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Japan took a giant step toward next year’s World Cup finals with 1-0 win over Bahrain in an Asian zone Group B qualifier in Manama on Friday.

News photoJapan midfielder Mitsuo Ogasawara scores against Bahrain during an Asian zone Group B qualifier in Manama.

Midfielder Mitsuo Ogasawara scored the winner with a clinical finish in the 34th minute in sweltering conditions at Bahrain National Stadium to put Japan within a point of securing a place in Germany.

The result kept the Asian champion in second place in the group with nine points from four games, one behind leader Iran, which beat North Korea 1-0 thanks to Rahman Rezaei’s headed winner in first-half injury time.

Bahrain has four points and 2002 World Cup cohost Japan, having beaten Bahrain twice, now only needs a draw against winless North Korea next Wednesday to automatically advance to the finals.

Goal-shy Japan was looking to rebound from a pair of defeats in build-up friendlies against Peru in the Kirin Cup, but its preparations were disrupted through injuries to key players.

German-based striker Naohiro Takahara failed to recover from a hamstring injury sustained in the Bundesliga on the final day of the season and Feyenoord star Shinji Ono broke a bone in his foot in training on Wednesday.

Ono’s injury forced under-fire coach Zico to shuffle his starting lineup and give Ogasawara an attacking role behind lone striker Atsushi Yanagisawa.

And the pint sized Kashima Antlers midfielder duly responded by firing home what turned out to be the decider.

Impressive Hidetoshi Nakata fed Shunsuke Nakamura and the Reggina playmaker laid the ball off with a neat flick for Ogasawara to smash home a low drive past Ali Hasan from 20 meters.

“We could have settled for a draw but we played intelligently and were careful about how we handled the ball at the back. We showed today that we play to win,” said Zico. “We have taken the three points and now we only need a draw from our next two games to qualify.”

Bahrain had rarely troubled Japan’s defense but nearly drew level in the dying seconds of the first half.

Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi fumbled a shot from Talal Yusuf but the Jubilo Iwata goalkeeper’s blushes were spared when the ball came back off the post.

Bahrain won a succession of free-kicks as they pushed for an equalizer after the break, but was unable to breach a well-organized Japan defense.

“This victory is a team effort. From the players on the bench and of course the players that were out on the pitch tonight,” said goal hero Ogasawara. “But it’s not over yet. We have another crucial game coming up and everyone must be totally focused.”

Bahrain’s German manager Wolfgang Sidka said Japan’s superior fitness had played a crucial part in their victory.

“We had a great chance to score with a shot that hit the post just before halftime and put them under pressure in the second half,” he said. “We switched to three strikers but still couldn’t score. Japan looked a lot fitter and our players looked exhausted.”

Japan takes on North Korea in a politically-charged match that FIFA ordered to be played behind closed doors in Bangkok as punishment for crowd troubled that marred their 2-1 defeat to Iran in Pyongyang in March.

Zico will be without the services of Serie A duo Nakata and Nakamura and Brazilian-born winger Alessandro Santos, who were all booked and will be suspended due to an accumulation of yellow cards.

The top two teams from each group automatically qualify for the finals.

Four teams from the eight-team competition advance directly to the World Cup finals.

The two third-place teams will meet each other in a playoff with the winner to meet a CONCACAF confederation team in another playoff for a ticket to Germany.

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