Japan inch closer to Brazil with gritty win
South Koreans stay on course with lucky draw
Japan survived severe early pressure from Zico's Iraq to beat them 1-0 at home on Tuesday, taking a significant step towards qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
Ryoichi Maeda steered in a point-blank header in the 25th minute for the Asian champions, who lost playmaker Shinji Kagawa to a back strain an hour before kick-off.
"It's three points, we'll take it," said Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni.
"It was an important result. We want to qualify for Brazil as quickly as possible."
Kagawa said his back problem was not serious, which will come as a relief to Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson.
"I felt a twinge during training," said United's $21-million pre-season signing. "It's not that serious and shouldn't keep me out for long.
"It's a pity because obviously I wanted to play but I didn't want to risk letting the team down."
Meanwhile, a stuttering South Korea remained on course to reach an eighth consecutive World Cup after they escaped Uzbekistan with a 2-2 draw after a poor display in their Group A qualifying clash in Tashkent.
The Koreans now lie top with seven points from three matches in the five-team World Cup qualifying pool but struggled badly in central Asia.
Twice Asian Player of the Year Server Djeparov caused the Koreans numerous problems with his set pieces as the visitors never really got going on a uneven pitch.
After Ki Sungyueng’s own-goal put the Uzbeks ahead in the 13th minute, the visitors drew level through Kwak Tae Hwi in the 43rd. Lee Dong Gook struck in the 57th for the Koreans, but Uzbekistan restored parity couple of minutes later through Sanjar Tursunov.
Iraq, shock Asian Cup winners in 2007 and now under the stewardship of former Japan coach Zico, could have scored twice before Maeda struck. The Brazilian's young side came agonisingly close to silencing the crowd of 60,000 in Saitama, both times having close-range efforts blocked.
Those misses proved costly as a quickly-taken throw-in released Shinji Okazaki, whose first-time cross was turned in by Maeda.
"We practised that move," said Maeda. "Oka's pass was perfect and I just had to get on the end of it. It was down to him. We knew we had to win but we still have to improve."
A diving header from Keisuke Honda, brilliantly tipped against the post by goalkeeper Noor Sabri, almost doubled Japan's lead in the second half.
Japan opened up an eight-point lead in World Cup qualifying Group B from Iraq, Australia and Oman, before Jordan hosted the Socceroos later on Tuesday.
"We have the quality to cover the holes if we lose one or two players," Japan captain Makoto Hasebe said of Kagawa's late pullout. "The teamwork was excellent and we got the three points we wanted. We know there are some difficult games away waiting for us."