DOHA: An own-goal kept Japan in the race for an automatic spot in next year’s World Cup and ended Australia’s record-breaking run qualifying.
Australia defender Aziz Behich put the ball into his own net at Saitama Stadium in the 85th minute on Tuesday to give Japan a 2-1 victory and jolt their flatlining qualifying campaign into life.
Behich bundled the ball over his own goal line after Takuma Asano’s late shot looped up and hit the post, ensuring Australia missed out on a 12th straight win on the road to Qatar 2022.
The result moves third-placed Japan to within three points of the Socceroos, who lead Group ‘B’ ahead of Saudi Arabia — also on nine points but with a game in hand — in the battle for two guaranteed places from the section at next year’s World Cup.
“We kept fighting until the end and never gave up,” Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu said. “We showed our determination to get to the World Cup.”
There was stalemate meanwhile at the top of Group ‘A’, with Tottenham Hotspur star Son Heung-min scoring for the second game in a row for South Korea before they conceded with 14 minutes left in a 1-1 draw in Iran.
Japan went into the game knowing that anything less than a win would put them in serious danger of missing out on the World Cup for the first time since 1994.
Ao Tanaka gave them the perfect start with the opening goal in the eighth minute, only for Australia’s Ajdin Hrustic to equalise with a 69th-minute direct free kick.
Australia were awarded a penalty kick midway through the second half when Hidemasa Morita brought down Hrustic on the edge of the area. But before Martin Boyle could take the kick, referee Abdulrahman Al-Jassim of Qatar reversed the call after a video review, ruling that the challenge had taken place just outside the box.
With five minutes remaining, Australia goalkeeper Mat Ryan tipped a shot from Asano and the ball bounced off the post and then ricocheted off Behich and into the net.
“Two sloppy goals, unfortunately, the second one was a deflection,” said Australia manager Graham Arnold. “Both teams had a go at each other. We were unlucky that we hit the post but ... at the end of the day, it wasn’t meant to be but we are on nine points after four games.”
Japanese media had speculated that Moriyasu could lose his job with anything less than a win over in-form Australia, and the manager made a special point of applauding fans behind the goal after the final whistle in Saitama.
“I wanted to thank the fans for their support — they gave the players courage,” he said. “It was a very difficult game, but the fact that the players kept going to the end was down to the support they got from the crowd.”
Alireza Jahanbakhsh’s late header cancelled out Son’s opener in an empty stadium in Tehran.
The Feyenoord forward powered his effort past Kim Seung-gyu 14 minutes from time after Son had put the Koreans in front three minutes into the second half.
Dragan Skocic’s side move onto 10 points from their first four games in Group ‘A’ and remain two points ahead of the Koreans as the pair consolidated their hold on the top two positions in the standings.
Only the first two teams in each of the two groups in the continent’s qualifying competition are guaranteed to progress to the finals while the third place finishers will advance to a series of playoffs.
Published in Dawn, October 13th, 2021