MUSCAT, OMAN – Japan swept past Syria 3-0 in neutral Oman on Thursday to seize top spot in second-round Group E in Asian qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Keisuke Honda converted from the penalty spot in the 55th minute to give Japan the lead and Shinji Okazaki smashed home from close range before substitute Takashi Usami sealed the former Asian champions’ third win in succession in the late stages.
The result puts Vahid Halilhodzic’s men top of the group with 10 points from four games, one ahead of Syria, who were ordered to play the game in Oman due to the political situation at home.
“We came here in search of a win,” said Halilhodzic. “We weren’t that good in the first half but made adjustments at the break and improved in the second period.”
“All credit to the players. It was a beautiful win and a collective effort.”
Clear-cut opportunities were few and far between in the first half in punishing heat at Seeb Sports Complex but Genki Haraguchi, Okazaki and Honda all had half-chances.
Haraguchi made space for himself but shot just wide from the edge of the box on five minutes and Okazaki saw an effort go wide of the left post on 25 minutes.
Honda then drove a loose ball off target after Haraguchi’s shot had come off Omar Kharbin, but Halilhodzic’s side breathed a collective sigh of relief in the 41st minute as Kharbin scuffed wide from close range after a headed flick on from Abdulrazak Al Husein.
Japan finally made the breakthrough when Honda calmly slotted home his third goal in as many games after Okazaki had been bundled over in the box by Ahmad Alsaleh chasing down a long ball from Makoto Hasebe.
Okazaki, on target twice in a 6-0 demolition of Afghanistan last month, nearly made it 2-0 when he was foiled from close range by Syria goalkeeper Ibrahim Almeh.
But the Leicester City striker got his name on the scoresheet on 70 minutes, drilling home a pass that Shinji Kagawa had put through the legs of Alsaleh after cutting in from the left side of the penalty area.
Syria nearly pulled a goal back with a free kick in the 84th minute but Japan goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa did well to turn it against the post and Usami put the game out of reach when he swept home a flick from Honda in the 88th minute.
Japan play a friendly away to Iran on Tuesday and face Singapore away their next World Cup qualifier on Nov. 12.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.