Japan finished their FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign with a hard-earned 1-0 victory over Iraq in Doha on Tuesday.
The win means they finish as winners of Group B in the Asian qualifying section with 17 points, while defeat officially ends Iraq’s hopes of reaching Brazil 2014.
After a goalless first half, Ala’a Abdul Zahra was sent off for the home-side in the 80th minute, before Shinji Ozazaki grabbed the only goal of the game in the last minute of normal time.
It was a tentative start to the match with chances at a premium in the opening ten minutes. Iraq had an effort that went just wide of the post, before Mike Havenaar had a shot blocked for Japan.
In the 14th minute, Yasuhito Endo latched onto a loose ball but swerved his effort beyond the post, as both teams struggled for attacking impetus.
Japan came closest to opening the scoring in the 26th minute after a neat exchange between Hiroshi Kiyotake and Shinji Kagawa led to the former forcing the goalkeeper into a scrambled save.
Kiyotake was instrumental again just five minutes later when his delivery from the left-hand side was met by the head of Havenaar. The forward did well to beat his marker to the ball but it sailed narrowly wide of the target.
With Iraq struggling to have a meaningful attempt on goal, Japan tried to find the breakthrough before half-time. Havenaar perhaps should have given the visitors the lead in the 42nd minute, but failed to connect with Hajime Hosogai’s cross at the back post.
The second half started in a similar fashion with both sides struggling to create clear cut chances. Younis Mahmoud Khalaf’s free-kick just after the restart was the only real effort in the opening exchanges.
In the 53rd minute, full-back Ali Adnan had an effort from the left-hand side that surprised Eiji Kawashima in the Japan goal, but the keeper was able to deal with the danger.
Manchester United midfielder Kagawa came close on the hour mark, when he took on Yuto Nagatomo’s cross but sent his shot over the bar.
Both teams continued to look for the opener and exchanged chances, before Iraq’s hopes were dealt a huge blow when Zahra was sent off for a second bookable offence.
And their misery was consigned in the 89th minute when Japan finally broke the deadlock.
Ozazaki fed Endo, who carried his run on to the edge of the left-hand side of the area before slotting a pass to back to the forward, whose effort was placed in the bottom-right corner.