Brisbane: Keisuke Honda converted a penalty to make amends for hitting the post three times as a wasteful Japan held on to beat Iraq 1-0 in their Asian Cup Group D match on Friday.
Honda made no mistake with his spot kick, however, sending Iraqi goalkeeper Jalal Hassan the wrong way to score the only goal of the match in the 23rd minute at Lang Park.
Despite scoring the winner, the attacking midfielder could have scored at least four goals but struck the woodwork three times, including twice from close-range, as the defending champions squandered a series of chances to extend their lead.
The result elevated Japan to the top of the group on six points from two matches and needing only a point from their final match against Jordan to reach the quarter-finals.
Iraq and Jordan each have three points with Palestine on none, and all four teams still have a mathematical chance of advancing or being eliminated.
Japan were awarded the penalty after Honda, who also scored a spot kick in Monday`s 4-0 win over Palestine, was felled after getting sandwiched between Ali Adnan and Saad Abdul Amir as he tried to control a rebound from Shinji Kagawa`s saved shot.
Japan should have taken the lead earlier when Yuto Nagatomo stole the ball off Iraq defensive midfielder Amjed Kalaf and crossed to Honda, who missed the target from inside the six-yard box, heading straight onto the base of the post.
Japan dominated possession throughout the match but were haunted by poor finishing with Kagawa spraying a shot across the goal and Shinji Okazaki heading the ball straight to Hassan in the first half.
Iraq, who opened their campaign with a 1-0 win over Jordan, were unable to create many clear-cut chances with Ahmed Ibrahim`s climb above the Japanese defence to test keeper Eiji Kawashima, the biggest threat for the 2007 Asian Cup winners in the opening half.
Japan continued to squander chances after the break with the Italy-based Honda the biggest culprit.
Honda unleashed a shot from outside the box two minutes after the re-start that hit the crossbar then incredibly hit the woodwork again midway through the half after Hiroshi Kiyotake`s cross offered the AC Milan player a virtual tap-in.
Iraq were more dangerous in the second half, launching some occasional counter-attacks, but never really came close to finding an equaliser though they remain in a good position to qualify with their final match against Palestine, who have conceded nine goals in their first two games.