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March 2007

Komano establishes himself under Osim

29 Mar 2007(Thu)

March 27, 2007: With a goal for Takahara and a successful return for Shunsuke, no wonder the two Europe-based players dominated the headlines after the Peru game.

But my man of the match for Japan was neither of these.

My MVP was Yuichi Komano. I thought he had a fine game out on Japan’s left flank, and has quickly established himself as an Osim favourite.

He is just the kind of player you would not want to play against, isn’t he? It would be very annoying and frustrating to play against Komano because he just won’t leave you alone or go away. When you think you have a second or two on the ball to assess the situation, Komano would be snapping away at your heels like a tough little terrier. You just couldn’t shake him off, by fair means or by foul, and this would test the patience and the resolve of any opponent.

Against Peru he was everywhere. He attacked with pace and purpose down that left flank, and set an example for Kaji on the other wing. I have always been a fan of Kaji’s, and still am, but Komano was much the more aggressive and adventurous of the two wing backs on this occasion. I was wanting Kaji to push forward more in the first half, to take his man on, but he seemed reluctant to take a risk and leave the team without cover behind him. This is where Abe and Keita come in, though, because they can both read these situations quickly and move across the pitch into position, offering protection to the two wingers.

When it comes to full backs/wing backs/wingers, Japan are in pretty good shape, with Kaji and Mizuno on the right, and Alex, Komano and Honda on the left – and Komano, of course, can play on either flank.

At 25 years old (26 in July), Komano has plenty of time to mature and develop under Osim. He is just the kind of player Osim likes with his pace, mobility and intensity – and just the kind of player the opposition must dislike.


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Kawasaki Frontale at home to Bangkok University?

26 Mar 2007(Mon)

It was a formality, right?

Frontale would be 2-0 up at half time, and add another four in the second half to win six-nil -- with Bangkok lucky to get nil.

Well, how wrong can you be?

I did not think it was possible for Kawasaki to play so badly, even with Ganaha on the bench nursing an ankle injury. I am sure coach Sekizuka was not expecting to call on Ganaha, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and off the bench he came midway through the second half to try and breathe life into his ailing team.

Frontale did manage to equalise, thanks to an own goal, but could not find a second and ended up with a point from an embarrassing 1-1 draw. It could have been worse, too, as Bangkok looked quite sharp on the break and full of confidence in front of goal against a strangely lethargic and nervy Frontale.

Usually they are like a machine. Big, strong, relentless and ruthless, they have grown accustomed to bullying and battering opponents into submission in the J.League with their potent cocktail of speed and aggression.

But the roaring lions of the J.League became timid fieldmice on the Asian stage. They started slowly, conceded an early, well-taken goal, and could never really get into it.

The pace was pedestrian, their passing was poor and they failed to get behind the Bangkok defence, either down the flanks or through the middle with the speed of Juninho. Magnum had a decent game and tried to stir them into action, as did libero Terada moving forward, but it was not Kengo's day -- and the team struggled with its chief playmaker out of sorts.

All in all, then, a bad day for Frontale and for their hopes of winning Group F to advance to the quarter-finals. They still have an away win under their belts, though, and, with four points from two games, are in a good position -- but it could have been so much better going into their clashes with Chunnam Dragons.

Sensing an upset, it was inevitable that Bangkok University would use every trick in the book to prevent Frontale from gaining any momentum. Time-wasting, players, notably the keeper, going down "injured" at every opportunity, the match was close to a farce at times.

But with the rules as they are at the moment, and the mentality of the players locked in the culture of "Unfair Play Please", there is little the referee can do except add on time; only four minutes on this occasion.

It was a poor spectacle, but at least Frontale cannot play worse than this.


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Anyone for Taka-Maki? Sounds like a tasty combo

22 Mar 2007(Thu)

March 20, 2007: There's nothing like a bit of pressure on your forwards to see who delivers the goods at the crucial time.

This is surely what Ivica Osim is doing with his strikers in the build-up to Saturday's friendly with Peru.

His 18-man squad on Monday included just one forward, Takahara of Eintracht Frankfurt.

The rest, such as Maki, Ganaha, Bando, Sato and maybe even Okubo, are all on hold for one reason or another -- lack of fitness or lack of goals.

With Wednesday's national holiday bringing with it Nabisco Cup and Asian Champions League games, Osim will hold off for the time being and add a few more names later.

For the strikers, then, there is only one way to impress him -- goals.

I watched Maki on Saturday against Antlers and thought he played okay.

