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June 2005

Four or five teams can catch Kashima

30 Jun 2005(Thu)

TOKYO (June 29): The long wait is almost over, and the J.League first division will be reopening for business on Saturday.

It feels like the start of the season, doesn't it, as teams have been in camp, playing warm-up games, and there's been lots of talk on the transfer front.

But, of course, the J1 season is already 12 matches old, and there are another 22 rounds to go.

So, even though Kashima Antlers have a nine-point cushion at the top, it's still far from over.

As a Newcastle United fan, I know from painful experience how teams can blow big leads when they are clear at the top well into the season!

So for fans of the chasing pack, don't give up on your team, as there will be many twists and turns ahead on the long road to the championship.

Marinos manager Takeshi Okada was the guest speaker at a recent meeting of the Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan, and he was asked if the crowds would drop with one team dominating J1.

"Don't you think Marinos can catch Kashima?" he replied, with a chuckle.

If there were two or three teams clear of the pack, Okada added, then maybe some fans of other teams might lose interest as the season wears on. But there's only one with a big lead, and several capable of catching them.

Indeed, it is going to be fascinating to see if Antlers can hang on. Much will depend on whether their captain, Mitsuo Ogasawara, stays or leaves.

The word is that Lazio would like to take him to Rome, and if he left there would be a massive gap to fill.

So who's capable of catching Kashima?

Well, Marinos for one, although I hear they are having problems signing a new striker to replace Adhemar and Ahn Jung Hwan.

Ailton, who plays in Germany, and Luizao have both been linked with the club, but no concrete news as yet.

Urawa Reds will get better and can still put in a challenge, and Gamba Osaka must have a chance, too.

They have some fine players in all areas of the pitch, especially going forward with Fernandinho, Araujo and Oguro. There is a strong backbone, too, with Miyamoto, Sidiclei and Endo, and lots of experience elsewhere, so Gamba must not be written off.

Jubilo Iwata could start to click, as they have enough good players.

So, when Saturday comes, the chase is on, and I expect Antlers to be hauled in, and the race to expand considerably over the next few weeks.

Before the next break, that is!


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Miyamoto points the way forward

27 Jun 2005(Mon)

TOKYO (June 25): With the World Cup in Germany less than a year away, what needs to be done in the coming months to further strengthen the team?

One of the most important things, as "Captain Tsune" said in Bangkok after victory over North Korea, is for Japan to play more teams from Europe and South America.

The Confederations Cup gave Japan the opportunity to play against teams from three of FIFA's six confederations: CONCACAF (Mexico), Europe (Greece) and South America (Brazil).

After a disappointing start against Mexico, Japan adapted well to playing the big and physical Greeks, and then picked up the pace to give Brazil a real fright.

So Japan showed that they are adaptable to both styles, and Zico must now find some common ground down the middle.

Meaning, having players who are defensively strong and physical, and others who are quick and creative in attack.

As the coach said himself in Germany, it's now a matter of balance and organisation, and finding the right combinations.

Japan's qualities, of course, are speed, movement and technical skill, but these alone are not enough to succeed at the highest level.

They need to have physical strength to win the one-on-one battles around the pitch, and the aerial power in both penalty areas to combat their opponents.

FIFA's technical study group representative, Andy Roxburgh, also said on the FIFA website that Japan must learn to change their tempo when the situation demands, and not keep playing at such a fast pace.

So, all in all, there is plenty to work on over the next few months.

Playing against South American and European teams, away from home, will help Japan develop their own special style, and enable Zico to sort out Japan's men from Japan's boys!


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Fans hope for the "Miracle of Cologne"--but would it be a miracle?

23 Jun 2005(Thu)

TOKYO (June 22): Well, are you ready for tonight?

Could it be the Miracle of Cologne?

Maybe it could. You never know, especially as Brazil's head coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira, has said he is resting the likes of Ronaldinho and Kaka for the decisive Confederations Cup clash with Japan.

But it doesn't matter who is missing, because whoever comes in will be good.

I think Japan's biggest hurdle to overcome is psychological, rather than from a footballing point of view.

I know Brazil are good, but they are not supermen, and Mexico proved this by beating them the other day.

So if Japan enter the match in this frame of mind, and try and ignore the history and the awe of the famous canary yellow shirts, then they could do all right?

Could win? Well, I don't know about that, because they must stop Brazil scoring in the first place, which will be difficult.

If Brazil score once, Japan will need to score twice, and this team does not look like it is bursting with goals, does it?

Brazil, remember, can draw and advance to the semi-finals, while Japan must win, and this is not a bad situation for Japan really.

Brazil may relax a bit, play for the draw, and then Japan can hit them with a sucker punch near the end, from Oguro, of course.

That scenario is not beyond the realms of possibility, so Japan must play calm and composed, and keep it 0-0 for as long as possible, before looking for that vital goal.

If they score too early, this may wake Brazil from their slumber, make them angry and make Japan pay for their cheek!

Whatever happens in Cologne tonight, though, Japan can count the Confederations Cup campaign a success, thanks to the 1-0 victory over the European champions Greece.

