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September 2006

Three points for Reds, but...

28 Sep 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, September 26, 2006: Now Reds fans...take a deep breath before you read on, 'cos you ain't gonna like this (please excuse my terrible English -- I have used the more colloquial/lazy "cos" for "because", "ain't" for "aren't" and "gonna" for "going to" to increase the drama about to unfold)!

I thought Reds were poor on Saturday, despite beating S-Pulse 1-0.

What's happened to Tatsuya? I am a big fan of young Tanaka's, but he wasn't playing his normal game.

When you get the ball, Tatsuya, run at them -- and keep running! And then shoot!

Don't stop and look for Washington. I appreciate the big Brazilian scores goals as easily as the rest of split pistachio nuts to munch with our "nama" beer, but you don't need to play the role of "king of assists".

Go for goal yourself -- ignore Washington, even if he shouts at you if you miss and haven't passed to him.

Anyway, enough of that topic.

Let's move on to Reds' blatant time-wasting tactics for the last....oooh...30 minutes or so? Maybe more.

Yamagishi was taking an age to take a goal kick or free kick outside his box.

This is the scenario.

A Reds player is fouled deep in his own half, and Tulio or Tsuboi (anyone for that matter) prepares to take the free kick. But just before they start their run-up they walk away, because Yamagishi is waving them up field. He will take it instead.

Yamagishi has mastered the art of eating up the seconds/minutes when you are leading 1-0. First he'll have a drink of water, then wipe his face on his towel like a sweaty salaryman in an "izakaya". After that he'll send a couple of e-mails, call his agent on his mobile to ask about next season's contract, read a few pages of the novel he keeps in the back of his net for when Reds are dominating....and then, only then, will he actually kick the ball.

Yamagishi is so good, in fact, that Alex became jealous on Saturday -- and produced a performance worthy of an Oscar nomination when he eventually fell to the turf after a slight collision late in the second half. You could see Alex thinking about it very hard, and in the end he decided to go down in installments. But what category in the Oscars -- tragedy or comedy?

The referee, who did not caution any Reds players all afternoon, added four minutes of "lost time" at the end of the second half. I thought it should have been 14 -- but I'm just a naive observer!

Sorry Reds fans, but your team does not look confident about its own chances of winning the championship.

I need a beer -- and some pistachios.


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Fukuare stages another football fiesta

25 Sep 2006(Mon)

Tokyo, September 22, 2006: What an amazing start to Wednesday's Nabisco Cup semi-final, second leg between JEF and Frontale at Fukuare!

And what a fantastic comeback by Frontale!

Come to think of it, it was a pretty incredible finish, too -- ecstacy for Abe and Co., but agony for Mori and Co.

All in all, then, a good night's entertainment at the best stadium in Japan.

I have said before that any club/city/prefectural government planning to build a new stadium should check out Fukuda Denshi Arena and basically copy it: close to a big station (Soga), sensible capacity of 18,500, no running track, all sides covered so the noise booms out, and fans close to the action (but still not quite close enough -- try watching the English Premier League and see the player taking a corner almost next to the fans in the front row, within touching distance. Now that's what I call close!)

Anyway, I am sure this environment contributes significantly to the tempo and the excitement of the game. I have watched football in over 40 countries and the JEF-Reds game this season was as good as it gets in terms of atmosphere. I really mean that -- a solid wall of yellow blocking out two-thirds of the seats, and the rest a bright red. It was an occasion, not simply a football match.

On Wednesday night, the Frontale fans were incredible. Even as JEF romped into a 2-0 lead with goals from Sakamoto and Yamagishi -- into the goal behind which the Frontale supporters were assembled -- the away fans were unfazed and continued to sing. In England we'd have been silent and taken the opportunity to pay an early visit to the "gents" (toilet) -- and only become interested again when our team actually started to move forwards, instead of backwards.

I am sure the enthusiasm of the away fans affected the Frontale players and encouraged their comeback. So, big praise for the Frontale faithful -- and also in the way you accepted defeat graciously in such testing circumstances at the end of a gripping match.

