The Netherlands put one foot firmly into the knockout stages after grinding out a victory over Japan. Wesley Sneijder struck for the only goal of the game early in the second half as the Dutch made it two wins out of two in Group E
In a cagey first half, there was little action in front of goal. Sneijder fired a 9th minute freekick over the bar before Dirk Kuyt had his overhead effort blocked a minute later. Soon after, Yuto Nagatomo burst into the box at the other end, firing just past the far post. The game hit a lull for 20 minutes before Japan twice put headers off target from freekicks, first through Keisuke Honda and then Marcus Tulio Tanaka. Rafael van der Vaart shot from the corner of the area in stoppage time but it was straight at Eiji Kawashima.
The Dutch took the lead after 53 minutes, thanks in part to a goalkeeping error. Sneijder lashed a fierce shot from 20 yards towards the near post where Kawashima should have turned it away for a corner. Instead, the ball deflected off his left wrist in the opposite direction and into the far side of the net. Japan came close to an immediate equaliser when Yoshito Okubo curled just over the angle from the edge of the area. Minutes later, Yuki Abe got his head to Yasuhito Endo’s freekick but it bounced safely through to Maarten Stekelenburg. The introduction of Ibrahim Afellay with eight minutes left almost brought a clinching goal for the Dutch. First he burst clear down the left but his touch into the box was heavy and Kawashima was quickly out to block at his feet. Moments after, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar slipped Afellay through but Kawashima just got enough on the ball as it was poked under his body and Tulio cleared behind for a corner. Shinji Okazaki should have equalised on 90 minutes but his left footed shot close in from an angle was just over the bar.
Despite all the possession enjoyed by the Netherlands in the first half, it was Japan who carried the greater danger. The Japanese were content to play a defensive game for large parts of the half but their sudden turns of pace were beginning to worry the Dutch defence. Although Japan rarely looked capable of scoring through open play, they began to draw fouls in the Dutch half as the game moved towards half-time. It was from the resultant freekicks that a goal looked most likely to arrive. The Netherlands had more than two thirds of the ball in the opening 45 minutes but had hardly anything to show for it, thanks in part to their own lack of invention as well as to Japan pressing them all over the pitch, stifling them and forcing them backwards.
The Dutch problems were the same experienced in the first half of their opening match with Denmark. The lack of natural width was forcing them to try and play through the middle of the Japanese barricades, with Rafael van der Vaart again looking uneasy playing from the left. With the ageing Giovanni van Bronckhorst playing behind him, there was little in the way of an overlapping run and van der Vaart was increasingly drawn inside into Sneijder’s territory. It was the Japanese left-back Nagatomo who was the more willing to get forward, firing just wide early on and chasing down Gregory van der Wiel on other occasions.
Sneijder’s goal eight minutes after the break was a result of a livelier start to the half by the Netherlands but it also had the effect of forcing the Japanese into action. The shot was well struck by Sneijder and contained plenty of venom but Kawashima will feel he should have kept it out. He got across his goal quickly diving to his right and had his body behind the effort but his hands moved too far across the flight of the ball, the ball catching his trailing wrist and skewing into the goal. The ball appeared to move at the last moment but it should still have been a routine save considering his positioning.
Eljero Elia again made an appearance for the Dutch from the bench, although he failed to have the same impact that he had against Denmark. It is arguable that he should have been given the whole second half after the van der Vaart experiment on the left again proved underwhelming, but the urgency to make the change subsided thanks to another early goal after the break. The late cameo by Afellay offers van Marwijk another possible option, with the 24-year-old looking very lively in his short run out. Arjen Robben is back in training but whether he will be risked against Cameroon remains to be seen. Japan made their own late substitutions as they looked to find a levelling goal. Having been spurred into a more attacking mindset by going a goal behind, they still struggled to produce much to test Stekelenburg and it took until after the introduction of an additional striker for their best chance to come.
Netherlands Stekelenburg – van der Wiel, Heitinga, Mathijsen, van Bronckhorst; van Bommel, De Jong – Kuyt, Sneijder, van der Vaart; van Persie
Japan Kawashima – Komano, Nakazawa, Tulio, Nagatomo – Endo, Abe, Hasebe, Okubo, Matsui – Honda