SAITAMA, JAPAN (AFP, REUTERS) - Japan jolted their flatlining World Cup qualifying campaign into life with a dramatic 2-1 home win over Australia on Tuesday (Oct 12), ensuring the visitors missed out on a 12th straight win on the road to Qatar 2022.
An 86th-minute own goal from Australia's Aziz Behich in Saitama gave Japan a crucial three points, having started Group B with two defeats from three matches - a run that put coach Hajime Moriyasu under pressure.
In a later Group A match, Alireza Jahanbakhsh’s late header cancelled out Son Heung-min’s opener as Iran drew 1-1 with South Korea in Teheran to remain top in the final round of Asia’s preliminaries for next year’s World Cup.
The Feyenoord forward powered his effort past Kim Seung-gyu 14 minutes from time after Son had put the Koreans in front three minutes into the second half.
Dragan Skocic’s side moved to 10 points from their first four games and remain two points ahead of the Koreans as the pair consolidated their hold on the top two positions in the standings.
Only the first two teams in each of the two groups in the continent’s qualifying competition are guaranteed to progress to the finals while the third-place finishers will advance to a series of play-offs.
Third-placed United Arab Emirates will take on Iraq later on Tuesday while Syria meet Lebanon.
Japan went into their game knowing anything less than a win would put them in serious danger of missing out on the World Cup for the first time since 1994.
The still embattled Japan boss Moriyasu said: “We kept fighting until the end and never gave up – we are determined to get to the World Cup and we showed that tonight.
“It was a great win but we still have a lot of tough games to come. We have to make sure we use this win and build on it.”
Earlier, he rung the changes, dropping Gaku Shibasaki - who was responsible for the goal Japan conceded against Saudi Arabia last week - and replacing him with the more dynamic Ao Tanaka.
The move paid off early, as Tanaka gave them the perfect start with the opening goal in the eighth minute, only for Australia's Ajdin Hrustic to equalise with a 70th-minute direct free kick.
But Behich turned the ball into his own net under pressure from Takuma Asano with four minutes remaining, keeping Japan in the hunt for one of Group B's two automatic spots for the Finals.
Wataru Endo flashed a header past the post in the sixth minute as Japan seized the early initiative, and the hosts did not have to wait long for the opening goal.
Liverpool's Takumi Minamino played a low cross that Behich failed to cut out, and Tanaka was on hand to drill the ball past goalkeeper Maty Ryan.
Yuya Osako went close to adding another after running at the heart of the Australian defence in the 35th minute.
But the Socceroos almost equalised against the run of play when Adam Taggart shot against the post minutes before the interval.
Aaron Mooy also went close for the visitors early in the second half, before the Socceroos thought they were awarded a penalty when Hidemasa Morita tripped Hrustic.
The referee changed the decision to a free kick on the edge of the box after a Video Assistant Review, but Hrustic slammed the ball past Shuchi Gonda regardless.
Japan went in desperate search of a winner, with Ryan denying Junya Ito and substitute Kyogo Furuhashi before Behich put the ball into his own net with minutes remaining.
The result moves third-placed Japan to within three points of the Socceroos, who lead Group B ahead of Saudi Arabia - also on nine points but with a game in hand - and ended Australia's record of 11 straight wins in one World Cup qualifying campaign.
The Japanese media had speculated that Moriyasu could lose his job with anything less than a win, and the manager made a special point of applauding fans behind the goal after the final whistle in Saitama.
“I wanted to thank the fans for their support – they gave the players courage,” he said.
“It was a very difficult game, but the fact that the players kept going to the end was down to the support they got from the crowd.”
Iran had won all three of their matches going into the clash at the Azadi Stadium and were unfortunate not to go into half-time with a lead.
Kim twice denied the home side in quick succession as Sardar Azmoun’s low shot was parried to his left by the Kashiwa Reysol goalkeeper before another fine save – this time to his right – kept out Mehdi Taremi’s overhead kick.
Those interventions were to prove crucial three minutes into the second half when Son netted with a trademark finish.
The Tottenham Hotspur forward was unstoppable as he latched on to a ball from inside the centre circle by Lee Jae-sung that evaded full back Sadegh Moharrami and Son coolly stroked the ball home.
Saeed Ezatolahi hit the post from distance as Iran pushed to maintain their early dominance in Group A and, with 14 minutes remaining, Skocic’s side were level.
A determined Azmoun cut a lofted ball back from the bye-line and Alireza Jahanbakhsh powered his downward header beyond the outstretched arms of Kim.
Taremi then hit the post from distance with an unstoppable drive while substitute Na Sang-ho was denied a dramatic winner by Alireza Beiranvand deep into stoppage time.