Leicester City striker Shinji Okazaki celebrated his 50th international goal Tuesday as Japan brushed aside Thailand 4-0 to edge closer to a sixth successive World Cup.
Shinji Kagawa gave the hosts the lead in their Asian Group B qualifier with a sharp finish after eight minutes, before Okazaki thundered home a diving header to bring up his half-century in swashbuckling style.
Okazaki’s landmark goal, on his 108th Japan appearance, came on 19 minutes in Saitama and effectively killed the contest.
Yuya Kubo and Maya Yoshida added further goals for the Blue Samurai after the break, and Eiji Kawashima saved a late penalty to deny rock-bottom Thailand a consolation.
Japan, who won 2-0 in the United Arab Emirates last Thursday, provisionally took top spot with 16 points from seven games.
But Saudi Arabia can move back above them on goal difference with victory over Iraq in Jeddah later on Tuesday.
“I’m incredibly happy to get that goal,” Okazaki told reporters. “I hadn’t scored for a while so it was a relief. Hopefully I can keep on scoring goals for Japan.”
“We’re not at the World Cup yet,” he added. “We have to make sure we keep taking our chances and win our remaining games.”
Australia, the reigning Asian champions, are three points behind Japan with three matches left after beating the Emirates 2-0 at home.
The top two teams from each group qualify automatically for next year’s World Cup in Russia.
Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic refused to get carried away after a great week for his side.
“I have to congratulate the players on two super victories,” said the Franco-Bosnian.
“It wasn’t an easy game today and they gave us a few problems but we produced an effective performance.”
“We scored four lovely goals, which helps our cause as goal difference could prove to be crucial,” he added.
“But we have put ourselves in a good position to qualify for the World Cup with three big games left.”
Thai coach Kiatisuk Senamuang, who signed a one-year contract extension before the game, paid tribute to Japan afterwards.
“Japan pass and finish so well so we have no complaints,” he said after his team were mathematically eliminated from qualifying for Russia.
“They’re very clinical in taking their chances. It was a lesson for us and a good experience. One day the path to the World Cup will open up to us.”