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May 2006

Haas: Maki would be ideal in England

29 May 2006(Mon)

More on Maki...

Well, he is the hot news right now, and the new star of Japanese football.

The good news for JEF fans is that the team can win without him, as they proved in a recent 1-0 victory over a plucky S-Pulse in the Nabisco Cup.

Of course they missed his pace and his presence up front, but JEF came through in the end to win the match and the group.

After the game I took the opportunity to ask the opinion of Maki's strike partner, "Super Mario" Haas.

The Austrian has been as impressed as anyone with Maki's rapid progress, saying: "He gets better match by match -- and it is right that Zico has picked him for the World Cup."

With Maki's rise, it will be only a matter of time before he is linked with a move to Europe -- and Haas thinks there is a league just waiting for him to make his mark.

"I think English football suits Maki's style -- and Maki's style would suit England," said Haas.

"Maki is good at heading and running, and in the English game it's always long balls and lots of crosses."

I asked if Maki would struggle against the likes of Chelsea's England defender John Terry, and Maki replied: "Well, if the fight is close-in, it would be very hard for Maki.

"But if Maki runs with the ball, with his speed even these players have no chance."

These are words of praise indeed from Haas, who has displayed all his elegant skills in the J.League when fully fit.

JEF fans will be hoping that Haas now stays clear of injury for the rest of the campaign, because, with Maki alongside him, United would have the attacking spearhead to challenge for the championship.

The national team is now in Germany, of course, and the midfield and attack looks vibrant and powerful enough to trouble their rivals.

But I still feel the defence is a bit lightweight, and would like to have seen Matsuda on the plane, and possibly even Tulio -- if Zico had given him a chance.

The fact that Zico looks like playing a 3-5-2 formation will help Japan, as a 4-4-2 would have exposed the defensive deficiencies and highlighted the lack of muscle in the middle.

But with Miyamoto running the line from libero, and with the height of Nakazawa and the speed of Tsuboi alongside, the defence does not look quite as vulnerable as in a 4-4-2 formation.

But the central midfield duo of Fukunishi and Hidetoshi Nakata will have to tackle their hearts out to protect the defence, and Kaji and Alex will have to run like marathon athletes to secure the flanks.


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An afternoon in Hiratsuka

25 May 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, May 23, 2006 -- With no J1 or Nabisco Cup games last Saturday, May 20, it was a good opportunity to watch some J2.

So why not have a day out on the Kanagawa coast, by the "beautiful sea" of Bellmare?

Shonan were at home to Mito Hollyhock, and the visitors eventually won 3-1.

I watched two sports news programmes over the weekend, one on Saturday night and one on Sunday, and neither of them showed the goals from this match; which was a great pity -- unless you were a Bellmare fan, of course.

The first goal of the game, scored by Mito midfielder Ogura, would be a candidate for "Goal of the Season", if the J.League had such an award.

Ogura must have struck the ball from fully 35 metres with his right foot, and, with a stiff Bellmare breeze behind him, it flew into the top corner, past a startled Kobayashi in the home goal. Kobayashi should not feel ashamed of being beaten from such a distance, as Kawaguchi, Narazaki and Doi could all have been in goal at the same time and they still wouldn't have stopped this thunderbolt. Yes, it was that good.

Mito's second was another great finish, this time by Kim, from a little closer in, and the third was a penalty from Anderson after he had been pulled down in the box by a frustrated Bellmare defence.

Trailing 3-0, Bellmare finally got on the scoresheet when Kato, their former Reysol favourite, scored direct from a left-wing corner, using the swirling wind to curl the ball in at the back post. I am sure he meant it, too; not that it really mattered at the time as the home side was well beaten.

After the game, Bellmare manager Ueda was a forlorn figure. He was desperately hoping for a win to stay up with the pace, but defeat left them in fifth place.

He said six or seven of the 13 J2 teams were capable of winning promotion this season, but feared Reysol might start to run away at the top.

While Bellmare were playing in front of 3,504 fans, their famous Old Boy, Hidetoshi Nakata, was training in front of about 13,000 fans at J-Village with the national team.

