Japan and North Korea took giant strides toward the 2010 World Cup yesterday with gritty home victories that left them topping their Asian qualifying groups.
Takeshi Okada’s Japan had Shunsuke Nakamura to thank for their 1-0 win over Bahrain in Saitama, with the Celtic star pouncing two minutes into the second half.
North Korea moved within sight of their first World Cup since 1966 with a 2-0 win over United Arab Emirates (UAE) in Pyongyang, all but snuffing out any hope the Gulf side had of playing in South Africa.
Japan now have 11 points in Group A, a point ahead of Australia, who have a game in hand and play Uzbekistan in Sydney on Wednesday. Bahrain are on four points.
The North Koreans top Group B with 10 points from five games, two points ahead of arch-rivals South Korea, whom they play in Seoul on Wednesday in a grudge match.
Only the top two teams from each group automatically qualify for 2010.
Japan made their intentions clear by starting the game with three men up front, but they found it tough breaking Bahrain’s resistance.
Tatsuya Tanaka had an early chance in the fourth minute, but his shot skidded wide. Their best opportunity came after 25 minutes when skipper Yuji Nakazawa outjumped the defense, only to see his header cleared.
But they got their reward soon after the restart when Keiji Tamada was hacked down just outside the box.
Nakamura tapped the free-kick to Yasuhito Endo who passed it back and the Celtic midfielder’s drive found its way over goalkeeper Sayed Mohamed Jaafar and into the net.
North Korea, the 1966 World Cup quarter-finalists, were far the better team against UAE on the artificial turf of the Kim Il-Sung Stadium.
Pak Choi-jin scored the opener on 51 minutes with a fine long-range drive and Mun In-guk put the game beyond UAE’s reach with a strike in injury-time.
It leaves UAE coach Dominique Bathaney’s men languishing on one point from five games with three games to go, including tough trips to Riyadh and Tehran.
The hosts started stronger and had their first chance in the eighth minute when skipper Hong Yong-jo’s pass found Jong Tae-se, but goalkeeper Majed Naser did well to deny the striker. The dangerous Jong tested Naser again when the keeper palmed the ball over from the forward’s header shortly before the break, while Haidar Ali had the UAE’s only real effort of the first half soon after.
The North Koreans went on the attack in the second half and got what they deserved when Pak picked up a pass on the edge of the area, took one touch and blasted the ball into the top left corner of the net.
UAE did their best to find an equalizer, but the North Korean defense held firm and Mun made the game safe deep in stoppage-time.
In yesterday’s late match, Uzbekistan cruised to a 4-0 victory over Qatar in Tashkent.
Farhod Tadjiyev scored a hat-trick and Anvarjon Soliev added the other after Qatar’s Bilal Rajab was sent off after 32 minutes.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY STAFF WRITER