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September 2004

Nakata's still the best, but will Zico's Japan miss him?

30 Sep 2004(Thu)

Most readers would agree that Hidetoshi Nakata is still Japan's best player.

Some may say Shinji Ono, and you would have a strong case, as these two players have proved in Europe they are in a class of their own.

But is the Japan national team missing Nakata, despite his many qualities?

This is a very interesting situation, and clearly Zico was in no hurry to bring him back for the critical World Cup qualifier against Oman at Muscat on October 13.

In the early days of Zico's reign, I felt that the new, inexperienced national coach depended too heavily on Nakata.

He was captain, playmaker and unofficial assistant coach all at the same time. During some training sessions, in fact, Nakata did more talking than Zico himself.

Zico's reliance on one key player created the scenario his predecessor, Philippe Troussier, worked desperately to avoid, and Japan did not function as a team.

To Troussier, Nakata was just one player, with the same value to the team as Matsuda, Morioka or Koji Nakata, or Toda and Myojin. Without Nakata, Zico's Japan have looked much more like a team, because the workload is more evenly distributed.

Also, the formation has changed from 4-4-2 to 3-5-2, and the Japanese players look much more comfortable with this style.

You wonder if some of the players feel a bit intimidated by Nakata's presence, as he has a very strong personality on the pitch.

This is not Nakata's fault, of course, as the players must have the confidence to communicate and lift their game at the right time.

For the match in Oman, where a draw would be good enough for Japan to advance to the final Asian qualifying round, Nakamura will return as playmaker in the 3-5-2 formation.

When Nakata is fully fit again after his groin injury, what is Zico going to do with his leading player and captain?

I have said this before, but if Zico wants to keep his 3-5-2 formation, and keep Shunsuke as the playmaker, and have Ono and Inamoto in defensive midfield and Alex on the left wing, there's only one place for Nakata: on the right wing, instead of Kaji.

Nakata had a fine second season there for Parma, although he wanted to play more centrally, and I think he could do a great job there for Japan.

But that's in the future.

In Oman, I feel Japan will get the draw they need to advance. It looks like a 0-0 to me.

ends

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Bando steps up from Japan's "Class of '99"

27 Sep 2004(Mon)

It is always interesting--and sometimes surprising--to look back through Japan's squad for the FIFA World Youth Championship in Nigeria in 1999.

Japan, of course, reached the final, losing to Spain, and several players went on to play for the full national team.

They have included Akira Kaji, Koji Nakata, Yasuhito Endo, Mitsuo Ogasawara, Masashi Motoyama, Naohiro Takahara and Yuichiro Nagai.

(Shinji Ono had already played for the national team, including a brief appearance against Jamaica at the 1998 World Cup in France).

Another member of Philippe Troussier's under-20 squad in Nigeria was Ryuji Bando, who is having a fine season for Vissel Kobe.

Now 25, Bando has netted 12 goals in 19 league appearances this season, second only to Gamba's Masashi Oguro (14) of the Japanese players among the leading scorers.

His latest goal came on Thursday, a smart glancing header in the 2-2 draw with Yokohama F Marinos at Tokyo's National Stadium.

He could have had a second goal, too, but saw his penalty saved by Tatsuya Enomoto, diving to his left.

Still, Vissel looked happy enough with a point, even though Marinos were down to nine men at the end following the second-half red cards for Kurihara and Kubo.

After the game, Vissel manager Ivan Hasek was full of praise for Bando.

"He was a substitute at the start of the season, and now he is one of the best players in Japan," said Hasek.

"He has the winning spirit, and his confidence to go for the goal is growing with every game and every day in training."

Asked if he thought Bando was good enough to be called up by Zico, Hasek replied diplomatically.

"I am not the national coach. Of course I want him to stay with Vissel!" he said.

But Hasek added that Bando was one of the best finishers in Japan, and could go further in his career if he kept his feet on the ground.

"Now, there are too many people telling him he is playing very well. He must not change his mentality, because this is a problem for players in Japan when they receive too much praise. He must stay simple."

If the goals keep coming, maybe Bando will be the next member of Japan's Class of '99 to move into the senior squad.

ends

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Yamase injury is a big blow for Reds

23 Sep 2004(Thu)

Today(September 22) is the 23rd birthday of Koji Yamase.

But it's doubtful the Urawa Reds playmaker will be in the mood to celebrate, following his season-ending knee injury.

He injured his left knee during the 4-1 defeat of Albirex Niigata on Saturday, and will need five or six months to recover.

