. Instead we brought on (Yuzo) Kurihara, moved (Yuto) Nagatomo forward and put (Shinji) Kagawa in behind the striker, and that made us much stronger as a team.
“Australia’s goal was a fluke but it still counted. After that we stayed in their half and attacked them constantly, and that is what led to the penalty. It would have been unbelievable if we had lost this game. It wouldn’t have reflected what happened over the 90 minutes.”
A 1-0 win for Oman over Iraq later Tuesday meant Japan would have qualified even without Honda’s equalizer, but Nagatomo praised his teammates for the way they reacted after going a goal down with less than 10 minutes remaining.
“We went into the match determined to get a result, but although we had the better of the play we just couldn’t score,” said the Inter Milan left back. “I don’t think their player was aiming for the goal when he scored, and that was a big setback for us. But no one let their heads drop and we kept pressing forward, and I think that is where we have grown as a team.”
Twenty-one-year-old winger Oar mis-hit a cross that looped beyond Eiji Kawashima’s reach and into the net, giving the goalkeeper fresh nightmares after conceding a soft goal in last Thursday’s 2-0 friendly loss to Bulgaria.
“I tried to change the direction of the ball because I knew that it was going in a good place, but it wasn’t enough and I couldn’t make it,” said Kawashima, who made an excellent save to deny Australia’s Robbie Kruse in the first half. “It’s a pity we lost a goal like that, but in qualification it sometimes happens.
“I am happy and the team is happy. The game was not easy. We gave up an accidental goal but we made it in the end. We could show the supporters that we didn’t give up until the end, and we finally made it.”
Oar’s goal set the scene for an all-out Japan attack that reaped its reward when Matt McKay’s handball gave Honda his penalty chance, but Australia goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer was left ruing his inability to keep a clear head when faced by Japan’s spot-kick specialist.
“I should have known where he was putting it because we did some research on it earlier today,” said Schwarzer. “But in the midst of it all I got confused with the players and unfortunately I went the wrong way.”
Japan now heads to Doha to wrap up its Group B commitments against Iraq on June 11 before flying to Brazil to compete in the Confederations Cup, in a testing first-round group that includes the host nation, Italy and Mexico.
“We have to improve more, especially on the attacking side,” said defender Maya Yoshida. “We need to score more.
“I am 50 percent satisfied and 50 percent not really happy because, honestly, we haven’t been playing well. We have to change something, but this result was very important. Today’s game was the most important for our team since Zaccheroni came in.”
Oman’s win later in the day keeps Australia out of the automatic qualifying spots in third place with a game in hand, but Schwarzer is confident of reaching a third straight World Cup with the Socceroos’ two remaining games both to be played at home.
“If you had said before the game that we would get one point then you would have to be happy with that,” said the Fulham goalkeeper. “Japan are the best side in Asia and obviously they had qualification on their mind and they didn’t want to lose the game.
“The way we played was excellent, and I think it’s the best we’ve performed in a long time.”