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FIFA World Cup: Netherlands edge Japan 1-0 in dour battle

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sneijder_vdv.jpgA Wesley Sneijder screamer complimented by a misjudged save from Eiji Kawashima was enough for the Netherlands to eke out a 1-0 victory over Japan and pull through to the top of Group E, in an otherwise uninspiring FIFA World Cup Group E encounter at Durban today. The Netherlands were far from their flowing best, having struggled to expose weaknesses in the Japanese backline in the first half. However, they did not rush the issue, instead showing great composure and belief in their style of play, eventually breaking down the resolute Asian outfit, and for all practical purposes confirming qualification in turn.

Coming on the back of comprehensive victories over Denmark and Cameroon respectively, both Netherlands and Japan fielded unchanged sides. This meant that Arjen Robben, nursing injury, was once again left on the bench with the Dutch going in with their favoured 4-2-3-1. Arsenal striker Robin van Persie was the lone man upfront, expected to hold the ball with the likes of Wesley Sneijder and Rafael Van der Vaart applying added pressure. Japan were, in turn, playing with quite an aggressive 4-3-3 formation when with the ball, which would turn into 4-5-1 without it. The onus of scoring against the Dutch lying primarily on the Keisuke Honda - Daisuke Matsui duo.

With the two teams employing contrasting styles, the game was never expected to be a goal-fest, but one wouldn't have expected a dull affair either. The latter was unfortunately what the first half turned out to be though, with Japan happy to soak up all the pressure, and shots on goal spotted as rarely as water-bodies in a desert. Possession percentage in the half was as lopsided as it can be, with Netherlands enjoying 76% as against Japan's 24%, and yet managing just one shot on target!

With Japan happy to sit back, one would have expected the Dutch to show a lot more purpose with their possession, but they looked happy to take their time, slowly moving the ball up field, only for Japan to break down play in the final third. The Netherlands started the stronger side, with a flurry of set pieces in the opening minutes, but some wasteful efforts and Dirk Kuyt's failure to add any creative spark to the opportunities at his feet meant the advantage drifted away.

Slowly but surely, Japan gained some foothold and surprisingly ended the half better than their opponents, creating the first real chance of the game. Finding some space on the break, Japan found three of their forwards inside the box and with the ball played back to Matsui just outside the box; he managed an off-balance shot on target, to give Maarten Stekelenburg some work, finally.

The second period saw a much improved and purposeful start from the Dutch, with Van Persie putting in some real good work. First he produced a header from a Giovanni Van Bronckhorst cross, but powered it straight at Kawashima in goal. A minute later Van Persie produced a first time shot but put it the wrong side of the post. The Dutch then had a flurry of set pieces to start a spell of sustained pressure.

The accumulated pressure from the free-kick from Tulio's foul and a subsequent three corners finally bore result in the form of a Sneijder rocket from 20-yards out, crashing into the back of the net thanks to a Kawashima howler. Sneijder let fly from a Van Persie set-up and though it should have been an easy one for Kawashima, the Japanese goalie could only manage a weak poke at the ball which resulted in it rebounding off his hands into the goal.

While the goal calmed Dutch nerves, it also acted as a catalyst for Japan, with their game almost taking a U-turn. What followed was some excellent play from the Asians, transpiring into three corners of their own in the next seven minutes, as the minnows battled hard to rescue a point. Shunsuke Nakamura was thrust in place of the tiring Matsui, as the game suddenly sprung to life, with the Dutch also looking pepped up. An apparently injured Van der Vaart soon made way for Eljiro Elia, as Japan made a double change, with both sides putting pressure as the final ten minutes approached.

With time ticking away, Ibrahim Afellay (in for Sneijder) should have doubled the Dutch lead in the 86th minute, but instead got a heavy touch on the ball, for Kawashima to smother the chance easily. Japan got a golden opportunity to level, almost in the final minute, with the ball headed into the area for Shinji Okazaki to find himself all alone. With time and space at his mercy, Okazaki should have found the net, but sent the ball over the bar instead.

That was the closest the Japanese got to the Dutch goal, and minutes later their defeat was confirmed, sparking celebrations on the Dutch bench. With that tough but well earned win, Netherlands move top of Group E with 6 points, and barring a calamity on the final day, they should find themselves in the last 16. Things are now complicated for Japan, as they compete with Cameroon and Denmark for the second place in the group. The latter two teams do battle in the final game tonight, with the winner (if any) set to join Japan at 3 points.

The Teams:

Netherlands (4-2-3-1): Stekelenburg (GK), Mathijsen, Heitenga, Van Brockhorst, Van der Wiel, De Jong, Van Bommel, Van Persie (Jan Huntelaar 88'), Sneijder (Afellay 83'), Van der Vaart (Elia 72'), Kuyt.

Japan (4-3-3): Kawashima, Tulio, Nakazawa, Nagatomo, Komano, Abe, Endo, Hasebe (Okazaki 77'), Okubo (Tamada 77'), Honda, Matsui (Nakamura 64').

Final Score: Netherlands 1-0 Japan (Sneijder 53')

Check out the Points Table

Also Read:

Denmark 2 - 1 Cameroon Match Report

File Photograph Copyright: Patrick de Laive

Fans Photo by 2010 FIFA World Cup Organising Committee South Africa

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