Nothing special, no goals, but well marked by the human bulldozer Iwamasa. There was an amusing spell in the second half when the ball was played up to Maki on the halfway line three times in quick succession, and Iwamasa battered him on each occasion. Hard but fair, Akita-style. No problem with that at all, even though the JEF trainers had to bring their shovels on to the pitch the third time to dig Maki out of the turf.

Maki works hard for the team and never hides. He's always running and making himself available, despite knowing that a good clobbering is just around the corner -- and he always comes back for more.

So Maki, currently a goal-free zone, would still get my vote -- and don't forget he's pretty much a one-man band up front for JEF with Hanyu buzzing around from deep and Arai still finding his J1 feet. Arai should have scored first in Saturday's goal fest with Antlers, but directed his free header to Stoyanov's wonderful left-wing cross against the bar.

Sato embarrassed FC Tokyo on the opening day of the season, and always makes an impact for Japan off the bench, while Bando is full of fire and energy. Just a pity about the theatrics to get Fabao sent off the other week, though. Bando looked like he was auditioning for a part in Hamlet, and that he had been poisoned, strangled or both.

Ganaha missed Saturday's rout of Yokohama FC due to injury, so Osim will take his time before naming Takahara's sidekicks. A Taka-Maki partnership looks pretty good to me, though, now that Takahara has kept the goals coming in Germany. One to run and one to score.

Taka-Maki? I am sure someone ordered that in an izakaya near Soga Station on Saturday night.


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Marinos president feels the hurt of derby defeat

19 Mar 2007(Mon)

March 17, 2007: When it comes to being down in the dumps, Shigeo Hidaritomo was about as low as it gets after the Yokohama derby.

Naturally the Yokohama F Marinos president was bitterly disappointed after watching his side lose 1-0 to newly promoted Yokohama FC at Mitsuzawa, but his despair went deeper than this.

The away fans, who had contributed to a typical derby-day atmosphere, made their feelings clear after the final whistle by giving their team the thumbs down. It was only two matches into the new season, but this defeat hurt for the Marinos faithful, and hurt more for Hidaritomo.

"We have to realise we are not the same club that won the championship in 2003 and 2004," he mumbled to me, in the corridors under the main stand after the game.

"We are not Newcastle United. We are more like Sunderland."

That last statement must have been hard to admit, as the Marinos president is a keen Newcastle United supporter -- and Sunderland are their fierce rivals in the north-east of England from a division lower.

Clearly money is tight within the Marinos organisation, and Hidaritomo was acknowledging this with his Newcastle-Sunderland comparison. First and first in 2003 and 2004, ninth and ninth in 2005 and 2006 tells its own story.

As a fellow Magpie, I tried to console him by reeling off the names of the Marinos players who were not avaialble for the Yokohama derby -- Matsuda, Kurihara, Takayuki Suzuki -- but to his credit he would not use this as an excuse.

It was probably no consolation, either, that Koji Yamase was in such scintillating form so early in the season.

Yamase had scored a wonderful solo goal in the opening match of the campaign, and was on fire at Mitsuzawa. Showing all the qualities and characteristics of the Japanese player so admired by national coach Ivica Osim, Yamase was carving through the Yokohama FC midfield at will, only to be denied, time and time again, by some last-ditch blocks and interceptions.

I also liked the look of the rangy left back, Yusuke Tanaka, only 20, and the 18-year-old Takashi Inui, from Yasu High School, who came on as a substitute and quickly showed his pace and his flair.

There is plenty of experience in the Marinos squad, a solid team backbone and some young talent, too, but the quality of the foreign players on view -- the ageing, much-travelled J2 specialist Marcus, the ageing, injury-prone Marques -- left a lot to be desired.


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Japan's first-leg victory: Sweet and Sawa

15 Mar 2007(Thu)

March 13, 2007: Three-nil would have been perfect, but no one can complain about Japan's 2-0 victory over Mexico in the women's World Cup qualifier at National Stadium on Saturday.

On the balance of play over 90 minutes, and considering Mexico looked extremely dangerous on occasions, Japan escaped with an excellent result from the first leg.

This two-leg play-off is far from over, though, and Japan will have to play as well, if not better, at Toluca on Saturday to stay in front.

This means cutting out the careless individual mistakes in midfield, such as the one by Miyamoto on halfway which almost allowed Mexico to take the lead, and the panic attacks in defence, when Japan failed to clear the ball cleanly.

A Mexico goal looked likely on several occasions, but keeper Fukumoto was in fine form for Japan and visiting captain Dominguez was extremely unlucky to see her long-range lob hit the top of the crossbar when it seemed certain to drop in.

