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April 2007

Frontale spring up in April

30 Apr 2007(Mon)

April 28, 2007: In the nine-year J.League history of Kawasaki Frontale, April 2007 will go down as a breakout month.

Not only did they leave Saitama Stadium with a landmark 2-1 victory over Urawa Reds, it was also when they displayed their true colours on the Asian stage.

Their two victories over Chunnam Dragons have enabled them to take a six-point lead in the AFC Champions League Group F with only two matches to play, and they will surely go on and clinch a place in the last eight.

Japan's poor record in the Asian Champions League is well documented, so for a J.League club to beat a Korean rival away and then at home on consecutive match days is a significant step forward, as they followed up their 3-1 victory in Korea with a 3-0 win at Todoroki on Wednesday night.

Unlike in their previous Champions League home game, the lame 1-1 draw with Bangkok University, Frontale were in J.League mood, and it was too much -- even for the robust, desperate Koreans.

They were strong and aggressive at the back, creative and hard-working in midfield, and fast and dangerous up front -- the combination of power, pace and organisation that has transformed them into one of Japan's most-feared teams.

I like the way the back three of Minowa, Terada and Ito really attack the ball when it is in the air, and don't wait for it to bounce. This is when mistakes can happen and confusion can set in, but the lack of errors, and the lack of risks, is what enables them to maintain their consistency.

The home game against Chunnam was actually closer than the 3-0 scoreline suggests. Turning round 1-0 behind, the Koreans really went for it in the second half and enjoyed long spells of possession. For a while it looked like Chunnam were the home team, taking the initiative and winning free kicks in dangerous areas, and Frontale the away team, soaking up the pressure and attacking quickly on the break.

But when the dynamo Juninho, who had opened the scoring, set up Jong Tae Se for Frontale's second in the 81st minute, the three points were in the bag, and Jong added a third just for good measure.

Jong (to use his AFC spelling, as opposed to his J.League name of Chong Tese) did a great job in the place of Ganaha, taking up good positions across the line and flying into challenges in true, swashbuckling Korean style.

The football month is not quite over, though, as Frontale have a home game with JEF United on Sunday. But whatever happens at Todoroki tomorrow, April 2007 has been a vintage month for the Kawasaki team.

ends

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New injury is cruel for 'Atsushi-Goal'

26 Apr 2007(Thu)

April 25, 2007: Just when Kashima Antlers were getting going, and just when Atsushi Yanagisawa was getting going, everything has been put on hold again.

After breaking a bone in his left foot, the Antlers captain is out for three months, which is a great pity for fans of the player in particular and the team in general.

Throughout his career Yanagisawa has won many admirers by scoring some fantastic goals for club and country. One that remains in the memory for me was a sparkling solo goal against Reysol one evening at Kashiwanoha, where he used his tremendous acceleration to surge through the home defence before finishing with a cool, crisp strike.

I have seen him in action only once this season, in a 3-3 draw at Chiba, and after the match Antlers manager Oswaldo Oliveira said Yanagi was starting to hit peak condition.

And so it proved, with a lovely winner away to Yokohama FC and then both goals in a 2-1 victory at Shimizu S-Pulse on Saturday.

With the bright and skilful playmaker Nozawa back in action after his injury, the two linked well for Yanagisawa's first goal at Shimizu, and then the striker scored his second of the match with a clean, precise header at the far post.

This was the Yanagi of old, showing all the predatory instincts needed for a top-class striker.

Sadly, though, his injury has ruled him out for some time, which will surely hold up the progress of the team as they were starting to climb the table.

Looking ahead to this weekend, an Antlers team with Yanagisawa in top form would have posed a great threat to Urawa in what should still be a cracking match played in front of a huge crowd, thanks to the masses travelling from Saitama Prefecture and the improved form of the home team.

The setback also ends any hope he may have had of a national team comeback in time for the Asian Cup in July.

Although he would not have been thinking about that, I am sure deep down he would like another chance in the blue shirt to bury the nightmare of Germany, where he missed so horribly in the 0-0 draw with Croatia.

Many critics will remember him for that alone, but he has scored too many fine goals during his career to be labelled a national team flop.

ends

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J.League, JFA must resolve Olympic problem

23 Apr 2007(Mon)

April 21, 2007: Japan's Olympic hopefuls beat Syria in midweek with two fine goals from Mizuno and Honda.

But I wonder how their club managers at JEF United and Nagoya Grampus Eight felt about it?

Well, I know the feelings of Sef Vergoossen, as I spoke with him about this matter after Nagoya's match against Omiya at Komaba.

Honda, his exciting and important left-sided player, was not there, of course, because he was already in Damascus, preparing for the under-22 match.