Oh, and I must say I love the Ganaha song. "Gaaa-na-haaa, O-le! O-le!" I have heard that tune before but can't quite place it -- maybe when I was on holiday in Okinawa!

That match had everything. The only pity was there had to be one loser.


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Nozawa catches the eye in the absence of Ogasawara

21 Sep 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, September 20, 2006: There were some pretty good goals around the J.League at the weekend.

Tulio scored a beauty for Reds, cutting in from the left wing (what on earth was he doing out there anyway?) and curling a right-foot shot inside the far post. It was a trademark Ahn Jung Hwan strike -- and more ammunition in my campaign to have Tulio installed as the new captain of Japan!

I saw that goal on TV in the evening, as I had been at Kokuritsu in the afternoon to watch Shimizu S-Pulse extend their eye-catching unbeaten run. I had already written my article in my head before the kick-off against Kashima -- and it was a glowing one, praising Kenta for building a new, exciting, hungry team.

And then, of course, S-Pulse lost.

Which brings me round to another fine goal.

It was scored by Takuya Nozawa, a player long held in high esteem by the Antlers staff but now 25 and still trying to impose himself on the J.League.

Only a player with good touch, good vision and high technique can score a goal like Nozawa did against S-Pulse on Saturday. Spotting Nishibe off his line, Nozawa floated a right-foot shot from 30 metres over the keeper and under the crossbar. Nishibe got a hand to it but could not divert the ball from its course, and Nozawa had every right to celebrate a wonderful goal.

It was so good it could have been scored by...well, Ogasawara.

With the former Antlers captain now at Messina for a year, this is the perfect time for Nozawa to step it up and fill the creative gap left by Ogasawara.

"His technique is at the highest level," Antlers manager Paulo Autuori said of Nozawa after Saturday's game.

"But he has to be more competitive and more effective going towards the goal.

"Ogasawara was thinking more on the pitch, whereas Nozawa has more mobility with or without the ball. We will see."

I asked the Brazilian manager if he thought Ogasawara would return to the national squad.

"I hope so," he said. "I think he can come back if he does what Mr Osim wants his players to do. He knows what Mr Osim is looking for, and can show it with his performances at Messina."

So all is not lost for Ogasawara, according to Paulo Autuori, nor for Kashima, who are in fifth place and trail Gamba by 10 points with 11 matches to go.

"We must win every game, and not make any mistakes," he said.

A few more goals of Nozawa's quality on Saturday would help, too.


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Shunsuke 'paints another masterpiece'

18 Sep 2006(Mon)

Tokyo, September 15, 2006: Did you watch the Manchester United-Celtic match in the Champions League the other night?

What a great game -- and what a great goal from Shunsuke Nakamura.

It was, inevitably, a free kick, and had to be special to beat a keeper of Edwin van der Sar's quality and height from some 25 metres.

I saw the game for the first time on TV on Thursday evening, but had read about it earlier in the day. The report I read said that Shunsuke's free kick went into the top corner of the net, so I had a vision of the goal in my mind before settling down to watch it.

But it didn't go into the top corner at all -- and that is why the Sky TV commentators, Martin Tyler and Andy Gray, were so enthusiastic about it.

Shunsuke did not perform a Michel Platini-style "falling leaf" free kick, lofting the ball high over the wall and then bringing it down sharply under the crossbar, like a leaf falling to the ground almost vertically.

He struck it quite flat, just clearing United's defensive wall, and the ball entered the net halfway up -- or halfway down, whichever way you want to see it.

Van der Sar did not see it all, and was rooted to the spot like a tree (a Dutch elm, maybe?) at the other side of the goal.

Before he took the free kick, Tyler referred to Shunsuke as "an artist" at set-pieces, and after the goal he quickly added, "the artist has painted another masterpiece!" Great stuff!

Gray noted the low flight of the ball, and also criticised United striker Louis Saha for not jumping up in the wall and taking the ball in his face! Gray, after all, was a classic British centre forward: rough, tough and as Scottish as a plate of haggis eaten while listening to a lone bagpiper playing "Amazing Grace".

