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May 2004

Time running out for Yamamoto's Young Blues

30 May 2004(Sun)

After Wednesday's 1-1 draw against the Turkish Select team, Japan's under-23s have just one more match to prove themselves before Yamamoto-kantoku brings in the overage players.

That last test will be against Mali's Olympic team at Sapporo Dome on Tuesday night.

By now, I'm sure all fans will have their own ideas as to which positions need strengthening in the lineup.

My personal choices would be goalkeeper, left side of midfield and centre forward, or "post player" as you say in Japanese.

I hear that Sogahata has been lined up for the goalkeeper position. That would be a good choice, as would Narazaki, Doi, Takagi, Kushino or almost any J1 keeper who is playing every week. A more experienced and commanding keeper would take some of the pressure off Tulio in terms of communication and organisation.

As for the left side of midfield, Koji Morisaki has emerged as Yamamoto's favourite among the under-23s, but Nemoto and Komano are still in the picture.

While Morisaki is a very tidy and composed player, with a sweet left foot, I still think the team needs more drive and dynamism down that flank.

My choice would be Alex Santos, played in his proper position, as an attacker rather than as a defender.

Japan's right side is very strong, with Tokunaga and Ishikawa, but the left lacks punch.

On Wednesday, Yamamoto used five forwards during the game.

Tanaka, the Reds fireball, was missing with injury, so Yamamoto started with Okubo and Takamatsu.

Hirayama replaced Takamatsu early in the second half, and so nearly scored the winning goal deep into injury time.

Sakata came on for Matsui at the same time, and finally Maeda, who I regard more as a forward than an attacking midfielder, replaced Okubo with 19 minutes to go.

I don't think Takamatsu, Hirayama or Sakata are up to the job of leading the line in Athens, so I would like to see Takahara brought in, or maybe even Takayuki Suzuki to provide the attack with a central focus.

Yamamoto may still pick Hirayama with a view to the future, but clearly he is not ready for a place in the starting lineup in Athens, where the opposition will be much stronger than Bahrain, Lebanon and the UAE.


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Who's the best: Yoshito or Hide?

27 May 2004(Thu)

When asked for his comments on a certain individual, Philippe Troussier would always reply: "Yes, he's a very interesting player."

And that was before Troussier had come into contact with a certain Yoshito Okubo.

The Cerezo Osaka forward is, indeed, a very interesting player.

I like to study him during games, although I am not as fanatical as the female Cerezo Osaka fan who was sitting near me at Ichihara Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

With her pink "Okubo 10" shirt, she moved around the grandstand with her camera to get a better angle to photograph her young hero.

At the beginning of the match she was sitting right in front of me, but she quickly moved. At first I thought it was my after-shave lotion, but then I realized she was on "Yoshito Patrol."

After the game I spoke with Cerezo's Croatian coach, Albert Pobor, who described Okubo as "an excellent talent."

He said Okubo should leave for Europe, where he could play at any level and not just sit on the bench like so many of his fellow Japanese exports.

Pobor even said he thought Okubo was a more talented player than Hidetoshi Nakata.

"Nakata is another big player, a great player, but I think Okubo is a bigger talent than Nakata," said the Cerezo manager. "He's very fast, has good technique, he's young...he's got everything."

Very interesting, indeed.

Personally, while admiring Okubo's talent and single-mindedness in front of goal, I think he still has a lot to learn from Nakata about how to conduct himself on and off the pitch.

Nakata is composed, focused and plays with discipline. Okubo looks to have calmed down a lot since last season, which is a good thing, but at the same time you don't want him to lose his fire and his passion.

Just as long as it's channelled in the right direction.

At one point during Saturday's match at Ichihara, Okubo, having failed to get past his marker, Sakamoto, on the right wing, but having still won a corner, he threw the ball angrily at the corner flag. (Or maybe he was aiming for the linesman!)

That reaction is fine (throwing the ball at the corner flag I mean), as it showed he cared and it showed his winning spirit.

Nakata made the perfect move from Japan, to modest Perugia, where he was easily good enough to get in the team, so let's see what happens to Okubo after the Olympic Games.

As Troussier would have said, "Okubo....yes, he's a very interesting player."

But more talented than Nakata?

We'll have to wait and see.


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Dudu, Reysol struggle in first stage

24 May 2004(Mon)

A new manager who knew his players well, a new centre forward with international experience, and two new Brazilian imports....2004 was supposed to be a renaissance year for Kashiwa Reysol.

