World Cup: Netherlands vs. Japan: Wesley Sneijder's goal puts Dutch close to final 16
First it was England's Robert Green. Then it was Algeria's Faouzi Chaouchi. On Saturday, it was the turn of Japan's Eiji Kawashima to make the goalkeeping blunder that cost his team precious World Cup points.
Ten minutes into the second half of what, until then, had been a dull match between the Netherlands and Japan, Kawashima tried to punch away a stinging 20-yard shot by Dutch midfielder Wesley Sneijder but succeeded only in deflecting the ball into his own net.
Perhaps it was the power of the shot. Perhaps it was the idiosyncrasy of the untrustworthy World Cup ball. Whatever the reason, Kawashima's error was enough to give the Dutch a 1-0 victory and all but mathematically secured them a place in the final 16 of the tournament.
Argentina was the first country in the field of 32 to win its place in the knockout phase, and it is now almost sure to be joined by the Netherlands, the team it defeated to win the 1978 World Cup final in Buenos Aires.
The Netherlands has six points from two games; Japan has three from two; Denmark and Cameroon, which play each other in Pretoria on Saturday night, are still seeking their first point.
Even though they are unbeaten and have yet to concede a goal, the Dutch are not yet firing on all cylinders. The continued absence of winger Arjen Robben is the likely reason. Robben has recovered from an injury and is now working on match fitness.
When he returns, which might be in the Netherlands' third game, against Cameroon on Thursday, the Dutch might turn into a definite contender to at least reach the quarterfinals, where Brazil might await them.
Both teams fielded the same starting lineups Saturday that they had employed in their opening-game victories, Japan having overcome Cameroon, 1-0, and the Netherlands having beaten Denmark, 2-0.
Japan Coach Takeshi Okada made no secret of his tactical approach. The emphasis, he said, would be on defense, on thwarting the creative Dutch midfielders and forwards and hitting the Netherlands on the counterattack.
The plan worked perfectly in the first half and the frustration mounted minute by minute for Sneijder, Robin van Persie, Rafael van der Vaart, Dirk Kuyt and the rest of the star-studded but uninspired Dutch lineup. In fact, they managed only one shot on target.
With 10 players behind the ball, the Blue Samurai were impenetrable. It did not make for attractive, or even interesting soccer, but by the time the first 45 minutes were over, Japan was well on its way to earning a valuable point.
But by the time the half was over, the fans at Durban's Moses Mabhida Stadium could have been forgiven for nodding off to sleep.
Fortunately, Sneijder's goal off Kawashima's futile punch woke everyone up and made the second half a better spectacle, albeit it a disappointing outcome for the Japanese.
There is still hope, however. A victory over Denmark in Rustenburg on Thursday would put Japan in the final 16.
--Grahame L, Jones, reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa
Photo: Netherlands midfielder Wesley Snejder and Japan defender Yuji Nakazawa battle for possession of the ball during their World Cup Group E match on Saturday at Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, South Africa. Credit: Karim Jaafar / AFP / Getty Images