RUSTENBURG, South Africa — A pair of fabulous first-half free kicks from Keisuke Honda and Yasuhito Endo and a late strike from substitute Shinji Okazaki powered Japan to a 3-1 win over Denmark on Thursday night and into the second round of the World Cup finals.
The Japanese needed only a point to secure their passage into the last 16, but an ultimately comfortable victory in their final Group E game means they join already qualified Netherlands in the last 16, where they will meet Group F winner Paraguay in Pretoria on Tuesday.
Takeshi Okada’s men wrapped up the group phase with six points, three behind the Netherlands, which won 2-1 against Cameroon.
Japan reached the knockout phase for the first time since the 2002 World Cup that it cohosted with South Korea.
“This was our first objective (to reach the second round) so I am relieved,” said Okada. “The players kept going until the end without losing their focus. I am proud to be with such a great bunch of players.”
Okada kept faith with the side that beat Cameroon 1-0 before losing to the Netherlands by the same scoreline in Durban on Saturday.
The Blue Samurai made a bright start and Daisuke Matsui went close to breaking the deadlock after 13 minutes, but the Grenoble midfielder was denied as Denmark goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen blocked his flick after a dangerous ball into the box by Yoshito Okubo.
Makoto Hasebe then fired just off target but won a free kick following a foul by Christian Poulsen, and Honda stepped up to break the deadlock with a swerving effort from 30 meters that flew into Sorensen’s right-hand corner.
Honda looked set to repeat the trick on the half hour after Per Kroldrup had brought down Okubo, but the CSKA Moscow star left it for Endo to deliver another hammer blow to the Danes with a curling effort that once again gave Sorensen no chance.
Captain Jon Dahl Tomasson had gone closest for the Danes in the first half with a shot that was just inches wide, and it was only a wonderfully timed tackle from Hasebe that prevented the Feyenoord striker from pulling one back seven minutes into the second period.
Japan goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima palmed away a powerful effort from substitute Jakob Poulsen as the Danes pressed frantically to try and find a way back into the game.
Tomasson then snatched at a great chance but finally found the target nine minutes from time from the penalty spot, bundling home after Kawashima had saved his initial effort.