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February 2006

Reds start as favourites, but several teams can challenge for the title

27 Feb 2006(Mon)

February 25, 2006: Can the J.League ever again match the drama of last season's final day, when Cerezo Osaka lost the championship and Gamba Osaka won it, all in the space of a few crazy seconds?

It's unlikely we will go into the last round of games with five teams still in with a chance of finishing on top, but there are no signs that one "super team" -- such as Chelsea in England, Juventus in Italy, Barcelona in Spain and Bayern Munich in Germany -- will run away with the title in a one-horse race.

Chatting to JEF United manager Ivica Osim the other day, he feels that eight or nine teams are capable of playing at a consistently high level, and that three or four will be contesting the championship.

Last season, only one point separated the top five, with Gamba winning on 60 points and Reds, Antlers, JEF and Cerezo following on 59.

This season, however, two more former champions will be in the hunt.

"Now, Yokohama and Jubilo will play very strong," said Osim. "This is logical."

Another manager who agrees with Osim is Akira Nishino. He feels that Reds and Marinos will be the biggest threat to his Gamba team this year.

Nishino felt that Marinos and also Jubilo were badly affected last season by their commitments in the Asian Champions League. This gives both teams an extra six games in the group, and lots of travel around the eastern half of the vast continent for midweek games.

There is no doubt these engagements take their toll, physically and mentally, and I am sure Marinos manager Takeshi Okada will be relieved not to have to play in the Champions League this season. Even though the reward for winning the ACL is a place in the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan in December, Okada would prefer to qualify for the FIFA event by winning the J.League title this season. Much less stress and hassle!

Although I have tipped Gamba to win the league in the past, I will not be doing this time.

They also have Champions League commitments, but, more than that, they will not have Araujo or Oguro, who scored a staggering 49 goals between them last season.

It was Gamba's attack that won them the league, not their defence, and I don't think the Magno Alves-Bando-Fernandinho strikeforce will be anywhere near as productive as the 2005 line-up. Maybe the defence will be tighter, though, with Kaji on the right and Myojin closing down the centre of midfield.

Reds are the, well, red-hot favourites to take the title, with Ono and Washington in the team, plus Soma and Kurobe joining the squad.

But, like Osim says, I don't think one team will run away with it.


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Ogasawara: Send it like Beckham

23 Feb 2006(Thu)

February 22, 2006: The other day I was reading the "David Beckham Annual" bought in England a year ago.

Under the headline "Dateline David", there was a landmark entry for August 17, 1996.

"David makes his mark when scoring a sensational goal from the halfway line against Wimbledon, at Selhurst Park," says the diary entry.

"The goal comes late in the game with United leading 2-0. Becks sees 'keeper Neil Sullivan off his line and decides to lob him. The rest, as they say, is history."

Well, for "David Beckham" read "Mitsuo Ogasawara".

Yes, Ogasawara's long-range goal against Finland on Saturday was of Beckham quality. In fact it was better than Beckham's effort against the Dons because it was from further out, but of course not as many people around the world will see it because it was not an English Premier League match involving Manchester United.

The Sunday sports and newspapers in Japan could not decide on the actual distance -- some said 50 metres, others 55, 57, 58 and one even 60 -- but, whatever it was, the message was clear: Ecopa and Japan had witnessed a truly remarkable goal from a player whose talent has never been in doubt.

He was well inside his own half when he launched his right-foot shot. Like Beckham in the above incident, he had spotted the keeper off his line, by around eight metres, and his strike was absolute perfection.

Tiger Woods could not have played a better approach to the flag from the fairway, such was the accuracy and precision of Ogasawara's beautifully flighted effort.

In such circumstances, it was impossible to criticise the Finland keeper. Just look at it from his view point: A Japanese player receives the ball in his own half, and prepares to send it forward. If it is a long pass aimed for his forwards, then the keeper is ready to race out of his area and intervene. But suddenly he realises it is not a pass; it has been struck harder, but he also knows there is very little space behind him. He back-pedals, to cover his line, but he is off balance and cannot even touch the ball as it drops under the bar. Perfect!

