[GROUP E] The favored Netherlands closed out group play with maximum points by rallying to beat Cameroon, 2-1, while Japan advanced for only the second time in its history by racing past Denmark, 3-1. Here's what we liked and didn't like from Thursday's Group E games. ...
What we liked ...
-- GOING FOR IT. Maybe Danish coach Morten Olsen believed Japan, needing only a tie to advance, would take a cautious approach, as he probably would have done in the same situation. Instead, Japan pressed and pushed the game, and the bewildered Danes couldn’t contain Keisuke Honda, Daisuke Matsui and Yohsito Okubo. They kept the ball moving and the Danes scrambling.
After building a 2-0 lead on free-kick goals by Honda and Yasuhito Endo, Japan gave up a goal in the 81st minute when Jon Dahl Tomasson buried the rebound of his saved penalty kick. Rather than killing off the final minutes, since even a tying goal wouldn't edge Denmark into second place, Japan’s attacks continued and substitute Shinji Okazaki tapped in a pass from Honda to round out an impressive 3-1 win.
-- HITTING ON ALL CYLINDERS is just one of numerous puns applied to the mesmerizing midfielder whose orange hair and flashing feet seems certain to spread a new notoriety of Honda around the world. His fierce, dipping free kick in the 17th minute, with virtually no spin, got Japan rolling. After slicing up the Danes several times with his passes and dribbles, he jinked and darted free in the penalty area to serve up the ball to Okazaki.
Honda turned 24 earlier this month and moved to CSKA Moscow last winter after three seasons in the Netherlands with VVV Venlo. Off his displays at this World Cup and limited duty for CSKA, he’s poised to supplant Hidetoshi Nakata and Shinji Ono as the biggest Japanese success stories in European soccer.
-- ORANGE WORLD. The Dutch have seldom dazzled thus far, yet are gaining momentum as well as health. Arjen Robben, who missed the first two group games with a hamstring injury, played the last 17 minutes, during which another sub, Klaas Jan Huntelaar, scored the winning goal. The man he replaced, Robin Van Persie, scored his first goal of the tournament. With Wesley Sneijder as midfield hub, the Netherlands is an intriguing contender, but can it match or exceed the 1998 team that reached the semifinals?
-- BALL, BE FREE! Honda and Endo hit their kicks in different ways with different feet from different angles and still beat Danish keeper Thomas Sorensen. Perhaps they have worked enough with the Jabulani ball to master its idiosyncrasies, if there were any to be bothered with in the first place.
What we didn’t like ...
-- ET TU, ETO’O? Coach Paul Le Guen chose to play Samuel Eto’o in midfield, as he did at the tail end of the club season for Inter Milan, rather than play him as a striker, where he’s found most of his success. He also dropped mainstay Alexandre Song, supposedly for critical comments. Some European coaches have flourished in Africa, but Le Guen – a Frenchman – didn’t push the right buttons for the Indomitable Lions, who lost all three group games, and has resigned.
Eto’o converted a penalty kick to briefly tie up the Netherlands-Cameroon game at 1-1, but heading home without a point is a painful reminder that the promise shown by Cameroon 20 years ago, when it reached the quarterfinals and nearly beat England, has yet to be fulfilled.