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Japan earn scrappy win over North Korea in World Cup Qualifier

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Ao Tanaka’s goal after two minutes gave Japan a nervy 1-0 win over a spirited North Korea in a FIFA World Cup Qualifier in Tokyo on Thursday.

Unmarked in the centre of the box, Tanaka beat exposed goalkeeper Kang Ju Hyok and put Japan a step closer to the 2026 World Cup in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Japan have three wins from three in their group and are firmly on course to reach the next stage of the FIFA World Cup Qualifier.

Japan and North Korea are scheduled to meet again on Tuesday in Pyongyang.

Japanese news agency Kyodo reported however that North Korea may not host the qualifier after all over fears of bacterial infections in Japan.

Thursday’s victory was an unconvincing but welcome return to winning ways for Japan after a disappointing Asian Cup, where they went out 2-1 in the quarter-finals to Iran.

“It was a difficult match and I kind of feel we made it difficult for ourselves. But winning is what matters the most in the end,” Tanaka said.

Soon after taking the lead Daizen Maeda shot wide as Japan threatened to run riot. Hidemasa Morita and Ritsu Doan also had chances for the hosts.

North Korea were much livelier in the second half.

They were cheered on by a contingent of supporters from Japan’s 300,000-strong ethnic Korean community, waving flags and with their faces painted.

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Han Kwang Song’s left-footed shot hit the post before Jong Il Gwan slotted the ricochet into the net, but he was ruled offside.

The visitors also had chances through Ri Il Song’s header and soon afterwards a long-distance shot by Kang Kuk Chol.

Japan had late opportunities through Ayase Ueda, Tanaka and others to put the game to bed.

Coach Hajime Moriyasu defended Japan’s patchy performance, saying the players showed “persistence till the very end despite difficult circumstances”.

“We were able to win today because our players did their best to live up to the expectations of supporters here and behind the TV screen,” Moriyasu said.

North Korean coach Sin Yong Nam, whose side has three points from three matches in the second round of the FIFA World Cup Qualifier, apologised to their fans.

“We wanted to bring good results for our compatriots but we couldn’t, and for that, we’re very sorry,” he said.

“I know our compatriots cheered for us as if they were running together with us, and their heartful screams really lifted our spirits.

“It was a disappointing result, but we want them to remain hopeful for our next match.”

READ: Pakistan humbled by Jordan in FIFA World Cup 2026 Qualifiers

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