DOHA – Shinji Okazaki struck in the nick of time as Group B winner Japan wrapped up its World Cup qualifying campaign with a 1-0 victory over Iraq on Tuesday.
Japan, which qualified for Brazil last week with a 1-1 home draw to Australia, finished the final qualifiers with 17 points from the eight games with a goal difference of 11.
Iraq was eliminated from qualifying with the defeat, as Japan exacted revenge for a last-gasp draw to the Gulf nation 20 years ago that denied it its first ticket to the World Cup finals.
Iraq’s last match is next week, away to Australia, which beat Jordan 4-0 at home to climb into second on Tuesday.
“It’s been a while since we’d won so I told the players to finish off with a victory,” said Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni, whose side had suffered back-to-back defeats to Jordan and Bulgaria before the Australia game. “The heat and wind made things difficult but we did well enough to win tonight. I think we showed we have been a force to be reckoned with in this group.
“We wanted to go to the Confederations Cup with a win in hand because it does make a difference. What I always ask of Okazaki is to run and run toward the goal, and that’s exactly what he did.”
The Asian champions were set to depart for Brazil early Wednesday morning to take part in the Confederations Cup. Japan faces the hosts in the opening match in Brasilia on Saturday.
Iraq, which was in need of three points to keep its World Cup hopes alive, turned in a strong performance against a much-changed Japanese team to the one that drew with the Socceroos.
“It amazes me when I look at the table and see Iraq last in our group because they have so many talented players. The table sometimes does lie,” Zaccheroni said.
Iraq was caught out with one minute remaining, as Okazaki led a break straight down the middle of the park before playing a one-two with Yasuhito Endo, who passed up a shot to unselfishly set up the Stuttgart striker.
“Obviously we really wanted to win,” said Okazaki. “It was a great ball from Yatto-san (Endo). It was tough to make even one run in these conditions but I knew the ball would be coming back to me.”
Qatar out, Danes on brink
Qatar, the 2022 World Cup host, was eliminated in qualifying for next year’s tournament on Tuesday night and Denmark put itself in nearly as dismal a position.
Iran’s 4-0 win at home over Lebanon ensured that Qatar can finish no higher than fourth place in the final round of Asia qualifying. The top two nations in each of the two groups advance to next year’s 32-nation field in Brazil, and the third-place teams meet in a playoff for Asia’s final berth.
Denmark won the 1992 European Championship and has qualified for three of the last four World Cups, but lost 4-0 at home to Armenia.
“This is the worst evening in my football life,” Denmark coach Morten Olsen said. “It is beyond my understanding that we cannot do better, but it is my fault 100 percent.”
With the start of the World Cup a year and a day away, South American leader Argentina was held to its third straight draw, 1-1 at third-place Ecuador. Second-place Colombia beat visiting Peru 2-0, Uruguay beat Venezuela 1-0, and Chile defeated Bolivia 3-1.