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 football World Cup in Brazil.
Ryoichi Maeda steered in a point-blank header in the 25th minute for the Asian champions, who lost playmaker Shinji Kagawa to a back strain an hour before kick-off.
“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.
Those misses proved costly as a quickly-taken throw-in released Shinji Okazaki, whose first-time cross was turned in by Maeda.
“We practised that move,” said Maeda.
“Oka’s pass was perfect and I just had to get on the end of it. It was down to him. We knew we had to win but we still have to improve.”
A diving header from Keisuke Honda, brilliantly tipped against the post by goalkeeper Noor Sabri, almost doubled Japan’s lead in the second half.
“We have the quality to cover the holes if we lose one or two players,” Japan captain Makoto Hasebe said of Kagawa’s late pullout, which will be of concern to Manchester United.
“The teamwork was excellent and we got the three points we wanted but we can play better. We know there are some difficult games away waiting for us.”
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.
Zico paid tribute to his makeshift Iraq side, who demonstrated that they possess the potential to squeeze into the 2014 finals.
“We played well and created decent opportunities,” said the 59-year-old.
“We just couldn’t take our chances.
“It was an extremely tough game, as we expected. Japan’s players were better prepared so I had to pick players to try and neutralise them but they were too good.”
Australia face a fight to reach the World Cup after they slumped to a shock 2-1 defeat away to Jordan to leave the Socceroos still searching for their first win in the fourth round.
Jordan are now in second place on four points in Group B and in one of the pool’s two qualifying berths for a place at the finals in Brazil in 2014.