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September 2003

Panadic backs "keeper-sweeper" Narazaki

28 Sep 2003(Sun)

Japan's overseas-based players are in the news at the moment as the European season gets into full swing.

It looks like Zico is going to call up many, if not all, of them for the two friendly matches against Tunisia and Romania early next month.

A regular and always interesting topic of debate in Japan is which players out of the J.League will be the next to join them in Europe.

Every fan will have his or her own ideas, and there is never a "right" or a "wrong" answer because most of the players we talk about will probably never get a chance to play in Europe.

We always think about outfield players and frequently forget about the goalkeepers, but I believe Seigo Narazaki would be a success in Europe.

His height, 1.85 meters, is adequate for a keeper, but a frame of 76 kg seems a little light. He would have to bulk up if he went to, say, England, ready for the rough and tumble of the penalty box against bruising center forwards and central defenders.

But I think Narazaki has matured into Japan's best keeper, leaving the unfortunate Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi way behind. Hitoshi Sogahata is now his chief rival for the starting spot.

Narazaki commands his penalty area, and is better in the air than Kawaguchi in deciding when to leave his line and come for crosses. He is also an excellent, brave shot-stopper, but most keepers are. It is their positional play and judgment that makes the difference.

With Narazaki's team, Nagoya Grampus Eight, at the top of the J.League heading into this weekend, I spoke to central defender Andrej Panadic about his keeper on Friday.

"He is very safe, very good," said the big Croatian.

"He has a very, very good personality and that is why he is the captain."

Panadic said Narazaki's biggest problem was a lack of communication, which is absolutely vital for a goalkeeper in working with his defenders.

"Sometimes he is a little bit quiet, but most Japanese players are like this," he said.

"You have to talk a lot and tell each other what is going on. You must help yourself and also your teammates."

Overall, though, Panadic thinks Narazaki could make the move to Europe, no problem.

"He has the quality to play in Europe, not for Barcelona or for Real Madrid, but for a normal club.

"He is very strong and reads the game well, especially in dealing with long kicks over the defense. He is like a libero.

"Regarding the communication, you can learn this."

So next time someone asks you which players are good enough to play abroad, spare a thought for the forgotten goalkeeper.


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The second stage winner needs to survive "sixpointers"

25 Sep 2003(Thu)

The first stage of the championship was tight this season, but the second stage could be even closer.

After seven of the 15 rounds, just three points separate the top eight teams, meaning there will be many "six pointers" in the remaining weeks of the season.

I don't know what you say in Japan, but in England a "six pointer" means a vital match between two teams challenging for the championship, for promotion, or even to avoid relegation.

The team that wins the game takes three points, and just as importantly deprives the rival team of three valuable points, hence the term "six pointer."

There is a definite six pointer coming up this Sunday, when Tokyo Verdy 1969 are at home to Nagoya Grampus Eight at Ajinomoto Stadium.

After Tuesday's holiday games, Grampus are at the top of the table with 13 points, ahead of Kashima Antlers on goal difference.

Verdy, Yokohama F Marinos, JEF United and Kashiwa Reysol all have 12 points, followed by Urawa Reds with 11 and Gamba Osaka with 10.

In the first stage, six teams could have won the title with two games to go, and three of them were still in the hunt on the last day, when Yokohama F Marinos clinched it.

The crowds were a bit disappointing Tuesday, though, except at Ajinomoto for FC Tokyo-Jubilo and at Komaba for Reds-JEF.

Maybe this is a sign that the teams are not playing particularly well, despite their lofty position, and the fans are not convinced.

Antlers, for example, have scored only eight goals in seven second-stage games, and this lack of firepower could cost them dear, as well as the injury to Koji Nakata.

With goals in short supply, Antlers need to keep a "clean sheet" (meaning, not conceding a goal) every game to take three points. Just one goal in the Antlers net puts the pressure on, and that's all Kyoto Purple Sanga needed at Kashima Stadium in a 1-1 draw on Tuesday.

None of the teams looks very convincing at the moment, and you get the feeling that the first one to start stringing together a few commanding performances could pull away from the pack.

I tipped Jubilo to win the second stage in August, and will stay with them even though they are down in 10th place. The more important statistic is that they are only four points off the pace with nine points.

This is nothing with 24 points still to play for, and with many "six pointers" to come.


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Smart move by Sendai

21 Sep 2003(Sun)

When a team has taken only five points from a possible 48, something has to go.

In the case of Vegalta Sendai, the thing to go was manager Hidehiko Shimizu, who was fired at the start of this week.

Sendai began the season well, winning three of their first four games and drawing the other to take 10 points from a possible 12.