Nakata, of course, is not just a footballer any more, and has not been for several years. He is a multi-million dollar industry, and his legacy lives on at Hiratsuka with a "nakata.net" advertising board and a huge banner reading "Pride Gate 7", clearly referring to their former playmaker (and if it's dedicated to current captain Sato, I apologise!).

It's funny how careers work out, as I first saw Nakata playing for Japan Under-19s in the Asian Youth Championship in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 1994. He was on the wing, and Suguru Ito was Japan's captain and playmaker.

Ito's J.League career is now finished, and he is a coach at a university, while Nakata is a superstar in the world game.

As the train pulled out of Hiratsuka, in brilliant sunshine following a short thunderstorm, a rainbow appeared in the clear blue sky. So it's true what they say...that there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow -- because Hidetoshi Nakata found it!


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Koji can still be an influence in Germany

22 May 2006(Mon)

Tokyo, May 20, 2006 -- Zico's squad announcement must serve as a warning to Japanese players in the future -- that a move overseas is not necessarily a passport to success.

Players have to be careful over their choice of country and club when the opportunity comes along, as it could affect their careers.

For various reasons, Daisuke Matsui, Yoshito Okubo and Takayuki Suzuki all missed out on Japan's 23 for Germany, and you can't help feeling their chances would have been better had they remained in Japan so that Zico could have actually seen them play on a regular basis.

I am not, for a minute, saying they were wrong to move overseas, just that they can disappear from view quite quickly.

Chatting with several Japanese sports writers in the build-up to the squad announcement, another former J.League favourite now in Europe often came up in conversation.

Would Zico call up Koji Nakata, or leave him out after his miserable time at Marseille and his attempt to get his career back on track at Basle?

Thankfully, Zico selected him -- and now I hope he tries to integrate him into the starting line-up.

Despite claims that Zico has a special bond with his "Kashima children", this cannot be said of Koji.

In fact I think Koji has been under-valued and under-utilised by Zico throughout his reign, and that he has much more to offer the national team.

No matter what formation Zico picks, 4-4-2 or 3-5-2, he will need two central midfield players to hold the team together.

One of them, preferably both, must be a naturally defensive player, and Fukunishi is the favourite for that role at the moment. But Koji could do the job just as well, if not better.

He always controlled the Kashima team in the middle of the park, and has the experience and the football brain to do the same for Japan.

With Koji staying deep, and having the tactical discipline not to rush forward unexpectedly, the midfield retains its balance and the team retains its shape -- and that can't always be said of Zico's tactics.

Zico could even play Koji and Fukunishi together, building a tall and resilient wall in the centre of the pitch, but it's unlikely he will do so due to the abundance of more creative, attacking players he clearly prefers.

The inclusion of Koji, though, gives Zico many midfield options, and, of course, the former Antlers favourite could also fill in for Alex at left back in a four-man defence...when Alex is suspended for two yellow cards: one for diving, the other for a silly foul!

No one knows exactly what condition Koji is in, but he has three weeks of training sessions and two matches to state his case.

I still feel he can be a major influence on the team in Germany.


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Maki: a success story for Japanese youngsters

18 May 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, May 16, 2006 -- The selection of Seiichiro Maki in Japan's World Cup squad was not only a personal triumph for the player, but also for the J.League in general.

Had Maki been left out, then not only him but many others within the game would have been disappointed and deflated.

But Zico's bold move -- well, bold by his own cautious standards -- has offered hope to young players around the country that hard work and ambition can be rewarded at the highest level.

I've had a couple of long chats with JEF United manager Ivica Osim about Maki this season, and he could not speak highly enough of his eager centre forward.

"He's an example to all Japanese players," was one comment. "He has come from nothing to the national team."

Another Osim observation was that "every team needs a player like Maki" -- someone who can come off the bench for the second half or maybe for the last 30 minutes and change a game with his tireless running and foraging for an opening.

"Not big technique, but a very, very big heart," said Osim.

As the season has progressed, there has been a groundswell of support for Maki, certainly among the English language media in Japan.

And if any match left no doubt as to Maki's electric form and value, then it was JEF's 2-0 home win over Urawa Reds.

