Two wonderful free-kicks from Keisuke Honda and Yasuhito Endo in the first half and a late Shinji Okazaki strike were enough for Japan to beat Denmark 3-1 at Royal Bafokeng Stadium and claim a place in the Round of 16. With their victory, Japan, who will next face Group F winners Paraguay at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria on 29 June, ended the hopes of a Denmark side who fell at the first hurdle for the first time.
Japan knew a draw would suffice to earn the runners-up spot in Group E and reach the second round, while Denmark needed all three points to leapfrog them into second place. Understandably, coach Takeshi Okada opted for the same side that impressed against Cameroon and the Netherlands. His counterpart Morten Olsen, meanwhile, made two changes to the side that had defeated Cameroon, bringing midfielder Thomas Kahlenberg in for Jesper Gronkjaer, and giving centre-back Per Kroldrup his FIFA World Cup debut in place of the suspended Simon Kjaer.
The Japanese got off to a bright start, with Daisuke Matsui forcing a good save from Thomas Sorensen following a Yoshito Okubo cross from the left, before Makoto Hasebe shot just over the bar. At the opposite end, Jon Dahl Tomasson broke free on the left side of the area before dragging a low shot narrowly wide. Japan made the breakthrough after 17 minutes, when Honda fired home a superb free-kick from 30 yards into the left-hand corner of Sorensen's goal.
Tomasson could have equalised soon after but he failed to connect with a lobbed pass from Christian Poulsen, and Eiji Kawashima did well to parry the ball away. Instead on the half-hour, the Danes fell further behind, Endo curling in a right-footed free-kick from 25 yards past the outstretched hand of Sorensen after Okubo had been fouled by Kroldrup.
With the Danes struggling to take control in the middle of the park, Olsen responded by replacing veteran Martin Jorgensen with Jakob Poulsen. Christian Poulsen tried his luck with a free-kick from distance that Kawashima comfortably gathered, but Japan did not just sit back and on a breakaway, right-back Yuichi Komano tested Sorensen with a shot from an acute angle, the Stoke City custodian turning the ball over the bar.
The second half opened with a scare for Denmark as Endo's looping free-kick was mishandled by Sorensen and bounced on to the right post behind him. For their part, Denmark had a couple of half-chances but neither Kahlenberg nor Tomasson could convert from close range. Jakob Poulsen then sent a shot straight at Kawashima, before Daniel Agger saw his free-kick punched away by the Kawasaki Frontale goalkeeper.
Japan remained a threat on the counter-attack, with Okubo sending a curling shot at Sorensen. Denmark also had a glorious chance to halve the deficit, only for Tomasson to miscue his shot from close range after Dennis Rommedahl had broken into the area from the right. Denmark desperately needed a goal to get back into the game, and it finally arrived from the penalty spot after 81 minutes. Hasebe pushed Agger from behind inside the area, and Tomasson stepped up to take the resulting penalty. Diving to his right, Kawashima parried the effort but the Danish captain responded well to flick in the rebound for his 52nd international goal – tying Poul Nielsen's all-time scoring record for Denmark.
However, there was still time for the Japanese to seal their victory, as substitute Okazaki slid the ball into an empty net after Honda's clever footwork had beaten Rommedahl and Sorensen to set up their third goal of the night. It was the first time Japan had hit three in a FIFA World Cup match and Honda might even have added a fourth goal, but his shot sailed well over the bar just before the final whistle.