Substitute Kaoru Mitoma scored twice in the final few minutes to give Japan a 2-0 win over Australia at a rain-soaked Olympic Stadium on Thursday and send his country through to seventh successive edition of the World Cup finals.
Japan’s first victory over the Socceroos in Australia since 1998 also secured Saudi Arabia’s passage to Qatar and condemned Australia to a tricky path through two playoffs if they are to make the finals for the fifth time in a row.
An entertaining qualifier looked to be heading towards a scoreless stalemate in the 89th minute when Miki Yamane cut the ball back from the byline and Mitoma pounced to fire it past Australia goalkeeper Mat Ryan.
Mitoma put the result beyond doubt five minutes later when he skipped through the tiring Australia defence and found the net again under Ryan’s despairing dive.
“I knew it was going to be a close contest so when I was on the bench, I was thinking that when I got on the pitch I just had to do my job and score a goal,” said the winger.
“I feel really happy for the players, for the people back in Japan and for everyone who supports Japan.”
With Wataru Endo running midfield and Takumi Minamino a constant threat up front, Japan were well worth the win against an Australia side missing almost an entire team of regulars because of COVID infections and injury.
Minamino hit the woodwork twice in five minutes towards the end of the opening half, the first attempt from a rocket of a header that crashed down off bar and post but stayed out of the goal.
Australia also had their chances – most notably a Miki Yamane own goal that was ruled out for a foul on the goalkeeper — but gave away too much possession in midfield and struggled to deal with Japan’s pace on the break.
Forward Ajdin Hrustic, the only Australian with the skill to match the Japanese, fashioned a couple of chances at the start of the second half but his long-range free kick was parried away and he screwed a shot wide.
Japan looked like making the breakthrough in the 80th minute when Hidemasa Morita’s pass found Minamino on the edge of the six yard area, but Trent Sainsbury stood tall to clear the shot off the line.
The Socceroos poured forward in the final 10 minutes to try and get the goal that would keep alive their hopes of automatic qualification from Group B, but that only left space at the back for Japan to exploit to finally break the deadlock.
“We battled hard tonight, can’t fault the effort, but even 0-0 wasn’t going to be the right result so we had to go for it,” said Australia coach Graham Arnold.
“At the end of the day we have got the third place spot and you have to be positive about that.”