Saitama: 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 soccer World Cup in Brazil.
Ryoichi Maeda steered in a pointblank header in the 25th minute for the Asian champions, who lost playmaker Shinji Kagawa to a back strain an hour before kickoff. “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.”
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.
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.
Meanwhile, Lebanon recorded one of their greatest soccer victories when they stunned three-times Asian champions Iran 1-0 in Beirut on Tuesday to throw open World Cup qualifying Group A.
Roda Antar was the match winner, with the creative midfielder's 28th-minute strike the first goal Lebanon, ranked 124th by FIFA, had scored against their more illustrious opponents in this their eighth meeting.
Lebanon, competing in the fourth round of Asian World Cup qualifying for the first time, now have four points from four matches in the five-team pool, level with Iran and Qatar who have played one game fewer.
The result heaped more pressure on Iran coach Carlos Queiroz, the former Real Madrid and Portugal boss who has been criticised for his tactics as the team have struggled for goals.
On Tuesday, they dominated possession and territory but came up against in-form Lebanese goalkeeper Abbas Hassan, who thwarted them on several occasions.
The headband-wearing goalkeeper, who was shown a yellow card for time-wasting, produced a string of solid saves, with his 95th-minute stop of Mohammed Ghazi's strong header a highlight.
Earlier, South Korea held on to their lead at the top of the pool by drawing 2-2 away to Uzbekistan. The Koreans lead the way on seven points with Iran second on goal difference in the group's other qualifying berth for Brazil 2014.