Honda 17, Endo 30, Okazaki 87
Japan showed they are no pushovers by sailing past Denmark into the last 16 of the World Cup. With Japan only needing a draw, the Asians started the more reserved of the two teams, riding out a number of hanging Danish crosses early on. It was Japan who came closest to opening the scoring on 12 minutes, a superb left-wing cross from Yoshiti Okubo was stabbed towards goal by Daisuke Matsui, only for Thomas Sorenson to get a block in. Immediately after, experienced Danish hit man John Dahl Tomasson opened up his body to slot home, only to see his shot agonisingly trickle past the post. The deadlock was broken by a stunning dipping free-kick from Keisuke Honda, which zipped in past an outstretched Sorenson. Ironically, it was another dead-ball effort which stretched Japan’s lead to two goals, this time it was Yasuhito Endo who curled it sweetly into the net. For the remainder of the first half, Japan looked like scoring in every attack. Stretching the Danish backline to the limits, Endo and Yuichi Komano both came close – the latter having a shot stunningly tipped over the bar by a busy Sorenson.
Needing the win, Denmark had little option to attack from the start of the second half. Some crosses into the box caused problems for the Japanese; however the Samurai Blue were able to counter attack with class to boot. Denmark came close with snap-shots from Thomas Kahlenberg and Eriksen, yet continued to lack the cutting edge required, with Tomasson scuffing a glorious chance from ten yards out with 20 minutes remaining. Denmark pulled a goal back after were awarded a soft penalty, which Tomasson missed before only just squeezing the rebound in. However, Japan hammered the nail in the coffin as the impressive Honda squared for Shinji Okazaki to slot into the gaping net with three minutes remaining.
Whilst arguably not the most attractive fixture on paper, this match was always going to be of intrigue given its winner-takes-all nature. The game threatened to be ruined early-doors by a rather overly officious South African referee. However, Japan soon settled into their groove, looking much more productive with the ball at their feet than their Danish opponents. CSKA Moscow forward Keisuke Honda stood out the most for the Asians, showing an impressive touch and range of passing, not to mention his superbly executed free-kick. It was interesting that there had been no cleanly hit direct free-kick goals in the tournament until tonight’s game, in which two came at once. Honda’s dipping Ronaldo-esque drive and Endo’s textbook curling strike were prime examples of the exquisite technique the Blue Samurai players possess.
As Denmark threw caution to the wind, Japan were allowed space to attack with flair and vivacity, where as Denmark toiled to create chances choosing a more direct approach that mostly consisted of hitting the ball up towards the lumbering Nicklas Bendtner. Keisuke Honda rounded off his display of complete attacking by laying Shinji Okazaki for Japan’s third goal, and his unselfish play meant he was kept from being the tournament’s surprise joint-top goal scorer to date. The final score of 3-1 was testament to the quality of a Japanese team coming into the tournament in less than inspiring form, yet who could now slip through the back door into the quarter-finals having been handed a last 16 tie against an evenly matched Paraguay.
Denmark’s rather lumbering performance raises questions as to whether they have reached the end of a generation. For more than a decade, the Olsen-Banden line-up has rarely been without the likes of Jesper Gronkjaer, Dennis Rhommedahl and John Dahl Tomasson. When these players were in their peak, Denmark were a formidable force in International competitions. The clinical Tomasson of past would have buried his first chance which trickled past the post. He would also have made proper contact with his second when he tried to latch onto a cross and direct it towards goal. The veteran striker managed to achieve the feat of equalling the Danish record of most International goals by bagging his 52nd, albeit in rather unglamorous fashion. Nonetheless, tonight’s rather stagnant team performance suggests that new blood is needed to revitalise the Danish ranks. The telltale sign must be the fact that of all the World Cup tournaments Denmark have qualified for, South Africa 2010 saw the first time they have failed to qualify from the Group stage. Nonetheless, with the likes of 18 year-old Christian Eriksen of Ajax on the cusp of the first team, the immediate future does not look too dark for the Scandinavians. With the solid Morten Olsen at the helm, it should not be long before Denmark are back in International competition.