BRISBANE, Australia — Keisuke Honda converted a penalty and hit the woodwork three times as defending champion Japan edged Iraq 1-0 Friday to take the Group D lead and move a step closer to qualifying for the Asian Cup quarterfinals.
The AC Milan attacker was successful from the spot in the 23rd minute after he was dragged down in the area amid challenges by Ali Adnan and Saad Abdulameer as he tried to regain possession after Shinji Kagawa's close-range shot was blocked.
Honda was enterprising in attack, creating numerous opportunities for Japan but lacked the finishing touch, including two occasions from point-blank range.
He got into perfect position for a pinpoint cross from Yuto Nagatomo in the 17th but hit the post with his header from two yards out.
Honda hit the crossbar with a right-foot strike from the edge of the area two minutes into the second half and he hit the post from close range again in the 65th after substitute midifielder Hiroshi Kiyotake crossed from the left.
"That's football, right? I made big chances, so yeah, I am happy to make three chances," he said, "but of course I have to score. I have to reflect on that."
Japan leads the group with six points, three clear of 2007 champion Iraq and Jordan, which beat Palestine 5-1 in Melbourne earlier Friday. The four-time champions next play Jordan and need a point to ensure they advance from a group where both spots in the knockout round are still up for grabs.
"I will score next game," said Honda, who was voted player of the match, in his post-match news conference.
Japan dominated possession throughout and had 14 shots, forcing Iraq goalkeeper Jalal Hassan into four saves. Iraq managed only five shots, with two on target.
"Today was a very complicated game. Iraq defended well — we could not penetrate," Japan coach Javier Aguirre said. "We had two or three chances to make a difference, but didn't score."
Aguirre said it was important to win without sustaining any injuries, and was satisfied with the way his team approached the game after its opening 4-0 win over tournament newcomer Palestine.
He also commended veteran Gamba Osaka midfielder Yasuhito Endo for his contribution in his 150th game for Japan.
Iraq's best opportunities were from free kicks, including one from Adnan that hit the wall and landed on top of the net in the 53rd, and counter attacks. Yaser Kasim and Amjed Kalaf combined on the right and put Younis Mahmoud into good position just before half time but the veteran striker could not get a clean shot and Japan 'keeper Eiji Kawshima easily handled it.
Iraq coach Radhi Shenaishel said Japan was better prepared and his team was still working its way into the tournament, aiming for a big win over Palestine in its last match.
"Of course our ticket to qualifying for the next round will be from this match," he said. "Palestine will want to come up with a positive result to leave this competition. It won't be easy."
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