Leicester City striker Shinji Okazaki provided the spark as Japan overcame a slow start to crush Afghanistan 5-0 at home in a World Cup qualifier on Thursday.
Okazaki, whose goals have helped propel Leicester’s astonishing English Premier League title charge, pounced 2 minutes before halftime to give the Samurai Blue a lead they barely deserved.
Finding himself in space on the edge of the box, Okazaki took full advantage to steer the ball inside the post for his 48th goal in 99 internationals after a frustrating first half from the Group E leaders in chilly Saitama.
Hiroshi Kiyotake added a second 13 minutes after the break, before Hiroki Sakai’s attempted cross was deflected in and defender Maya Yoshida headed a fourth.
Mu Kanazaki celebrated a bundled fifth as if he had won the World Cup for Japan, who improved to 19 points from seven games in the second round of qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup and 2019 Asian Cup.
Should Syria, which now trails the Japanese by four points, fail to beat Cambodia later on Thursday, Japan’s passage to the third round of World Cup qualifiers would be secured.
If that game goes with form, however, Japan can complete the job when it faces Syria at home on Tuesday in its final match.
Prowling the touchline, Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic, whose side thrashed Afghanistan 6-0 last September in the reverse fixture, could barely conceal his disgust at a sloppy first-half display.
When Yuto Nagatomo blazed over, the silver-haired Franco-Bosnian waved his arms and bellowed furiously in the direction of the Inter Milan defender, before spinning on his heel to deliver a volley to his bench.
The home side failed to ignite after the break either against a team ranked almost 100 places below them by FIFA, the further goals failing to paper over the cracks for Halilhodzic, who has done little to improve Japan’s fortunes since taking over last year.
“I thought we played very well and I congratulate my players,” Halilhodzic said. “I think the fans will be happy with this performance. We will look to finish the job with a win against Syria.”