The task is straightforward for Japan and Denmark on Thursday: qualify for the next round. Win, and the adventure continues. Lose, and the plane home awaits. Either way, it promises to be an historic day in Group E.
The Japanese have never reached the Round of 16 beyond their own borders. The Danes, on the other hand, have never been knocked out during the group phase in three previous appearances at the FIFA World Cup™ (in 1986, 1998 and 2002).
While a draw for the Samurai Blue would see them through to the next round, due to their superior goal difference, nothing less than a win will do for the Olsen Banden. And barring an improbable collapse by the Netherlands against Cameroon, it will be as Group E runners-up that either team will progress.
“It’s going to be a very close, high-pressure match,” predicts Japan coach Takeshi Okada. “The players know what is at stake. They see the opportunity to achieve something truly special.”
In the opposing camp, Nicklas Bendtner, struggling to shrug off a niggling injury problem, is quite clear about Thursday’s game: “I would be bitterly disappointed if we didn’t win this match.”
Following his charges’ closely fought victory over Cameroon in Tshwane/Pretoria, Denmark coach Morten Olsen headed for the dressing room in a furious mood. Angry at the nonchalant attitude of his players, whom he judged guilty of defensive errors “unworthy of a World Cup”, Olsen was at least satisfied with his team’s performance at the opposite end of the pitch.
Following on from a sterile attacking display against the Dutch in their opening match, the Danish Dynamite were impressive up front, with Bendtner and Dennis Rommedahl both in excellent form. After the encounter with Les Lions Indomptables, the Arsenal forward also spoke of the potentially costly mistakes made by his team, promising that they would not be repeated against Japan.
Conquerors of the profligate Africans in their first group game, the sprightly Japanese demonstrated a similar team ethic versus the Netherlands. Okada’s men are strong, resilient and difficult to break down, and Oranje coach Bert van Marwijk got it right when he declared pre-match that his team would need to prepare for a tough 90 minutes. As the tight 1-0 defeat showed, the representatives of the Land of the Rising Sun need to be taken seriously, as they possess the requisite tools to unlock the Danish defence, given the opportunity.
Players to watch
Daniel Agger versus Marcus Tulio Tanaka
Daniel Agger and Marcus Tulio Tanaka, respective cornerstones of the Denmark and Japan defences, both held out well initially against the rampaging Dutch front line before finally succumbing in the second half. While they are unlikely to physically cross paths that often in the key clash at Royal Bafokeng Stadium, their calming influence at the heart of their teams’ backlines could prove crucial.
Against Bendtner, Jon Dahl Tomasson and Rommedahl, the Brazil-born Japanese defender will need to be at the very top of his game. But having effectively marshalled Robin Van Persie and Samuel Eto’o in previous matches, he should approach the task without fear.
At the other end of the pitch, Liverpool’s Danish centre-back will count on his strength and positional sense to nullify Japan’s lightning-quick counter-attacks, led by Keisuke Honda, Daisuke Matsui and Yoshito Okubo. If either Agger or Tanaka can stand firm for 90 minutes, victory will be one step closer.
10 – The number of FIFA World Cup matches played by 34-year-old Martin Jorgensen, one more than Danish legends Thomas Helveg and Michael Laudrup.
What they said
“I just can’t see us losing. It’s something that we feel deep down – maybe that seems arrogant, but we’re perfectly aware of our strengths. Team morale is extremely high. There’s a great atmosphere in the squad, and that’s crucial in a team sport,” Morten Olsen, Denmark coach.
“As they’re a big team, we’ll have trouble stopping them if we defend like we’ve been doing recently. The key for us will be keeping our shape in defence, preventing them from picking up balls in good positions,” Yuji Nakazawa, Japan defender.
Voice of the fans
“This match will decide everything! Come on the ‘Danish Dynamite’, but watch out for Japan, as they’re capable of springing a surprise. Denmark need to just keep playing their usual game, but for 90 minutes! Let's go!” FIFA.com user Ronaldoudou (Belgium).
Will Asia have two representatives in the Round of 16 of the FIFA World Cup? Can the Danes continue to marry defensive solidity with attacking brilliance?