RUSTENBURG // For Takeshi Okada, this was sweet vindication. After months of media criticism, the Japan coach had the satisfaction last night of seeing his side out-think and outplay Denmark to record only their second World Cup victory on foreign soil, and reach the last 16 for only the second time. Makoto Hasebe, Japan's captain, had said progress would be a great achievement for the whole of the Japanese football community, and then added pointedly "even the journalists".
Amid the celebratory humble pie, they can reflect that this is just possibly the beginning of a new era for the team. For years, Japanese football has been held back, former managers such as Philippe Troussier and Ivica Osim have opined, but it was predictable. It may be technically sound, the theory went, but it lacked a certain streetwiseness or imagination. It was, one particularly scathing Japanese critic said, android football: it looked like the game the rest of the world played but it lacked a heart. Two decades on from the foundation of the J-league, though, there is a generation emerging that has grown up in a football culture, that has perhaps assimilated it and feels it rather than merely reproducing it. In the vanguard of the new Japan is Keisuke Honda, the brilliant CSKA Moscow forward.
He is 23 and probably more effective as a support striker than an out-and-out front runner as he is deployed by Takeshi Okada, but he performs his role willingly and, having scored the first goal against Cameroon, sent a majestic free-kick swerving past Thomas Sorensen to give Japan an 18th-minute lead. It had been coming, Sorensen having already made one excellent block with his knee from Daisuke Matsui and then seen Makoto Hasebe fire just wide.
With Honda emerging as the poster-boy of Japanese football, Yasuhito Endo has taken something of a step backwards over the past few months, and the Gamba Osaka midfielder had had a quiet World Cup until last night. He is, though, the reigning Asian Player of the Year, and he offered a reminder of his talents last night with a second stunning free-kick on the half-hour, this one clipped to Sorensen's left.
If the altitude and the Jabulani ball were affecting shooting accuracy, Japan's players at least have evidently successfully recalibrated. Okada had admitted to concern in the build-up about Denmark's average 8cm per man height advantage, saying his side would endeavour to "cut out the crosses, win the second balls and leave God to cope with the rest". God had a pretty busy night as Denmark played long diagonals as a default clearance from defence and fizzed over a series of crosses.
Japan did not look comfortable dealing with them and, on another night, Denmark may have prospered. As it was, by half time the closest they had come was an awkward Per Kroldrup volley that flashed just wide and a Jon Dal Tomasson's jab at a Lars Jacobsen's long pass that Eiji Kawashima was out quickly to block. Japan almost made it three from yet another free-kick shortly afterhalf time. This time there seemed nothing particularly menacing about Endo's looping delivery, but Sorensen, perhaps shellshocked by what had gone before, fumbled the ball onto the post.
There was an urgency to Denmark's play, but the crisp passing that had characterised their victory over Cameroon was absent and, although Tomasson drew a brave parry from Elji Kawashima as Nicklas Bendtner touched on a long Lars Jacobsen pass, it was Japan who seemed the more clinical in their approach play. But with 10 minutes remaining, Bendtner thumped a speculative volley against the crossbar. Suddenly inspired, Denmark attacked anew, and were rewarded as Hasebe bundled over Daniel Agger in the box.
Tomasson's penalty was saved, but he dinked in the rebound. Japan wobbled, but superb approach play from Honda laid in Shinji Okazaki for the decisive third. Paraguay await. @Email:email@example.com Man of the match: Keisuke Honda (Japan)