I asked Sef how he felt about having to give up Honda for an Olympic qualifier, and, being Dutch, he gave an honest answer.

"Unbelievable!" was his first comment.

"It is not fair and not correct, for all teams," he added.

I have to say that I totally agree with him, and I am sure Amar Osim feels the same, as he was without Mizuno and Mizumoto when JEF lost at Kobe. Those are two massive losses for the Chiba team, as was Honda for Grampus at Komaba.

In this day and age, with international calendars and with the jobs of head coaches on the line in virtually every match, I cannot believe that teams must lose their top young players from championship matches to play for the Olympic team.

I know that Japan puts more emphasis on Olympic football than probably any other country in the world, but these kind of fixture conflicts simply should not happen.

Sef stressed that he was not against giving up players for the Olympic team. What frustrated him was that the J.League insisted clubs field their strongest teams in the Nabisco Cup, but then had to give players to the JFA and miss league games.

"Give me one hour to make a schedule for the season," was the observation of Sef, who said that basically this should not happen in a professional league.

Sef is absolutely spot on.

It is ridiculous for teams to have to lose players for J1 matches, and the same applied for Reysol when they played Reds last Sunday. Without top scorer Suganuma and Lee/Ri, depending on the JFA/J.League spelling, this was not the Reysol team that was setting the pace at the top of the table.

Hopefully the powers that be can get their heads round this issue as quickly as possible, because clubs should not have to lose players from the championship for national team duties.

One quick fix suggested by Sef and another coach I spoke to about this was to give clubs the right to postpone a league game if they had to give up players, as there was plenty of room to reschedule games later in the season.

ends

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Referees deserve praise

19 Apr 2007(Thu)

April 17, 2007: Referees are usually in the news for the wrong reasons, answering the doorbell when controversy calls.

So let's give credit where it is due to the referees of the two matches I attended at the weekend.

First up was Omiya against Nagoya at Komaba, where the ref was Akio Okutani. I thought he had a fine match, allowing play to continue as often as possible and refusing to allow the trainers to come on to treat stricken players.

I use the word "stricken" very generously here, because, of course, most of the time the players are not hurt at all.

The Nagoya players were particularly annoying in this aspect, until Omiya scored in the 27th minute.

It is amazing, though, how quickly players will get up on their own once they know the ref is not going to stop the game.

Omiya fans may disagree with me about the performance of referee Okutani due to the late dismissal of their Brazilian central defender Leandro -- but again the ref was absolutely spot on.

Leandro had been booked in the first half for a late challenge on Toshiya Fujita, and received his second yellow card for delaying the game as Ardija clung on to their 1-0 lead. Omiya had been awarded a free kick deep in their own half, and Leandro shaped to take it before changing his mind and walking away to allow keeper Aratani to take over.

Leandro's actions really were insulting the intelligence of the match officals, so Okutani was quite right to show him his second yellow. Leandro will now be suspended, but who's fault is that? Not Okutani's, that's for sure.

And so to Sunday, Reysol against Reds at Kokuritsu. Or should that be Reds against Reysol, as the Urawa masses turned it into a home game for the champions.

On this occasion the ref was Hajime Matsuo, and his decision to caution Reysol's Brazilian striker Franca for a blatant dive should be applauded. Sorry "Yellow Monkeys" at the other end -- but Franca deserved everything he got in the shape of a yellow card.

Franca tried to get Tulio booked, and subsequently sent off, when tumbling in the Reds box under no contact whatsoever.

Shortly before that incident, Tulio had been shown the yellow card for dissent, furious that the referee had not taken action against, what he claimed, was a dangerous elbow from Koga in an aerial challenge.

Reysol were 2-0 down at the time, Franca was desperate and tried it on when Tulio raced back to defend.

Fortunately, referee Matsuo did not fall for it, even though the Reds fans behind the goal must have been nervous when he reached for his pocket, fearing a second yellow for Tulio.

ends

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Abe proves his value -- again

16 Apr 2007(Mon)

April 14, 2007: When Urawa Reds bought Yuki Abe from JEF United in the close season, they got a lot for their money.

A central midfielder, a libero, a goal scorer...and now a match-winning left back in Reds' most recent outing.

That came at Saitama Stadium 2002 on Wednesday night, when they beat Shanghai Shenhua 1-0 in the third round of Asian Champions League group games.

Abe is one of the best headers of a ball in the J.League -- just check out his two great headers at Oita recently -- and proved it again with another athletic effort from Ponte's free kick.

Abe's goal, in the 43rd minute, was greeted with a sigh of relief among the people who wanted to see a football match, as the time-wasting tactics of Shanghai were threatening to turn another Asian Champions League match into a farce.

