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Red-hot Japan down Saudis to move closer to World Cup

Staff Reporter Football 2022-02-01, 11:21pm

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SAITAMA, Japan - In-form Japan took a huge step
towards World Cup qualification with a 2-0 home win over group leaders Saudi
Arabia on Tuesday.

   Liverpool forward Takumi Minamino gave the four-time Asian champions the
lead midway through the first half, before Junya Ito bagged another shortly
after the break in Saitama, north of Tokyo.

   The Saudis went into the game four points clear of Japan at the top of
Group B, knowing a win would seal their place in Qatar.

   But Japan's victory instead set up a tense battle for the two automatic
qualifying spots, with two games remaining and Australia also still in the
hunt.

   The Socceroos were in action away to Oman later in the day.

   Japan face Australia in a high-stakes showdown in Sydney on March 24,
before finishing their campaign at home to bottom side Vietnam.

   "If we keep winning then nothing anyone else does can affect us," said
Japan manager Hajime Moriyasu.

   "I want us to prepare as best we can for the Australia game so that we can
win and claim our World Cup spot ourselves."

   Japan started the qualifying campaign with two losses from their first
three games, but have now won five in a row.

   Again shrugging off the absence of key defensive pair Maya Yoshida and
Takehiro Tomiyasu, the home side started strongly and took the lead in the
31st minute.

   Ito burst clear of a Saudi defender down the right to square a low cross
that Yuya Osako left for Minamino, and the Liverpool man's shot looped up off
the goalkeeper and in.

   Ito then got himself on the scoresheet -- his fourth goal in four games --
slamming the ball home from the edge of the area in the 50th minute.

   The Saudis, who were rocked by a 23rd-minute injury to midfielder
Abdulelah al-Malki, next travel to China before finishing their campaign at
home to Australia.

   "We knew before starting these qualifiers that it would be a big fight
between these three teams," said Saudi manager Herve Renard.

   "There are still some very important games for the three teams to make the difference and qualify for the World Cup."BSS/AFP