Iraq’s Husam Ibrahim (left) fights for the ball with Jordan’s Khalil Baniateyah during their 2014 World Cup qualifying match in Doha, yesterday. Iraq won 1-0.
SINGAPORE: Shinji Okazaki’s late winner against Oman took Japan tantalisingly close to the 2014 World Cup yesterday, as Iraq also struck in the dying minutes to breathe life into their campaign.
Japan went ahead early in Muscat through Hiroshi Kiyotake but they were rocked by Ahmed Mubarak’s free kick on 77 minutes. However, Okazaki bundled in the decisive goal on 89 minutes to extend Japan’s lead in Group B.
The Asian champions went provisionally eight points clear with only three games left, making progression to their fifth consecutive World Cup, in Brazil, an apparent formality.
“I’m pleased I was able to score because I didn’t do much else for the whole of the match,” said the modest Okazaki.
“We kept chipping away and found a way to win in the end. We weren’t in control today so I hope we can dominate to beat Jordan next time.”
Japan’s Italian coach Alberto Zaccheroni said the Middle Eastern country’s intense heat had hampered his players, but he was proud of their refusal to accept a draw.
“We had set ourselves the target of three points here, and I’m happy we accomplished that goal,” Zaccheroni said.
“The heat meant we couldn’t play the way we’re capable of playing. Oman showed a lot of heart but I’m proud of the way my team refused to give in.”
In Doha, Iraq’s Hammadi Ahmed also left it late against Jordan before he arrowed a left-footed strike home four minutes from time.
The game’s only goal was enough to lift the 2007 Asian Cup champions off the foot of an increasingly tight Group B with their first win in five games.
The result brought relief to Iraq coach Zico who had dropped veterans Younus Mahmoud and Nashat Akram from the squad, a decision that surprised many because some of the other regulars like defenders Basem Abbas and Muthana Khalid and strikers Ala Abdulzehra and Salam Shaker were already unavailable because of injuries.
Jordan’s Iraqi coach Adnan Hamad was also handicapped by the suspension of Anas Bani Yaseen but the return of goalkeeper Amer Shafi and defender Basem Fathi from injuries gave the team some solidity.
In Muscat, Oman looked dangerous on the break and should have taken the lead against Japan after 10 minutes, but Fawzi Bashir blazed over from a promising position. Stuttgart’s Okazaki, who missed Japan’s recent friendlies against France and Brazil, saw a couple of half-chances saved by Oman’s Wigan Athletic goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi at the other end, before Kiyotake broke the deadlock.
Oman failed to properly deal with Yuto Nagatomo’s cross from the left and Nuremburg midfielder Kiyotake seized on the loose ball to slot home from close range.
The goal settled nerves but Oman were unlucky not to be on level terms in the 36th minute, as Al Ajmi headed against the post. Oman came out with renewed purpose after the break and Mubarak nearly levelled it from long range.
Kiyotake and Sakai both had chances to extend Japan’s lead as the pace slowed, but with 13 minutes remaining, Mubarak squeezed in a low free kick which sent the home fans into a frenzy.
However as Oman pressed for the winner, substitute Gotoku Sakai raced free on the left flank and his cross was flicked on at the near post by Yasuhito Endo, leaving the arriving Okazaki with the simplest of finishes.
“We played against one of the best teams in the world at the moment and we had a great performance so we are very disappointed with the result, the manner in which we lost,” said Oman’s French coach, Paul Le Guen.
“There still three games to play and we are still in the running to qualify.” AFP