But their last league win was on April 19, and since then they have drawn five and lost 11 games.

The sack was inevitable, as Sendai found themselves at the bottom of the table for the two stages combined.

Despite this long sequence of poor results, the fans have stayed loyal to the club and fill Sendai Stadium for every home game. I am sure no one in the J.League wants Sendai to be relegated, as their support would be a big loss to J1.

The club has acted very smartly in two ways over the new manager.

First, Zdenko Verdenik is a good choice.

He did a fantastic job at JEF United Ichihara, and was enticed to Nagoya Grampus Eight, much to the anger of Ichihara officials.

At Nagoya, Verdenik's team promised a lot in the first stage of 2002, but faded in the second stage.

This season, they drew too many games in the first stage, but were still near the top. I still think Grampus fired him too early, as he said at the start of the season that his target was to lay a solid platform in the first stage, which he did, and then challenge for the second stage title.

I am sure Verdenik can tighten up Sendai, but they must score goals to win matches.

The second encouraging move by Sendai was to give the Slovenian coach a contract for two years and four months, taking him through to the end of the 2005 season.

I think this is a big step forward for Japanese football, just like when clubs such as Kashima Antlers put their best players on long-term contracts rather than a one-year renewable deal.

It gives the club continuity and the manager security as he tries to build something over two or three seasons.

Although Verdenik is still in Slovenia waiting for his visa, he will have enough time to save Sendai from relegation.

There are still 10 games left, meaning 30 points at stake, and a change of manager can often produce an instant upturn in fortunes. But Sendai want a long-term improvement, hence the decision to hire Verdenik under such conditions.


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J.League concerned over new rugby season

18 Sep 2003(Thu)

There can be no doubt that the J.League has quickly become an integral part of the Japanese sports scene.

Even though it kicked off only in 1993, the league is firmly established and most of the clubs have become a part of their respective communities.

But this does not mean J.League officials are going to sit back, relax, and stop thinking of further developments.

I heard this week that at least one match commissioner appealed for fair play and an attractive match last Saturday, because another sport was beginning a national league and was fighting for a new audience.

The sport in question is rugby union, whose 12-team Top League kicked off last Saturday at Tokyo National Stadium.

The match commissioner, whose Job is to bring together representatives before the game, told the meeting that rugby offered sports fans a new choice on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon.

It was important, therefore, for the J.League teams to put on a good, clean, attacking show to make sure the crowds keep coming to watch.

I thought this was very interesting news.

It doesn't mean the J.League is worried about rugby, Just that the players have a responsibility to the game at large.

As a sports reporter, I have covered rugby in England, Hong Kong and Japan, and know the attraction of the game.

Especially this year, as the Rugby World Cup will be held in Australia in October and November, and Japan will play Scotland, France, FiJi and the United States.

In England and Hong Kong, totally different audiences watched each sport.

In England, rugby was for the upper-middle classes, and soccer was the working man's game.

Rugby fans thought soccer fans were all hooligans and barbarians, and soccer fans thought rugby fans were snobs who had been born with a silver spoon in their mouth.

In Hong Kong, soccer was the sport for the local Chinese, and rugby for the expatriates from Britain, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere.

Perhaps the J.League's maJor concern is that there may be a rugby boom in 2003 like there was a J.League boom in 1993.

The fact that 35,000 turned up to watch Kobe Steel against Suntory in the opening game of the new rugby season shows that the interest is there, and always has been in rugby due to its huge popularity in universities.

But the rugby clubs are still only company offshoots, with little identity or roots in the hometown itself.

This is where the J.League got it right, by insisting that clubs concentrate on the community as a whole and not Just take the company money.

I don't think the J.League has much to worry about with rugby. Both sports can run side by side as there is a wide range of spectator out there.

Still, it is interesting to see the J.League has noticed a new challenger.


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Santos is an attacker, not defender

15 Sep 2003(Mon)

Although it is difficult to tell if Zico and Japan are learning anything from these recent friendlies, one thing has become more clear.

That Alessandro Santos is not a defender and should not be playing at left back in Zico's four-man defense.

Even though it was a bold, adventurous move by Zico to give Santos a chance at left back, I was never convinced he would be the right choice.

The reasons for my doubts were obvious: that he's an attacking player, not a defensive one.

Problems that surfaced in the Confederations Cup in France will not go away, and this could prove costly to Japan in World Cup qualifying matches.

Against New Zealand at the Stade de France, for example, Santos was shown the yellow card for a clumsy challenge early in the game when there was absolutely no danger. Later in the first half, Santos was lucky not to be shown the yellow card again, followed by the red, after a blatant dive in the New Zealand penalty box.

