Netherlands 1 - 0 Japan: Sneijder super strike puts Netherlands on verge of second round qualification
NETHERLANDS proved they have mastered the art of winning ugly with an uninspired victory over Japan that put them on the verge of qualifying for the second round at the World Cup.
• Netherlands' midfielder Wesley Sneijder (10) celebrates after scoring with teammates
They beat Denmark in their first Group E match with the aid of an own goal and this time benefited from a goalkeeping blunder by Eiji Kawashima that helped Wesley Sneijder's thumping shot on its way into the net after 53 minutes.
With highly-fancied teams like Spain and Germany having already tasted defeat, however, coach Bert van Marwijk was more than satisfied that they would be the first to reach the last 16 if Cameroon failed to beat the Danes later on Saturday.
"We came here to win a prize to become world champions. Now that's far from straightforward and easy," said Van Marwijk. "If we can continue to show stability, and if we maintain confidence in really winning something, we might get far. So the target is to go for the prize."
"I would love to win with beautiful football, but you've got to deal with well organised opponents," he added.
Japan, who upset Cameroon 1-0 in their opener, had gone out to frustrate their opponents but also attacked in numbers when they had the chance and will rue a string of missed chances, including substitute Shinji Okazaki blasting over late on.
"We expected the Netherlands to be frustrated but defence alone was not enough," said Japan coach Takeshi Okada. "So I told our players to be very courageous and aggressive when we had the ball."
Okada refused to blame Kawashima or the ball for the defeat despite the keeper misjudging Sneijder's winning strike. "As for the Sneijder goal, it was a good shot," he said.
Okada was nevertheless pleased with his team's effort.
"We played against a strong team and we wanted to have taken at least a point in this game," he said. "But my players did the best they could and we feel sorry for our fans.
"During the first half we frustrated Holland and I told my players to be courageous and aggressive when we have the ball. That is what they did. But we weren't able to deliver the finishing touch."
The first half was a cagey affair with Netherlands failing to exploit their domination of possession. They dominated the early exchanges and created the first chance after four minutes when Van Persie's teasing cross from the left flashed across the goal and just eluded Liverpool striker Dirk Kuyt.
Shortly after, Sneijder's curled free-kick went over the bar. At the other end, Yuto Nagatomo's right-footed strike from the edge of the area went wide.
On the half-hour mark, Yuji Nakazawa did well to clear Giovanni van Bronckhorst's cross from the right with Van Persie waiting inside the area.
Soon after, Keisuke Honda nodded high from Daisuke Matsui's free-kick. Tulio Nataka then latched onto Yasushito Endo's free-kick and his header went wide as Japan got closer.
Japan first tested Maarten Stekelenburg in the 37th minute, with Matsui's volley forcing a save from the Holland goalkeeper.
Five minutes before the break, Honda wasted a good chance when he fired a 40-yard strike way over the bar.
The Dutch came out firing after the break, however, and Robin van Persie had already wasted two chances before he seized on a loose ball in the penalty area.
With the defence closing him down, Van Persie slipped the ball to Sneijder on the edge of the box and the playmaker slammed his shot into the net off the keeper.
"What you need is a bit of luck," said Sneijder. "And we ended up at 1-0 and I think, at the end of the match, we should have ended up with 2-0 or 3-0."
The goal did bring Japan further out of their defensive shell and opened up the game but both sides conspired to squander the efforts they created.
Dutch substitute Ibrahim Afellay should have put the match beyond doubt when clear through on goal with minutes remaining but Kawashima got down well to smother his shot.
The excellent Yoshito Okubo carved out a couple of late opportunities for Japan but it was Okazaki who had the best chance to score what would have been a dramatic equaliser.
The Dutch face Cameroon in their final group match in Cape Town next week with the incentive of a return to sea level and warm weather in Durban as their reward if they top the group.
Netherlands: Stekelenburg, Van Der Wiel, Heitinga, Mathijsen, Van Bronckhorst, Kuyt, Van Bommel, De Jong, Van der Vaart (Elia 72), Sneijder (Afellay 82), van Persie (Huntelaar 87).
Japan: Kawashima, Nagatomo, Nakazawa, Tanaka, Komano, Hasebe (Okazaki 77), Matsui (Shunsuke Nakamura 64), Abe, Endo, Okubo (Tamada 77), Honda.
Referee: Hector Baldassi (Argentina).
For news, reports and video from South Africa, visit scotsman.com/worldcup2010
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