Saudi fury as Japan boost World Cup hopes
SAITAMA: Japan beat Saudi Arabia 2-1 in a foul-tempered qualifier Tuesday as a debatable Hiroshi Kiyotake penalty boosted their hopes of qualifying for a sixth successive World Cup in 2018.
The Blue Samurai drew level with the Group B leaders on 10 points after a tempestuous clash in Saitama, where Kiyotake’s spot kick and a Genki Haraguchi effort eased the pressure on under-fire coach Vahid Halilhodzic.
Saudi Arabia pulled a late goal back through Omar Othman but it was not enough for the visitors to rescue a draw.
“Credit to the players for beating a good Saudi team,” said Halilhodzic, whose future has been plunged into doubt after a poor run of form during the Asian qualifying campaign.
“This is a big victory for us but it was a deserved one,” added the Franco-Bosnian after his side improved to 10 points from five games, with five remaining.
“We have had to stay strong to come back from some difficult situations and no doubt there will be more to overcome before we get to Russia.”
Kiyotake converted on the stroke of half-time after Saudi defender Abdulmalek Al Khaibri was adjudged to have handled, despite replays showing Kiyotake’s initial shot had struck him in the chest.
The Saudis protested furiously to referee Muhammad bin Jahari of Singapore and scuffles broke out between the players, which continued as they disappeared down the tunnel at the interval.
Haraguchi effectively killed off Saudi’s hopes of pinching a point with a sharp finish after 80 minutes following a deft flick from substitute Shinji Kagawa.
Othman’s 90th-minute strike crept across the line in a moment of cruel irony for Japan, who had a similar effort disallowed in their 2-1 defeat to UAE.
Saudi’s chances of pulling off an improbable escape evaporated when captain Osama Hawsawi saw red for a clumsy challenge in injury time.
Saudi Arabia, who have failed to qualify for the last two World Cups, could have opened a six-point lead over Japan.
Australia were looking to go top with a win over Thailand in Bangkok later on Tuesday.
Halilhodzic described the Saudis as “specialists in provocation” before the game, and also complained that Japan had been on the wrong end of dubious penalty decisions against the United Arab Emirates and Australia.
Japan were beaten 2-1 at home by the Emirates in September before drawing 1-1 with Asian Cup holders Australia in Melbourne last month to slip to third and out of the automatic qualifying spots for Russia.