Japan moved a step closer to a place at Brazil 2014 by beating an inexperienced Iraq 1-0 in Tuesday’s World Cup qualifier.
The sole goal came in the 25th minute from some lax defending, as Shinji Okazaki got in behind the defense from a throw-in and his volleyed cross found an unmarked Ryoichi Maeda, who headed home from inside the six-yard box.
“It worked just like in practice,” Maeda said of his goal. “Okazaki made a great pass and I didn't have to do too much. It was a huge win for us and I am happy to contribute.”
Japan solidified its already-commanding lead in Group B with 10 points, eight ahead of Iraq. Group rivals Jordan and Australia had a chance to make up ground when they met later Tuesday.
“We knew if we played our brand of football we could get the result we wanted,” Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni said. ''We're happy to get the three points as we want to qualify as soon as possible.”
Iraq coach Zico - formerly coach of Japan - sprang a surprise by changing the entire starting lineup from the previous qualifier, leaving out stars Younes Mahmoud and Nashat Akram, who came on as second-half substitutes.
Japan’s Manchester United midfielder Shinji Kagawa sat out the match with a back injury sustained in training on Monday.
Despite its inexperience, Iraq fashioned some decent chances. In the fourth minute, Ahmed Yaseen’s corner set up Ali Bahjat Fadhil for a close-range header that was batted away by Japan goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima.
In the 21st minute, Iraq created another golden opportunity from a corner but Hammadi Ahmad’s close-range shot flicked off a defender and went wide, and in the 41st Yaseen came close again when he made a quick break and his curling shot forced a diving save from Kawashima.
CSKA Moscow midfielder Keisuke Honda came close to doubling the lead in the 79th minute, with his diving header bringing a sprawling save by Iraq goalkeeper Noor Sabri, deflecting the ball onto a post.
Iraq’s next qualifier will be away to Australia next month, while Japan skips the next match day before a qualifier on Nov. 14 at Oman.