This is another cruel blow for the talented youngster, who had his season cut short in 2002 after an injury to his right knee when playing for Consadole Sapporo.

Urawa showed a lot of faith in him at that time, and signed him for the 2003 campaign, during which he made 24 league appearances.

This season, the elegant ball-playing midfielder has helped Reds win their first five second-stage matches to open up a two-point lead at the top of the table.

But suddenly Yamase's season is over, leaving his teammates to fight for a hat-trick of titles with the league championship, Nabisco Cup and Emperor's Cup.

Reds' next match is Thursday, away to FC Tokyo at Ajinomoto Stadium.

On a national holiday, expect a bumper crowd at the Tobitakyu venue for the evening kick-off.

FC Tokyo are fifth in the table with seven points, eight adrift of Urawa, and this match could well be a dress rehearsal for the Nabisco Cup final on November 3.

he two teams are favourites to win their semi-finals, Reds at Nagoya and FC Tokyo against Verdy, so Thursday's game could provide one of the teams with a psychological advantage.

All Yamase can do, though, is think about next season.

He made an excellent recovery from that first serious knee injury, coming close to winning a place in Japan's Olympic squad for Athens, so he has the experience to handle the situation.

Still, it's a big disappointment for him and the team, as he is clearly one of the most naturally talented players in the J.League.

A long time ago I remember Steve Perryman, the former S-Pulse and Reysol manager, singing the praises of both Yamase and Horii when the pair played for Sapporo, and the former Tottenham captain knew a good player when he saw one.

I'm sure all Reds fans wish Yamase as happy a birthday as possible under the unfortunate circumstances.

ends

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Oguro rewards manager's faith

20 Sep 2004(Mon)

Not that normal fans really care about media services, but it has to be said the J.League excels in this field.

One of the highlights of the year is always the official J.League launch, held a few days before the new league season kicks off.

The managers of all J.League clubs, both from division one and two, are present, and available to be interviewed by members of the media.

This is an excellent idea by the J.League, as it provides all media--including TV, newspapers, magazines and radio--with the opportunity to meet the new managers and renew acquaintances with the "old" ones.

The reason I am relating this information is because of the form of Masashi Oguro for Gamba Osaka.

Before the start of the 2003 season--not this season--I interviewed Gamba manager Nishino at the above-mentioned J.League news conference.

I honestly thought Gamba could win the J.League championship in 2003, and wanted the manager's comments.

We went through his likely lineup, and when we got to the forwards I suggested Yoshihara or Nakayama alongside the giant Magrao.

Yoshihara, in the Olympic qualifying days of 1999, had been described as Japan's Romario by Philippe Troussier, while the "Gamba Gon" Nakayama had scored some fine goals for Japan's Olympic team at the 2002 Asian Games in Pusan, Korea.

Nishino, however, clearly favoured a player I must admit I did not know too much about.

His name was Masashi Oguro.

I have always kept an eye on him since then, as he works the left side of the forward line with industry and concentration.

Last season, Gamba did not win the championship, but Oguro bagged 10 goals.

This season, as Gamba trail Urawa Reds only on goal difference after four straight wins in the second stage, Oguro has 14 goals.

He is the highest Japanese scorer in the chart, and is second overall, behind the prolific Emerson, who already has 18 in 15 appearances.

The Osaka-born Oguro, 24, has progressed through the Gamba ranks, from junior youth to youth and then the first team, making his J.League debut in March 1999.

According to the J.League official website, Oguro now has 26 career goals in 73 appearances, which is better than one goal every three games--the mark by which strikers generally are ruled to be successful goalscorers or not.

His two against a Kashiwa Reysol side in disarray last Saturday were both scored from close range, but his consistent strike rate justifies the faith Nishino has had in him for a long time.

Can Gamba maintain their challenge?

For the sake of the Kansai region, I hope so.

ends

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Okubo just gets better and better

16 Sep 2004(Thu)

Just how long can Cerezo Osaka hold on to their best striker, Yoshito Okubo?

The 22-year-old Athens Olympian scored another two fine goals on Saturday, but his team went down 4-3 at Kashima after leading 3-1 in the second half.

You really feel that Okubo must leave the comfort zone of the J.League sooner rather than later if he is to fulfill his exciting potential, and a move to Europe when the transfer window opens at the end of the year seems inevitable.

His first goal against Antlers was a peach. It reminded me of Paul Scholes's brilliant right-foot strike for England in a World Cup group match against Tunisia at Marseille in 1998.

