Keisuke Honda fired Japan into the 2014 World Cup finals yesterday with a dramatic stoppage-time penalty which salvaged a 1-1 draw with Australia and made them the first team to qualify alongside hosts Brazil.
Tommy Oar’s fortuitous late strike had looked set to condemn the hosts to an undeserved defeat, but after Matthew McKay handled in the box, Honda nervelessly drove his spot-kick straight down the middle to earn the necessary point.
The result left the Asian champions seven points clear and unassailable in Group B, putting them through to their fifth straight World Cup finals. It is the first time they have sealed qualification on home soil.
Meanwhile, Holger Osieck’s Australia will be glad of the point away from home as they scrap with Jordan, Oman and Iraq for the second automatic qualifying spot. The third-placed team goes into a playoff.
Japan had the better of a highly entertaining first half which saw chances fly thick and fast, with heroic saves at both ends of the pitch.
Yasuhito Endo’s dipping free-kick curled past the upright early on and the Gamba Osaka midfielder then fired over the bar after a slick move orchestrated by Honda and Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa.
The same trio combined for another neat exchange which drew a one-handed reaction stop from Australia goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer to deny Kagawa from close range.
At the other end, Brett Holman dragged a shot wide, New York Red Bulls forward Tim Cahill volleyed over and Japan’s Eiji Kawashima had to come sharply off his line after Robbie Kruse was put through one-on-one.
Kagawa and Honda continued to torment the Socceroos after the break and they nearly broke the deadlock on 55 minutes when the Manchester United man’s stabbed, defense-flummoxing cross was poked wide by his teammate.
Kagawa, operating on the left, was denied by hard-working Australia defender Sasa Ognenovski and then bounced a shot off the angle between the right post and the crossbar.
Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni brought on defender Yuzo Kurihara as a stalemate beckoned, but shortly afterwards Oar silenced the massed home fans when his cross from the left spun over Kawashima and crept in on 82 minutes.
Japan were staring at a cruel defeat, but as the clock ticked past 90 minutes Honda’s cross was parried by McKay’s arm and the CSKA Moscow talisman stepped up to ram the penalty past Schwarzer.
Japan are now through to their fifth straight World Cup finals since making their debut in 1998 and with a high-quality side they will look to build on their run to the round-of-16 four years ago in South Africa, their best performance yet.
Australia have two games left to make sure of reaching their third World Cup finals in a row. The Socceroos, now level on points with second-placed Jordan, host the desert kingdom next week, followed by Iraq on June 18.