BRISBANE, Australia (AFP) – Keisuke Honda’s first-half penalty proved the difference as defending champions Japan downed Iraq 1-0 in their Asian Cup Group D match on Friday.
Honda coolly converted from the penalty spot in the 23rd minute to give the Blue Samurai a well-deserved win in front of almost 23,000 fans at Brisbane Stadium.
The 1-0 scoreline flattered 2007 winners Iraq, who were under immense pressure throughout and could have conceded a hatful if the Japanese had converted their many chances.
Honda was guilty of a glaring miss when he hit the post in the second half with the goal begging — the third time he hit the woodwork.
However, he managed the decisive kick of the game with his well-taken penalty, when he sent Jalal Hassan the wrong way and rolled the ball into the opposite corner.
Japan’s movement off the ball was superb, with Honda and Takashi Inui constantly finding space in the centre of the pitch.
After Shinji Kagawa shot across the face of the goal in the 11th minute, Honda should have put Japan ahead seven minutes later when his point-blank header cannoned off the post.
However, he made amends when he won the penalty after Kagawa’s strike was parried by keeper Hassan.
The Japanese began the second half in the same way they ended the second, with their midfield dominant and their defenders largely untroubled.
Iraq had a good 15-minute spell from the 50-minute mark but the Japanese weathered the storm and they began to turn the screws once again.
Substitute Hiroshi Kiyotake had two chances in quick succession but couldn’t convert, however the misses didn’t prove costly as Japan ended with a comfortable win.
Japan will be favourites to progress to the quarter-finals alongside Iraq in their final Group D games against Jordan and Palestine respectively.