Man-of the-moment Yuya Kubo scored a goal and set up two more as Japan took a step closer to a sixth straight World Cup appearance with a 4-0 drubbing of Thailand on Tuesday.

Gent striker Kubo, who scored his first international goal in his third appearance in Japan’s 2-0 win over the United Arab Emirates last Thursday, set up Shinji Kagawa for Japan’s opener in the eighth minute at Saitama Stadium before crossing for Shinji Okazaki to double the lead 11 minutes later.

The 23-year-old Kubo then notched one himself as Japan took a three-goal lead early in the second half, before Maya Yoshida added a fourth and goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima saved a late penalty to send Japan provisionally top of the qualifying Group B table.

“It’s great to have scored two goals (in the last two games) but the most important thing is that the team won,” said Kubo. “I was able to convert my goal calmly and I’m glad about that. I want to keep contributing to the team and keep winning.”

Japan moved three points ahead of previous group leader Saudi Arabia with the win, although the Saudis, who began the day ahead of Japan on goal difference, were set to face Iraq at home later in the evening. Australia kept up the pressure three points behind Japan with a 2-0 win over the UAE, which dropped four points behind the Australians in fourth place.

The top two teams automatically qualify for next year’s World Cup in Russia, with the third-place team going into a playoff. Japan next faces Iraq in Tehran before playing Australia at home and rounding off the campaign with an away match against the Saudis.

“I want to congratulate the players because we have had two excellent wins,” said Japan manager Vahid Halilhodzic. “We won but it wasn’t an easy game. We had to be pragmatic and effective, and our opponents gave us a lot of problems.

“We scored four great goals and that is important for our goal difference. We still have three games left and we are in a good position to qualify for the World Cup. Thanks to the fans, because they were our 12th man tonight.”

Halilhodzic made two changes to the team that beat the UAE — both injury enforced — replacing midfielder Yasuyuki Konno with Gotoku Sakai and striker Yuya Osako with Okazaki.

The rock-bottom Thais, who went into the match with only one point from the campaign so far, made a surprisingly bright start, but Japan soon took the wind out of their sails with the opening goal. Kubo fizzed a low ball into the box from the right, and Kagawa had the presence of mind to take a touch and open up space for himself before rifling a shot past the goalkeeper.

“The first goal is always important and I’m glad we scored it,” said Kagawa. “We beat the UAE away so we had to win this home game. I’m glad we were able to take that momentum into tonight.”

Japan doubled its lead just over 10 minutes later, with Kubo again the provider. This time it was Okazaki on the end of his cross, heading home at the near post to finally claim his 50th goal in national team colors. Okazaki’s previous goal for Japan came in a 7-2 win over Bulgaria last June.

“I haven’t been able to score at all so for me personally and for the team as a whole, this is a good goal,” said Okazaki. “I’m very happy. A lot of people have helped me achieve this and I want to keep scoring goals for the national team.”

But Japan allowed errors to creep into its game and had Kawashima to thank for preserving its two-goal lead into halftime. Kawashima, who was restored to the starting lineup at the expense of Shusaku Nishikawa against the UAE, kept out Teerasil Dangda in injury time before the Japanese defense somehow managed to scramble the ball to safety.

Kawashima then denied Chanathip Songkrasin as the second half got underway, but Kubo soon nipped the visitors’ fightback in the bud, letting rip from the edge of the box to score a sublime individual goal.

Thailand goalkeeper Kawin Thamsatchanan denied Kubo a second as he saved with his feet in the 80th minute, but Yoshida notched a fourth three minutes later with a power header from a Hiroshi Kiyotake corner.

Thailand then immediately won a penalty at the other end after a Yuto Nagatomo foul, but Kawashima dived to his right to keep out Dangda’s kick and preserve Japan’s clean sheet.

“Nothing has been decided yet,” said Okazaki. “We want to take each game as it comes and keep winning.”

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