This was a fine performance by Japan, whose passing and movement ripped apart the big and clumsy Greeks.

Were Greece ever that good anyway, even in winning Euro 2004?

I was never that convinced, and they haven't done much since in their World Cup qualifying group, and Japan proved this.

Still, the performance of the Greeks, and Japan's catalogue of missed chances, should not detract from Japan's achievement.

It must rank as one of the best results in the history of Japanese football, as the Confederations Cup is the second biggest FIFA tournament after the World Cup.

So my message to the fans ahead of tonight's match is: Relax and enjoy it.

I really hope Japan can win, and lay to rest the myth that Japan will never be able to beat the mighty Brazil.


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Wenger offers expert insight

20 Jun 2005(Mon)

Tokyo (June 18): It's always refreshing to hear comments from an "outsider" about the Japan national team.

Especially from an "outsider" with a little "inside" information to add to his vast knowledge of the game at large.

So the half-time viewpoint of Arsene Wenger was one of the highlights of the Japan-Mexico Confederations Cup game.

Wenger said he was impressed with three Japanese players in particular: Yanagisawa, for his movement up front; Kaji, for his power down the right flank; and Hidetoshi Nakata, for his all-round skill in organising the team.

Japan had played quite well in the first half, but lost their rhythm and shape in the second as Mexico dominated.

Yanagisawa's goal, a delicate finish at the near post into the far corner, followed an exhilarating move, thanks to some great control, vision and skill from Ogasawara and Kaji's run and cross.

But Mexico's two goals in response highlighted bad defending by Japan.

There was too much space in front of the defence for the first one, a well-struck long-range shot, and weak challenges in the air for the second. How Japan missed Nakazawa in that situation!

However, I still think Zico's 3-4-2-1 is an interesting formation, but needs finetuning in terms of personnel.

I would bring in Koji Nakata alongside Fukunishi to bolster the midfield defence, move Hidetoshi Nakata forward alongside Ogasawara, and put Shunsuke on the bench. I thought Shunsuke looked tired, slow and weak against Mexico, and a Nakata-Ogasawara pairing behind Yanagisawa would be much more dynamic and dangerous.

Japan now have a tough task to qualify, and must beat Greece and at least draw with Brazil.

If they don't qualify for the semi-finals, though, I won't be too concerned, as at least Zico has devised, after three years, a system that can play to Japan's strengths.

It's just a matter of picking the player most suited for each position.


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Leao says Japan was stronger 10 years ago

16 Jun 2005(Thu)

TOKYO (June 15): Emerson Leao at Vissel Kobe...Washington at Verdy...the Confederations Cup just around the corner...

All these factors came to mind the other day, when Leao brought his struggling Vissel team to Omiya for a Nabisco Cup group game on Saturday.

Leao, remember, was in charge of Brazil at the 2001 Confederations Cup in Japan and South Korea. At that time, Washington was leading Brazil's attack, and the playmaker was Ramon, who would also go on to play for Verdy.

After Saturday's game at Omiya I was able to ask Leao a few questions about this month's Confederations Cup, where Japan will play Brazil again, in Cologne on June 22.

Four years ago the teams drew 0-0 in group play at Ibaraki, but Leao thinks it will be a different story this time.

"The game will not be at home for Japan. It will be in Germany, and this is a big difference. Japan will lose in Germany," he said.

Leao, in fact, was not very positive about the current Japan team in general.

He knows Japanese football well, of course, having worked with S-Pulse in 1993-94 and with Verdy in 1996, and thinks Japan was stronger 10 years ago!

Brazil has all the technique, and nowadays Japan has only tactics, he said, and no outstanding individual players.

"Japan is a different team today," he said.

"There is no superstar, only the team. The difference today in games is the superstar."

Doesn't Hidetoshi Nakata come into this category, I suggested/pleaded?

"No. Japan has no big star. A superstar is Robinho, Ronaldinho, Zidane."

Mmm....very interesting.

Japan's previous coach, Philippe Troussier, would have loved to hear these words, as this was his philosophy: a team in which all players had their specific role and were equally as important, with no superstar.

Of course Leao's opinion must be respected, and no one would argue that a player such as Ronaldinho can turn a 0-0 draw into a 1-0 victory with an outrageous piece of skill.

But I can't agree that Japan was stronger 10 years ago, can you?

Ten years ago, in fact, in June 1995, I followed Japan around England in the Umbro Cup, watching them play England at Wembley, Brazil at Goodison Park and Sweden at Nottingham Forest.

Those were the days of Kazu and Gon up front, Ihara and Hashiratani at the back....

But no one in midfield of the individual quality of Nakata or Ono.

Well, we will find out soon enough how much progress Japan has made since the 2003 Confederations Cup.


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JFA should fine Alex for diving

9 Jun 2005(Thu)

TOKYO (June 6): Well, hats off to Zico this time.

With the pressure on, the Brazilian coach made all the right calls for the Bahrain match, didn't he?

I really liked his 3-4-2-1 formation, as it played to his squad strengths: midfield.

It enabled him to field six midfield players, even without the injured Ono, and finally he found the right balance.

