Netherlands, Japan, and Paraguay advance at World Cup

The Netherlands produced its first flair and finesse of the World Cup on Thursday, beating already-eliminated Cameroon 2-1 in Group E.

Cameroon’s Geremi heads the ball as Netherlands’ Robin van Persie looks on during the Netherlands’ 2-1 win in Cape Town

Cameroon’s Geremi heads the ball as Netherlands’ Robin van Persie looks on during the Netherlands’ 2-1 win in Cape Town

Netherlands 2 Cameroon 1

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — The Netherlands produced its first flair and finesse of the World Cup on Thursday, beating already-eliminated Cameroon 2-1 in Group E.

Robin Van Persie finished off an end-to-end move in the 36th minute and substitute Arjen Robben rifled a shot off the post in the 83rd minute that Klaas Jan Huntelaar tapped in.

In between, Samuel Eto’o scored from the penalty spot for Cameroon in the 65th.

“Our play was good,” Van Persie said. “We can be really pleased with this.”

After the match, Cameroon coach Paul Le Guen said he was quitting.

“I ended my mission,” the Frenchman said. “Now I will reflect carefully.”

The Dutch won the group with nine points and will face Slovakia in the round of 16 on Monday in Durban. Japan also advanced from the group, beating Denmark 3-1 and eliminating the Danes.

Playing with poise and confidence, the Dutch often thrilled the crowd of 63,093 with their creative moves. Yet Eto’o and Cameroon still were able to pierce the defence and threaten goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg.

“We were far too nonchalant in the second half,” Netherlands coach Bert van Marwijk said. “Our final spell put us on the right track again, but consider this a serious warning.”

In the 73rd, the tens of thousands of orange-clad fans at the Green Point Stadium cheered when Robben made his debut at the World Cup almost three weeks after sustaining a left hamstring injury in a warmup game.

And he immediately showed his value. After tiptoeing carefully during his first moves, he was served a pass on the right in the 83rd. With a move so often seen during his sterling season with Bayern Munich, he cut inside, beat defenders and curled off the post that Huntelaar poked in.

“It is good to be back,” Robben said.

“I had to get back in the groove and it worked. Too bad the shot did not go in.”

Just his entry, however, lifted the team.

“He showed he can really break open any game,” Netherlands defender John Heitinga said.

After two victories, Van Marwijk was bent to keep his momentum going and played both midfielder Nigel de Jong and Van Persie in the third game, even though both would have been excluded from the match against Slovakia if they had earned another card.

Instead, Van Persie scored a typical Dutch goal in the 36th minute, one which flowed from defence to attack with crisp, pinpoint passing and equally precise finishing.

After Dirk Kuyt took the ball up on the right, Van Persie played a neat one-two with Rafael van der Vaart and then shot through the legs of Cameroon goalkeeper Hamidou Souleymanou from a tight angle.

Cameroon, which put Africa on the football map when it reached the quarter-finals at the 1990 World Cup, did not give up and won a penalty when Van der Vaart handled a free kick from Geremi in the area.

Eto’o, long tipped as one of the World Cup’s defining stars, equalized on the penalty.

Late in the game, Cameroon defender Rigobert Song came on for a cameo appearance at his fourth World Cup.

While many other teams were often involved in desperate battles in their last group games, Cameroon and the Netherlands played more often with the pace and intensity of a pre-World Cup preparation game.

It was perfect for Robben to make his belated entry into the World Cup as the Dutch used all of their Big Four for the first time — Robben, Van Persie, Van der Vaart and Wesley Sneijder.

Japan 3 Denmark 1

RUSTENBERG, South Africa — First-half free kick goals from Keisuke Honda and Yusuhito Endo helped give Japan a 3-1 win over Denmark on Thursday and send the Asian country into the round of 16 at the World Cup.

Japan took a 2-0 lead after goals from free kicks within a space of less than 15 minutes and held on to collect their second win in Group E. They ended with six points compared to three for Denmark, while Cameroon was last in a group won by the Netherlands.

The Danes scored in the 81st when Jon Dahl Tomasson tapped in the rebound from his own penalty kick, but Shinji Okazaki slotted into an empty net in the 87th to seal the win.

The Japanese reached the knockout round for the second time. They also progressed in 2002 when they were co-hosts, but missed out in two other editions.

Honda got both his and Japan’s second goal of the tournament in the 17th with a blistering free kick from the right of the Danish area which went over the wall and swerved beyond Thomas Sorensen’s reach into the far corner. The Danish goalkeeper seemed to misjudge the ball, diving late and failing to get his hands on it.

