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 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," Japan coach Alberto
Zaccheroni told reporters. "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 Sir 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."
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
"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
"The teamwork was excellent and we got the three points we
wanted but we can play better. We know there are some difficult
games away waiting for us."
Japan, who have played at every World Cup since first
appearing in 1998, have 10 points after four matches in the
final round of Asian qualifying.
Zico paid tribute to his makeshift Iraq side, who
demonstrated that they possess the potential to squeeze into the
"We played well and created decent opportunities," said the
59-year-old. "We just couldn't take our chances.
"It was an extremely tough game, as we expected. Japan's
players were better prepared so I had to pick players to try and
neutralise them but they were too good."
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