Not only did Maki score a fantastic goal with a flashing drive that flew into the net off the post, he also led the JEF line in a hard, bruising battle against the power of Tulio and the pace of Tsuboi.

The two Kirin Cup games then confirmed the current form and condition of Maki compared to that of Kubo, who has struggled to overcome a catalogue of injuries and is not the potent, unpredictable, awkward force of old.

Zico kept everyone waiting, didn't he, by leaving Maki's name right to the end. Would it be Kubo, who was the logical choice in normal circumstances, or would it be Maki?

He went for the latter -- and put a smile on the face and a spring in the step of many people in the game.

No player deserves this accolade more than Maki, who, as Osim says, has come from nothing (Komazawa University) to the national team, and now to the World Cup....in just over three seasons.

It's a success story which should inspire young players around the country.


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Ono looks to have his timing perfect

15 May 2006(Mon)

Tokyo, May 12, 2006 -- Well, Reds fans, wasn't it reassuring to see Shinji Ono in such fine form for club and country in the last few days.

At Saitama Stadium 2002 last Sunday, Shinji scored two lovely goals in the 4-0 demolition of a very disappointing Kashima Antlers team.

Two days later, at Osaka, he came off the bench in the second half against Bulgaria and looked confident and authoritative, almost like the Shinji of old.

I must admit I'd been worrying about him a lot this year -- as many others would have been.

He didn't look fully fit, he didn't look sharp, and he was not imposing himself on games. In fact sometimes I thought he'd been substituted, because he disappeared for long spells, which is most un-Ono like!

But with Ponte and Hasebe in the team, and Keita holding things together behind them, Ono could afford to take his time and work his way back to full fitness. Ono is nothing if not a true professional, and, barring any late setbacks, it seems he'll be in as good a condition as could be expected for the World Cup, considering his cruel history of injuries.

Apart from his two goals against Antlers, what impressed me the most was when he picked himself up, unscathed, after being clattered by Antlers substitute Chugo.

I bet Guido Buchwald and Gert Engels on the bench, plus some 50,000 Reds fans in the stadium, were fearing the worst when Shinji stayed down. Another knock, a trendy metatarsal injury, maybe?

But no. Shinji was able to continue, and eventually left the field four minutes from time to, as expected, proud and loud applause from the Reds nutcases.

But will Shinji be a starting member against the Aussies on June 12?

It's too early to say, of course, because lots can happen between now and then, but his chances are improving by the game.

And where's his best position?

I've said before this year that defensive midfield would suit him better, where he can read the play and control the game more with all his experience.

Alongside Fukunishi or Hidetoshi Nakata? Probably Fukunishi, who is a naturally defensive player, whereas both Nakata and Ono are naturally attacking players. A four-man midfield of Ogasawara-Nakata-Ono-Nakamura could give Japan too much flair and not enough substance in the centre of the park against the Aussies and Croats.

Zico doesn't need to worry about that kind of detail just yet. He'll just be happy to have a fit and confident Ono back in business and available for selection.


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Matsuda only has himself to blame

11 May 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, May 9, 2006 -- As the May 15 deadline draws near for Zico to announce his World Cup squad, arguably the best Japanese player in the J.League won't be there.

No, he's not injured.

He's in good form, and, according to club sources, disappointed he won't be involved in the World Cup.

I'm talking about Naoki Matsuda, the Yokohama F Marinos captain.

The 29-year-old central defender is surely among Japan's top all-round players. When he is fully focused on his game he can do anything he wants at this level, and I remember writing, maybe two years ago, that Matsuda had outgrown the J.League and needed to move to Europe to keep improving.

He is a strong, athletic defender, who can play in any position in a back three and either as stopper or libero in the centre of a four-man defence. He also has great skill and vision, and would make an excellent "volante" in front of the defence.

To cap it all, Matsuda has also scored one of the best goals of the season so far with an exquisite chip, following a midfield run, against FC Tokyo at Ajista in a recent Nabisco Cup game. It was so good it could have been scored by Eric Cantona, and I can't think of many other Japanese players who could have done the same.

