In what was largely touted as the biggest match of Group D leading into the Asian Cup, Japan beat Iraq by a solitary goal in a match as heated as the temperature.
It was the second time the two nations met in the competition, the first being a 2000 quarter final in which Japan won 4-1.
An early chance almost came to Japan after just three minutes when Shinji Okazaki received a pass through the defensive line, but he was adjudged to have been offside.
Keisuke Honda provided another great pass to Shinji Kagawa in the 11th minute, but the Borussia Dortmund fan favourite’s effort rolled wide of the far post.
The Samurai Blue continued to push into Iraq’s half of the pitch, while dropping back to counter the dangerous aerial threat from set plays by the Lions of Mesopotamia. The threat was apparent in the 15th minute, when a corner kick reached Younis Mahmoud, whose header was aimed straight toward Eiji Kawashima.
Two minutes later, Japan found a headed chance from a pinpoint Yuto Nagatomo cross, but Honda’s attempt crashed into the post despite evading goalkeeper Jalal Hassan.
The passing combinations by Japan became faster as the player settled into the heat and it led to a one-on-one chance by Shinji Kagawa, whose shot was saved by Jalal Hassan. The deflection fell to Honda, who earned and converted a penalty after two Iraqi players sandwiched the AC Milan player.
As the first half rolled on, both sides opted for drink breaks during stoppages on either side of the half hour mark, with the heat and humidity combined with the game’s tempo quickly dehydrating the players.
Just over a minute into the second half, Honda again hit the woodwork with a curling shot from outside hitting the woodwork. The miss shocked Iraq back to life, having only registered one attempted shot in the first half through Younis Mahmoud’s shot.
Following the substitution of Younis 10 minutes later, Iraq began to push bodies forward and force Japan deeper into their own half. But the double-substitution of Yasuyuki Konno and Hiroshi Kiyotake after an hour quickly brought life back into the Samurai Blue attack.
An open net following a squared ball across the face of goal invited Honda to make another attempt at a brace, but the woodwork denied him once again to the agony of the Japanese fans behind the goal.
Iraq struggled to create meaningful attacks, despite a loud following of Iraqi fans amongst the 22,941 at Brisbane Stadium, as Japan piled pressure onto a resilient Iraq defence.
Honda’s numerous missed opportunities and fatigue forced coach Javier Aguirre, whose future with the national team is currently uncertain, to take the star off with just a minute of regulation time remaining on the clock.
A win for Japan in their final game against Jordan in Melbourne on Tuesday will see the team play against the second-ranked nation from Group C in the quarter finals, while 2007 champions Iraq will need to beat Asian Cup debutants Palestine in Canberra to ensure their own progression.