Even though they had lost their first two games and needed a win here, the Chinese started like they were 1-0 up with five minutes to go, trying to protect a slender lead.

This was particularly noticeable when they ventured forward and actually won a corner. The player taking the kick would walk as slowly as possible to the corner flag, eating up the seconds in order to preserve the stalemate for as long as possible. Was it only the referee that failed to spot this?

As a colleague pointed out, what would have happened if Shanghai had gone in front? It does not bear thinking about, but possibly the goalkeeper would have been "injured" on a regular basis.

So well done to Reds, and also to Frontale for their excellent win in Korea. They needed to put that dire performance at home to Bangkok University firmly behind them, and did so in emphatic fashion to take control of the group at the halfway stage.

One thing that puzzled me about the fixture list on Wednesday was that the Nabisco Cup and J2 were also being played on the same night as the Asian Champions League. This diluted the significance of the Asian Champions League, instead of the football focus being fully on Japan's teams in the continental club championship. Seemed a bit strange to me, as the Nabisco Cup suffered, too, in terms of attention.

This coming Wednesday, on the other hand, Japan's Under 22s are away to Syria in Olympic qualifying, but there is no Asian Champions League, no J1, J2 or Nabisco Cup in Japan on the same night.

ends

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Sakamoto's experience boosts Albirex

12 Apr 2007(Thu)

April 10, 2007: Judging by events at Ajinomoto Stadium on Saturday, Albirex Niigata have built a tidy team as they continue to establish themselves in the top flight.

The former JEF United stalwart Sakamoto had a particularly impressive afternoon in the 3-1 defeat of FC Tokyo, making life extremely uncomfortable for one of my favourite young players, Inoha.

Sakamoto used to play all over the place for JEF, such was his versatility on either flank, in defence or in midfield, but with Albirex he has settled into the left back slot in an orthodox back four.

With the explosive Shingo Suzuki in front of him, this is a dangerous combination, and Inoha's lack of natural pace was exposed at right back in Tokyo's four-man defence. I would prefer to see Inoha in the centre of defence or in defensive midfield, where his qualities can really shine through.

Sakamoto opened the scoring for Albirex with a lovely little goal, robbing the ball from a floundering Kawaguchi as easily as taking candy off a baby. Kawaguchi had come back to help out Inoha, but got himself into all sorts of trouble -- and Sakamoto saw his moment and pounced ruthlessly like a praying mantis. It was all over in a blur.

There is a bit of height in the Albirex team, too, notably the two central defenders, Nagata and Chiyotanda, and striker Yano. It is easy to see why national coach Osim has had a look at Yano, as he never stops running and always seems to find some space. He reminds me a bit of TBS's favourite footballer Kubo -- raw and unpredictable, awkward for opponents to mark.

On the foreign player front, Silvinho conducts the Albirex midfield and controlled the game against Tokyo, while the sturdy Edmilson is top quality in attack. He scored once and could have had a couple more, and he remains crucial to the team's future.

The third foreign player is Marcio Richardes, formerly of Sao Caetano, and he looked lively on the right side of midfield, cutting in towards goal.

Unlike Tokyo, Albirex kept their shape as a team and passed the ball accurately; Silvinho was at the centre of everything -- including Tokyo's consolation goal when he turned in Norio Suzuki's cross from the left.

Yes, Albirex looked a confident and well organised team. Not championship-winning material, but one that should be able to stay closer to the top of the table than the bottom and give any opponent a decent game, home or away.

The final word must go to the Albirex keeper, Kitano. Without wanting to exaggerate, he produced a truly world-class save at the end to deny Lucas. Tokyo's cultured Brazilian forward thought his curling shot from the edge of the box was in all the way, but Kitano, at full stretch, pushed it over the bar with his right hand.

It was a magnificent save, a candidate for Save of the Season if the J.League or one of the TV companies had such a competition.

ends

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Waiting for Kota

9 Apr 2007(Mon)

April 7, 2007: It has not been the smoothest of starts at Omiya Ardjia for Robert Verbeek.

At the time of writing he has seen his team lose all four J1 games but win two and draw one of their three Nabisco Cup group matches.

The draw came at a cold and soggy Kashiwa Hitachi Stadium on Wednesday night, 0-0 against Reysol.

After the game I had an interesting chat with Verbeek about a player who has been around a long time (he is now 29) and who has bags of talent, but who has still not delivered on his potential: Kota Yoshihara.

