By AVI CREDITOR
If Keisuke Honda wasn't a household name among soccer fans around the world before the World Cup, he most certainly is now.
Honda, who plays for CSKA Moscow, buried a marvelous free kick to spearhead Japan's decisive victory over Denmark that cemented Japan's place among the final 16 teams. Japan got out of the group stage for just the second time, and the first time on foreign soil, matching the feat accomplished by 2002 World Cup co-host South Korea.
The Samurai Blue finished three points behind the Netherlands, which finished off Cameroon to run through Group E unscathed. The Dutch are sitting pretty, with a Round-of-16 matchup with upstart Slovakia next on its agenda. Japan will meet Group F winner Paraguay, whose run is quite the story in its own right. The South Americans won their group despite playing without star striker Salvador Cabanas, who is still miraculously recovering from a gunshot wound to the head.
Here are brief recaps from Thursday's Group E games along with the group's Best XI:
NETHERLANDS 2, CAMEROON 1
Klaas-Jan Huntelaar finished into an empty net after an Arjen Robben shot rebounded to him off the post in the 83rd minute, and the Dutch finished their perfect run through the group stage by taming the Indomitable Lions.
Robin Van Persie had given the Oranje the lead after a beautiful 1-2 passing sequence with Rafael Van der Vaart put him in on goal. He tucked his shot through Cameroon keeper Souleymanou Hamidou's legs for a 1-0 lead in the 36th minute.
Van der Vaart was called for a handball on a Cameroon free kick in the second half, leading to a Samuel Eto'o penalty kick that tied the game in the 65th minute.
Robben, who was coming off a hamstring injury, made his first appearance of the World Cup when he entered as a 73rd-minute substitute. He made his presence known almost immediately, by turning and curling his shot on frame that beat Hamidou but not the post. Huntelaar pounced on the free ball and guided it into the back of the net for the winner.
For Cameroon, the highest ranked African team in the World Cup field, the loss finished off a dismal tournament, as the team lost all three of its matches.
JAPAN 3, DENMARK 1
After withstanding some early pressure from Denmark, Japan capitalized on two free kicks and stunned the favored Europeans into submission by halftime.
Honda stepped up in the 17th minute and hit as precise a free kick as there has been during this World Cup from about 30 yards out. Denmark keeper Thomas Sorensen took a wrong first step and Honda made him pay, tucking his left-footed shot into the left upper-hand corner of the goal.
Just 13 minutes later the Japanese struck again. Yasuhito Endo blindsided everyone on the pitch by taking a straightaway free kick while Honda stood over the ball appearing getting ready to strike. Endo curled a right-footed, 25-yard blast around the wall and into the goal to double the lead.
Denmark, which needed a win to advance, sliced the deficit in half after Daniel Agger was gifted a penalty after hardly being shoved in the box. Jon Dahl Tomasson stepped to the spot and had his kick saved by Eiji Kawashima, but he tapped the rebound in to get the Danes on the board in the 81st minute.
The Japanese defense held up after that, and Honda worked his magic again with a dazzling run to create for substitute Shinji Okazaki in the 87th minute. Okazaki finished off the sitter and dealt the final blow to Denmark's hopes.
GROUP E FINAL TABLE
1. Netherlands…..9 points, +4 Goal Differential
2. Japan……………..6 points, +2 GD
3. Denmark………..3 points, -3 GD
4. Cameroon……..0 points, -3 GD
SBI'S GROUP E BEST XI
—-Endo——–Sneijder——-Van der Vaart—-
How far do you think the Dutch can go? Impressed by Honda? Think Japan can topple Paraguay? Shocked that Cameroon couldn't muster a single point?
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