A DRAMATIC last-minute penalty ensured Japan became the first team to qualify for the 2014 World Cup as they snatched a 1-1 draw at home to Australia at the Saitama Stadium.
Alberto Zaccheroni’s men knew a draw would be enough to secure a place in Brazil next summer, but that looked unlikely when Tommy Oar fired the Socceroos ahead eight minutes from time.
However, Keisuke Honda held his nerve to convert from the spot in the dying seconds after former Rangers player Matt McKay handled in the box. The result gave Japan safe passage through from Asian qualifying Group B.
Honda, who only arrived in Japan on Monday after helping CSKA Moscow win the Russian Cup on Saturday, leathered the spot kick straight down the middle past Mark Schwarzer to send the 62,172 crowd into raptures.
“It’s a shame we could not get a win but I am glad we have sealed qualification for the World Cup,” Honda said. “It was a little bit unfortunate that we went behind and there was not a lot of time left.
“But I spoke to [team-mate] Shinji [Kagawa] and we said we should keep forcing it and try to create space. Lucky for us we were able to get a penalty and I was able to put it away.”
The result moved leaders Japan on to 14 points from seven matches in Asian qualifying Group B, meaning they are assured of top spot and reaching the 2014 finals with a game to spare.
Japan lie five ahead of Oman – who beat Iraq 1-0 in Muscat – and seven ahead of Australia, who moved above Jordan on goal difference with both sides having played a game less.
Japan finish their campaign against bottom side Iraq on Tuesday before they take on hosts Brazil in the Confederations Cup on 15 June with full back Yuto Nagatomo eyeing a bigger prize in South America.
“Keisuke showed how mentally strong he was today and I never doubted [he would score],” said the Inter Milan defender. “I’m pleased but the real aim is to win the World Cup and this is just one step of that journey.”
Oman, meanwhile, will be desperate to secure a top-two finish and automatic qualification for next summer’s World Cup. Although they are five points shy of Japan, they are two ahead of Jordan and Australia.
The Socceroos face Jordan in Melbourne next week in what is a must-win match for both nations. Iraq remain at the foot of the table, two points adrift of the pack.
Meanwhile, in Doha, Iran beat Qatar 1-0 in their Group A match, putting the Iranians within one point of Korea, who were held to a 1-1 draw against Lebanon in Beirut last night, and Uzbekistan at the top of the table, with two matches remaining.