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February 2007

Keeper Seitz on course for stardom

26 Feb 2007(Mon)

February 23, 2007: Think of a nation with the best keepers in the world and you can't do much better than the United States at the moment.

Brad Friedel, Tim Howard and Marcus Hahnemann are all playing in the English Premier League, with Blackburn, Everton and Reading, respectively, while Kasey Keller is captain of Borussia Monchengladbach in the Bundesliga.

Judging by reports from Kumamoto this week, the Americans may have found another gem in 19-year-old Chris Seitz.

Seitz, at 6ft 4ins a good height for a keeper, left the University of Maryland after two years to pursue his career with Real Salt Lake in Major League Soccer. It seems only a matter of time before he joins the trail to Europe.

England used to take pride in its keepers -- Banks, Shilton, Clemence, Seaman -- but there is no doubt we have fallen behind the United States in terms of top-quality "cats" -- the name we used to use for a keeper, in reference to Peter Bonetti, who was nicknamed "The Cat" for obvious reasons (he drank milk from saucers. Actually it was for his athletic spring, but I'm just testing your concentration!)

Why is it that the Yanks are streets ahead of us, or should I say thoroughfares ahead of us?

Possibly, probably more likely, because the Americans are athletes before they are goalkeepers. They are brought up playing sports that demand a high level of hand-eye coordination, namely basketball, so they adapt easily to the job of a cat.

Here's an interesting story.

Joe Bryant, father of NBA star Kobe and now coaching in Japan, attended a meeting of the Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan last year, and revealed that a young Kobe had, in fact, wanted to play in goal for Juventus. Joe, or "Jellybean" as he is known due to his love of the soft, chewy sweet, was playing basketball professionally in Italy and Kobe, naturally, became interested in football.

Just think...Kobe Bryant in goal for the Los Angeles Galaxy, under captain Beckham!

In England, the natural selection of a goalkeeper followed a similar path: if they were hopeless out of goal, put them in the goal where they could do less damage. No one wanted to go in goal, so we would have to take turns after we had let one in -- but if the next keeper let one in deliberately so he could get out again straight away, he would be punished by being made to stay in for another.

Maybe this lack of formal training for young keepers has now caught up with us...and the athletic, all-round Americans are the true top cats.


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The wait was worth it for JEF fans

22 Feb 2007(Thu)

February 20, 2007: JEF United fans must have greeted news of their new signing with a mixture of anticipation and relief.

Anticipation because World Cup defender Nenad Djordjevic looks a mighty fine signing -- and relief because the new league season is less than two weeks away.

The 27-year-old Serb is listed as "DF" in the club's official announcement, but maybe that should have read "VVDF" -- very versatile defender, as Djordjevic can play either in the centre of defence or at full back. He also has experience of playing in the holding role in central midfield ("volante" as you say here), which makes him almost like a Serbian Abe: comfortable and competent in a number of roles -- and a bit taller, too, at 1.83 metres.

Just like Abe strengthened Reds in defence and midfield, Djordjevic looks like doing the same for JEF, and that can only increase the competition among the Japanese players.

After appearing a little lightweight a few weeks ago, the JEF squad is now looking much more business-like, and manager Osim will have numerous permutations at the back, built around Stoyanov, and in central midfield.

I have written before about Stoyanov's ability -- surely the most complete player in the J.League when he is fully focused -- and also about his suspect temperament, as he is the kind of guy who could start an argument in a telephone box.

But if Djordjevic and Stoyanov hit it off at the back, accompanied by the emerging Mizumoto or the wily Saito, then teams could find it hard to break through.

Djordjevic, I am sure, will increase the team's power considerably. The Serbs, as the former Yugoslavia, have the reputation of being the Brazilians of Europe in terms of natural talent, creativity and improvisation. Think Dragan Stojkovic, for example. They can all play, but, at the same time, they can all self-destruct -- as I am sure the Bulgarian at Fukuare will tell you.

Anyway, it looks like a long wait for JEF fans has been well worth it. Djordjevic will be quality -- and he cannot be blamed for any of Argentina's six goals against Serbia-Montenegro in Germany because he was on the bench!


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The Euro guessing game goes on

19 Feb 2007(Mon)

February 17, 2007: If Ivica Osim does decide to bring back some players from Europe for the Peru friendly next month, it will be interesting to see just who.

A few names have been circulating in the media --Shunsuke, of course, plus Matsui, Takahara, Koji Nakata, Alex.

Personally, I can't see Osim calling up half a team, as it would undermine the foundations he spent the second half of last year laying down.

And is there any need for five or six additions to the squad, when analysing what is already there?

I think he might just settle for two -- Nakamura and Matsui, although his reasons for leaving out some of the others mentioned are very different.

Takahara would be a popular choice for many, but I am not convinced. Osim likes Maki and Ganaha, and he has a third target man in his training squad in Takamatsu. Add to these Bando and Sato, and the permutations are numerous without even considering the newcomer Yano.