But, for all this, Matsuda won't be in Japan's 23 -- and he knows he only has himself to blame.

Zico showed how tough he was on squad discipline after the infamous curfew-breaking by the "Kashima Eight", and Matsuda has paid a heavy price for walking out on the squad last year when he wasn't selected in the starting line-up.

The Brazilian has proved on numerous occasions he values loyalty above all else, and there has been no way back for Matsuda.

So I'm not blaming Zico for sticking to his guns, just saying that Matsuda's mental lapse has cost him and the national team.

Wouldn't a Matsuda-Miyamoto-Nakazawa back line look stronger than anything Zico will field in Germany? And wouldn't the presence of Matsuda give Zico another option in the centre of the back three, or in the centre of the back four?

Even with all the Europe-based players back in the fold, there aren't many better Japanese players than Matsuda.

I wonder if he wishes he could turn the clock back a year, and swallow his pride and stay with the squad.

Alas, it's too late now, for Matsuda and for Zico.


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Reds players must keep their cool in red-hot atmosphere

8 May 2006(Mon)

Tokyo, May 6, 2006 -- What would the J.League be without the Urawa Reds?

Every game, home and away, they bring a special atmosphere to the J.League, and, who knows, their participation in next season's Asian Champions League might just spark some interest in the continent's premier club competition in Japan.

At the recent Saitama derby, for example, it was truly a magnificent spectacle when the Reds "end" came alive with a colourful combination of red, black and white flags flying in the sunshine.

And then, at Fukuda Denshi Arena for the away match with JEF United, a wall of noise boomed out from the away "end" to urge the team on.

Home or away, then, the Reds fans -- young and old, male and female -- are a mobile advertisement for the J.League. They have proved their loyalty, even when they were relegated to J2, and will continue to do so.

This is why I was a little surprised, therefore, at the reaction of the Reds fans on the final whistle at Chiba. Although their team had lost 2-0, I thought the Reds supporters were a little harsh, booing and jeering them as the JEF fans at the other end greeted their heroes as if they had won the championship.

I've said before that if a team doesn't try and loses, then fans, by all means, give them a piece of your own mind. After all, you pay the money!

But if they try and are beaten by a better team, then either show your mooted appreciation for their efforts, or, better still, just leave the stadium in silence and disappointment.

I thought this was the case at Chiba. Reds huffed and puffed but were beaten by a better team on the day, a much better team, in fact. JEF's collective energy and drive -- from the excellent Stoyanov at the back through the combative Abe in midfield to the dangerous Maki up front -- made Reds look like a collection of star names, with little cohesion or rhythm.

How many times did Ponte, for example, give the ball away with a careless back-heel? His team-mates were just not on the same page this day, as JEF harried and hassled and never allowed them to settle.

So give JEF credit, Reds fans. They played you off the park and thoroughly deserved their victory.

One downside to the fanatical support and expectations may be that Reds players are finding it difficult to control themselves...Keita in the home game against Omiya, Washington at Chiba.

I thought Keita was fortunate not to get a straight red card for his wild foul on Sakurai in the first half. He was clearly angry he had not been given a free kick deep in his own box during a rare spell of Omiya pressure, and took out his frustration on Sakurai.

And Washington completely lost the plot at Chiba, screaming at the referee when he did not give a penalty late on for a Maki challenge on Tulio.

Washington scores a lot of goals, and could probably score more if he channelled all his energy into playing rather than complaining.

Just because Reds have great fans does not mean the players can run the games. That's the ref's job.


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No need for Yanagisawa to rush back for Kashima

4 May 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, May 2, 2006 -- The "Yanagisawa Affair" is not quite of Rooney proportions, but it's still a matter of concern for the player and for Zico.

The name of Yanagisawa was missing from Zico's Kirin Cup squad on Tuesday, and that's quite understandable considering he is recovering from injury.

After all, there's still two weeks before Zico must name his "final" 23-man squad for Germany by May 15, and even then a player can be replaced due to injury and with sufficient medical evidence.

So time is on Yanagisawa's side, and there's no reason for anyone to start panicking.

Unlike in England, of course, where the Rooney injury is dominating the news in the same way as Beckham's injury did four years ago.