Okubo found space for himself on the edge of the Antlers box, and when the impressive newcomer Furuhashi played the ball to him, Okubo stroked it beyond Sogahata and into the far corner.

I'm sure I'm not mistaken, but I think I even saw a few Antlers fans behind the goal applauding; which would be a surprise, as they are not known for their generosity toward the opposition.

His second, in the second half, was scored in very different circumstances, but was still a top-quality finish.

This time it was the wily veteran Morishima who set up the chance with an exquisite pass.

Okubo timed his run perfectly, and ran straight across the two Antlers defenders, almost inviting them to make a challenge. Had they done so, I'm sure the slightest contact would have resulted in Okubo crashing to the turf, and a red card for the defender.

Both defenders, I suspect, sensed this, and Okubo was given a clear run on goal. He beat Sogahata again with another calm finish, and the loyal Cerezo fans behind the goal must have been thinking that their long journey was going to be worth the money.

But Antlers scored some excellent goals, too, notably Nozawa's equaliser on the run into the bottom corner, beating the keeper at his near post, followed by Fukai's winner when he cut in from the right and sent a left-foot shot into the far corner.

It was a happy finish for the Antlers fans, but a cruel one for Cerezo Osaka in general and for Okubo in particular.

But those goals will not have gone unnoticed on a wider scale.

ends

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Zico prepares for Japan's toughest test

13 Sep 2004(Mon)

So far so good.

That's how Zico and Japan must be feeling about the qualifying tournament for the 2006 World Cup.

With a maximum 12 points from four Group 3 games, it would be tempting to think Japan already has one foot in the final, eight-team qualifying round.

But nothing could be further from the truth.

Just three points back are Oman, and the fifth round of Group 3 matches on October 13 will see Oman entertain Japan in Muscat.

Without doubt this will be the most important match for Japan since Zico took charge in July 2002.

After winning 2-0 in Singapore on Wednesday night, the Omanis were already looking ahead to this pivotal group fixture.

If Oman can win in front of their own fans in Muscat, then Japan's efforts may all have been in vain.

Oman, for sure, will not be frightened by Japan's array of stars, even though they are the Asian champions .

After all, the Omanis will feel they were unlucky to lose to Japan on two occasions already this year, both by 1-0 scorelines in World Cup qualifying at Saitama and Asian Cup group play in China.

The tiny Gulf state will no doubt be promising their players riches to beat Japan and qualify for the final round, from which 4.5 of the eight teams will head for Germany.

(The 4.5, in FIFA talk, means four automatic qualifiers, plus half a place for Asia in a playoff with the CONCACAF zone).

After losing to Kubo's injury-time goal at Saitama, Oman have virtually matched Japan goal for goal since then.

After four games, Japan have scored 14 goals and conceded only one--in Singapore--and Oman have scored 14 and conceded two.

But the experiences of the Japanese players in China and in Calcutta on Wednesday should help them in Muscat, and it will be a big surprise if they do not win this match, too.

Even though a draw would be good enough for Japan to win the group, I expect Japan to come out on top with another narrow victory.

Then the hard work really begins, when the eight group winners are divided into two groups of four, playing on a home and away basis in 2005.

ends

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No Shunsuke, no problem

9 Sep 2004(Thu)

Even without Shunsuke Nakamura, Japan should have no problems beating India in their World Cup qualifier in Calcutta on Wednesday.

The Asian Cup MVP has pulled out with a back problem, but the Japanese squad has enough talent to overcome his absence.

It's true that in China, for the Asian Cup, Nakamura played a key role in the team's victory with his ability at free kicks and corners and to unlock an opposing defence with a neat pass.

(However, I would have still made Nakazawa the MVP of the tournament, as defenders are valuable players, too).

Although there will be no Shunsuke to swing in the corners and free kicks, Zico will still have Alex if he needs a good left-footer.

On his day, Alex can be very dangerous, too, but I have noticed on several occasions this season that his corners from the right wing are weakly struck, and do not clear the first defender at the near post.

I don't know if this is a Reds tactic, aiming for the near post, but I'm sure Zico will be telling him to get more elevation on his corners, and look for Nakazawa at the back post.

Elsewhere in the team, Yanagisawa has pulled out, too.

Who can blame him?

He knows he will not be a starting member, and feels it is more important to practice with his new club, Messina, for the start of the Italian season.

Although I have always admired Yanagisawa, and stuck by him through the lean times, again Japan should not miss him.