No, it would be unfair to blame the keeper, and would take away some of the credit Ogasawara deserves.

Beckham's sensational goal helped launch him to superstardom in 1996, and, on a smaller scale, Ogasawara's wonder goal will always be remembered in Japanese football history.

"Bend it like Beckham" became a very famous movie around the world, but, on this occasion, "Send it like Beckham" would be more appropriate, as Ogasawara sent the ball Beckham-style over such a long distance into the back of the net.


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Ogura's J.League career is finally over

20 Feb 2006(Mon)

February 17, 2006: The article I read the other day was only three or four paragraphs long, but it still made a big impact.

The subject was Takafumi Ogura, and the announcement that his J.League career was finally over.

The reason why it was such a short news item is obvious: because Ogura, now 32, had not played in the first division since 2002, and was a fading force before that.

But I will never forget the comments of Arsene Wenger after Ogura, young and fit, had scored twice for Grampus in the 5-1 demolition of Kashima Antlers in the Emperor's Cup semi-final in 1995.

I was visiting Tokyo at the time from Hong Kong, and wanted to see the match and also catch up with Wenger, whom I had met in Abu Dhabi, UAE, in the autumn of 1994, after he had left Monaco and before he became Grampus coach.

In the after-match press conference, Wenger was asked about Ogura, and said that Ogura "could be as good as he wanted to be." This was high praise indeed from Wenger, who recognised all the qualities in Ogura to make him a success at the highest level, on the international stage. The raw material and the natural talent was there, Wenger was saying, and it was now down to attitude and a strong work ethic on behalf of the player.

But professional football can be very cruel as well as kind, and only two months later, during Japan's Olympic team training camp in Malaysia in February 1996, Ogura suffered a serious knee injury, ruling him out of the final qualifying round and also the Atlanta Games.

Ogura, it is widely regarded, was never the same again, and after leaving Grampus in 1999 he drifted from JEF United to Verdy to Sapporo and finally to Kofu, where he played from 2003.

Nicknamed "Lefty Monster", Ogura will be remembered as one of the best left-footed players Japan has ever produced. With a powerful physique, and a 1.83-metre frame, he had it all, but was never able to fulfil his potential due to that terrible injury.

He had already scored a goal for Japan against a star-studded France team in the Kirin Cup in May 1994, albeit in a 4-1 defeat, and the following season netted 14 goals in 37 league games for Grampus, in Wenger's first season as coach (and five goals in five Emperor's Cup games).

A couple of days after reading the short article on Ogura, I saw him on TV on Saturday night in a football show, still in good heart.

No one will ever know how good he could have been, but he proved, throughout his career, that he did have the right attitude and a strong work ethic to match that early talent.

And that's just what Wenger would have wanted to see.


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Shinji must drop back for the future

16 Feb 2006(Thu)

February 14, 2006: Well, it was brave and adventurous of Zico to give Shinji Ono a run behind the solitary striker against the United States.

But, even allowing for Shinji's lack of match fitness, it was clear the days of Ono as a bright and inventive attacking force are over.

Now it's Shinji the deep-lying midfield general; Shinji the protector, prompter and provider rather than the exciting, all-action player of old. He's the old head on young shoulders, a player Japan needs in the midfield engine room rather than playing further forward, where his qualities may be bypassed.

But it was well worth Zico taking a look at him in that advanced position against the USA, alongside Ogasawara and behind Kubo in the 3-4-2-1 formation.

Although the Japanese were taken apart in the first half and early in the second half by the fast, fit and motivated Americans, I don't think the system can be blamed.

It's just that, individually, Japan's players were outclassed and overwhelmed. I still think 3-4-2-1 is the way to go for Japan, as it means Zico can field six midfield players and have a balanced line-up with, basically, five defenders (the three at the back, plus the two central midfielders) and five attackers (the two wing-backs, the two shadow strikers and, of course, the centre forward).

