SAITAMA – Japan finished top of its 2018 World Cup second-round qualifying group without conceding a single goal after beating closest challenger Syria 5-0 on Tuesday night.
Japan, which had already booked its place in the 12-team final round heading into the game at Saitama Stadium, took the lead in the 17th minute through a slapstick own goal by Syrian defender Hamdi Al Massri.
Shinji Kagawa added another in the 66th minute to make the game safe before late goals from Keisuke Honda, Genki Haraguchi and another Kagawa strike added gloss to the scoreline, and Japan’s defense held firm to complete a perfect defensive record of eight clean sheets.
“It’s a fantastic achievement not to concede a single goal throughout the group, but the team can can get better and we are looking forward to the final round,” said Japan manager Vahid Halilhodzic.
“I think it was a great match, spectacular. We got five goals and I hope everyone is happy. Congratulations to the players.”
Shinji Okazaki became the fifth player to reach 100 international appearances for Japan, but the Leicester City striker — named captain for Tuesday’s game — was unable to add to his tally of 48 goals.
“It was a little reward for him,” Halilhodzic said of awarding Okazaki the captain’s armband. “He always gives his all until the final whistle of every game, and that is great for the Japan national team.”
The draw for the final Asian qualifying round will take place on April 12. The 12 teams will be split into two groups, with the top two teams from each booking their place in Russia and the two third-place teams facing each other for the right to take on a North American team in a playoff.
“I’m not totally satisfied with tonight’s performance and we have to talk about what we can do to make sure we perform well in the final qualifying round,” said Japan defender Maya Yoshida. “Competition for places will get tougher from now on.”
Halilhodzic made six changes from the team that beat Afghanistan 5-0 at the same stadium five days previously, with forwards Kagawa, Honda and Takashi Usami all returning to the starting lineup.
Okazaki should have opened the scoring in the eighth minute only to screw his shot wide of the goal, but the visitors gave Japan a helping hand just under 10 minutes later.
Syria goalkeeper Ibrahim Almeh attempted to punch a Kagawa cross clear, but succeeded only in cannoning the ball square into teammate Al Massri’s face and back over his own goal line.
Okazaki and Gotoku Sakai both had chances to double the lead as Japan piled on the pressure, and Almeh denied Kagawa with his legs from close range as the halftime interval approached.
Honda headed a presentable chance over the bar as the second half got underway, before a shocking challenge by Syria’s Khaled Almbayed on Hotaru Yamaguchi in the center circle saw the Japan midfielder leave the pitch on a stretcher.
Both teams then hit the woodwork in the space of a minute, first Honda connecting with a header from Masato Morishige’s cross, before Mahmoud Almawas almost tricked Japan goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa with a long-range bouncing shot.
But Kagawa put the game to bed minutes later, controlling a pass on his chest and swiveling to lash the ball past Almeh for Japan’s second goal.
Honda headed in Japan’s third after a counterattack in the 86th minute, and Kagawa and substitute Haraguchi ran up the scoreline with further goals in injury time.
“Syria hit us with some dangerous counterattacks while we were looking for our second goal, so I was happy to score when I did,” said Kagawa. “Results are everything. Hopefully now we can continue this form into the final round.”