SAITAMA • Substitute Hotaru Yamaguchi's 95th-minute winner rescued Japan and their stuttering World Cup qualifying campaign as they escaped with a 2-1 victory over Iraq in Group B yesterday.
The Samurai Blue were headed for an ignominious draw in Saitama when Yamaguchi smashed a loose ball from a corner through a forest of legs and into the Iraqi goal.
The result gave Japan their second win in three final-round qualifiers and boosted under-fire coach Vahid Halilhodzic, who has endured calls for his resignation and has reportedly suffered player unrest.
As Borussia Dortmund forward Shinji Kagawa watched from the bench, Japan dominated the early possession but rarely threatened.
But Genki Haraguchi put the hosts ahead with a brilliant piece of skill as he flicked Hiroshi Kiyotake's cross through his legs and beneath the diving body of goalkeeper Mohammed Hameed on 26 minutes.
But Iraq rocked the four-time Asian champions on 60 minutes when Saad Luaibi nodded Ahmed Yasin's free kick just inside the post.
And as six minutes of injury-time ticked away, it was Yamaguchi who buried the winner to send the stadium into ecstasy.
"I came on during the game and I was thinking all the time about how I had to do something," said Yamaguchi, who was celebrating his 26th birthday.
"I'm just relieved that I could get us the result."
Halilhodzic was equally thrilled with the victory and praised his players after the match.
"It was a dramatic win but one that we deserved, so I have to congratulate the players," he said.
"The fans really helped us to get the win and I was confident that the players were capable of scoring before the end. It's an extremely important win. Hopefully we can use this and keep it going."
In South Korea, the hosts beat Qatar 3-2 in Group A courtesy of a winner from in-form Tottenham Hotspur forward Son Heung Min.
South Korean captain Ki Sung Yueng opened the scoring with a low shot that skipped past Saad Al Sheeb after 11 minutes.
But Qatar fought back with goals from Hassan Al Haydos and Sebastian Soria before half-time.
After the interval, the Koreans levelled through Ji Dong Won.
Son, with five goals in six games for Spurs this season, then extended his electric scoring run with the decisive strike on 58 minutes.
Korean defender Hong Jeong Ho picked up a second yellow card in the 66th minute but Uli Stielike's men held out for a vital win.
Stielike said he never lost belief despite falling behind.
"Even when we were 2-1 down I kept encouraging the players that we could do it," he said.
"This is the first comeback win since I took over. It will give the players confidence."
In another Group A match yesterday, war-torn Syria blew a major hole in China's bid to reach a second World Cup when they pulled off a stunning 1-0 upset.
Mahmoud Al-Mawas's breakaway goal in the 54th minute all but settled the game in Xian.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS