After a barren first half and a missed penalty early in the second, Asian giants Japan were forced to dig deep into their reserves to overcome a hard battling Cambodia 2-0 in the 2018 World Cup qualifying Group E encounter at a packed Olympic Stadium yesterday evening.
The victory was the fifth in a row for coach Vahid Halihodzic’s side and sixth loss for Cambodia in as many outings. The 2002 joint World Cup hosts retain their top standing in the pool with 16 points, and play their last home game at home against Afghanistan on March 24 next year.
Cambodia put up one of their best first-half performances so far in this campaign and thwarted several sharp attempts thanks to a superb performance in goal by Um Sereyroth, who also saved a Shinji Okazaki penalty to the roaring approval of a crowd of close to 60,000.
It was mostly one-way traffic from the start of the first half, but the Angkor Warriors defended bravely to keep the Blue Samurai at bay, with Sereyroth making a particularly fine double save after 12 minutes.
But after a quick counter as the half-hour approached, Cambodia began to take the upper hand and were left to rue one particular gifted chance that went over the bar.
But it was the visitors who finally broke the deadlock in the 51st minute when a Yusuke Kashiwagi free kick from just outside the box led to the first goal.
The initial impression was that Shinji Kagawa had made the final contact as the ball looped in but it was actually the unfortunate Khun Laboravy who had turned the ball into his own net in the resulting chaos inside the box.
There were also a few moments of confusion and hesitation on the part of the officials before the referee let the goal stand, even as the Japanese coach himself couldn’t hide his initial reaction of startled surprise.
Stepping in as a substitute just after the hour mark, Keisuke Honda of AC Milan fame doubled the lead in the first minute of injury time with a powerful header off a Hiroki Fujihara cross.
Cambodia’s coach Lee Tae Hoon said he was satisfied with the performance of the team but would have been happier if his players had made better use of their counterattacks.
“We defended quite well in the first half. We had a couple of good chances to score as well. I think Um Sereyroth had a [particlularly] outstanding game,” he said.
Even as Japan’s professed strike power failed to make headway in the first half there were two spectacular chances for Khuon Laboravy.
While he could only find the side net the first time after winning a duel with a defender, the second time around he won a free kick on the edge of the box after being body checked as he was making a dash into the area.