By Kier Lymn
After a somewhat adequate performance against Denmark, The Netherlands were understandably eager to improve going into the game against Japan in Durban. The Japanese have proved though that they are not to be taken lightly, as they pulled off a superb win against Cameroon in round one.
As with many a game at the tournament so far, the opening stages were disappointing. The traditional and somewhat emotional proceedings of the anthems suggested both teams were in the mood for a fiercely contested game, but as we saw against the Danes, the Oranje began cautiously. An early foul on Robin Van Persie leads to Wesley Sneijder’s first free kick of the game which is blasted into a vast expanse of the stadium. Japanese defender Komono was injured in the clash with Van Persie and thus sports an imaginative display of bandaging. Needless to say he looks ridiculous.
Photo from fOTOGLIF
Dirk Kuyt attempted to raise the level of play, optimistically launching himself into an over head kick which did not quite go where he’d hoped. This half chance for the Dutch looked to have sparked the Japanese into life and finally they got their passing game going. They used this to good effect in the warm up match against England and Nagatomo came close to an opening goal, as he fires just past Steckelenberg’s far post.
Sensing a change of tact is needed after half an hour, Japan decide to lump the ball into the box via set pieces. Honda and Tulio both nod over crosses from Endo which probably deserved better. Japan immediately built on this spell of pressure and soon created the best chance of the game, as Matsui fired a left footed volley at Steckelenberg who handled it well. In the final minute of the half, Van der Vaart finally tests Japanese keeper Kawashima with a half volley which he is also equal too.
At the half we reflected on a game that has so far pitted two seemingly equal teams against one another. As yet Gregory Van der Wiel has not been as attack minded as he was against the Danes but still looks very comfortable in the Dutch defence. Japan would have probably admitted they were the underdogs going into this one but had matched every one of The Netherlands few punches up to now. You feel their organized approach could yet serve them very well.
Into the second half then and the Dutch began with a much more inventive approach as Van Bommel lifted a decent ball into Van Persie which is crying to be lashed goalwards. Van Persie’s attempt is nothing to write home about but sensing a route to goal, Van Bommel crosses effectively twice more from set pieces which are dealt with well by the commanding Marcos Tulio. Van Bommel’s next cross however does make the breakthrough. As Japan fail to clear, it falls in the one place you wouldn’t want it to, the feet of Sneijder. His shot was registered at 65mph and Kawashima did well to get anything on it at all, his parry deflecting it into the right hand corner and Sneijder is already celebrating.
The goal did nothing to quash the spirit of the Japanese and it was they who had the best of the next twenty minutes. Their slick passing game pressed the Netherlands who thankfully saw two Akubo efforts dealt with comfortably. Van der Wiel then prevented a cross to Honda coming in with a superb block, the type that will undoubtedly prevent goals in this tournament. Van Persie is the next Dutch player to have to deal with a Japanese cross and he sliced the ball over his own bar. The Netherlands seemed to be showing nervousness at the back as Japan press, which emphasized that the Dutch lead may have been fragile.
The experience of Dutch defenders Heijtinga and Mathijsen helped to weather the storm and the Netherlands did very well to hold their lead. The introduction of Ibrahim Affelay and Elijero Elia sparked the Denmark game into life and this was the impact Bert Van Marwijk hoped for again as the two came on. It wasn’t long before Affelay had the opportunity to wrap the game up as a counter attack saw him fire at Kawashima who saved well, when perhaps he could have released Van Persie who was in a good position to his left. In the final minute its heart in mouth time for the Dutch as Okazaki brought the ball down and fired over inside the area. The referee must have been thinking about putting whistle to lips as Nagatomo went down in the area and for a split second the Oranje thought he had pointed to the spot but was in fact indicating a goal kick.
As the final whistle goes, The Netherlands are left to reflect on a below par performance. As with the win over Denmark, the Oranje did just enough to win with another functional performance. It has to be said if the Dutch continue to win in this manner, who knows how far Bert Van Marwijk’s men can go.