At the latest count, following Eintracht Frankfurt's 4-0 drubbing by Stuttgart on Friday night, Taka has netted seven goals this season for his new German team. A decent strike rate, true, but is it enough to convince Osim he needs him back? I am really not sure, but Osim is the kind of coach who prefers continuity rather than tinkering -- and Taka has had his chances before.

Alex? Well, of course he is in Osim's plans for the Asian Cup. For the moment, though, Osim might be tempted to leave him in Austria. After all, Alex has just made the move from Urawa to Salzburg, will still be adapting to the lifestyle and the training, and does he need any upheaval so early in his new start?

Osim knows everything there is to know about Alex, and his training squad includes Alex's former Reds understudy, Soma, as well as the robust Komano. Osim may well settle for this.

In the meantime, let the guessing and speculation continue, but if I had to play safe I would go for Shunsuke and Matsui, with Takahara an outside bet.


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Time is right for Shunsuke recall

15 Feb 2007(Thu)

February 14, 2007: Shunsuke fans can prepare for a homecoming at Nissan Stadium on March 24 when Japan play Peru in their first match of the year. I have no idea, of course, if Ivica Osim is going to pick Nakamura -- but somehow I feel the time is right for him to do so.

Since succeeding Zico after the World Cup, Osim's priority has been to bring in fresh faces and change the mood of the team, and most people would agree he has achieved this.

He felt there was no point in bringing back players from Europe for matches that would provide a good test for his J.League players; and it is not as though he did not know everything there is to know about the players in Europe anyway.

But now, with his focus changing to the defence of the Asian Cup in July, he is moving on to step two -- and this is why I feel Shunsuke will be back in business for the Peru game.

Osim has said the timing of such a move is everything, not just for the national team but for the player himself.

And it is no coincidence that Nakamura is enjoying his best season in Europe and playing consistently well for the Hoops because he has been concentrating only on club football.

Celtic's Champions League Last 16 ties with Milan are on February 20 and March 7, and, if the Scots progress, the quarter-finals will be between April 3 and April 11.

In the Scottish Premier League, Celtic play Falkirk on March 18 and Dundee United on March 31 -- so Japan-Peru on March 24 at Yokohama is ideal for a Shunsuke return. I would also think Osim would like to see how Shunsuke fits into the team, bearing in mind there are only two Kirin Cup games in June before they head for Hanoi.

Yes, all things point to a Shunsuke call-up for the Peru match -- a full house and mountains of cash for the JFA.

Makes sense to me.


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Bellmare building from the back

12 Feb 2007(Mon)

February 10, 2007: If you want to build a strong team, build from the back is the usual philosophy.

That seems to be the case at Shonan Bellmare, who have added another defensive veteran to their ranks as they try to challege for promotion from J2 in 2007.

The former Antlers and national team right back Akira Narahashi is the latest acquisition for Shonan, who had already signed Toshihide Saito from S-Pulse and Jean Witte from FC Tokyo.

Narahashi and Saito were both members of Takeshi Okada's World Cup squad in France. Whereas Saito was the understudy to captain and libero Masami Ihara, Narahashi was the first-choice selection on the right side of the coach's 3-5-2 formation.

On the other wing, of course, was his Antlers team-mate Naoki Soma, and this pair formed a dynamic combination for club and country, either as wing backs in the national team or on the flanks of Antlers' four-man defence. In the good old days for Antlers fans, the back four of Narahashi, Akita, Fabiano and Soma used to roll off the tongue as smoothly as the defence used to operate, again providing a solid base for the team to build from.

Some serious injury problems for Narahashi in recent seasons, though, together with the emergence of teenage right back Atsuto Uchida, led to the inevitable release of the 35-year-old defender, and he has now returned "home" to Bellmare with the experience of 310 J1 games behind him, and 38 caps for Japan.

The class of Saito and the combative qualities of Jean should make for a useful combination in the heart of the Bellmare defence, in much the same way Kyoto are hoping for the Akita-Morioka partnership to anchor the team.

Meanwhile, Uchida, still only 18, will be hoping to emulate the career of Narahashi, and is already on the international ladder with a place in Japan's under-22 squad for the friendly against the United States in Kumamoto on February 21.


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Henry: the perfect global ambassador

8 Feb 2007(Thu)

February 7, 2007: Anyone who has spent some time in the company of Thierry Henry will understand fully his recent appointment as global brand ambassador for Gillette.

Henry was one of three sportsmen named in the Gillette Champions programme, along with Tiger Woods and Roger Federer.

You cannot get much higher than that, can you, and it is a fitting reward for Henry's attitude and performance both on and off the pitch.

I was lucky enough to be given an exclusive interview with Thierry at Arsenal's fabulous training centre at London Colney, near St Albans in rural Hertfordshire. It was around this time of the year in 2001, and the interview was arranged at short notice by none other than...Arsene Wenger!

