Australia hold off Japan to stay on course for finals

Australia took a major step towards qualifying for the 2010 World Cup finals by securing a scoreless draw away at Japan yesterday in a key Asian qualifier. The result maintained unbeaten Australia's two-point lead atop Group One halfway through the last full round of qualifying. The Socceroos, with 10 points, have three of their last four matches at home.

The top two teams in the group qualify automatically for the finals in South Africa next summer. Japan have eight points and are still in prime position to qualify from the five-team group, with a four-point cushion to third-placed Qatar.

Japan had their best scoring chances in the second half at Nissan Stadium and controlled much of the possession, but were often stifled by Australia's packed defence and midfield. "It was a home game that we should have won," said Japan defender Yuji Nakazawa. "We created a lot of chances and didn't get the result we wanted but have to stay positive for the next game."

"It's a great result," Australia and Everton midfielder Tim Cahill said. "They've had five weeks preparing, we've had two days." Australia, who maintained their record of not conceding a goal in their four group games, fielded a largely defensive line-up and managed to keep Japan at arm's length in a sluggish first half. Japan manager Takeshi Okada brought on Wolfsburg striker Yoshito Okubo early in the second half in an attempt to create more scoring chances and the move paid off.

Yasuhito Endo came close in the 69th minute with a shot that Australia goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer deflected over the bar. Keiji Tamada had a free header from a Yuta Nagatomo cross 10 minutes later but his attempt rose inches over the bar.

The hosts came closest in the 86th minute when Makoto Hasebe's goal-bound close-range shot deflected off Okubo and wide of the post.

Australia, still without veteran stars Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka as they make their way back from injury, wore black armbands during the match and both teams observed a minute's silence before kick-off in memory of those killed in the fires in Australia.

Japan had also been held to a draw in their previous home game against Uzbekistan but have won both their away games. Next up for them are Bahrain on 28 March, when Australia are not in action. Yesterday's game was the latest installment in a growing rivalry between the two nations. Australia beat Japan 3-1 in the group stage of the 2006 World Cup in Germany, while Japan knocked Australia out of the 2007 Asian Cup with a penalty shoot-out win in the quarter-finals.

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