Japan have become the fourth team to secure participation at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia after beating Australia in their Asian Group B qualifying match to guarantee passage to the finals.
Japan won 2-0 at the Saitama Stadium to ensure top spot in Asian qualifying Group B with a game to spare, thanks to a 41st-minute goal from Takuma Asano and a late strike from Yosuke Ideguchi.
It’s the sixth consecutive World Cup finals that Japan have qualified for, and they join hosts Russia, South Americans Brazil and fellow Asian qualifiers Iran as the only teams so far to have booked spots at next year’s tournament.
Going into Thursday’s clash at Saitama Stadium, both Japan and Australia knew that victory would guarantee a spot in Russia, with rivals Saudi Arabia having suffered a 2-1 defeat at the hands of UAE on Tuesday.
Asano gave Japan the lead on 41 minutes after finding himself unmarked in the box and meeting Yuto Nagatomo’s cross from the left to slot past Australian ‘keeper Maty Ryan.
Moments earlier Matthew Leckie had almost given the Socceroos the lead when his deflected shot hit the right-hand post, after Australia came back into the game following a bright opening from the hosts.
Australia pushed for an equalizer in the second half, but were unable to break down the Japanese defense, and were indebted to Trent Sainsbury and captain Mark Milligan for clearing off the line to prevent them from going further behind.
Ideguchi sealed a well-deserved win for Japan when he fired home from range on 82 minutes.
The Socceroos still have a chance of qualifying from the group automatically in second place or via the playoff system, depending on the result of their final Group B game against Thailand in Melbourne on September 5 and Japan’s game against Saudi Arabia on the same day.
The top two in the group progress automatically, while the third-placed team will have to negotiate a playoff against their Asian Group A counterparts before facing an intercontinental playoff against a CONCACAF (North and Central American) opponent.