Just think how different the result could have been if Japan had been reduced to 10 men when leading only 1-0.

Against Colombia, Santos committed a schoolboy error by heading the ball across his own goal, and only a fine blocking save by Narazaki prevented the South Americans from scoring earlier than they did.

In Niigata this week, Santos did the same again, showing his inexperience with a careless header to present Senegal with a corner on the right wing. This was after the Africans had scored the only goal of the game from this exact same situation.

His positioning, his tendency to drift forward and leave space behind him, his weak heading...all these show he is not the man for the job, as the first task of a defender is to defend.

If Japan played a 3-5-2 formation, then Santos's attacking flair, pace and trickery would be handy on the left side of midfield. His weak defense would not be as crucial to the team in this area, as there would be two defensive midfield players to cover across the line, and three defenders behind them to cut off attacks down the flanks.

I still think Santos has something to offer Japan, but on the left wing, maybe even off the bench, but it is clear now he is not right for the left back slot.

Zico should be able to get away with it against weak Asian opposition at the start of World Cup qualifying, but against stronger opponents, such as Senegal's Henri Camara the other night at Niigata, it is asking for trouble.


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Antlers take control early

11 Sep 2003(Thu)

It was a very worrying weekend for the J.League.

Unless, of course, you are a Kashima Antlers fan.

That's because Kashima hit the front after only four games of the second stage, by beating JEF United Ichihara 3-2 in a gripping match at Tokyo National Stadium.

What's more, Antlers really looked motivated and determined.

That is no surprise, as they had to watch arch rivals Jubilo Iwata win both stages last season, and then could not get close enough to mount a serious challenge in the first stage of this season.

Even without the injured Koji Nakata in midfield, Antlers still had plenty of cover in Takeshi Aoki and then, off the bench, Yasuto Honda, who is often under-appreciated by neutral observers. Honda is a real coach's player, tidying up all the loose balls in midfield or sometimes behind his defense, and filling the gaps when other players move forward.

He is a good organizer and has good vision around the pitch, knowing where he should be at the right time. For manager Toninho Cerezo, Honda must be a more than useful player to have on the bench.

It really was an enjoyable game, with plenty of goals, cards and controversy, but JEF United fell just short again.

Their manager, Ivica Osim, said exactly what he used to say after crunch games during the first stage: that first place for JEF United was too high, as it led to too much pressure every week and the players could not produce 100 percent game after game.

Before the second stage started he said he wanted JEF to be in fourth or fifth place most of the time, and then "sprint" for the line in the closing two or three weeks.

But his players once again set off at a furious pace, winning their first three matches!

Antlers ended all that, of course.

What a goal by Hirase! What a slice of luck to go in 2-1 up at halftime! What a captain in Akita to head the winning goal!

Yes, it looks like Antlers mean business in the second stage again.


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Motoyama recall lifts the gloom at Kashima

8 Sep 2003(Mon)

There was bad news and good news at Kashima Antlers in the past few days.

The bad news was the sad plight of Koji Nakata, one of my favourite players in Japan and, in my opinion, grossly under-used by Zico.

I believe Nakata would give Japan's midfield much more balance and shape, allowing the more attack-minded players to push forward knowing that he is controlling things behind them.

Nakata ruptured knee ligaments playing against Oita Trinita last Saturday and has been ruled out for at least six months.

He will have an operation at the end of this month, and then face a long, patient journey back to full fitness.

Hopefully he will be back for the start of next season, but Zico will miss him for the East Asian Championship in December if he does not have his European players available.

A few days later came news that Masashi Motoyama had been recalled to the national squad.

Motoyama and Nakata, of course, were both members of the Japan under-20 team that reached the final of the FIFA World Youth Championship in Nigeria in 1999.

This is where Nakata played on the left side of Philippe Troussier's flat three, replacing the injured Seiji Kaneko, and did so well that the Frenchman promoted him into the Olympic team and then the national team all the way through to the 2002 World Cup.

At that time, Troussier used Motoyama as a left winger, and I remember him having a wonderful game against Uruguay in Nigeria. Motoyama was so fast and elusive that the Uruguayans couldn't even foul him, never mind tackle him.

Troussier described Motoyama as the Ryan Giggs of Japan, and eventually gave him three caps: against Bolivia, the United Arab Emirates and South Korea, all in 2000.

Since Brazilian playmaker Bismarck left Kashima, Motoyama has played as an attacking midfield player rather than a left winger, and it is in this role that Zico will consider him for the Senegal match next Wednesday. It will be off the bench, of course, because he has already decided his midfield will be the same as the Nigeria match.