A 2-0 win, then, was about as much as Japan could have hoped for, but not nearly enough to render the second leg a formality.

Japan's two goals were excellent in their creation and execution, with Sawa scoring the first and making the second for Miyama.

The first goal was a stunner, Utsugi overlapping on the left flank and sending over a perfect cross into the middle. Sawa, near the penalty spot, met the ball at the peak of her jump, and expertly directed a header into the far corner.

For the second goal, Sawa herself did all the hard work on the left, beating her man -- woman? -- on the outside and crossing invitingly for Miyama to dash in and head firmly into the net. You don't have to be a Crouch or a Hirayama to be a danger in the air, as Sawa (1.64 metres) and Miyama (1.57 metres) both proved triumphantly.

Overall it was an entertaining game to watch, with plenty of action at both ends and free-flowing play. There was no stoppage time at the end of the first half, and only two minutes at the end of the second half, after the referee had allowed a trainer to enter the pitch for the first time as late as the 87th minute. No, it was not to attend to an "injured" Japanese player wasting time with a 2-0 lead, but to a Mexican player with a twisted left ankle.

Fair play does still exist at the highest level in the modern game -- at least in women's football.


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Washington adds spice to Indonesian fare

12 Mar 2007(Mon)

March 9, 2007: Washington was in top form again for Urawa Reds at Saitama Stadium the other night.

Not for his goals, of course, because you all know by now that he did not find the net in Reds' 3-0 victory over Persik Kediri in the Asian Champions League; it was for his reaction to being substituted -- or "dragged" to use the vernacular of the players in England.

A Reds substitution had looked imminent at 2-0 midway through the second half, with the pace and unpredictability of Ya-jin the obvious change.

But for whom?

Washington clearly did not think it would be him, and questioned the bench when the No. 21 was held up.

"Me?" he seemed to say, only in Portuguese. "Surely not. I'm bound to score soon, boss."

That was probably true, because by the law of averages Washington was due a goal, having missed too many chances and half-chances to list.

But off he came -- and so did his gloves and his shirt. Sources close to the tunnel said he had stormed into the dressing room to the accompaniment of every Portuguese swear word in the dictionary, and several that weren't.

"Where's Washington?" I asked Reds' assistant coach, Gert Engels, after the game. "In the dressing room?"

"No, he's gone," replied Engels, grimly.

"So he's on the team bus already?" I asked.

"I hope so," said Engels, with the hint of a smile, albeit a concerned smile.

During the post-match press conference, Urawa boss Holger Osieck gave a fine impression of Arsene Wenger.

Just like Wenger does not see all close decisions that favour his team, Osieck said he "did not realise" what had happened when Washington went off, and quickly changed the subject to Okano. All that training in FIFA diplomacy really came in handy on this one for the German coach.

It was a serious incident, though, and Washington should be fined for his outburst. We can't have every youngster in Saitama Prefecture throwing his gloves and shirt to the floor when being taken off. Even the fans might start removing their replica Washington shirts in frustration at Urawa Misono Station if they have to queue at the Fare Adjustment machine.

One last point from a very one-sided game. The team manager of the Indonesian side, Iwan Boedianto, blamed his keeper Wahyudi -- all 5ft of him -- for Reds' three goals. The first two, fair enough; but the third?

Very harsh on the keeper that, as Shinji's goal was a gem, curling it home, left-footed, from the edge of the box. Ono can do that in his sleep; a class act on the night, which is more than can be said for Washington.

By the way, does anyone want to buy a pair of Washington gloves? Worn for only 68 minutes.


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Top teams get the tough job done on opening day

8 Mar 2007(Thu)

March 6, 2007: It is never easy to win the first game of a competition, be it in a sprint or a marathon.

The World Cup group phase is like a sprint, with only three games to play and little room for error.

Win the first game and you have one foot in the next round (ask Australia); lose it and the pressure is on (ask Japan).

The J.League is the marathon -- 34 matches over the course of nine months -- and with much more time to recover from a slow start.

This is why the results of two recent championship-winning clubs were a bit worrying in Saturday's first round, as Urawa and Gamba both emerged with three points from opening day struggles that could so easily have ended in a draw.

There is a lot of optimism and renewed ambition at the start of a season, as clubs feel their new signings or new manager can lead them to the promised land.

So the fact that Reds and Gamba both won in testing circumstances sent a message to the rest of the first division that the hunger is still there.

Reds needed a late winner from Nagai to seal a 2-1 win over Yokohama FC at Saitama, while Gamba had new recruit Bare to thank for their 1-0 victory at home to Omiya.

