The Netherlands put one foot in the second round with a win over a hard-working Japan side. This makes it two wins from two games for Bert Van Marwijk’s Holland, and they have not even been playing that well. That they relied here on a goalkeeping error – Eiji Kawashika fumbling Wesley Sneijder’s shot from just outside the area – for their three points merely reinforces the theory that this Dutch side are treading water until the return of Arjen Robben.
With the Bayern Munich winger still nursing a hamstring injury the Netherlands are playing with Rafael Van Der Vaart, a central midfielder, on the left wing and Dirk Kuyt, apparently a striker, on the right. It is a makeshift lineup that brings the best out of no-one and leaves Wesley Sneijder struggling to control the game as he does for Inter Milan. Much of the Dutch play was stilted, stodgy. Robin Van Persie was again a peripheral figure for large parts of the game but he cannot be blamed for receiving such poor service.
Japan had taken three points off Cameroon in their first game, giving them their first World Cup win on foreign soil, and even after this loss have a very real chance of qualification. They came here for a draw, getting men behind the ball from the first whistle and only venturing forward on the counter. But stats showing two shots on target and 35% possession do this Japanese side a disservice; this was a disciplined performance that deserved better than to be decided by an individual error.
The error in question came in the 53rd minute. The Dutch were enjoying a good spell of pressure and Robin Van Persie fed Sneijder on the edge of the area. His first-time shot was struck well but it was at a comfortable height for a keeper with a clear line of sight. Kawashima got hands on the ball but the ball carried on into the net.
Naturally this forced Japan to come out of their shell in search of an equaliser, and they duly obliged. This created space for Holland on the counter and Van Marwijk threw on Eljero Elia, the Hamburg winger who changed the game with his introduction against Denmark. His pace caused concern on the break and his good work put fellow substitute Ibrahim Afellay clear on goal, but the PSV midfielder could not finish, Kawashima reacting smartly to smother the ball.
Just two minutes from time Japan nearly levelled, Okazaki left completely unmarked but firing over, and there were half-hearted penalty appeals when Nigel De Jong tackled Nagatomo that the referee ignored. A jubliant Holland celebrated at the final whistle and there was a note of relief as they did so. Van Marwijk dead-batted criticisms of his side’s football after the match, rightly pointing at a group table that shows Holland atop the group on six points. The rest of us hope Arjen Robben’s expected return against Cameroon will result in football that is a little more Dutch than this.