Japan moves into 2nd place in World Cup qualifying group

The Associated Press
Junya Ito celebrates after scoring a goal in Word Cup Group B action at Sultan Qaboos Stadium in Muscat, Oman, on Tuesday.

MUSCAT — A late goal from Junya Ito lifted Japan to a 1-0 victory against Oman in World Cup Group B qualifying action on Tuesday night.

Ito broke the deadlock in the 81st minute, volleying a cross from Kaoru Mitoma past the Oman goalkeeper at close range. The late strike gave Japan its third consecutive victory in the qualifying stage.

With a 4-2 record overall and 12 points, Japan moved up to second in Group B, overtaking Australia, which was held to a 1-1 draw against China. Group leader Saudi Arabia defeated Vietnam 1-0 to bump its total to 16 points.

Japan next faces China at home on Jan. 27.

Just before the goal, a few poor touches left Ito wondering if his number would soon be up, with possible replacements lingering on the touchline.

But with Japan on the offensive late in the second half, Ito saw an opportunity and made a beeline for the box in anticipation of a cross, which Mitoma deftly delivered in the 81st minute.

Ito maneuvered himself ahead of his marker to nudge the ball into the net for his second goal in as many games. He also netted the winner in the previous match against Vietnam.

One of Japan’s main attacking threats on the right side, Ito struggled earlier in the match with defenders surrounding him whenever he received the ball.

“I got the feeling the opponent had done their homework on me,” he said.

Ito noticed some cracks appearing in Oman’s defense when Mitoma came on at the start of the second half, giving Japan an additional attacking threat on the left wing. He realized his defensive marker was reacting late when balls were being passed to Ito from the opposite side,

With his stamina levels also running low he said he had to summon up all his energy to get across the line.

“The way I played today, the fact that I was on the field that long meant I was out there to make something happen,” said Ito, whose effort and continued hustle bore fruit in the end.

Ito has netted the winning goals in Japan’s last two away games, helping Japan secure six vital points in the group.

But the wily winger was not fully satisfied after Tuesday’s match. “Up against defensive opponents, I wanted to find a way to breakthrough. Even though I scored a goal, I still feel frustrated,” he said.

Japan manager Hajime Moriyasu said: “We started out running hard and battled in the first half and I think that took its toll on [Oman]. We did well to shift up a gear in the second half.”