Kolkata : East Asian powerhouse Japan were held to a 1-1 draw by a spirited New Caledonia but scraped through to the pre-quarterifinals from Group E in the FIFA Under-17 World Cup here on Saturday.
Keito Nakamura dribbled his way past the New Caledonia defence from the right to score for Japan in the seventh minute for his fourth goal in three matches.
It looked like a walk in the park for the Japanese who toyed the U-17 World Cup debutants. But it was not to be and Japan survived a second-half scare with New Caledonia making some incisive second-half raids.
That led to the equaliser by captain Jekob Jeno who scored in the 83rd minute to earn a historic point for New Caledonia in their first U-17 World Cup appearance.
It was also the second U-17 World Cup goal for New Caledonia who scored their first goal of the tournament through Sidri Wadenges in their 1-7 defeat against France.
The draw, however, was enough for the ‘Blue Samurai’ juniors to seal a fourth pre-quarterfinal, for the first time since Mexico-2013 — in their eighth U-17 World Cup appearances.
Japan finished second behind France (nine points) with four points in Group E. In the round of 16 match on October 17 at the same venue, Japan play the winners of Group F, which could be either England or Iraq.
New Caledonia, who were eliminated, will return home with some pride after leaking 12 goals from two matches.
Making nine changes in their starting line-up, Japan almost took a second minute lead when Naoki Tsubaki’s right- footer from the left side of the six-yard box missed the target.
In the 34th minute, Nakamura’s right footed shot from the centre of the box was blocked by Pierre Bako, while in the 42nd minute his shot from the centre of the box was again blocked.
The Oceania qualifiers seemed lucky and must thank the woodwork for conceding just one goal at the break.
Akito Tanahashi’s shot hit the upright and again late in the first-half Japan were denied a goal when Taichi Yamasaki’s header from the centre of the box hit the right post.
Japan enjoyed a 69 per cent ball possession in the first-half but could not add up to their goal tally.
New Caledonia had their first attempt at the goal by Theo Bosshard in the 31st minute but only to miss an open net in a one-on-one situation with goalkeeper Togo Umeda who made his U-17 World Cup debut.
New Caledonia almost scored in the 82nd minute when Vita Longue’s left-footer from a Neil Wahiobe assist missed the far post by a few inches as they made some inroads into the Japan box with a late surge.
A minute later, Jeno headed home from a very close range to the bottom left corner of the net after being set up by Bako with a headed pass following a corner as New Caledonia return home with their heads held high.