Diminutive midfielder Mahdi Kamil’s late equaliser jolted Japan’s World Cup qualifying bid as they were held to an unexpected 1-1 draw with Iraq on Tuesday.
The Blue Samurai seemed to be cruising to victory in neutral Tehran after Yuya Osako’s first-half goal, before the 164cm (5ft 4in) Kamil poached the equaliser on 73 minutes.
The result meant Japan moved one point clear at the top of Group B but missed the chance to go three ahead of both Saudi Arabia and Australia — their final two pool stage opponents.
With Iraq already out of the running for Russia 2018, Japan looked lively early on and they took the lead after a Keisuke Honda corner in the eighth minute.
The AC Milan midfielder swung the ball towards the near post, where Cologne forward Osako rose and nodded it past goalkeeper Mohammed Kassid for his sixth goal for Japan.
Twenty minutes into the second half, Osako came desperately close to making it 2-0 when his close-range shot glanced off the post following Hiroki Sakai’s pullback in the box.
Japan were looking comfortable but Kamil turned the game on its head when he took advantage of some defensive disarray to score the leveller on 72 minutes.
After Alaa Abdul Zahra’s slaloming run was brought to a halt, Japan failed to clear the ball and it bounced to Kamil, who gratefully slammed it home.
Japan attempted to rouse themselves for a late victory charge, but it came to little apart from Honda’s injury-time low drive straight to goalkeeper Kassid.
The top two teams from each of Group A and B qualify automatically for next year’s World Cup in Russia, while the third-placed sides go into a play-off series.
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