But after 10 games of the first stage, Reysol are 16th and last in the first division with only seven points.

Six of those came from wins in the first two games, but since then they have collected just one point from a possible 24, from a 1-1 draw in the Chiba derby at Ichihara.

I must admit I'm very surprised by Reysol's plight.

I saw them in the preseason Chiba Bank Cup, when they demolished JEF United at Hitachi Stadium. They looked fit, hungry and full of goals.

But an injury to new centre forward Yamashita has held them back, and they have scored only seven goals in 10 league games.

Perhaps the demise of Reysol is reflected in the performance of Dudu, a much-heralded winter signing after his starring role for Brazil's under-20 team at the World Youth Championship in the UAE last December.

A tall, elegant and powerful defensive midfielder, Dudu, now 21, earned comparisons with the great Socrates.

Older readers will remember Brazil's "four golden men" at the 1982 World Cup: the midfield quartet of Zico, Socrates, Falcao and Toninho Cerezo.

Dudu, indeed, simply oozes class.

But his problem, according to the player himself and manager Ikeya, is that he is finding the pace of the game too fast in Japan.

Dudu, like all class players, likes to hold the ball in midfield, and stroke passes like an artist uses his paint brush, with an extravagant sweep.

But he is getting caught in possession, and is not fitting into the team pattern.

When Reysol left for Hiroshima on Friday, Dudu stayed at home, not even among the substitutes.

Despite Reysol's early problems, I cannot see them staying down at the bottom of the table. They have too many good players to be in trouble, so should be able to pull themselves into mid-table by the end of the first stage.

I still think Reysol can have a good season overall.


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Buchwald steps up search for new defender

20 May 2004(Thu)

Urawa Reds managers have not had too much luck with their overseas signings recently.

Reds fans never saw the best of Ned Zelic, and now the career of Russian "Rolls-Royce" Yuri Nikiforov looks to be over.

Manager Guido Buchwald fears the worst--that Nikiforov is finished--as the player attempts to get fit back home in the Netherlands after pre-season knee surgery.

So finding a new, commanding central defender is Buchwald's priority before the second stage of the season starts in mid-August.

Visitors to the Reds-JEF United match at Komaba on Saturday can see why Buchwald is so keen to bring in an experienced defender.

JEF looked to have the game won at half-time, leading 2-0.

Marquinhos scored the first with a sharp header at a corner from the left by Abe.

Shortly after, Marquinhos showed his quality again by holding off Tulio and then passing to his right, where Sandro was completely unmarked. Sandro applied a subtle finish, and JEF were 2-0 up inside the half-hour mark.

Worse was to come for Urawa, as Hasebe limped off before half-time, followed by Emerson four minutes into the second half.

JEF manager Ivica Osim said his players stopped playing at this point, as they thought they were home and dry.

The visitors paid the price.

Nagai pulled one back at a goalmouth scramble, and Tulio scored the equalizer from the penalty spot after Chano had brought down Alex. I can't understand why Chano made his challenge, as Alex went round him on the outside but the ball was on his right foot.

I don't think Alex could have made much use of the ball in that position, but still Chano threw himself into the tackle and gave away the penalty. Alex celebrated the award as if he'd scored a winning goal.

Call me a naive Englishman who cherishes fair play, but I don't like to see a player celebrating the award of a penalty. It looks as if this was their aim, rather than to actually score a goal!

Now completely unsettled, JEF conceded a third when more hesitant defending let in "Ya-jin" for his first league goal back in the red shirt.

Just as Urawa looked to have won 3-2, Suzuki brought down Yamagishi--he thought outside the box, the ref said it was inside--and the cool Abe made it 3-3 from the spot.

There is no doubt Reds have the firepower to challenge for the championship, but Buchwald knows he needs a new defender to stop the goals at the other end.


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Inamoto: In or out?

17 May 2004(Mon)

You can't help but feel a little sorry at the moment for Junichi Inamoto.

Is he staying at Fulham, or is he leaving?

His future has been in doubt for several months now, as his loan deal from Gamba Osaka ends at the end of June.

Fulham will not pay the kind of money Gamba want for him to make the deal permanent, but the London club would like to keep him as he has proved himself to be a useful squad member.

So will Gamba allow Fulham to sign him once and for all at a bargain price?

