Hotaru Yamaguchi came off the bench to net a superb injury-time winner and earn stumbling Japan a 2-1 victory over Iraq in Thursday’s World Cup qualifier.
It looked as though Iraq, who had lost both of their previous Group B fixtures, would get off the mark when Saad Abdulameer headed home an equaliser on the hour mark in Saitama.
The visitors may have felt a point was just reward for their efforts, especially given the nature of Japan’s opener midway through the first half, with Hiroshi Kiyotake a couple of yards offside before his cross was cheekily converted by Genki Haraguchi’s flicked finish.
Vahid Halilhodzic’s side were well shackled in their efforts to force a winner following Abdulameer’s equaliser, although Keisuke Honda went agonisingly close with a header against the outside of the post.
But in time added on, a free-kick from the left was headed clear and Yamaguchi thumped a superb first-time volley through a crowded penalty area from 25 yards to spark wild celebrations from the hosts.
Japan – who have reached each of the past five World Cups – now have six points from three matches, level with Saudi Arabia and Australia, who meet later on Thursday.
Japan had broken the deadlock in each of their opening two qualifiers, but they were almost behind within three minutes when Abdulameer glanced a left-wing corner against the upright.
The hosts’ response was swift as Kiyotake unleashed a rasping drive that was palmed behind by Mohammed Hameed.
Hameed was beaten in controversial circumstances in the 25th minute, though.
Honda led a break down the right and fed the overlapping Kiyotake, who was clearly offside. However, play was allowed to continue and Kiyotake’s low ball was backheeled through the legs of Hameed at his near post by Haraguchi.
Kiyotake and Honda linked up again a minute later, with the AC Milan midfielder’s fierce volley held by Hameed and the final action of the half saw Ala’a Abdul Zahra denied by Japan keeper Shusaku Nishikawa.
But Nishikawa was beaten 15 minutes after the restart as Abdulameer converted Ahmed Yasin’s deep free-kick from the left with a fine header from 12 yards.
Maya Yoshida headed over from a corner as Japan sought to regain their lead, and when Honda struck the woodwork it seemed the home side would be frustrated.
But Yamaguchi delivered the telling blow in the fifth minute of stoppage time, prior to Iraq head coach Radhi Shenaishil remonstrating furiously with the officials following the full-time whistle.
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