SAITAMA — Shunsuke Nakamura hauled Japan to within touching distance of a fourth successive World Cup with a trademark free kick to give his side a 1-0 win over Bahrain on Saturday.

Nakamura’s 47th-minute goal brought Japan to life after a flat first half in front of 57,276 at Saitama Stadium, and sent Takeshi Okada’s team to the top of the Group A standings on 11 points with previous leader Australia not in action.

The top two teams qualify automatically for South Africa, and Japan has now opened up a gap of seven points between Bahrain, which began the match tied for third with Qatar.

Qatar had the chance to cut that lead, against bottom-of-the-group Uzbekistan later on Saturday night, but with only three games remaining the omens are looking good for Okada’s men.

The manager refused to look too far into the future, but acknowledged his team is steadily moving closer to its goal.

“It was a tough game but the players showed a strong desire to win and they did a great job,” Okada said.

“It was a massive three points for us today, but we haven’t got anything to show for it just yet. We have Uzbekistan next, and we’ll just do our best to get ready for that match.”

Nakamura also feels Japan’s momentum is building.

“We wanted nothing less than three points, and we’re pleased to have achieved that,” the Celtic playmaker said. “My free kick might have clipped the wall, but a goal is a goal. We can still go through in second place, but we want to go through in first.”

Okada made two changes from the team that drew 0-0 with Australia last month, with goalkeeper Seigo Narazaki replacing Ryota Tsuzuki and Yoshito Okubo coming in for Daisuke Matsui on the left wing.

Tatsuya Tanaka got the first sight of goal as he hit an angled shot into the side-netting in the fourth minute, before Bahrain’s Abdulla Fatadi rifled a shot past Narazaki’s post 10 minutes later.

Yuji Nakazawa saw a header cleared off the line by Mohamed Hubail, but if picking a way through the visitors’ massed ranks was difficult in itself, taking advantage of scoring opportunities was another matter entirely.

Japan’s poor finishing was again to the fore in a careless first half, and it took a dead-ball situation to finally make the breakthrough minutes after the restart.

Nakamura’s curling free kick took a deflection off the Bahrain wall as it arced toward the top corner, and goalkeeper Sayed Jaffer could do nothing to keep it from finding its target.

Nakamura steadily began to exert more influence as he assumed control of the midfield, and a clever pass to Tamada ignited a fast break that ended with Uchida thumping the ball off the crossbar.

Japan was unable to add to its tally, but Bahrain manager Milan Macala nonetheless believes Okada’s side has done enough to seal qualification.

“Maybe this is the moment that Japan qualified,” he said. “I think it is a big step with 11 points, and I think Japan will play at the World Cup in South Africa.

“I think the most important moment was that the goal came at the start of the second half. I can’t say anything wrong, but it is a difference between the quality in the league here and the quality of the league in the Gulf.”

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