SAITAMA, Japan (AP) -Japan took a significant stride toward a place at the 2014 World Cup by beating Iraq 1-0 on Tuesday, extending its commanding lead in Group B of Asian qualifying.
Iraq performed creditably after fielding a very inexperienced team, with coach Zico - formerly in charge of Japan - changing the entire starting lineup from the previous qualifier and only using stars Younes Mahmoud and Nashat Akram as second-half substitutes.
The visitors still created some genuine chances but couldn't hit back after Ryoichi Maeda's 25th-minute goal, which resulted from some lax defending. Shinji Okazaki snuck in behind the defense from a throw-in and volleyed in a cross that an unmarked Maeda headed in from close range.
"We knew if we played our brand of football we could get the result we wanted," Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni said. "We're happy to get the three points as we want to qualify as soon as possible."
Needing to finish in the top two to automatically qualify for Brazil, Japan moved eight points clear on top of the standings after four of eight games, though group rivals Jordan and Australia can make up ground when they meet later on Tuesday.
In Group A, leader South Korea visited Uzbekistan while Lebanon hosted second-place Iran.