Motoyama has a confident, bubbly personality and will add his own special characteristics to the national squad.

Even though he has changed his role, he can still turn a match with his darting runs around the box and his eye for goal.

His last cap was almost three years ago, but he is still only 24 and has much to offer.


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Gamba's title challenge fades

4 Sep 2003(Thu)

It was interesting to see Gamba Osaka in action at Kashiwa on Saturday.

Now I can appreciate why they are not challenging for the championship.

Before the season started I really felt Gamba could win one of the two stages, and then go on and win the playoff.

Their road to success would be like this:

An experienced three-man defense, led by Miyamoto.

A fluid, five-man midfield, particularly strong on the flanks with new import Arce on the right and Araiba on the left.

Between them they would provide the crosses for the Brazilian giant Magrao, who would either head the ball into the net or set up chances for the darting Yoshihara to gobble up in the box.

Simple, right?

But Gamba finished nearer the bottom than the top in the first stage.

The two new imports, Arce and Galeano, were expected to be a big improvement on Marcelinho and Fabinho, but this has not happened.

I thought Fabinho did a tidy, energetic job alongside Endo in the midfield engine room last season, and his replacement Galeano has already been released by Gamba halfway through the season.

Arce just hasn't shown the drive and intensity expected of him down the right wing.

Consequently, manager Nishino has abandoned his 3-5-2 and played 3-4-3 at Kashiwa, with Hashimoto and Futagawa on the right and left sides of midfield, respectively.

Yamaguchi, who was expected to be part of Gamba's championship-winning back three alongside Miyamoto and captain Kiba, was pushed into central midfield, alongside Endo. Saneyoshi was on the right side of defense.

Magrao was absent due to injury, so Nakayama, the "Gamba Gon," led the forward line, supported by Yoshihara on the right and Oguro on the left.

Gamba did not play badly. Far from it, but they didn't look capable of challenging for the second stage.

There was a lot of hesitancy and self-doubt in their play, almost as if they did not expect to win.

They took the lead with a lovely goal from Endo, who finished off a free-flowing move from one end of the pitch to the other, but were pegged back by a great finish from the impressive Tamada.

Ricardinho ran at the heart of the Gamba defense, lost possession, but Tamada was in the right place to find the bottom corner with a sweet left-foot shot from the edge of the box.

Maybe Gamba are improving, because they held on for a 1-1 draw rather than conceding a late goal and losing.

But clearly the season has not gone to plan, hence all the changes.

It must be very frustrating for the supporters.


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Ooft plays down Reds' chances

1 Sep 2003(Mon)

It was a very close contest at Ajinomoto Stadium on Wednesday night.

No, I am not talking about the Nabisco Cup quarterfinal second leg between FC Tokyo and Urawa Reds.

I am talking about the two sets of supporters, who contributed to a big-match occasion.

Although the official attendance was 17,343, it seemed to be double that because of the amount of noise booming out from both ends.

Urawa, as we all know, won 2-0, thanks to two sublime goals from the Brazilian forward Emerson.

A 2-0 victory away to FC Tokyo, added to a 3-1 demolition of Jubilo Iwata in the first game of the second stage, suggests the Reds are making big progress.

After the game I had a chat with Hans Ooft and asked him if he thought his team could challenge for the second-stage title.

"Not yet," he replied, cautiously.

"We will take it match by match, week by week, and after match eight, nine or 10 we will know exactly what is going on.

"We don't look forward, no daydreaming, nothing."

But Ooft knows that his team, and his squad, is getting stronger.

Players such as Yamada, Tsuboi and Nagai have all had national team experience this year, and Suzuki, Yamase and Tanaka are members of the Olympic under-22 squad.

The Russian World Cup defender Yuri Nikiforov had a fine game against FC Tokyo, and Ooft will have a selection dilemma all managers love when the unlucky Ned Zelic recovers soon from his latest hamstring injury.

"I must compliment my players. They have worked very hard for one and a half years and as a team we have become stronger," he said.

Ooft, naturally, must play down the chances of his team, as he does not want to put the players under pressure so early in the stage.

But I genuinely feel Reds have a chance.

And wouldn't a Yokohama F Marinos-Urawa Reds two-leg playoff be a fantastic spectacle?

Just imagine: 70,000 at International Stadium Yokohama for the first leg, and then 60,000 at Saitama Stadium for the second leg.

A mass of Nissan blue and Mitsubishi red all around the stadium.

Truly it would be a wonderful sight, but there's a long way to go yet.

As Ooft said: "No daydreaming!"

That includes Reds fans, too.


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