The Netherlands is on the verge of qualifying for the second round of the FIFA World Cup following a 1-0 win over Japan on Saturday in Durban, South Africa.
The main storyline
Who needs Arjen Robben? Not the Dutch.
For the second consecutive game, the Netherlands was minus its influential winger, who is still recovering from a hamstring injury. But Robben was hardly missed, as the Oranje grinded out a victory against the ultra-defensive Japanese and maintained control of the match for all but a few minutes.
It was far from pretty from the Netherlands, noted for playing an attacking brand of soccer that is easy on the eyes. But that's always led to Netherlands' downfall at past tournaments — it has focused too much on playing attractive soccer instead of winning soccer.
Log on to CBCSports.ca and tune in to Bold (CBC's digital channel) every day at 4:30 pm ET for the CBC World Cup Post-game Show presented by CIBC for a daily wrap-up of the day's news, with match highlights and analysis.
If you can't catch the show live, you can watch the show on-demand by CLICKING HERE.
The Dutch have clearly learned their lessons, understanding the need to win ugly and simply collect three points by any means necessary, even if it's at the expense of abandoning their attacking philosophy. They did it in a 2-0 win over Denmark in their tournament opener and again on Saturday versus Japan.
Now they're on the brink of qualifying for the second round without even getting out of first gear.
The winning goal
After struggling to find a way through the deadbolt Japanese defence, the Dutch finally picked the lock in the 53rd minute, with a little help from goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima. In a rare moment of defensive frailty, Japan failed to clear the ball away and it landed at the feet of Wesley Sneijder, who unleashed a shot that beat Kawashima after the keeper foolishly tried to punch it away.
Turning point of the game
Sneijder's goal broke the stalemate in what was a dour and defensive contest up to that point. Now down a goal, the Japanese abandoned their defensive posture and poured forward in search of an equalizer. Suddenly, we had a game on our hands, with both teams playing with greater urgency and conviction.
What this result means
The Netherlands leads Group E with six points, ahead of Japan (three points), and winless Cameroon and Denmark, who square off later Saturday.
If the Danes and Cameroonians draw, the Dutch will become the first nation at this tournament to qualify for the second round. Even if the Denmark-Cameroon game produces a winner, the Netherlands would still be in good shape, needing only a draw in their final match to move on to the round of 16.
Sign up for CIBC daily soccer updates that will provide you with the latest World Cup news, a recap of the tournament standings and a highlight of future matches.
To subscribe to the newsletter, CLICK HERE.
Japan could find itself in a tie for second place by the end of the day, if either Denmark or Cameroon wins, which would lead to an interesting final day of play in Group E.
Man of the match
Defender Marcus Tulio Tanaka was superb for Japan, mopping up in the back and stopping countless Dutch forays with his precisely timed tackles.
The Dutch perspective
"Why do we focus on good soccer instead of winning? Let me assure you that we really, really want to win and if we can do that in style, then great. But you have to be able to win ugly games." — coach Bert van Marwijk
The Japanese perspective
"Our players did everything they could, but we could not beat the Netherlands. We feel sorry for the fans." — coach Takeshi Okada
Japan takes on Denmark in Rustenburg on June 24 (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 2 p.m. ET), while the Netherlands meets Cameroon on the same day in Cape Town (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 2 p.m. ET).