Saitama (Japan) (AFP) – Takuma Asano and Yosuke Ideguchi were on target as Japan beat Australia 2-0 at home Thursday to qualify for their sixth successive World Cup.
Asano steered home a left-foot volley four minutes before half-time and Ideguchi sealed the victory with a stunning long-range strike after 82 minutes as Japan became the fourth team to reach next year’s finals in Russia.
Despite euphoric celebrations, Japan’s under-fire coach Vahid Halilhodzic — who reports suggested was facing the axe if the Blue Samurai lost — revealed he had considered stepping down before the game for personal reasons.
“The fact is I have a big, big problem in my private affairs,” the 65-year-old told reporters before refusing to answer questions.
“It has nothing to do with football,” added the Franco-Bosnian. “Nobody knew about it but I even thought about quitting.”
A Japan Football Association officials later clarified that it was a “family matter” and confirmed Halilhodzic was expected to travel to Saudi Arabia for their final group game on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the result dealt a major blow to Australia’s chances of claiming one of the two automatic qualifying spots from Group B after their first defeat in the final round of Asian qualifiers.
The Asian Cup holders get a second bite at the cherry at home to Thailand in their last game on Tuesday when they need to better Saudi Arabia’s result against Japan in Jeddah.
Japan survived a scare after 38 minutes in Saitama when a Mathew Leckie shot deflected off Maya Yoshida against post, before Asano struck a psychological blow shortly before the break.
Yuto Nagatomo whipped in a cross from the left and Asano ghosted in to beat goalkeeper Mat Ryan from close range.
– Curse ended –
Australia threw on veteran Tim Cahill after 70 minutes to try and inject some spark and his industry almost brought an equaliser for fellow substitute Tomi Juric in a goal-mouth scramble.
But Japan effectively ended Aussie hopes of salvaging a point when Ideguchi cut inside to slam a dipping right-foot shot past Ryan from distance for his first international goal.
“I was looking for that kind of a chance and Yuto put in a great ball for me,” said Asano of his opener.
“That’s my job — to try and pinch goals and I’m always ready to give everything for Japan.”
Japan had never beaten Australia in a World Cup qualifier in seven previous attempts but the Socceroos — bidding to reach their fourth straight finals and fifth overall — rarely threatened to extend the curse.