AL AIN, United Arab Emirates – Yuya Kubo opened his national team account and Yasuyuki Konno marked his return from the international wilderness with a goal as Japan beat United Arab Emirates 2-0 away in a final-round World Cup qualifier on Thursday night.
In only his third international appearance, Belgian-based forward Kubo opened the scoring with a sweetly taken strike on 13 minutes, and then set up veteran Gamba Osaka midfielder Konno early in the second half to help Japan avenge their shock 2-1 defeat at home to the Emiratis in September.
The result keeps Japan, which hosts Thailand at Saitama on Tuesday, even with Group B leaders Saudi Arabia on 13 points, three ahead of Australia and four ahead of UAE.
“It was a great ball from Hiroki (Sakai) and I had a bit more space than I expected. Things turned out pretty well,” Kubo said of his goal. “I didn’t play that well last time so I wanted to actually contribute this time. I like to think I’ve done that.”
“I still have plenty of work to put in. I need to keep doing this.”
Halilhodzic made three changes to the team that started in the 2-1 win over Saudi Arabia in November, with Metz’s reserve keeper Eiji Kawashima coming back in goal in place of Shusaku Nishikawa for his first appearance since last June’s 7-2 win over Bulgaria in the Kirin Cup.
Konno, recalled after a two-year absence, came in to partner Hotaru Yamaguchi in midfield due to the injury-enforced absence of captain Makoto Hasebe. Dortmund’s Shinji Kagawa also got the nod to replace Yamaguchi’s Cerezo Osaka teammate Hiroshi Kiyotake.
Japan made a bright start and Osako fired just wide after a lovely first touch on seven minutes.
But Gent striker Kubo put the Blue Samurai in front, taking a pass from Sakai on the right flank and drilling past UAE goalkeeper Khalid Eisa from a difficult angle.
Japan got a scare when Ali Mabkhout broke through, but Kawashima, who has seen very little playing time at his French club, got his angles right to make a crucial block and deny the striker on 21 minutes.
UAE should have leveled right at the start of the second half, but Ismail Al Hammadi swung at and completely missed his shot after an inviting cross from Abdelaziz Sanqour, a miss that was punished when Konno hit Japan’s second on 51 minutes.
Kubo took a knockdown from Osako and sent the ball into the box from the right, and Konno took it on his chest before coolly slotting past Eisa.
“Genki (Haraguchi) drew the defense away from me after we broke them down the right,” said the 34-year-old Konno, who scored just for the third time in 88 games for Japan. “I was free running in, and Kubo’s pass was right on the money. It’s a miracle.”
“I knew this was going to be a difficult game. I didn’t care who scored as long as we took home three points from here — and we did it.”
Japan could have had a late third but substitute Shinji Okazaki spurned a great chance to score his 50th international goal when he drove wide.
Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic hailed the victory, but was not about to let up just yet ahead of Tuesday’s match against the last-place Thais, who have only one point from six games.
“This is a fantastic win for our team,” Halilhodzic said. “Everyone stuck to the script and controlled the game very well. This is a good thing to happen to us on the way to the World Cup.
“But if we don’t win the Thai game, none of this will mean a thing.”
In other Group B games, the Saudis beat Thailand 3-0 away, Salman Muwashar sealing victory in the 93rd minute, while Australia could only manage a 1-1 draw away to Iraq, Ahmed Yasin canceling out Mathew Leckie’s opener for the Socceroos.