England's coach, Sven-Goran Eriksson, seems determined to select Rooney, against the wishes of Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, in the hope he will be fit for the second round. England should be good enough to come through a group comprising Paraguay, Trinidad and Tobago and Sweden, and the Round of 16 does not start in Germany until June 24 -- eight weeks after Rooney's injury.

Zico does not have such a luxury with Yanagisawa, as Japan need their top players from the moment the whistle blows against Australia on June 12.

This is Japan's critical game. They must take at least one point, preferably three, against the Aussies, because it won't get any easier against Croatia and Brazil in the next matches.

Judging from Zico's comments, it seems clear that Yanagisawa will be in the 23 if he continues to improve and does not injure the foot again.

Zico is also known to favour Takahara and Kubo, and if he's planning to take only four forwards to Germany that leaves only one place available.

Alongside Takahara, Kubo and Yanagisawa, therefore, must be a player with different qualities, and the last spot seems certain to go to Oguro. Zico acknowledges the former Gamba striker has something special, and Oguro scored some big goals for the national team during World Cup qualifying and at the Confederations Cup. So that's it...no Takayuki, no Tamada, no Maki, no Sato and no Okubo (anyone remember him?)

I'm not saying these would be my choices, because I would certainly find room for Maki on current form and fitness, but that's the way it's turning out.

These broken bones are certainly causing problems around the world, though, and it was interesting to hear the comments of Robbie Earle -- the former Wimbledon midfielder -- during the Chelsea-Man Utd game on TV on Saturday night.

He says the lighter, softer boot favoured by the players now is leaving them short of protection, hence the rise in "metatarsal" fractures.

Not so long ago most football fans wouldn't have known what a metatarsal was or where it was located in the body (the elbow, maybe, or the nose?) but now it's as much a part of Beckham's history as is Posh Spice, Brooklyn and Romeo.


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Shunsuke should stay with Celtic

1 May 2006(Mon)

Tokyo, April 28, 2006 -- Not many Japanese players can claim to have had a satisfactory or enjoyable 2005-06 season in Europe.

But Shunsuke Nakamura most definitely can.

Which is why I'm puzzled to keep hearing that Shunsuke wants to move to Spain next season rather than stay in Glasgow with Celtic.

I know it's been Shunsuke's dream to play in Spain, but I think he's better off where he is and playing in a winning team which enjoys massive worldwide support.

Let's face it, Shunsuke had a lean time in Italy. He was not a success in his three years with Reggina, and, despite alleged interest from clubs in Spain last summer, he decided to transfer to Scotland.

The move has worked out perfectly for Shunsuke and for his style of football. Playing in a big team in a small league, Shunsuke has flourished in his playmaking role.

With players like Lennon and Keane around him in the midfield, there's not much need for him to tackle back and perform any defensive duties, which is and always will be one of his weak points.

And with the individual quality of the players around him greater than that of Celtic's rival teams, Shunsuke has been able to play his own game -- and look very good in doing so, with plenty of space and time to carve out that defence-splitting pass.

Celtic won the league handsomely, and are guaranteed UEFA Champions League football next season. This should represent a big enough challenge for Shunsuke without the need for him to pack his bags again and try and settle in another new country, Spain.

What will happen if he goes there, to a mid-table team striving for survival against the Spanish giants?

Well, it could end up like Italy, where he was in and out of the team and where his extravagant but fragile skills were often sacrificed for the all-action qualities of a journeyman midfield battler.

Stay in Scotland, Shunsuke.

Enjoy the haggis (I can strongly recommend this traditional, savoury dish to Japanese readers who may be thinking of visiting Scotland...your word "oishi" just does not do haggis justice!)...enjoy the atmosphere and occasion of the Old Firm derby against Rangers...and enjoy playing and winning for a team, remember, that became the first British club to win the European Cup (in 1967, with the famous "Lisbon Lions", beating Inter 2-1 in the final).

Stay in Glasgow, settle your mind, look forward to the World Cup...and, whatever happens in Germany, you'll still return to Celtic a hero and can taste UEFA Champions League action early next season...as well as the haggis.


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