19 June 2010

Netherlands 1-0 Japan

Van der Wiel – Heitinga – Mathijsen – Van Bronckhorst
Van Bommel – De Jong
Kuyt – Sneijder – Van der Vaart
Van Persie

Komano Nakazawa Tulio Nagatomo
Matsui Abe Endo Okubo

Sneijder 53'

Almost decided against writing a review of this one. Outside of Sneijder's goal and Holland at least being capable of passing the ball to each other, it wasn't that much more watchable than yesterday's English assault on the eyes.

I guess Japan should reap the praise for that, almost completely stifling Holland's attack, as they set out to do. They gave the Dutch possession in the less dangerous two-thirds of the pitch, but relentlessly closed down in the final third. Abe shadowed Sneijder absolutely everywhere, leaving little room to weave his magic. I lost count of the number of back-passes, and that's difficult for someone used to watching Liverpool intently. True to form, Japan were well-organized and diligent, and Holland, who were bereft of ideas or incisiveness for long stretches against Denmark, struggled to cope.

Outside of a two moments in 10th – where Sneijder's dangerous free kick narrowly rose over the bar and Kuyt's acrobatic bicycle kick was headed away – and one in the 45th – where van der Vaart's speculative (but on-target) shot was smothered by Kawashima – Holland rarely threatened. And Japan demonstrated their own minor threat on the counter, with Nagatomo shooting wide while Honda and Tulio headed set piece half-chances high and wide.

Thankfully, Sneijder broke the deadlock soon after halftime with a goal that'll be blamed on both ball and keeper. But more of the blame should go to how hard Wesley struck his shot. Van Persie laid off after claiming a defensive header down, and Sneijder nearly broke the goal camera with his ferocious strike. Kawashima could only palm the ball into his own net thanks to the swerve most likely aided by Adidas' delightfully-controversial Jabulani. It never looks good when a goal goes in off the goalkeeper, but there was little Kawashima could do thanks to how hard Sneijder hit the shot.

Forced out of their shell by the deficit, Japan put Holland on the back foot, with left-winger Okubo threatening with outside-the-box strikes and both fullbacks getting forward well. Strikers Okazaki and Tamada replaced midfielders Hasabe and Okubo with 15 minutes to play, but it was the Netherlands who should have scored next, with Kawashima twice denying efforts from substitute Afellay. Notably, both chances were supplied by the other substitutes. The first came on the counter, put through on goal by Elia, only to overrun and sees his close range shot saved. Three minutes later, Huntelaar cleverly turned his defender to set up Afellay, only to see Kawashima there again, with the ball subsequently scrambled off the line.

Just as New Zealand punishing Slovakia a week ago, Holland could have conceded a late equalizer as a deep cross was flicked on to Okazawi, only to see the striker blaze over an eight-yard half-volley. And the Netherlands escape with another anti-Dutch win, at least anti- the Dutch we're used to seeing romp in the group stage. But they'll qualify for the knockout round today with a Danish win or draw.

It may not be smashing stuff, as we hope for from Clockwork Orange, but the Netherlands only have to glance in England, France, or Spain's direction to see true difficulty. They're on pace to be the first to advance from the groups. And while I'm well aware it's a bit early for the mention, I can't help but reference Italy's stereotypical "slow starts" before coming together as a true tournament team. Also applicable are the old standbys about "winning ugly." Here's hoping we soon see similar.

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