Ryoichi Maeda and Shinji Okazaki scored second-half goals on Sunday as Japan started the final stage of Asian qualifying for the 2014 World Cup with a 3-0 win over Oman.
Iran stunned Uzbekistan 1-0 with a goal in the dying seconds of stoppage time, while Jordan held Iraq to a 1-1 draw in an Middle East clash.
Maeda gave Japan a 2-0 lead in the 52nd minute of the Group B match when he received a pass from Shinji Kagawa, ran to his left and slid the ball under the outstretched arms of goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi.
Okazaki, who plays for German side Stuttgart, put the result beyond doubt three minutes later, gathering his own rebound and beating Al Habsi from close range.
”This was an important win for us,” Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni said. ”We wanted to get off on the right foot. The team was able to stay focused the entire match and there was a great atmosphere here tonight.”
CSKA Moscow midfielder Keisuke Honda opened the scoring in the 12th minute, taking a superb cross from Inter Milan defender Yuto Nagatomo and beating Al Habsi with a left-footed shot.
The top two teams in both of the five-team qualifying groups will secure an automatic spot at Brazil. The third-place teams advance to a playoff.
Honda missed the entire third round of qualifying with a knee injury. He returned to the national side in a friendly against Azerbaijan last month for the first time since scoring in a 3-0 win over South Korea last year.
”It’s been a while since I scored,” Honda said. ”I was aiming to get us on the score sheet and I think scoring early allowed us to relax and play our game.”
Japan and Australia will be strong favorites to advance out of Group B. Japan is seeking its fifth straight appearance at the World Cup.
Oman, without key defender Hussain Mudhaffar and striker Hassan Rabee’a, rarely tested Japan goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima.
In Tashkent, Mohammad Reza Khalatbari scored in stoppage time to give Iran a 1-0 win at Uzbekistan. Substitute Karim Ansarifard broke down the right before passing to Khalatbari, who found the net in the fourth minute of added time.
Iran was lucky to win the Group A match, given Uzbekistan had the better chances for most of the match and looked to have scored in the 74th minute when the ball appeared to cross the line.
Uzbekistan captain Odil Ahmedov knocked the ball into the net but Iran defender Jalal Hosseini, who was inside the goal mouth, managed to kick it away. TV replays showed the ball had clearly crossed the line but none of the three referees awarded a goal and play continued.
Uzbekistan coach Vadim Abromov said a goal should have been awarded but is focused on the next match against Lebanon with his team looking to make its first appearance at the World Cup.
”We scored a goal in the second half but the referees didn’t see it. Iran had two chances and won it,” Abramov said. ”I don’t know what did happen with us in the last minutes, sometimes we concede goals at the end of the match. We lost the game but it is not tragedy. We have seven matches in the group and hope will not die until the last moment.”
Iran coach Carlos Queiroz looks to have plenty of work to do to ensure Iran advances, along with fellow favorite South Korea. His team appeared sluggish for most of the match and struggled to keep up with Uzbekistan’s attacking style.
Without a strong goalkeeping performance from Mahdi Rahmati, the Iranians could easily have lost. Iran is attempting to reach the World Cup for the fourth time, and first since 2006.
”Uzbekistan had several chances. After this we changed our style and we battled more against them and reached our target,” Queiroz said. ”I knew Uzbekistan would go forward in the last minutes. That’s why we changed our tactics and tried to score from counterattacks. We did it and our changes brought us three points.”
In the other Group B match, Iraq midfielder Nashat Akram scored in the 14th minute of the Group B match with a solo effort from outside the box. Jordan striker Ahmad Hayel Ibrahim took advantage of some poor goalkeeping to level in the 43rd minute.
Jordan substitute Thaer Bawab missed an easy chance in front of the net in the 86th minute.
Iraq is aiming to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986. With Brazilian great Zico at the helm, Iraq had impressed recently, collecting five wins despite being required to play two of its home matches on neutral turf.