Teetering on the brink of elimination from the 2022 FIFA World Cup AFC qualifiers, Japan had Aziz Behich to thank as his late own-goal secured a 2-1 win for the Samurai Blue over Australia at the Saitama Stadium 2002. The three points gave beleaguered Japan head coach Hajime Moriyasu some breathing space, as well as keeping Japan’s hopes of qualifying into next year’s World Cup alive.
Needing a win to stay in contention for Qatar 2022, Japan got the perfect start in the 8th minute. Seizing upon Behich’s failure to clear away a cross, Ao Tanaka managed to latch onto the ball and slot home the opener past Mat Ryan in the Australia goal.
Having won their previous 11 WC qualifying matches – a world record – Australia were second-best at the Saitama Stadium 2002. A number of crucial saves from Real Sociedad’s Ryan kept the Socceroos in the game, as the away side lost the ball frequently to their Samurai Blue opponents throughout the first half. The second half saw improvements from Graham Arnold’s men, however Australia’s ineffectiveness in attack meant that Japan were still able to assume control of the proceedings.
Australia were handed a lifeline in the 69th minute after Ajdin Hrustic was brought down by Hidemasa Morita. The referee initially awarded a penalty to Australia however he downgraded his decision to a direct free-kick after consulting the video assistant referee (VAR). Australia were understandably incensed by this decision, however Eintracht Frankfurt’s very own Hrustic made no mistake with the free-kick, leaving Shuichi Gonda well-beaten to draw the scoreline level.
The away side were clawing their way towards a solitary point – a decent result considering that they had failed to beat Japan in their own backyard since 2009 – however in the 86th minute disaster struck. Giresunspor defender Behich, who had been sub-par throughout the match, bundled home past his own goalkeeper after a Takuma Asano chipped attempt had been deflected towards him by the post.
The win reignited Japan’s World Cup hopes and even though the pressure on him is still there – with the #MoriyasuOut campaign still well and truly ongoing in social media – head coach Hajime will be relieved that for the time being his position is safe until at least the next match.
As for Australia, with their winning streak now snapped, they turned their attention towards their next opponent, a tasty top-of-the-table clash with Saudi Arabia, with a win solidifying Australia’s chance of qualifying into the World Cup even further.