Zico pointed out that Japan played well for the first 10 minutes, and it's true they did. One of the jobs of Ono and Ogasawara in that position is to harry the defenders and put them under pressure in the hope they will give the ball away.

When Shunsuke comes back he's going to have to do the same, so it's a demanding role as the two shadow strikers must defend effectively well up the field.

This is another reason why Shinji should drop back into central midfield, as his long-term fitness must still be a worry for Zico and Urawa after his recent injury problems.

If Zico prefers Nakamura, Ogasawara, Matsui, even Okubo or Hidetoshi Nakata for the two attacking midfield positions behind the lone target man, Ono would then have to scrap for a place in central midfield along with Nakata (both Hidetoshi and Koji), Inamoto, Fukunishi, Abe, Endo and now Hasebe (hopefully Konno, too).

Looking at Shinji's hectic schedule for club and country, let's hope he does not try and do too much too quickly.


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Osim is off the mark over Nakata, Nakamura

13 Feb 2006(Mon)

February 11, 2006: The comments of JEF United manager Ivica Osim have always to be respected.

But I think he went a bit too far this week with his criticism of Hidetoshi Nakata and Shunsuke Nakamura.

In an interview with a Croatian newspaper, which was picked up by the Japanese media and then the English-language media in Japan, Osim said Nakata and Nakamura did not work hard enough.

"Zico will suffer because of Nakata and Nakamura. They don't run like Kranjcar. They just hold the ball," Osim was quoted as saying, comparing the Japanese duo with Niko Kranjcar, Croatia's young playmaker and son of national coach Zlatko Kranjcar.

Now, I watched Kranjcar twice in Hong Kong recently, playing for a depleted Croatia team in the annual Carlsberg Cup.

Yes, he is a very accomplished technician, stroking the ball around elegantly and playing lots of short passes with his team-mates to keep the attack moving forward.

But he lost the ball on several occasions, mainly through inaccurate passes, and looked quite sluggish at times. I discussed him with the Croatian media following the team in Hong Kong and the verdict from them was that the young Kranjcar was slow and still had a long way to develop.

I was happy they had confirmed my impression, although, of course, I am sure he will look much better in a full-strength Croatia team in Germany.

As for Nakata and Nakamura, I would say Nakata is much more dynamic than Kranjcar, and able to play at a higher tempo. One of Nakata's qualities is his stamina, so I can't understand why Osim -- a coach I admire immensely -- thinks he does not run enough.

Regarding Shunsuke, there is no doubting the effort he puts in, but he does not have the staying power of Nakata and this is why he is often substituted in the second half, even in Scotland.

Nakamura's talent lies elsewhere, in his skill, his vision, his passing and, above all, his world-class free kicks. The latter quality cannot be under-estimated in today's game, as many matches at the highest level are determined by a single, set-piece play.

In his interview with the Croatian newspaper, Osim made several interesting points -- such as Zico's reluctance to bring through new players, his loyalty to players not playing well for their clubs, his emphasis on attack and not enough balance in defence, and his policy of handing responsibility to individual players when this does not suit the Japanese character.

But to say that Nakata and Nakamura do not run enough for the team is off the mark.


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Kubo still has everything to play for

9 Feb 2006(Thu)

February 8, 2006: A few months ago, Tatsuhiko Kubo looked to be out of the running for a place in Japan's World Cup squad.

But a new year has brought a new chance for Kubo to re-establish himself in Zico's plans.

With all Japan's Europe-based strikers not involved in the friendly with the United States in San Francisco this week, Kubo has the platform to prove his fitness and his worth to the team.

When fully fit, Kubo certainly offers something special, something different.

Of all Japan's forwards he is the best in the air, climbing high and being a constant menace to his markers.

He has a strong physical presence and is not afraid to put himself about in the box, unsettling defenders with his awkward playing style.

On the floor, Kubo is unpredictable. You never know what he's going to do next. Will he shoot from such an unlikely position with that powerful left foot, will he pass or will he dribble?

