BANGKOK – Japan got its World Cup qualifying final-round campaign up and running by beating Thailand 2-0 in Bangkok on Tuesday night for its first win in Asian zone Group B.
Genki Haraguchi opened the scoring in the 18th minute at a packed but rain-soaked Rajamangala Stadium, before Takuma Asano bagged the second with 15 minutes left in a victory that was far more comfortable than the final scoreline would suggest.
“This game was very difficult psychologically,” said Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic. “After our first match we were under so much pressure and we had to get out from under that.
“It’s positive to get the win, but we created this many chances and we should have scored more. We have to toughen up mentally, we are not going to get this many chances in other games.”
Japan has three points from two games in Group B, three behind Saudi Arabia, which came from behind to beat Iraq 2-1 in neutral Malaysia thanks to two late penalties from Nawaf Al Abid. Veteran striker Tim Cahill hit the lone goal as Australia made it a maximum six points with a 1-0 win away to the United Arab Emirates. Thailand has zero points.
Japan was stunned 2-1 by the UAE in its opener last week in Saitama, and Thailand was edged out 1-0 by Saudi Arabia in Riyadh, with both matches being marred by dubious officiating.
Halilhodzic made three changes to the lineup that started against the UAE, with Asano, who had a legitimate goal controversially ruled out in Thursday’s defeat, Hotaru Yamaguchi and Haraguchi all getting the nod.
Haraguchi had Japan’s first chance after eight minutes, his shot getting charged down by the Thai defense following a short corner routine with Shinji Kagawa.
The Thai defense got another scare moments later, but Tanaboon Kesarat came to the rescue to clear Keisuke Honda’s goal-bound header following Kagawa’s free kick.
Japan continued to dominate and Thailand goalkeeper Kawin Thamsatchanan managed to keep out Maya Yoshida’s header before the visitors eventually took the lead when Haraguchi got on the end of Hiroki Sakai’s cross to head home.
“I’m relieved. We lost the first game and were playing just focusing on three points,” said Haraguchi.
“I made sure I positioned myself behind the striker when crosses came in from other sides. I was on the receiving end of good balls,” added the Hertha Berlin striker. “We have to get stronger and win the remaining eight games. We now return to our teams, but I’ll practice to have a good game (in the next qualifier).”
Japan should have extended the lead in the 24th minute, when Honda took a swing but somehow failed to connect with Asano’s pass from point-blank range.
Thamsatchanan kept Thailand in the game with two more good stops from Honda before the break, and also denied Kagawa midway through the second half.
Thailand’s first real opportunity came in the 70th minute, but underworked Japan goalkeeper Shusaku Nishkawa raced out to save from substitute Sirod Chatthong.
But Asano put Japan out of reach when he got a touch ahead of Tanaboon and raced to steer home the clincher.
“I’m pleased to be able to play in this amazing atmosphere away. I could have scored a goal much earlier that would have clinched the tie, so that’s something I have to work on,” said Asano, who recently joined German second-tier outfit Stuttgart on loan from English Premier League powerhouse Arsenal.
Honda was pleased that Japan came through the game unscathed but admitted there are still adjustments that need to be made.
“It was important to win first and foremost and we achieved that minimum target,” said the AC Milan attacker.
“There were things that went as planned (on attacks from the side), the first goal came from those, too. It did go as planned, but there were also some plays we have to reflect on and make some corrections.
“Today’s game was better than the last one as we improved in terms of realizing when we had to control the game, not rushing forward, but we all have to grow as a whole and start reading (the flow of) the game.
“There’ll be some time before the next game so I want to prepare well, and improve my condition.”
Japan plays Iraq in its next qualifier at home on Oct. 6 before taking on Australia away five days later.