Saitama – After five days of uncertainty following a halfhearted defeat in Jeddah, the Samurai Blue had a message for nearly 15,000 fans at Saitama Stadium on Tuesday night: There’s still plenty left to play for.
A dramatic own goal late in the second half gave Japan a 2-1 win over archrival Australia, putting head coach Hajime Moriyasu’s side back into contention for one of Group B’s two automatic World Cup berths after beginning the final group round with two losses from three games.
“We’ve had a lot of tough games where we couldn’t get the result we wanted, but the players are working hard before every game to reach the World Cup and they put out everything they had to get today’s result,” Moriyasu said.
Playing in the team’s traditional home ground for the first time since October 2019, Moriyasu — who according to local media reports was likely to face dismissal with anything less than a win — made three key changes to the lineup that fell to Saudi Arabia on Thursday, with Junya Ito starting on the right flank and Hidemasa Morita and Ao Tanaka slotting in as central attackers.
Their presence immediately paid dividends, with Ito — who was suspended for the Saudi Arabia game — creating headaches for Australia’s defense early and often.
It was Takumi Minamino’s eighth-minute cross that clipped Socceroo defender Aziz Behich and ended up at the feet of a wide-open Tanaka, who coolly slotted the ball past goalkeeper Mat Ryan and inside the far post for his first international goal.
“When Takumi got the ball I put my faith in him and ran for it,” the Fortuna Dusseldorf midfielder said after his first appearance in a World Cup qualifier. “I just focused on stopping the ball and finishing the chance.”
Japan had several opportunities to double its lead in the first half but all came up short, giving the Socceroos a chance to regroup at halftime and press for an equalizer.
It came in the 70th minute, shortly after a Morita penalty was overturned to give Australia a free kick from just outside the box. Ajdin Hrustic curled his attempt over the wall and off the bottom of the crossbar to score, raising the specter of a draw that would have left Japan pessimistic about its chances of finishing in the top two.
“I stepped up and we got back into the game very well,” said Hrustic, who was named man of the match. “I think we deserved more.”
Goalkeeper Ryan, who plays for Real Sociedad in the Spanish first division, did more than his fair share to prevent Japan from scoring a second. But although he managed to get his fingers under substitute Takuma Asano’s chipped shot in the 85th minute, the ball was deflected over the line at the far post by Behich.
The goal sent the crowd of 14,437 — nearly 5,000 of whom were required to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test — into the kind of frenzy that has not been seen at a Japan home game since the start of the pandemic.
“The energy the crowd gave the Japanese players in the last 10 minutes helped them get home,” Australia head coach Graham Arnold said. “We had a great crack at them, they had a crack at us, it was an exciting game to watch.”
The result leaves the Samurai Blue with six points from four games in Group B, three behind the second-place Socceroos. Saudi Arabia leads the group with a perfect 12 points after beating China 3-2 late Tuesday night.
Japan is scheduled to face Vietnam and Oman away during November's international break.
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