SAITAMA – Japan wrapped up its 2006 World Cup qualifying first-round campaign with a 100 percent record after a 1-0 win over Singapore in Asian zone Group 3 on Wednesday night.
Keiji Tamada struck the decisive goal in the 13th minute on a chilly night at Saitama Stadium 2002 as the Asian champions, already through to next year’s final round of qualifiers, finished top of the group with a maximum 18 points from six games.
Having booked a place in the final round after last month’s 1-0 win away to Oman, the match against Singapore had been rendered mostly meaningless and Japan coach Zico wanted to call up several ex-internationals as a way of thanking them for their contributions to the national team.
But his plan was met with stiff opposition from representatives of J. League clubs and some of the fringe players and in the absence of Hidetoshi Nakata and his other European-based stars, the Brazilian decided to field a second-string side and reverted to a 4-4-2 formation.
As expected, Japan dominated proceedings from the outset and Masashi Motoyama spurned a golden chance to open the scoring with the goal at his mercy in the 12th minute.
But the Kashima Antlers man quickly made amends when he threaded a ball through for Tamada to prod inside the far post for his fifth international goal in 17 appearances.
With the exception of a Naoki Matsuda header that was well-saved by Lionel Lewis in the 20th minute, Japan rarely looked like adding to its tally in a largely uneventful first half.
It was much the same story after the break and despite the introduction of Spain-bound striker Yoshito Okubo and Kashima forward Takayuki Suzuki, the closest the home side came to extending its lead was when Atsuhiro Miura hit the post with a free kick late on.
Singapore went close to snatching a shock equalizer in the dying seconds but Japan ‘keeper Yoichi Doi did brilliantly to turn a shot from Itimi Dickson around the post.
“We played quite well and enjoyed the bulk of possession early in the game but we were unable to open up the Singapore defense for a second goal. All in all, it turned to be a tough match,” Zico said.
Only the winners from each of the eight Asian groups advance to the final qualifying round. Eight teams will be divided into two groups of four teams.
The competition will be conducted on a league basis with teams playing each of their group rivals twice on a home-and-away basis. The draw for the final round will be held in Kuala Lumpur on Dec. 9.
The top two teams in each group will advance directly to the World Cup finals, while the two third-placed teams will meet each other in a playoff.
The winner of that playoff will then meet a CONCACAF confederation team in another playoff for a ticket to Germany.
Japan plays its final game of 2004 at home to Germany at International Stadium Yokohama on Dec. 16.
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