Saitama - Japan thrashed Syria 5-0 to finish top of their
World Cup qualifying group on Tuesday but they needed a flurry of late goals to
give the scoreline a flattering complexion.
A freak own goal from Hamdi Al Masri after 17 minutes put
Japan in front before Shinji Kagawa scored twice and Syria crumbled in the
second half as the home side topped Group E in the second round of qualifying
for the 2018 World Cup and 2019 Asian Cup.
Japan finished with 22 points from their eight games -- four
more than Syria, who will also advance to the next round as one of the four
best-performing group runners-up.
The Blue Samurai scored 27 goals and conceded none from
their eight home and away games with Syria, Singapore, Afghanistan and
But they struggled to stamp their authority on a Syria team
missing four key players, axed by coach Fajr Ibrahim for breaking a team curfew
after last week's 6-0 win over Cambodia.
And Japan survived a scare when Mahmoud Al Mawas smashed a
long-range drive against the post, moments before Kagawa's volley on 66 minutes
effectively put the game beyond Syria's reach.
Keisuke Honda headed Japan's third with four minutes left
but there was still time for Kagawa to stab home his second and for substitute
Genki Haraguchi to grab a stoppage-time fifth.
Also read: Football: Kagawa set for Japan matches as United doubts grow
"We played a spectacular match," Japan coach Vahid
Halilhodzic told reporters. "It will give us confidence and great strength
to take into the final round of qualifiers."
Honda told Japan's NHK Television: "It was a goal to go
through qualifying with no goals against so that was satisfying.
"But there are still some things we need to work on. We
got caught on the counter several times and stronger opponents will make us pay
so we need to be wary of that.
"We don't want to be satisfied with this. All the
players need to step up and improve in order for us to keep winning."
Shinji Okazaki, who provided the spark as Japan crushed
Afghanistan 5-0 last Thursday, was handed the captain's armband on his 100th
But the Leicester City striker failed to add to his tally of
48 international goals, missing an open goal in the early salvos and volleying
spectacularly off-target just before the interval.
Ibrahim's decision to drop rebel quartet Ahmad Al Saleh,
Alaa Al Shebli, Fahd Al Youssef and Sanharib Melki was a tough one, given
Syria's struggles amid their country's violent conflict, which has claimed an
estimated 250,000 lives, including several footballers.
But his players produced a courageous display nonetheless
and Japan goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa needed to produce a string of top saves
to preserve his clean sheet.For
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