Shinji Okazaki’s late winner against Oman took Japan tantalizingly close to the 2014 World Cup on Wednesday, as Group A rivals Iraq also struck in the dying minutes to breathe life into their campaign.
Group B is far tighter, with Uzbekistan on eight points — one more than second-placed South Korea — after pulling off a sensational 1-0 win in Iran.
Iran are also on seven points, while 2022 World Cup hosts Qatar boosted their hopes of reaching the finals for the first time with a 1-0 win over Lebanon in Doha to also move onto seven points.
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 A.
The Asian champions went 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,” the modest Okazaki said. “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.”
VfB Stuttgart’s Okazaki saw a couple of half-chances saved by Oman goalkeeper Ali al-Habsi 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. The home side came out with renewed purpose after the break and Mubarak nearly leveled 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.
In Doha, Iraq’s Hammadi Ahmed also left it late against Jordan before scoring with a left-footed strike 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.
Qatar’s victory over Lebanon came courtesy of a stunning individual effort by Uruguayan-born Sebastian Soria, which saw him take the ball from outside the Qatar penalty area and advance upfield before cracking a shot from 30m into the Lebanese net.
Uzbekistan moved into pole position to qualify for a first World Cup when Ulugbek Bakaev struck the only goal to grab victory in Tehran.
The forward darted ahead of his marker to poke home Server Djeparov’s brilliant free-kick in the 71st minute to silence the passionate home crowd and dent the hosts’ chances of a place in Brazil.
Iran had been the better side for most of the first-half, but throughout qualifying they have found goals hard to come by and Wednesday was no different.
The home side thought they had taken the lead in the 12th minute through Mohammad Nori, but the midfielder was called back from celebrating his strike after a teammate strayed offside.