PHNOM PENH – Japan ended its 2015 season with a 2-0 win over Cambodia in a World Cup second-round qualifier on Tuesday that saw it retain the Group E lead.
Keisuke Honda came off the bench in the second half to net in his fifth successive game for Vahid Halilhodzic’s men, who went ahead shortly after the intermission thanks to a Cambodia own goal.
Finishing a tumultuous year which began with Japan being eliminated in the Asian Cup quarterfinals and the controversial sacking of coach Javier Aguirre, the Blue Samurai improved to 16 points from six games, one point ahead of Syria which defeated Singapore 2-1 away in stoppage time.
Japan will wrap up the second qualifying round in March with a pair of home games against Afghanistan and Syria. The eight group winners alongside the top four second-place teams advance to the Asian final qualifiers.
“Things didn’t go very smoothly for us in the first half but we persevered and fought through, and that led to a better second half,” said Shinji Okazaki, who wore the armband for his first time in place of Makoto Hasebe, one of eight changes Halillhodzic made to the team that defeated Singapore 3-0 on Thursday.
“It would have been nice if I could have scored but the most important thing is the team won,” he added.
The opening half was a familiar story for Japan, which saw far more time on the ball but had nothing to show in the heat and hugging humidity.
Okazaki had his usual helping of half-chances that he couldn’t put away, and the visitors had their best opportunity of the half seconds away from the break when Hiroki Fujiharu hit the left-hand post after being sent through by Shinji Kagawa.
With a crowd appearing to exceed the capacity of 55,000 at Olympic Stadium, Cambodia kept Japan on its toes with a few counterattacks spearheaded by Khuon Laboravy and Keo Sokpheng.
Kagawa won a penalty in the first minute of the second half but Okazaki failed to convert, hitting square into the palms of Um Sereirath who was impressive in goal on this night.
Japan finally caught a break in the 51st minute as halftime substitute Yosuke Kashiwagi’s free kick led to a Cambodian own goal off the head of Khuon.
But the four-time Asian champions could not add to their tally, allowing the hosts to stay in the game. It wasn’t until Honda, who came on in the 62nd minute, headed in a Fujiharu cross from the left in the 90th minute that Japan could relax, keeping its place at the top of the table.
Japan kept a clean sheet for the sixth straight game in World Cup qualifying, a first by the nation.
“Next year will be a much tougher proposition for us so we’re going to have to do a lot better than we did tonight if we want to get through,” Okazaki said.