I had already set up a meeting with Wenger before leaving Japan, and after a long chat with the Gunners manager I asked him about the possibility of interviewing the charismatic Henry. With Wenger's support, the Arsenal press officer booked me an appointment with Henry a week or so later -- and that was that.

With a photographer and his assistant, we returned to London Colney for the Henry interview a couple of hours ahead of schedule, and after a nervous wait were greeted by the man himself, dressed casually and immaculately as if he had stepped off the training pitch straight into the pages of a fashion catalogue.

The interview was to take 20 minutes, but we were still talking an hour later after he had signalled to the press officer that he was happy to continue. And then came the extensive photo shoot in the quickly assembled "studio" the photographers had set up.

At this stage of his career, of course, Henry was already a World Cup winner from 1998 and a European Championship winner from 2000, although it is worth remembering that he did not actually play against Brazil in the '98 final. He was on the bench and would have come on, he said, until Desailly was sent off in the 68th minute and coach Jacquet had to change his plans.

During the interview Henry spoke of how France's World Cup success had united the country in a way the politicans never could, and how the French fans at Euro 2000 had been so much more noisy and passionate than at the World Cup on home soil two years earlier. He also said he would be forever in Wenger's debt for rescuing him from Juventus and transforming him from an orthodox winger to a centre forward.

Henry was friendly and funny, and serious and sincere -- the perfect global ambassador.


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No surprise about Naka

5 Feb 2007(Mon)

Tokyo, February 2, 2007: When a club feels obliged to deny something on its official website, you know it must be serious.

That was the case this week with Celtic and Shunsuke Nakamura.

“Naka NOT on the move,” read a headline on celticfc.net on Tuesday, January 30, the day before the transfer window closed.

“This story is absolute nonsense,” said the “Shunmeister.”

“I am very happy at Celtic and I am very much looking forward to all the challenges which lie ahead at the club.”

The two-paragraph article was carried to deny “a story doing the rounds on the Internet” claiming he would be leaving Celtic this summer to return to the J.League.

A day after the transfer window closed I had a long chat with a J.League insider about the prospect of Nakamura returning to Japan, and he could not believe it either. Not just yet, anyway.

After all, why should Shunsuke be thinking about coming home when he has finally found his place in Europe, a level at which he can shine?

Playing for a big club in a small league, Nakamura has the time and the space to weave his magic on a weekly basis. With this has come the confidence to express himself, and his manager, Gordon Strachan, is never slow to praise him to the heavens.

So when he plays against Manchester United in the UEFA Champions League, and soon against Milan, the former Marinos schemer feels he can do anything with a swish of that left foot. Kaka, in fact, has some very interesting things to say about Celtic in general and Nakamura in particular on uefa.com, looking ahead to the Celtic-Milan clash.

As I said before, Shunsuke has found his perfect level. He can enjoy his football at a famous club with a massive worldwide following, he is one of the brightest stars in the Scottish Premier League, and he has the Champions League to look forward to.

Considering his form and his eye-catching goals against Manchester United, I was a little surprised there were no stories linking Shunsuke to a move to England or Spain during the transfer window.

Unless the bigger leagues feel he has found his level, too.


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Morimoto takes his chance

1 Feb 2007(Thu)

Tokyo, January 31, 2007: Takayuki Morimoto brought back memories of the now retired Hidetoshi Nakata with his goal-scoring debut in Italy at the weekend.

Nakata, remember, set Serie A alight in 1998 when he netted twice for Perugia in a 4-3 defeat against Juventus – and could have had a hat-trick on his debut if the coach had let him take a penalty.

Now, finally, it is Morimoto’s turn to grab the headlines.

After waiting patiently in the reserves for Catania, the 18-year-old striker was sent on in the 84th minute against Atalanta in Bergamo on Sunday. Catania were trailing 1-0 at the time, but Morimoto earned them a point with a quick and confident finish inside the box.

This will surely earn him more playing time, but a starting position cannot be guaranteed with Catania playing well and standing joint fourth in the table.

For all those who saw the shaven-headed Morimoto play for Verdy, they will testify that the youngster really looks the part. He is sharp, has a good physique and is always on the move, qualities which make him a bright and dangerous player.

I remember having a long chat about Morimoto with Ossie Ardiles when the Argentine was Verdy manager. He told me that Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson held Morimoto in high regard and that he would follow his progress carefully after seeing him in a youth tournament.

Ardiles has a similar man-management approach to the likes of Kevin Keegan and Gordon Strachan, always talking his players up and making them feel they are the best, but there was no doubting the former Tottenham star’s genuine valuation of Morimoto.

The teenager is on loan to the Sicilian club from Verdy until the summer, and may yet feature in the plans of Olympic team coach Sorimachi.

After all, Japan’s under-22s are looking a bit short of firepower as they prepare to challenge for a place in Beijing 2008, and I am sure the explosive qualities of Morimoto would give them a new dimension.

That is for the future, though. Hopefully, Morimoto will have more chances to show his quality for Catania now that he has marked his Serie A debut with an eye-catching goal.


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