Japan took a small step toward qualifying for this year's World Cup as Junya Ito scored for the third straight game in Samurai Blue's 2-0 win over China in an Asian Group B final-round qualifier on Thursday.
The win at Saitama Stadium kept manager Hajime Moriyasu's side second in the group on 15 points from seven games. Group leaders Saudi Arabia, with 16 points from six games, play Japan here on Tuesday. The group's top two teams earn spots at the finals in Qatar that start in November.
Japan applied pressure early and were awarded a penalty kick when a sliding China defender could not get his arm out of the way of an Ito cross inside the penalty area.
Yuya Osako, who had one of Japan's two early misses along with Ito, scored from the spot in the 13th minute. The Vissel Kobe striker drilled the ball just inside the right post and just beyond the reach of diving keeper Yan Junling.
The score remained 1-0 until substitute Yuta Nakayama, who plays for Dutch side Zwolle, delivered a 61st-minute cross three minutes after coming on that Ito met and headed in from close range.
"That was a great ball from Yuta," Ito said. "All I had to do was meet it."
With Wataru Endo marshaling Japan's midfield, the hosts kept China pinned in their own half for most of the game. This kept the pressure off a Samurai Blue backline missing first-choice central defenders Maya Yoshida and Takehiro Tomiyasu.
Although China were unable to dictate the flow, the visitors put enough bodies in the penalty area to frustrate Japan's scoring efforts for the first hour.
Ito, who plays for Belgian club Genk, was a constant threat down the right, where he and Urawa Reds' defender Hiroki Sakai represented a potent combination. A well-timed pass from Sakai found Ito to the right of the area for the cross that set up the opening penalty.
"Hiroki got the ball where I needed it," Ito said. "I was trying to chip the defender, and got lucky."
Celtic speedster Daizen Maeda came on for Osako just before the hour mark, when Nakayama replaced veteran left back Yuto Nagatomo, and the pair quickly turned up the heat on China.
After Japan's second goal, China opened up their attack and finally got off their first shot in the 70th minute, from a free kick.
Australia drubbed Vietnam 4-0 in Melbourne to improve to 14 points, one behind Japan, who will play at Australia on March 24 before finishing Group play against Vietnam on March 29.