2018 WORLD CUP QUALIFYING
SAITAMA (Japan) • Leicester City striker Shinji Okazaki celebrated his 50th international goal last night as Japan brushed aside Thailand 4-0 to move closer to a sixth successive football World Cup apperance.
Shinji Kagawa gave the hosts the lead in their Asian Group B qualifier with a sharp finish after eight minutes, before Okazaki thundered home a diving header. The 30-year-old's landmark goal, on his 108th Japan appearance, came on 19 minutes in Saitama and effectively killed the contest.
Yuya Kubo and Maya Yoshida added further goals for Japan after the break, and goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima saved a late penalty from Adisak Kraisorn to deny rock-bottom Thailand a consolation goal.
Japan, who won 2-0 in the United Arab Emirates last Thursday, provisionally took top spot with 16 points from seven games, with a goal difference of +9. Saudi Arabia (+7) could move above them on goal difference with victory over Iraq in Jeddah in a later match.
"I'm incredibly happy to get that goal," said Okazaki, whose last goal was for Leicester in a 2-1 loss at Sunderland in the English Premier League in December. "I hadn't scored for a while so it was a relief. Hopefully I can keep on scoring goals for Japan.
"We have to make sure we keep taking our chances and win our remaining games."
Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic refused to get carried away after a great week for his side.
"I have to congratulate the players on two super victories," said the Franco-Bosnian.
"It wasn't an easy game today and they gave us a few problems but we produced an effective performance. We scored four lovely goals, which helps our cause as goal difference could prove to be crucial. But we have put ourselves in a good position to qualify for the World Cup with three big games left."
In Seoul, Hong Jeong Ho's early goal gave South Korea a 1-0 win over Syria to put their World Cup qualifying campaign back on track.
China-based Hong struck in the fourth minute but it was an unconvincing victory for the Koreans, who were upset 1-0 by China last week.
Uli Stielike's men remain well placed at second in Group A with three games to go. Iran, who beat China 1-0 in Teheran yesterday, top the group.
Uzbekistan, who beat bottom-side Qatar 1-0 in Tashkent, are third, a point behind South Korea.