Later in the match, with United leading 3-2 and Celtic pushing for an equaliser, Tyler said that Celtic were within "one swish of Nakamura's left foot" from scoring again, if they could only get another free kick around the box.

That's a lovely word, "swish", to describe Shunsuke's action, again like a painter with his fluid but gentle brush stroke.

A memorable goal by Shunsuke, a memorable game to showcase the appeal of British football...but it was never a United penalty for Celtic keeper Boruc's challenge, or, rather, non-challenge, on Giggs.


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Viduka's commitment is good for the Asian game

14 Sep 2006(Thu)

Tokyo, September 13, 2006: The involvement of Australia in the Asian Football Confederation can only be good for the development of the game in this part of the world. Quite simply, they have become the team to beat at both club and national team level.

They have already proved their quality at the World Cup, beating Japan and going out unluckily to Italy when the referee awarded a very generous penalty late on.

Now comes news that Mark Viduka wants to carry on playing for the Socceroos through to the Asian Cup finals next summer, when Japan will be attempting to win the continental crown for the third straight time. It was thought Viduka would retire from the national team after the World Cup, but he clearly wants more action.

The presence of Viduka, and maybe other leading players such as Harry Kewell, Tim Cahill and Lucas Neill, can only raise the profile of the Asian Cup in the eyes of the football world. It will also make it more prestigious to win for the established Asian powers such as Japan, South Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

In 2000 in Lebanon, and in 2004 in China, Japan proved they were the top team in Asia, but Australia will provide much tougher opposition than Japan have faced at either of those two events.

By then, of course, Japan will have played considerably more matches under Ivica Osim, and I expect the team will be settled and will know exactly what they are supposed to be doing.

For Osim and the JFA it will be a big step on the road to the 2010 World Cup, just like it was for Troussier's team in 2000 when the Frenchman was still rebuilding the side.

If Osim is going to use any of the players based in Europe, particularly Shunsuke Nakamura, the Asian Cup will provide the perfect time to do it. Qualifying from a group containing teams at J2 level, such as India and Yemen, is one thing; but playing in the Asian Cup itself is another.

Will Osim want to win the title at all costs, or will he settle for the continued development of the team on the road to 2010, which is the much bigger goal?

Although it is too early to say, I would think Osim will persevere with the players he has, rather than fall back on recalling players in Europe.

I think he will show faith in the J.League players and faith in his own judgement regarding selection, and trust that they can build a new Japan.

All of which makes a Japan-Australia rematch in the Asian Cup next year a mouth-watering prospect.


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Hirayama can rebuild his career in J.League

11 Sep 2006(Mon)

September 9, 2006: The tale of Sota Hirayama is a strange one; or we might say a “tall” one.

The Athens Olympics centre forward left Heracles last week under a cloud. The club said he had gained weight in the close-season and was not in good condition, and therefore released him.

This was only his second season in Holland, and it was believed he was going to return to Japan and look for a J.League club.

That seems a smart move by the youngster, who, in my opinion, made a bad move when leaving Kunimi High School and going to Tsukuba University. He should, of course, have joined a J.League club at that time if his goal was to be a success as a professional footballer.

Now, though, Hirayama has to start again. If he does join a J.League team, and I am sure there will be many offers, he will find the pace of the game very fast, probably more so than in Holland.

Just because he became a media celebrity in the run-up to Athens, and beyond, this does not mean he is going to set the J.League alight instantly. He will have to be fit and he will have to be mature as a player and focused to make the grade, otherwise his professional career could be over before it has virtually started.

The news from Holland last week surprised me because I thought he had settled well at Heracles.

He scored some good goals last season and he looked to be much more coordinated in his play than in his Olympic qualifying days, when I always thought he was a bit clumsy, handling the ball too often and being caught offside too much. In short, he was starting to look like a footballer.

But he was only young after all, and with good coaching and more experience this could be changed.

His biggest asset is his height, but this alone is not good enough to make you a success.

I hope now that Hirayama will return to Japan, find a club in the J.League and start his career afresh. If he wants to catch the eye of Osim there is only one place to be, and it’s not on the bench in Holland.


