By Prak Chan Thul
PHNOM PENH (Reuters) – Japan edged closer to their sixth World Cup finals on Tuesday after a lacklustre 2-0 win over bottom side Cambodia that took an own goal to break the deadlock and a last-minute Keisuke Honda header to salvage some pride.
The four-times Asian champions struggled as Cambodia defended resolutely and put pressure on a Japanese team lacking their usual flair and unable to convert from their trademark set-pieces. That included a missed penalty by captain Shinji Okazaki two minutes after the restart.
The win leaves the Blue Samurai top of Group E with 16 points from six games in joint qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup and 2019 Asian Cup.
Japan went ahead on 51 minutes when Khoum Laboravy headed into his own net, dashing hopes of an upset before a home crowd that flocked to see players from the big European leagues.
AC Milan striker Honda nodded home a Hiroki Fujiharu cross from close range in the final minute to spare some embarrassment against a side with only one goal to their name in their seven straight defeats this round.
“They’re fighters,” Japan’s coach Vahid Halilhodzic said of Cambodia, 133 places behind his side in the world rankings.
“They tried to counter-attack us. I’m not satisfied with the result. I saw some confusion in the first half … We want more goals than this.”
Japan were frustrated at the start but Fujiharu almost put them ahead near the break when his close-range volley from a chipped Shinji Kagawa pass struck the inside of the post.
Goalkeeper Um Sereyroth was in good form throughout but he was finally beaten by a teammate trying to clear a floating free kick from Yosuke Kashiwagi.
“The ability of Japanese players and our players is very different,” Cambodia coach Lee Tae-hoon said. “If we lost by many goals, our players would feel down.”
(Reporting by Prak Chan Thul; Editing by Martin Petty)