SAITAMA – Japan virtually guaranteed its place in the final round of 2018 World Cup qualifiers with a 5-0 win over Afghanistan on Thursday.
Leicester City striker Shinji Okazaki celebrated his 99th international appearance by opening the scoring in the 43rd minute at Saitama Stadium, before second-half goals from Hiroshi Kiyotake, a Sharif Mohammad own goal, Maya Yoshida and Mu Kanazaki put Japan home and dry.
Japan next faces second-place Syria — trailing Japan by only a point at the start of the day — in its final Group E game in Saitama on Tuesday, but may not have to wait until then to confirm its place in the final qualifying round.
A loss for Syria against Cambodia later on Thursday would send Japan through, although other results around the continent could also guarantee Japan at least one of the final-round places reserved for the four best second-place teams from the eight groups.
“The team played very well today, and now we have to prepare for the Syria game,” said Japan manager Vahid Halilhodzic. “We will be looking to win that game too.”
Japan made heavy work of the first half against a team it beat 6-0 in the away fixture, but Okazaki’s goal opened the floodgates in front of 48,967 expectant home fans.
“We had some difficult moments in the first half, so my goal came at an important time,” said Okazaki. “We were very aggressive today, and now we want to go on and win the next game and qualify for the next round.”
Japan began the game with Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa both on the bench, with Kanazaki partnering with Okazaki in a two-man attack and Kiyotake tucked in behind them.
Hertha Berlin winger Genki Haraguchi rattled the crossbar in the 12th minute as Japan seized the early initiative, before Afghanistan goalkeeper Ovays Azizi denied Kanazaki from point-blank range just over 10 minutes later.
Japan was struggling to find any cutting edge against the well-drilled Afghans, and a Kanazaki shot that deflected off a defender and up over the bar in the 35th minute was one of the few first-half chances the home side managed to create.
But Okazaki made sure Japan would go into halftime with a 1-0 lead, spinning to control a precise through-pass from Makoto Hasebe before touching the ball past a defender then dispatching it past Azizi.
Kiyotake made it two just over 10 minutes after the restart, with Hasebe again the provider. The captain played the ball through to Kanazaki, who chipped it up for Kiyotake to fumble over the line after miskicking his shot.
“The first half was difficult, but we got more space in the second half and managed to play some good stuff,” said Kiyotake.
Hiroki Sakai then forced an own goal with a deflected near-post shot in the 63rd minute, before Yoshida headed in Kiyotake’s 74th-minute corner to make it four.
Kanazaki wrapped up the scoring in the 78th minute, barely scrambling the ball over the goal line.
“Finally one went in,” said Kanazaki. “I’m glad it did. All I was thinking about today was scoring.”