Coming off the bench after 64 minutes, Bare's somewhat fortuitous goal two minutes from time, when his left-foot shot from the edge of the box bounced into the turf, looped over the keeper and dropped into the net, enabled Gamba -- my favoruites for the title -- to make the perfect start.

Two great goals were scored, too, albeit very different in execution.

Kubo's left-footed rocket was spectacular for Yokohama FC. Although Ono should have closed him down as he moved in from the right, who would have expected Kubo to find the top corner from such a long way out? Classic Kubo. When he's fully fit and match sharp he still has the element of surprise and unpredictability that makes him such a danger.

Yamase scored a wonderful goal for Marinos, at home to Kofu. Displaying terrific acceleration, ball control and composure, Yamase looked at peak condition after some bad injuries so early in his career.


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Gamba's squad has the look of champions

5 Mar 2007(Mon)

March 3, 2007: With the new J.League season about to kick off this afternoon, it's time for predictions.

Without further ado, here's my tip for the title: Gamba Osaka.

I am not just saying this because they battered Urawa 4-0 in the Xerox Super Cup, but because they look to have the most quality in terms of foreign players and, more importantly, Japanese.

They also play vibrant, attractive, well-organised football -- sort of a JEF United but with money.

The much-travelled Sidiclei is a rock at the back; Magno Alves has proved his goal-scoring quality with Oita Trinita and with Gamba last season; and new recruit Bare will be a handful for any defence. These three players know Japanese football well, and there are no risks for the management in terms of their performance.

Even though the face of Gamba, Miyamoto, has gone to Salzburg, coach Nishino still has plenty of options at the back, alongside Sidiclei and the stylish Yamaguchi. Reds, however, have the advantage over Gamba in this department, but this department only.

It's in midfield where Gamba look particularly strong.

Endo is admired around the league, and higher up than that, for his ball-playing abilities and the fact that he keeps possession. Troussier once described him to me as a Japanese Redondo due to his range of passing and long-range shooting.

The rejuvenated Myojin and the emerging Hashimoto provide stability in the engine room, and Kaji and Ienaga the width. This still leaves the clever Futagawa to pop up and use his creative flair and keep the chances coming.

The competition for places is fierce in this area, so no player can ever afford to let his form slip.

Up front, Bando is a livewire, and Gamba will not be short of goals with him, Magno Alves and Bare around.

Yes, they have the look of champions again, following their incredible success in 2005. All those who were at Todoroki on the last day of the season will never forget those amazing scenes, and Gamba came very close to repeating that title triumph last year.

It took Gamba a couple of years longer to emerge under Nishino than I expected, but they are here to stay in the championship race with all-round quality like that. For me they are the team to beat.


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Japan-Mexico brings back bronze memories

1 Mar 2007(Thu)

February 28, 2007: There are some massive games coming up for Japan in the next few weeks.

No, not the under-22s as they attempt to qualify for the Beijing Olympics; or the national team as they prepare for their first match of the year, against Peru on March 24.

I'm referring to the women's team, who face a two-leg play-off against Mexico for a place in the World Cup in China in September.

The home leg will be played at Tokyo National Stadium on March 10, with the away leg in Mexico a week later.

Unfortunately, the home game clashes with a slate of J.League matches, but I am sure there will still be a big crowd at Kokuritsu to watch the "Girls in Blue" go about their business against the CONCACAF representatives.

I must admit the women's team provided one of my most memorable moments from the Athens Olympics when they beat Sweden 1-0 in their first group game.

The match was played at some remote venue in the days leading up to the official opening ceremony of the Games, and Homare Sawa and Company produced a wonderful display to keep out the European powerhouses. When the final whistle blew there were some emotional scenes all around, notably from the JFA president, Saburo Kawabuchi, who was watching from the grandstand.

It was a great moment for Japanese football, and helped to popularise the women's game back home.

Now under head coach Hiroshi Ohahsi, Japan are just two steps from qualifying for the World Cup, and the second of those steps must be taken in Mexico.

If the players are looking for motivation or inspiration, they should talk to the former JFA president, Shun-ichiro Okano, who still paints a vivid picture of the men's campaign at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico.

That was when Japan won the bronze medal, beating Mexico in front of 100,000 spectators at the famous Azteca Stadium. The players were so exhausted after the game that they could not even drink without assistance from a member of the staff.

They had given their all for the team and for their country in testing conditions, and with two goals from the legendary striker Kamamoto had won the bronze in the Mexicans' own fortress.

Let's hope "Nadeshiko Japan" can do it again, and maintain their proud record of having appeared in all FIFA World Cups since the women's edition started in 1991.


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