Japan entered the November window of FIFA World Cup qualifying in third place in Group B, a spot that would land them in the playoffs and not straight into the tournament in Qatar. But after wins in Vietnam and Oman, they are now into second place and in a good position to book their ticket to next year’s World Cup.
The Samurai Blue opened the window in Vietnam, where former Ventforet Kofu and Kashiwa Reysol great Junya Ito struck 17 minutes in to give Japan the lead. Cerezo Osaka product Takumi Minamino, currently on the books at Liverpool FC, raced down the left before hitting a perfect ball across for a streaking Ito to tap home.
From there, the Japan defense took over. Led by captain and Nagoya Grampus product Maya Yoshida, the defense shut down Vietnam and current Shimizu S-Pulse goalkeeper Shūichi Gonda produced a clean sheet to wrap up the 1-0 victory for the Samurai Blue.
Japan then traveled to Oman, a team that beat them to open up this round of qualifying. Once again, a stout Samurai Blue defense did its job, making Japan nearly impenetrable and conceding just four shots all game.
The match moved into the final 10 minutes with Japan still chasing a deserved goal, and Ito came to the rescue again. Kaoru Mitoma, who starred at Kawasaki Frontale before being sold to Brighton Hove & Albion F.C. this summer, bolted down the wing before crossing for Ito to knock into the net in the 81st minute. That goal held up as the winner, as Japan walked away with another 1-0 triumph.
Japan now sit second place in Group B on 12 points, four behind first place Saudi Arabia and one in front of third-place Australia. A top-two spot qualifies them for the FIFA World Cup, so they are in good position, but they still have four matches left, including Saudi Arabia at home and Australia away. There is plenty of work left to do, but Ito made sure their November window would go perfectly, and now they are in the driver’s seat to Qatar.