SAITAMA — Oman! Or should that be: “Oh boy?”

News photoJapan midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura dribbles the ball deep into Oman territory during the first half of the World Cup Asian qualifying match at Saitama Stadium 2002.

A nation with a population of less than three million, represented by a team with an average age of 20, came within seconds of holding Japan to an embarrassing draw at Saitama Stadium on Wednesday night.

In a cruel twist of fate, second-half substitute Tatsuhiko Kubo took advantage of a ricochet off an Oman defender that fell to Shunsuke Nakamura, who in turn laid off to the unmarked Kubo to coolly slot home a left-footed winner in the dying seconds of injury time.

The 1-0 victory earned Japan three points in its Asian Zone Group 3 World Cup qualifier but the manner of its win will recruit the team few new fans. And that is to put it kindly.

“We were lucky but we expected a very hard match from Oman,” Japan’s Brazilian coach Zico told Reuters.

“There are no easy games at this level and Oman put us under enormous pressure in midfield. But the players were mentally very strong and kept battling right to the end.”

Against a side that had been hammered 5-0 by South Korea just last week, Japan was truly awful on the night.

The team lacked penetration, organization and it appeared, concentration. In fact Japan played so poorly that it needed the referee to create its best chance of the first half.

An innocuous challenge on Japan striker Naohiro Takahara by Oman defender Khalifa Ayil inside the box led to a highly dubious penalty awarded by ref Abdul Hamid in the 28th minute. Nakamura stepped up but had his spot-kick well saved by ‘keeper Ali Al Habsi.

Ten minutes later Atsushi Yanagisawa tried the same trick in the box, tumbling dramatically but this time the ref wasn’t impressed.

In the 40th minute, Japan should have broken the deadlock when Junichi Inamoto broke through the midfield, creating time and space to shoot for goal but seemed to have left his radar in England, firing horribly wide.

The home crowd of 60,000, traditionally patient and loyal to the core, vented their dissatisfaction at halftime with a chorus of boos.

Zico, taking no chances for this game, had called in all his European-based stars, but opted to bring on one of his home-based players for the second-half.

Kubo replaced the largely ineffectual Yanagisawa — who must be running thin on international chances — and managed to produce more in his first minute on the field than the man he replaced delivered in the entire first half.

A Nakamura cross from the left was met with the leaping head of Kubo but the ball glanced just wide with Habsi well beaten.

If the fans were expecting this lively start to the second half would lead to a belated Japan revival, they were to be disappointed. Japan’s game deteriorated with every passing minute. Stray passes, mistimed tackles and miscommunication dominated most phases of Japan’s play.

For this captain Hidetoshi Nakata must take a large portion of the blame. This was a game that was begging for him to utilize his vast experience and stamp his authority on it in much the same way as Roy Keane has done for Manchester United over the years.

But time and again, Nakata was found missing in action and wanting with his final pass.

Japan’s best chance — a rarity at that — in the second half fell to Nakamura who, after a neat header back across goal from Kubo, contrived to karate kick the ball over the net from five meters out.

So, when the ball fell kindly to Kubo, with the referee’s whistle ready to blow for the end of the game, and the goal gaping invitingly, many in the crowd expected him to miss.

To the collective relief of those forced to endure this calamity, he didn’t.

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