With Kubo around, Zico will have someone who can unlock the tightest of defences, and I still feel Troussier made a mistake in not selecting him for the 2002 squad, ahead of Nishizawa.

Looking through Japan's list of strikers, the race is wide open for places in Germany. Suzuki, Yanagisawa, Takahara and Kubo could all play as the solitary target man in a 3-4-2-1 formation, so provided Kubo stays fit this year, and scores some goals, he has a good chance of making it.

So far, in squad selection assignments, I have ignored Kubo, simply because he has not played for Japan since September 2004 due to a catalogue of ailments.

Once he starts playing regularly again for club and country it's a different matter, of course, and then he must come into the reckoning.

For the time being I am sticking with Takayuki and Yanagisawa as my two choices for the centre forward slot, backed up by Oguro and Okubo, but things can change very quickly in football.


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Koji can put his career back on track

6 Feb 2006(Mon)

February 3: At last, Koji Nakata has left Marseille.

The former Antlers star had a rough time in France, even though most times I saw his face in the papers he was smiling.

But now the nightmare is over, following his transfer to FC Basel in Switzerland and the signing of a contract through to June 2008.

Personally, I think this is a great move for Koji, and the kind of deal Shinji Ono would probably have wanted.

First of all, Switzerland is a wonderful country, and will be perfect for Koji to enjoy the mixture of European cultures...French, German and Italian, with English widely spoken, too.

Second, the fo otball is of a standard where Koji can have an impact. Obviously it is a big step down from Marseille and the French league, but this does not mean it is a backward step for the player.

He can focus again on playing, and has the time to establish himself as a first-team regular. I am sure he has the quality, the experience and the versatility to be a success at Basel, and he must feel liberated by his new, extremely pleasant surroundings.

So good luck to Koji for sticking it out in Europe. He could have moved to Israel, but went back to Marseille and waited for something more attractive. He has found that now in Switzerland.

As for his position on the pitch, I still think he is Japan's most natural defensive midfield player.

In a 4-4-2, 3-5-2 or 3-4-2-1 formation, Koji can easily fit into one of the two defensive midfield slots. He reads the game so well and gives the team balance in midfield, an d could be partnered by Hidetoshi Nakata, Ono, Inamoto or Fukunishi.

A match-fit Koji gives Zico many options, so his welcome move to Basel is not just good for the player, but for the national team, too.


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Koreans grow in self-confidence

2 Feb 2006(Thu)

Hong Kong, January 31, 2006: There's a very familiar face among the South Korean delegation at the Carlsberg Cup in Hong Kong over Chinese New Year.

For a long time they had a reputation as dour and machine-like, rarely smiling and always playing under pressure.

But their achievement in reaching the World Cup semi-finals four years ago, eventually finishing fourth, has clearly given them a lot more self-confidence and esteem, and this is reflected in their manner.

Of course they continue to train hard and play h ard, but now they seem to have an inner strength and self-belief to accompany their athleticism, speed and physical power.

Pim pointed out all these things, and feels the preparations are well advanced compared to four years ago. With a few more matches to come and the Europe-based players to be drafted into the team, the chances of Korea qualifying from a group which also comprises Togo, France and Switzerland are looking good.

On Sunday they beat Croatia here 2-0, with two fine goals from left-sided wing-back Kim Dong Jin and forward Lee Chun Soo. The first was a cracking long-range drive from Kim, who collected the ball just inside the Croatia half and powered forward befo re having a go himself; the second was a smart finish from the lively Lee after center forward Lee Dong Gook had controlled a long clearance from goalkeeper Lee Woon Jae and fed Lee, all in one smooth movement which carved open the Croatia defence.

Advocaat says Korea have become hard to beat at home, but now they have to do the same away by playing physical, European teams.

Judging from their impressive performance against Croatia − admittedly with only one first-team regular − the Koreans look to be on the way to achieving this next target. ENDS

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