Substitute Hotaru Yamaguchi volleyed in an injury-time winner to jolt Japan’s bid to reach a sixth straight World Cup into life with a 2-1 victory over Iraq on Thursday.

Japan went into the game at Saitama Stadium having started the final round of Asian qualifiers for Russia 2018 with one defeat and one win, but the home side looked to be heading toward a disappointing draw when Iraq’s Saad Abdul-Amir canceled out Genki Haraguchi’s first-half goal with an equalizer in the 60th minute.

But Yamaguchi pulled the iron out of the fire when he fired home a loose ball from a corner in the 95th minute, giving Japan its first home win of the campaign in the most dramatic of circumstances.

“I came on during the game and I was thinking all the time about how I had to do something,” said Yamaguchi, who was celebrating his 26th birthday. “I’m just relieved that I could get us the result.

“I’ve missed a lot of shots like that before, so I’m relieved this one went in.”

Japan now travels to Melbourne to face Australia on Tuesday, with the World Cup qualification picture suddenly looking a lot brighter for manager Vahid Halilhodzic.

“It was a dramatic win but one that we deserved, so I have to congratulate the players,” said Halilhodzic. “The fans really helped us to get the win and I was confident that the players were capable of scoring before the end. It’s an extremely important win.

“We had lots of chances to score a second goal that we didn’t take, but what’s important is that we got the win. Hopefully we can use this and keep it going.”

Halilhodzic started with forward Shinji Kagawa on the bench and brought in Yosuke Kashiwagi to give Makoto Hasebe his third midfield partner in as many games.

Iraq had lost its opening two games against Australia and Saudi Arabia, but the visitors threatened straight from the kickoff and Abdul-Amir hit the post with a header as early as the third minute.

Japan took the wind out of Iraq’s sails with the opening goal in the 26th minute. Hiroshi Kiyotake charged through midfield before exchanging passes with Keisuke Honda, then squared the ball for Haraguchi to finish with a brilliantly improvised flick through the goalkeeper’s legs.

Honda almost followed up with another immediately after as Japan took control, but Iraq came close to equalizing with practically the last kick of the first half when Alaa Abdul-Zahra hit a volley that goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa managed to claw away.

Iraq then stunned Japan with the equalizer on the hour mark. Ahmed Yasin played in a free kick from the left, and Abdul-Amir rose above the Japanese defense to connect with a header that crept past Nishikawa and inside the post.

Kiyotake went agonizingly close with a free kick as Japan desperately sought to regain the lead, before Halilhodzic brought on striker Takuma Asano for Shinji Okazaki in the 75th minute.

Honda hit the post with a header as the game moved into the final 10 minutes, but Asano failed to convert a clutch of late chances before Yamaguchi delivered with his dramatic late intervention.

“I’m relieved that we won,” said Sevilla forward Kiyotake. “Just like in the previous home game, we scored first and then conceded. It looked pretty bad but Hotaru bailed us out in the end and I’m very relieved.

“I still have to do more. The final round of qualifiers is very difficult and personally I need to improve. The next game is very important and we need to prepare well for it.”

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