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Japan were too elaborate in Saudi loss

7 Sep 2006(Thu)

September 5, 2006: The longer the match went on against Saudi Arabia, the more the home team looked like scoring and the more Japan looked like losing.

And so it proved, as the Saudis grabbed the only goal of the game midway through the second half to condemn Japan to their first defeat in three matches under new coach Ivica Osim.

I felt frustrated at the final whistle, because Japan had done enough to win the match or to draw at least, and should not have lost.

First the improvements. After Osim had criticised them for playing too slowly against Yemen, likening their passing around the defence to a local train stopping at every station, there was a noticeable increase in tempo against the Saudis. The ball was played from the back much quicker, and Japan tried to maintain a faster pace.

Thanks to this, they created several decent chances, and Tatsuya Tanaka was very prominent in the first half. He should have scored, of course, with that low shot just before half-time, and he also did the donkey work for Endo’s curling shot which produced that fantastic save from the Saudi keeper.

In the second half, both Maki and Ganaha missed good heading opportunities, so Japan cannot make excuses for losing, which Osim, to be fair, didn’t.

The Bosnian said Japan at times played like children. I think, but don’t know, that Osim was talking about Japan’s over-elaborate play in two areas.

This was what led to the Saudi goal. Japan lost the ball carelessly around the halfway line, near the touchline, and this put the whole team in danger. With the deflection into the path of the Saudi striker on the right, Japan were exposed and paid the price for the mistake a long way from their goal.

I also thought Japan did not shoot enough when they got within range. They tried too many passes in the last third of the field, and the Saudis were able to smother them and break.

It was crying out for someone to shoot from the edge of the box, like Endo had done in the first half, and Hanyu did near the end, with a fine effort which almost found its way into the top corner.

Fans should not be too depressed about the loss, because the Saudis are an Asian force, especially at home, if not exactly a World Cup force. Yemen away on Wednesday gives Japan a quick chance to remedy the mistakes by a team which is still in its infancy.


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Inoha...one for the future, as well as the present

4 Sep 2006(Mon)

September 2, 2006: There's no doubt that Ivica Osim, in a remarkably short time, has revamped the national team.

Among the latest batch of new faces is Masahiko Inoha, who has gained a rapid promotion from the Under-21 team to senior squad.

It's the kind of move Philippe Troussier would have made, and it is a very exciting one for the future of Japanese football. The head coach sees a talented young player, a player with bags of potential, and does not hesitate to move him up the ladder of international football.

Without wanting to build up Inoha too much, I must admit he's one of the most mature, all-round players I have seen during my 10 years in Japan.

I first noticed him in Macau last autumn, playing for Japan in the East Asian Games in a team led by his FC Tokyo team-mate, Tokunaga. Inoha was playing "volante" and looked like he was born for that role, stroking the ball around and linking the play like a veteran.

Then, earlier this season, FC Tokyo manager Gallo used Inoha as an old-fashioned man-marker, a modern-day Claudio Gentile but without the violence! I saw him mark Ponte out of the game against Reds at Komaba, and Juninho against Frontale at Todoroki, although Gallo made a grave mistake on the latter occasion by redeploying Inoha with a few minutes to go, and Juninho revelled in the new-found freedom.

The last time I saw FC Tokyo, with Gallo now sent to the gallows (ie: fired -- if you will pardon the pun), Inoha came off the bench and played on the left side of midfield; and later moved into the middle. It was against Avispa at Kokuritsu, and he scored his first J.League goal with a thundering header to a right-wing corner.

To sum up, Inoha looks like he can play anywhere on the pitch, but especially at right back, libero and volante.

Whether or not Osim uses him in these two games is not the point at the moment.

It shows that Osim is ready to select players he feels best represent the strong characteristics of Japanese football, no matter their age or club. I have said before that results may suffer on occasions -- maybe in Saudi Arabia and Yemen -- but this is the price you pay when rebuilding a team from scratch.

Troussier suffered the same way, and came under intense pressure from within the JFA, but the end product was worth the sacrifice.

After the disappointment of Germany, Japanese fans must show patience, because players such as Inoha will give the team a bright future.


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