TOKYO – Japan booked their place next year’s World Cup final with an emphatic 2-0 win over Australia in Saitama on Thursday that took their Asian rivals’ hopes of qualifying for Russia out of their own hands.
Takuma Asano scored four minutes before the break, and 21-year-old midfielder Yosuke Ideguchi covered himself in glory with a sumptuous finish in the 82nd minute as the Samurai Blue sealed a sixth straight appearance in the global showpiece.
Japan are now assured of finishing top of Group B in Asian qualifying before their final match away to second-placed Saudi Arabia, a match that Australia will watch nervously.
Level with Saudi Arabia on 16 points but two in arrears on goal difference, the Socceroos will hope for a handsome win over Thailand in their final qualifier and for Japan to beat or hold the Saudis to a draw.
With Australia’s final match in Melbourne on Tuesday scheduled first, Saudi Arabia will know exactly what they need to do to snatch the second direct ticket to Russia when they take the field against Japan in Jeddah.
The third-placed team face two playoffs to reach the finals, starting with the third-placed side in the other Asian group.
Japan join Iran, Brazil and hosts Russia in the 32-team tournament, which will be held from June 14 to July 15 next year.
Vahid Halilhodzic’s Japan inflicted Australia’s first defeat of the final phase of qualifying, while also ending their own winless streak against the Socceroos in World Cup qualifiers.
Australia lost captain Mile Jedinak to a groin injury in the build-up, and suffered a further blow with in-form midfielder Aaron Mooy a late withdrawal due to illness.
But crushed coach Ange Postecoglou was not reaching for excuses.
“The team we put out there was certainly good enough to get the job done,” he said. “Tonight’s result is on me, it’s not on the players. We had our moments, but we never really got going.”
Tomi Juric started on the bench after suffering an injury at club training in Switzerland, leaving winger Robbie Kruse to slot into the lone striker’s spot.
Halilhodzic left Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa on the bench, but hardly needed his marquee men.
In a frantic first half there were few genuine chances, with Mathew Leckie’s deflected shot coming off the post in the 38th minute the closest to breaking the deadlock.
It was a huge scare for the home side at Saitama Stadium, but the packed stands exploded minutes later when Yuto Nagatomo floated a sumptuous cross from the left, and Asano ghosted behind the defensive line to volley home.
Unable to breach Japan’s well-organised defence, Postecoglou threw 37-year-old Tim Cahill on in the 70th minute to win his 101st cap, but Japan’s long-time nemesis was unable to exert an influence.
Instead, it was youngster talent Ideguchi, playing his third international, who snatched the spotlight in the final minutes, charging past Jackson Irvine and unleashing a blistering strike that gave keeper Mat Ryan no chance.
“I was just hoping to get the shot on target, and I am glad it went in,” Ideguchi told Japanese media.
“The coach decided to play me on this big stage, and so I came into the match determined to deliver results, and that led to the goal.”