Both Holland and Japan came into this second round Group E game with three points already in the bag and the chance to be the first team to book their place in the last 16. Although the Dutch had eased through 2 – 0 against Denmark in their opening match, the score line there belied a frustrated performance in which the Dutch were unable to play their own game against tenacious opponents.
Japan on the other hand could feel satisfied with their victory over the Cameroon and must have taken notes from Denmark on how to approach the clear favourites in this match and group. Their solid defensive tactics proved impossible for the Dutch to break down and the first half finished with no clear chances coming from either side. Both teams had made no changes to their team sheets from the opening victories and it looked like the Dutch superstars Sneijder and Van Der Vaart were in danger of cancelling each other out again in this match.
Holland were crying out for some inspiration and one couldn’t help thinking that had Robben been fit to play, his width and pace would have provided some much needed creativity to liven up this game. The half finished where the England game had left off the night before: dull, dreary and disappointing, for the favourites Holland at least.
A Danish own goal in the opening minutes of the second half had been the key to unlocking Holland’s great potential in their first game and it was a similarly fortuitous goal that broke the deadlock here.
After 45 minutes of near faultless shutting-out form the Japanese, Sneijder unleashed a bullet shot from ten yards outside the box that seemed to blow the cobwebs off the striker, his team and the game itself. Although at first glance the shot seemed destined to fly straight into the net, it was in fact the goal keeper who turned the ball in. The Japanese may wonder whether the two much more experienced keepers on the bench would have done a better job. But in fairness to Kawashima the Jabulani ball did seem to move unnaturally in the air to throw the young keeper’s line off.
Nevertheless it was 1-0 and just what this game had needed. The Japanese were forced to respond and in fairness to them they dominated possession for most of the second half. Tulio, who was formidable defending the Japanese goal also popped up a couple of times in attack and he and winger Okubo both looked like they could have scored.
Teammate Okazaki came dangerously close to equalising in the dying seconds but skied his left foot shot from just outside the 6 yard box and in the end it was Holland who finished on a flourish. Substitute Afellay, who is routinely compared to Van Basten, nearly sealed the win with his first touch of the ball, cutting into the box with a decisive run only to be denied by some very brave goalkeeping.
It finished 1 – 0 and the Dutch will be satisfied with doing what needed to be done but their fans will have to wait for the ‘total football’ that their team seems itching to play but yet unable to deliver.
Holland: Stekelenburg, Van Der Wiel Yellow card, Heitinga, Mathijsen, Van Bronckhorst Captain, Van Bommel, De Jong, Sneijder (Afellay, 82), Van der Vaart (Elia, 72), Kuyt, Van Persie (Huntelaar, 87)
Japan: Kawashima, Komano, Tanaka, Nagatomo, Nakazawa, Abe, Endo, Matsui (Nakamura, 64), Hasebe Captain (Okazaki, 77), Honda, Okubo (Tamada, 77)