The Oranje carnival rolled noisily into Durban on 19 June, but Bert van Marwijk's Netherlands team were forced to endure a tricky test against a disciplined Japanese outfit, the only goal of the game coming from Wesley Sneijder shortly after the break. Despite not having things their own way at the Moses Mabhida Stadium, the Dutch – still without injured winger Arjen Robben – will nevertheless be thrilled with their six points from two games and a spot at the top of Group E.
The first half was a cagey affair, hardly matching the raucous energy and vibrant carnival up in the stands on a sun-soaked day. Japan, with ten men behind the ball for the vast majority of the opening 45 minutes, invited the Dutch to boss the possession and push forward. Yet there were precious few real chances as the Netherlands struggled to find holes in the packed opposition rearguard. Wesley Sneijder’s free-kick in the ninth minute soared harmlessly over Eiji Kawashima's crossbar and seconds later Dirk Kuyt tried an audacious bicycle kick from close in, well blocked by a defender.
With Takeshi Okada's men looking to threaten on the break, the Dutch appeared reluctant to commit themselves fully forward. The result was an opening stanza that produced only two shots on goal, the first from Daisuke Matsui seven minutes before the break, as the Blue Samurai began to sharpen their blades late in the half. Rafael van der Vaart added the other in stoppage time, but it hardly had Kawashima worried. The second half began with a greater sense of purpose. With only seconds gone Robin van Persie's snapped header had Kawashima scrambling to smother and the Arsenal forward then raced into the box to volley towards goal from a long ball up from Mark van Bommel. Unfortunately, he could only steer the ball wide of the mark.
Dutch pressure was beginning to mount, and the roar the crowd were waiting to unleash came in the 53rd minute, Sneijder – the Inter Milan danger-man – supplying the bullet. After Marcus Tulio Tanaka failed to deal with a cross from the left, Van Persie laid the ball off on the edge of the box and Sneijder, always looking the likely goal-getter, slammed in a shot that Kawashima, diving to his right, got a hand to but could only help on its way into the net.
Okada's men were forced to come out of their shell after the setback, pushing forward into attack and putting pressure on a Dutch defence that had hardly had a thing to do up to that point. Japan's coach shuffled his pack just after the hour, bringing former Celtic star Shunsuke Nakamura into the fray while Van Marwijk sent on Eljero Elia ten minutes later. A further two attacking substitutes came on for Japan – strikers Keiji Tamada and Shinji Ozakazi – with a quarter-hour to go, and the latter nearly drew his team level on the stroke of full time, only to fire over the bar from close range to a groan from the blue section of the crowd.
The Netherlands, with maximum points from their first two games, next play Cameroon on 24 June in Cape Town, while Japan will look to recover from this reverse when they finish their Group E programme in Rustenburg on the same day against Denmark.