For the sake of the player, I hope that Gamba will agree to sell Inamoto at a reasonable price, even if it is well below the $4 million fee which the clubs are understood to have agreed two years ago.

Times have changed a lot since then.

Inamoto, having spent a barren year at Arsenal, had exploded at the 2002 World Cup, scoring against Belgium and Russia to help Japan into the last 16.

He was hot property, he wanted to stay in London, despite his Arsenal experience, so Fulham was the perfect move.

After one season, Fulham were still not sure of his ability, so arranged a second season on loan from Gamba.

The transfer market has changed since 2002, though, especially at Fulham, who have been drawing some of the smallest crowds in the Premier League to their temporary home at Loftus Road.

One week we hear that Inamoto is finished at Fulham, and he'll be looking for another club.

The next we hear that a permanent deal is still possible.

This is why I feel sorry for Ina.

It must be very difficult for him to concentrate on his game with all this going on in the background.

He must feel under pressure every time he enters the pitch, as if he has to prove his value with every touch of the ball.

Hopefully, Gamba and Fulham can strike a deal, and Ina can sign, for example, a three-year contract.

A fee of around one million pounds, or $1.6 million, is a good deal for both parties.

For a player with so much international experience, and who is a good, honest professional, willing to learn and to play for the team, that fee is good business for Fulham.

Gamba, too, must accept that Ina does not want to come back to Japan, so that amount of money can help balance the books.

Once this messy issue is settled, maybe we will see the best of Ina again.


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Oka-chan highlights goal-scoring problem

13 May 2004(Thu)

The other day, I was surprised to read comments by Takeshi Okada after his Yokohama F Marinos had beaten Binh Dinh of Vietnam 6-0 in the Asian Champions League.

Oka-chan said his players lacked the killer instinct, and that they should have won by at least 10 goals.
This seemed strange to me, even a bit harsh, as 6-0 at home is not a bad result.

A few days later, I appreciate what Oka-chan was talking about.

Marinos' chief rivals in the Asian Champions League group, Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma, beat Persik Kediri 15-0 on Tuesday night!

That's right: Fifteen, or one goal every six minutes!

Marinos' chances of finishing top of the four-team group and qualifying for the quarterfinals now look slim, as the Koreans have a much better goal difference with only one game to play.

So what's the problem with Japanese players scoring goals?

A general observation is that they simply do not shoot enough.

There are many times in most games I watch when a player has the opportunity to shoot, but instead he will cross, or play a short pass to a teammate and the move breaks down on the edge of the box.

Japanese players must not be afraid of shooting. Or, rather, they must not be afraid of missing.

Just watch the world's best strikers on television. If they miss a chance, which they all do, of course, because no player is perfect, do they shy away from shooting the next time?

No they don't. They don't care about missing. They forget it instantly, and concentrate only on the next chance.

Maybe the list of leading scorers in J1 is evidence of this right now.

Emerson leads the way with 11 goals (40 shots), followed by Rodrigo Gral with eight (29) and Ueslei with five (46).

Six players have four goals: Ogasawara, Sandro, Araujo, Marques, Magrao and Okubo.

So, of the top nine in the chart, seven are Brazilians and only two are Japanese: Ogasawara, a midfielder, and Yoshito, who is playing for one of the weakest teams.

Other Japanese players should follow the example of these two, and take more responsibility in front of goal.


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Teams scrap to avoid last place

9 May 2004(Sun)

This season is going to be very different at the bottom of the first division.

Instead of the bottom two teams being relegated to J2, a new format is needed to ensure a smooth transition from 16 teams to 18 in the top flight for 2005.

This means that only the 16th-placed team at the end of the current campaign is in danger of going down...and only then if they lose a play-off to the team that finishes third in the second division. The top two in J2 will be promoted automatically, as usual.

Several teams in J1 will be breathing a sigh of relief over this new format.

Notably the two who were promoted from J2 last season: Albirex Niigata and Sanfrecce Hiroshima.

This season gives the pair a bit of breathing space to adapt from J2 to J1, as the main target is to avoid the 16th position.

Of course they will be aiming higher, but, after eight rounds, both teams have won only once in the league so far this year.

Sanfrecce have seven points from a win and four draws, and Albirex have six, thanks to three draws as well as one win.

At the very bottom of the table, though, is Cerezo Osaka, with only four points, having lost six of their games.