The back three looks here to stay, and the four across the middle gave Japan solidity and plenty of width.

With seven players ready to defend, the other three could concentrate on attack.

Nakamura and Ogasawara had the freedom to roam, in support of the solitary striker, Yanagisawa, and these three players, plus Nakata, combined for the only goal of the game.

Despite defending Suzuki after the UAE game, Zico dropped him and brought in his former Antlers teammate to lead the line.

Everything worked well on the night, and Japan dominated the game, controlled the ball and restricted Bahrain to just a a couple of half-cahnces.

What a difference a goal makes!

Suddenly Japan is relaxed and optimistic, as qualification is just around the corner.

It should, in fact, be achieved on Wednesday night in Bangkok against North Korea.

Even though Japan will be without Nakamura, Hidetoshi Nakata and Alex due to suspension, they should still be capable of winning or drawing against a team with a 0-4 record in the final qualifying round.

What on earth was Alex doing?

It was a ridiculous attempt to win a penalty, a needless dive, and another yellow card.

I hope the JFA fines Alex because incidents like this reflect badly on Japanese football in general.

Two years ago in the Confederations Cup against New Zealand, the result could have been so different if Alex had been sent off in the first half.

He was booked for a clumsy foul early on, and should have been shown the yellow card again for diving in the New Zealand box. He escaped punishment, and Japan went on to win 3-0, so it was forgotten.

The JFA should tell him to stop cheating and just play football.


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Reysol and Troussier may be the right combination

6 Jun 2005(Mon)

TOKYO (June 3): There's never a dull moment at Kashiwa Reysol these days.

Not many points. Not many goals. But never a dull moment.

First of all I want to make one thing clear about last Saturday's "sit-in" after the 5-1 defeat by JEF United.

The Reysol fans did not cause trouble, and were not violent.

They were just frustrated, quite understandably, and concerned, and the demonstration was peaceful and good-natured.

From what I can gather, club officials were quite upset by some of the media reporting, as it suggested the Reysol fans were misbehaving again.

They weren't. They just wanted to make their views heard when their passions were high, and spent large chunks of the demonstration showing their support by chanting a desperate "Kashiwa Reysol" for minutes on end.

The group of around 100 included several children, aged no more than three or four, maybe younger, and it was quite amusing to see them joining in the applause when one older fan made a suggestion that received widespread support.

Although the Reysol fans demanded an immediate audience with either the president or with the manager, the club sent a sacrificial lamb to bow deeply and apologise for the performance, and try to appease the fans before the forum planned for Sunday morning at Hitachi-dai.

No doubt there will be many questions put to the club's top management.

One of Reysol's biggest problems, in my opinion, is the recruitment of unsuitable foreign players.

I believe Reysol have become a soft touch for agents due to weak front-office management, and they need to set up a fresh network of contacts and expand their horizons beyond Brazil and South Korea.

Of the current crop, Cleber is an obvious exception because he looks a fine player, but you have to wonder how long he will be around if the team continues to under-perform.

On the coaching front, they have tried Brazilians, an Englishman and Japanese, but no one seems capable of turning the team around, and this must be a worry.

A tough manager is what's required, and the club do worse than check out the availability of Philippe Troussier. He wouldn't tolerate any nonsense, although I'm sure there would be players and staff shaking in their boots at the thought of the fiery Frenchman working at Kashiwa.

Good! Maybe this is what they need.


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Troussier for Japan? No way!

2 Jun 2005(Thu)

TOKYO (May 31): Did you read those comments from Philippe Troussier the other day?

Apparently, Troussier wants his job back as national coach of Japan, and accused Zico of not giving the players enough freedom on the pitch.

Did he really say that?

If he did, then it's quite a statement from Troussier, who was not known for his flexibility in formation and strategy, although he was always happy to give talented young players a chance and help to toughen them up.

So, would there be a chance of Troussier having his old job back in the near future?

To me the answer is obvious: No!

I think there's absolutely no chance of JFA president Kawabuchi even considering Troussier for the post should the results go against Japan in Bahrain and in Bangkok against North Korea, and Zico is shown the door back to Rio.

Very early in his turbulent introduction to Japan, Troussier suggested a round of J.League fixtures should be postponed to give him more time to prepare for a friendly. I think it was Troussier's first game in charge, in fact, against Egypt at Osaka Nagai.

A few days later, when Kawabuchi, then the J.League chairman, was asked to comment on Troussier's suggestion, he was very scathing of the national coach.

"He's been in Africa for 10 years. He can't come here and just start changing things in the J.League," were the jist of Kawabuchi's reaction.

No, there is no chance.

Troussier has not had a happy time since leaving Japan, first with an operation followed by lengthy recovery, then a brief spell with Qatar and a troubled few months at Marseille.

I could see Troussier taking over the China job, with a brief to build a new team from the chaos of the corrupt professional league in time for the 2007 Asian Cup and, more significantly, the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, of course.

Troussier would be perfect for this job, picking young players, smacking them about a bit and moulding them into a smooth-running, well-organised and disciplined team.

Troussier for China?

Makes more sense than Troussier for Japan.


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