Endo’s free kick was from directly in front of the Danish goal and he curled his shot around the wall. Despite leaping to his left, Sorensen couldn’t get to it.

Denmark was awarded a penalty when Makoto Hasebe brought down Daniel Agger. Tomasson hit the ball at Eiji Kawashima but the goalkeeer couldn’t hold it and the Danish captain tapped in the rebound.

Honda tormented the Danish defence with his tight dribbling before passing sideways for Okazaki, a substitute, to put the result beyond Denmark’s reach.

The final group match decided the second team to advance, as the Netherlands had already ensured progression. The Dutch beat Cameroon 2-1 in the other group game for its third win.

Japan opened its group campaign with a 1-0 win over Cameroon, when Honda also found the net, before losing 1-0 to the Netherlands.

Japan, using the same starting lineup for the third straight game, was the shrewder team at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium where Denmark needed a win to stay in the tournament.

The Japanese defended stoutly against Denmark’s high-ball tactics while making their own advantages in pace and agility tell by forcing the Danes to commit fouls around their penalty box.

From the outset the Danes looked to profit from their considerable height advantage, hitting frequent crosses from the flanks for forward pair Nicklas Bendtner and Jon Dahl Tomasson.

The industrious Japanese defence mostly crowded out the Denmark attack, though, while the pace of Hasebe and Honda was a constant threat for the Danish defence.

The Danes soon ran out of ideas going forward and became bogged down in midfield.

Three minutes after the restart, Endo almost extended Japan’s lead from another free kick, floating a long shot towards a misplaced Sorensen, who failed to grab the ball which bounced off the post.

Bendtner, starting his third straight game despite a lingering groin injury, and Tomasson, who has also been carrying a hamstring problem, probed forward but lacked a clinical touch inside the box.

Denmark coach Morten Olsen brought on forward Soren Larsen and midfielder Christian Eriksen but the busy Japanese forward line meant the Danes also had to be cautious.

Paraguay 0 New Zealand 0

POLOKWANE, South Africa — Paraguay moved into the round of 16 at the World Cup for the fourth time in its history Thursday after being held to an uneventful 0-0 draw by New Zealand.

Neither team created many scoring chances despite displaying more urgency after the break following a turgid first half at Peter Mokaba Stadium.

Paraguay finished with five points in Group F, two more than New Zealand — which was eliminated after Slovakia beat Italy 3-2 in the other group game to advance.

Paraguay substitute Edgar Benitez sent a low shot that was saved by goalkeeper Mark Paston in the 76th minute in the best chance of the match.

Teammate Cristian Riveros headed straight at Paston from a short corner in the 64th in the only other chance of note.

Playing in only its second World Cup — having lost all three matches in 1982 — New Zealand came into the match after 1-1 draws with Slovakia and then defending champion Italy, a team ranked 73 places above the Kiwis.

New Zealand coach Ricki Herbert, who played in that 1982 tournament, made no changes from Sunday’s match against Italy in Nelspruit.

Paraguay coach Gerardo Martino made three changes to the team that beat Slovakia 2-0 in Bloemfontein. Forward Oscar Cardozo came in for Lucas Barrios, and defenders Denis Caniza and Julio Cesar Caceres replaced Carlos Bonet and Anatolin Alcaraz.

In the two teams’ only previous meeting, Paraguay beat New Zealand 3-2 in a 1995 friendly played in Chile.

Both teams started cautiously and had trouble finding their targets with long-range passes on the fast and bouncy surface, which is a hybrid of natural and synthetic grass.

New Zealand’s 3-4-3 formation gave the Kiwis a player advantage in midfield with Paraguay lining up in a fluid 4-3-3. But the willingness of Nelson Valdez, Enrique Vera, Claudio Morel and Caniza to alternate in staying close to the sidelines opened up enough room in the middle for the South Americans’ slick interchange passing.

Caniza, making his first appearance at the tournament to become the first Paraguayan to play in four World Cups, went close in the 19th minute. He struck an angled 25-yard shot first time only for the ball to fly high and wide.

Ten minutes later, Caniza sent another long-range strike over the crossbar as Paraguay’s superior technique gradually took control over New Zealand’s more direct style, although without threatening to create any clear chances inside the box.

Valdez forced Mark Paston into making a comfortable save in the 35th, striking a low shot from 30 yards straight at the goalkeeper.