This is simply because the J.League is producing so many top-quality players, and they have many players in all positions who can now come in and do a good job. Tamada is just the latest.

India will be missing their best player, Bhaichung Bhutia, who is injured.

Their English manager, Stephen Constantine, described him as India's David Beckham, but without the tattoos.

He is an inspirational figure in the squad, and he will be missed more by India than Nakamura or Yanagisawa will by Japan.

A comfortable win for Zico's team is predicted, but this will not be the case ahead of the Oman game next month in Muscat.

ends

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Inamoto given fresh hope

6 Sep 2004(Mon)

Just when Junichi Inamoto's future looked uncertain, West Bromwich Albion came in and gave him another chance in the English Premier League.

After his injury against England, and then his release by Fulham after two years on loan, "Ina" must have been worried about what the future held.

But clearly he had done enough with Fulham to impress West Brom, and they signed him just before the transfer deadline.

Although the transfer fee of 200,000 pounds will not be paid until he makes his first appearance, and will not be paid at all if he has not played before January 1, 2005, Ina still has every reason to be optimistic.

After all, the transfer will be a permanent one, not on loan, and the contract will be for two and half years, with an option for an extra year.

This, I feel, is just the boost Ina needs.

He was on loan at Arsenal, and then again at Fulham.

It always seemed he was fighting for his future, fighting to impress his employers in every game.

But when he joins West Brom, and the deal goes through, he will finally feel part of the squad. This will surely give him more confidence, and remove some of the pressure he must have felt in every game.

West Brom have not made a great start to the season, but manager Gary Megson, who was a very similar type of midfield player to Inamoto, has made some good summer signings.

They include midfielder Jonathan Greening from Middlesbrough, Nigerian forward Kanu from Arsenal, Wales striker Robbie Earnshaw from Cardiff City for a club record fee of 3 million pounds, and Romanian right-back Cosmin Contra, on loan from Atletico Madrid.

According to an article in World Soccer magazine, West Brom are the most likely of the three promoted clubs to stay up, with both Nouwich City and Crystal Palace tipped for a swift return to the old division one, now renamed the Coca-Cola Championship.

So Ina has every incentive to get fully fit, and feel that he belongs in England.

After three seasons on loan, he will feel the effort has finally paid off.

ends

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Indians expect easy ride for Japan

2 Sep 2004(Thu)

I was standing in the queue for Media tickets for the Olympic Games closing ceremony on Sunday afternoon, behind two Indian reporters.

We began chatting.

About the Olympics?

No way!

It was far more important than that. It was about the World Cup.

More to the point, about Japan's match against India in Calcutta on September 8.

"Are Japan bringing all their stars?" I was asked.

"No idea," I replied.

"I haven't seen the squad. But it's the World Cup, so I expect Zico will want his best players."

According to the two Indian reporters, it didn't matter which players Zico brought with him, as Japan would win anyway.

"If India lose 2-0 or 3-0, this will be a good result for them," said one of the reporters. "It was 7-0 in Japan, right?"

"No chance of an upset?" I asked.

"No," came the reply. "It will be an upset if Japan don't win by five goals."

But won't a big, hostile home crowd make a difference?

"It's not a cricket match," said the other Indian reporter.

"There'll be 5,000 people there, maybe 10,000. They know India cannot win, so why should they go and see their team humiliated?"

I presume the match will be played at the Salt Lake Stadium. I went there, maybe 10 years ago, to watch an Asian Club Championship match between East Bengal and South China. I was working in Hong Kong at the time, and reporting on Hong Kong's leading club.

It is a vast, bare, concrete stadium, something like you come across in China.

There were only a few thousand people for that game, which South China won 1-0, and my main memory is fearing for my own safety.

Not from Indian hooligans, but from normal Indian people throwing firecrackers from the top deck of the stand.

They were exploding everywhere, and it was not a pleasant environment in which to watch a football match.

You never knew if a firecracker was going to go off right in front of your face.

So Japanese fans who travel to Calcutta, beware. The Indians won't whistle when the Kimigayo plays before the kick-off, but they might throw a firecracker in your general direction.

It's all very funny, of course, until someone is burned or blinded.

According to the Indian press, the pitch has been closed for two months to repair the damage from music concerts and other events.

"If the pitch had been in bad condition, and there was a rainstorm, and the Japanese players could not run or pass the ball...then maybe India could win," said one of them, laughing.

To those Japanese fans making the trek to Calcutta, keep your head down when the firecrackers start going off.

And put your money on a Japan victory. About 4-0 looks a good bet.

ends

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