Japan hand Saudis first defeat in WC qualifying group

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In-form Japan took a huge step towards World Cup qualification with a 2-0 home win over group lead-ers Saudi Arabia on Tuesday.

Liverpool forward Takumi Minamino gave the four-time Asian champions the lead midway through the first half, before Junya Ito bagged an-other shortly after the break in Saitama, north of Tokyo.

The Saudis went into the game four points clear of Japan at the top of Group B, knowing a win would seal their place in Qatar.

But Japan’s victory instead set up a tense battle for the two automatic qualifying spots, with two games remaining and Australia also still in the hunt.

The Socceroos were in action away to Oman later in the day.

Japan face Australia in a high-stakes showdown in Sydney on March 24, before finishing their cam-paign at home to bottom side Vietnam. “If we keep winning then nothing anyone else does can affect us,” said Japan manager Hajime Moriyasu.

“I want us to prepare as best we can for the Aus-tralia game so that we can win and claim our World Cup spot ourselves.”

Japan started the qualifying campaign with two losses from their first three games, but have now won five in a row.

Again shrugging off the absence of key defen-sive pair Maya Yoshida and Takehiro Tomiyasu, the home side started strongly and took the lead in the 31st minute.

Ito burst clear of a Saudi defender down the right to square a low cross that Yuya Osako left for Minamino, and the Liverpool man’s shot looped up off the goalkeeper and in.

Ito then got himself on the scoresheet — his fourth goal in four games — slamming the ball home from the edge of the area in the 50th minute.

The Saudis, who were rocked by a 23rd-minute injury to midfielder Abdulelah al-Malki, next travel to China before finishing their campaign at home to Australia.

“We knew before starting these qualifiers that it would be a big fight between these three teams,” said Saudi manager Herve Renard.

“There are still some very important games for the three teams to make the difference and qualify for the World Cup.”—AFP

 

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