Last year ended on an optimistic note for Cerezo as they reached the Emperor's Cup final, only to lose to Jubilo Iwata at National Stadium on New Year's Day.

But then they ran into managerial problems, and their season hit a low on Wednesday with a 2-1 home defeat to Sanfrecce.

Another team that is in trouble early on is Kashiwa Reysol.

I really thought they would have a good season this time. They have a good blend of youth and experience, and a trio of talented Brazilians, especially Dudu, who was a star of the FIFA World Youth Championship in the UAE last November/December.

But after winning their first two games, they have collected only one point from a possible 18, and on Wednesday slipped to a 2-0 defeat at home to Gamba Osaka.

As Jubilo have opened up a seven-point lead at the top of the table, the fight to avoid 16th place could be more interesting in the coming weeks.


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S-Pulse give other teams hope

6 May 2004(Thu)

On "derby day" it is normal for current form to go out the window.

This was the case at Ecopa Stadium on Sunday, when Shimizu S-Pulse and Jubilo Iwata met in the Shizuoka derby.

Who would have thought that S-Pulse could win this one, as their early-season form had been poor to say the least?

And who would have thought Jubilo's winning run in the first division would end at six, and that their under-achieving prefecture rivals would be the team to beat them?

Form, then, went out the window, and Ota scored the only goal of the game on the hour mark.

Collecting a pass from the left-footed playmaker Araujo, Ota cut in from the right, held off two Jubilo defenders and shot into the roof of the net.

What a time to score your first goal in the top flight!

News of S-Pulse's win, or, rather, of Jubilo's defeat, must have been encouraging for the chasing pack.

After all, Jubilo had taken a maximum 18 points from their first six games, and the first stage championship was beginning to look like a one-horse race even before the halfway point...and that horse was wearing light blue and white.

But now, JEF United and Yokohama F Marinos are only four points adrift, both with 14, and there are still eight matches to play.

Marinos won well, 2-0, at FC Tokyo, and had several leading players, such as Nakazawa, Matsuda, Dutra and Kubo, missing for various reasons.

JEF United should have closed the gap on Jubilo to two points, when they entertained Kashiwa Reysol on Sunday night.

But again it was "derby day" in Chiba, and Reysol had local pride to play for as well as points. The match ended in a frustrating 1-1 draw for the home team, which kept them four points off the pace.

It is becoming a familiar story with JEF United these days. They put themselves into a great position, but just can't go that extra distance when they really need to.

Behind JEF and Marinos, four teams have 11 points: seven behind Jubilo but enough of an incentive to keep going for victory.

They have to keep believing that Jubilo will slip up again, and that they will be the ones to capitalise on any mistakes.

S-Pulse have given everyone hope, even accounting for the fact it was "derby day" when strange things happen.


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Blatter cannot be serious

2 May 2004(Sun)

A German sports journalist once said that FIFA president Sepp Blatter had 50 new ideas every day.

And 51 of them were bad!

This thought came to mind the other day when I read that Blatter was saying that draws should be abolished in all games.

Every game needs a winner and a loser, was Blatter's comment, and why should soccer be any different?

If the score is level after 90 minutes, the result should be decided by a penalty shootout, added the FIFA chief.

Do you agree with him?

Do you think every game needs a winner and a loser?

I must admit I was amazed when I read Blatter's new idea, because surely the draw is part and parcel of the game worldwide.

The J.League did not allow draws for several seasons, as matches were decided in sudden-death extra time and then on penalties.

First, penalties were scrapped. Then extra time, and now the J.League swims in the mainstream of the game by awarding both teams one point for a draw after 90 minutes.

Personally, I think draws can be just exciting and tense as wins....and as important.

Was not "Japan 2 Iraq 2" in Doha '93 quite a dramatic and significant result?

Closer to home, was not "Urawa Reds 2 Kashima Antlers 2" a vital result at the end of last season?

And how Jubilo Iwata would have loved to hang on for a 1-1 draw at Yokohama on the same afternoon?

That would have given Jubilo the second-stage championship, but Kubo spoiled all that with his late header.

In cup competitions, matches need a winner, hence the extra time, golden goal, silver goal and penalties. FIFA will, however, stop the golden and silver goal, and allow the full 30 minutes of extra time to be played, followed by a shootout.

Let's hope Blatter's idea was not serious, otherwise football will become more defensive as teams try to play for a penalty shootout.


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