Japan made it three wins in succession to keep their Russia 2018 hopes on track by easing past Thailand 4-0 at Saitama Stadium.
Gent forward Yuya Kubo was the star performer from the right flank for Vahid Halilhodzic’s side, setting up first-half goals for Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki before adding a superb third.
Japan had let their early grip loosen by the time Kubo netted during the second period but Group B whipping boys Thailand were well beaten as Southampton defender Maya Yoshida headed a late fourth before the visitors’ Teerasil Dangda missed a penalty.
The Blue Samurai are top of the standings, three points ahead of Saudi Arabia before the latter host Iraq later on Tuesday, with the top two going through to the finals automatically.
Japan were on the front foot from kick-off and led in the eighth minute when Kagawa controlled Kubo’s low cross, shimmied around Wattana Playnum’s lunging challenge and slotted into the bottom corner.
Borussia Dortmund playmaker Kagawa then produced a delightful flick to tee up Hotaru Yamaguchi, whose well-struck shot was pushed behind by Kawin Thamsatchanan.
But Thamsatchanan was soon picking the ball out of his net again, with Kubo the provider once more as Okazaki stooped to head in his latest right-wing delivery at the near post.
One goal, two assists for Yuya Kubo today
Not a bad day at the office so far pic.twitter.com/G3MC4y0V6M
— #WCQ (@FIFAWorldCup) March 28, 2017
As the contest approached the half hour, Thailand continued to look woefully overmatched and were picked apart easily before Kagawa wastefully skied a side-footed attempt.
Dangda drilled into Japan goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima’s chest on a rare foray forward in the 34th minute and Kiatisuk Senamuang’s men showed marked improvement before half-time – Dangda almost converting from a corner as Japan scrambled clear during stoppage time.
The hosts’ malaise continued into the second period as Kawashima sprung athletically to tip wide when Siroch Chatthong’s drive fizzed through a crowded penalty area.
It meant Japan’s third came against the run of play in the 57th minute – the excellent Kubo getting on the scoresheet in style by collecting a loose ball and rifling into the top corner from 20 yards.
Thamsatchanan saved with his legs nine minutes from time to deny Kubo a volleyed second but captain Yoshida headed home from a corner to complete the scoring.
The industrious Dangda was unable to secure a consolation for Thailand, with Kawashima guessing correctly to save the captain’s 86th-minute penalty after he was brought down by Yuto Nagatomo.
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