TASHKENT – Japan survived a late onslaught to become the first country to join host South Africa at next year’s World Cup finals after a gritty 1-0 win away to Uzbekistan in an Asian qualifier on Saturday.
Shinji Okazaki’s ninth-minute goal proved enough to ensure 2002 cohost Japan claimed its fourth consecutive berth at the World Cup, sealing qualification with two matches to spare in Group A.
“It was a tough game but the players held their nerve and battled through. We are excited. The challenge begins here,” said Japan coach Takeshi Okada, who was ejected from the bench for apparently protesting Makoto Hasebe’s 89th-minute sendoff.
“I couldn’t believe what a referee we had. I was only giving instructions to the players and he sent me off. It was unbelievable,” added Okada.
Japan claimed one of the two automatic spots from the group after improving its record to 14 points with four wins and two draws from six games.
Uzbekistan started with purpose at Pakhtakor Stadium, but it was Japan that took the lead with its first real raid on goal. Kengo Nakamura picked out Okazaki’s run and the in-form Shimizu S-Pulse striker headed in after Uzbekistan goalkeeper Ignatiy Nesterov had blocked his initial shot.
Yasuhito Endo hit the post with a free kick on 13 minutes and Yoshito Okubo thought he had doubled Japan’s lead when he snapped up the rebound, only to see his effort ruled out for offside.
Alexander Geynri nearly forced an equalizer as Uzbekistan raced up the other end and the Central Asians went on to dominate the rest of the half, but were unable to find a way through as Japan’s defense comfortably dealt with a succession of set pieces.
Hasebe hit the post early in the second period but the home side continued to force the pace and was unfortunate not to be rewarded with an equalizer for the efforts. Server Djeparov saw a free kick deflected centimeters wide 10 minutes from time and Seigo Narazaki had to be alert to push away a dangerous corner from the Uzbekistan captain.
Japan endured a nerve-jangling finish as Hasebe saw red for apparently elbowing Djeparov, Okada was ejected and Narazaki pulled off a wonderful stop to preserve his side’s lead, pushing Islom Tuhtahuja’s shot against the crossbar in the dying seconds.
“I had only been able to score in the (last week’s friendly) Kirin Cup tournament and games like that so I feel like I have really done something for the team,” said Okazaki of his contribution.
“I want to target the World Cup semifinals and raise my game. This isn’t the end, it is just the beginning. I’m just pleased we were able to get through the qualifiers.”
Japan plays Qatar at home on Wednesday and Okada’s side wrap ups the qualifiers away to Australia in Melbourne on June 17.
“These two games will be important for us to keep building,” said Okada, who also guided Japan to its World Cup debut in France in 1998 in his first stint at the helm of the national team.
The top two teams in Groups A and B advance directly to the finals. The two third-placed sides meet in a playoff, with the winner of that two-leg tie to take on Oceania champions New Zealand for a ticket to South Africa.
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