Substitute Toshiya Fujita struck a late winner to take the heat off coach Zico as Japan won 2-1 against Singapore in a 2006 World Cup Asian zone qualifier on Wednesday evening.

News photoNaohiro Takahara fends off a charge to score Japan’s first goal in Wednesday’s 2006 World Cup qualifier in Singapore. Japan won 2-1.

German-based striker Naohiro Takahara fired Japan in front after 34 minutes in stamina-sapping conditions at the 6,000-seat Jalan Besar Stadium, before Indra Daud grabbed a shock equalizer for the host midway through the second half.

But Fujita spared Japan embarrassment, and made it two wins out of two in Group 3, by slamming home the decisive goal with eight minutes left.

Japan went three points clear after India, which beat Singapore in its first match, was hammered 5-1 at home to Oman. India and Oman have three points, with winless Singapore last.

“We had so many chances in the first half and it would have made it so much easier for us if we could have taken them,” Zico said after the match.

“Of course we expect the (World Cup) qualifiers to be tough, but they will be even tougher if we don’t start to sharpen up in front of goal,” he warned.

Star midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata, one of three European-based players who only arrived in Singapore on Tuesday, was equally critical of his side’s lack of composure in front of goal.

“We were awful, really. Sure, we got three points but as in the last match (against Oman) we put ourselves into scoring positions but couldn’t finish,” he said.

Zico, who has come under fire after a string of disjointed performances by the 2002 World Cup cohost, made two changes to the team that scraped out a lucky 1-0 win over Oman in their group opener in February.

Defender Akira Kaji came in for Nobuhisa Yamada, one of eight players axed by the Brazilian for going on a drinking binge during a training camp, while Feyenoord midfielder Shinji Ono returned after missing the Oman match due to injury.

Cheered on by a huge number of traveling fans, Japan started brightly and almost took the lead after two minutes when Ono fired a low shot just wide of the post and misdirected a free header soon after.

Italian-based striker Atsushi Yanagisawa and Takahara were guilty of squandering a number of decent chances before the latter broke the deadlock when his shot from just outside the box took a deflection off Aide Iksandar and flew into the bottom left-hand corner.

Singapore rarely threatened and Japan goalkeeper Seigo Narazaki had little trouble in dealing with efforts from Daud and Ridhuan Muhamad late in the first period.

But the host came out with renewed vigor after the interval and drew level when Daud picked up a long goal kick and turned inside his marker to beat Narazaki with a clinical finish.

Fujita saw an effort go agonizingly wide on 70 minutes, but got it right the second time when he blasted into the roof of the net after Singapore ‘keeper Hassan Sunny had failed to deal with a corner.

Japan hosts India in its next match on June 9 before playing the return leg Sept. 8.

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