Against Reysol, Yoshihara played on the right side of midfield in a 4-4-2 formation, and did a good job in providing pace and width to the attack and also tackling back deep inside his own half. With 20 minutes to go he moved up front, alongside Morita, and this time caught the eye with his accomplished back-to-goal technique, controlling the ball and shielding it from the defenders around him.

Verbeek feels that finally he is beginning to see the real Kota -- but it has been a struggle to bring him to this point.

"I had two meetings with him at our training camp in Guam and told him he must train harder otherwise he can forget it," Verbeek said.

"I also told him that I saw some DVDs from last year and every time I thought, 'he can play nicely, he is a good striker', but I had not seen that since I came here. I told him that this is a different Kota, and I want to see the Kota I saw on the DVD."

The message seems to have got home, as Verbeek acknowledged about Wednesday's lively display: "This is a totally different Kota. He is dangerous, he can keep the ball and he can score goals. I am very happy and very proud of him. It was a little bit of a battle, but, okay, that can happen."

When I told Verbeek that Philippe Troussier had once described Yoshihara as the Japanese Romario for his finishing prowess in the box, the Dutchman stated: "He has something -- but he must be 100 per cent. He is still 80 per cent and he misses 20 per cent. In two or three weeks he can be 90-95 per cent, and he can be very dangerous for us."

These must be encouraging words for the Omiya fans, who need a sharp and hungry Yoshihara to put away a few goals in what already is looking like a fight for survival in the top flight.

Yoshihara must also be encouraged by the new coach's philosophy, as he changes the playing style from "waiting, waiting", as he described it, to a more adventurous..."let's challenge, play football, attack."

ends

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Nagoya Grampus Four - so far so good

5 Apr 2007(Thu)

April 3, 2007: Let's just call it the Nagoya Grampus Four -- for the time being at least.

After four rounds of the new J1 season, Grampus are sitting proudly at the top with a perfect 12 points, ahead of Gamba on goal difference.

And that is something to celebrate for the club in particular, and for neutrals around the country keen to see a new challenger, even so early in the campaign.

Nagoya's Dutch coach, Sef Vergoossen, puts the good start down to a good pre-season, and stability and continuity from last term.

Even so, Grampus have long-term injuries in Marek Spilar -- out for the year, according to Vergoossen at Mitsuzawa on Sunday -- and Atsushi Yoneyama, a stylish defender for Verdy but who could not establish himself in Frontale's land of the giants. (Even the ballboys are bigger than 'Yone' at Todoroki).

Can Grampus stay at the top?

Vegoossen said a top five position at the end of the season would be an excellent display by his team in the circumstances.

"We have 13-14 players, whereas the likes of Urawa, Gamba especially, Frontale and S-Pulse have 20-22 for the first team," he said.

"We have no magic team. We have a normal team who play with discipline and a good mentality. We have 13-14 players, and after that players are coming in with quality but without any experience."

They should have beaten Yokohama FC much more comfortably than 2-1 on Sunday, thanks to a flashing near-post header from Keita Sugimoto and a slow-motion, far-post finish from Kei Yamaguchi after a lightning raid up the right flank from Sugimoto.

Grampus played with a very well-organised 3-5-2, and a strong backbone of Masayuki Omori, Toshiya Fujita and Frode Johnsen.

Naoshi Nakamura and Keisuke Honda gave them width, and Yamaguchi and Kim Jung Woo some solidity in midfield, while Akira Takeuchi and Takahiro Masukawa played at the back, either side of Omori. It was Masukawa's excellent cross, whipped in from the left, that allowed Sugimoto to head Grampus level, and Nakamura's delicious pass up the right which released Sugimoto, who had timed his run behind the defence to perfection, to set up Yamaguchi's winner.

The Grampus fans were in fine voice behind the goal into which their team scored twice, and, let's face it, they deserve something to celebrate after some barren, post-Pixie years.

Fujita, now 35, is critical to Grampus Eight's season, not just for his ability and experience but also for his leadership and tactical brain. He may not cover the amount of ground he used to during his Jubilo heyday, but he knows where everyone should be and what they should be doing.

Good luck to Grampus. It's good for the game to see them up there.

ends

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England job too ‘white-hot’ to handle

2 Apr 2007(Mon)

March 30, 2007: It is quite embarrassing being English at the moment.

Not just because we are struggling in the Euro 2008 qualifiers, but because of the abuse hurled at the players and coach by their own fans.

We still reckon we are the “home” of football – but football has not come home since the 1966 World Cup.

Since then we have produced some great players, and occasionally a very good team – 1990 World Cup, for example – but our head coaches cause mixed reaction to say the least.

The latest in the hot seat – make that the “white-hot” seat – is Steve McClaren. He is viewed as dull and lacking charisma, even though his coaching credentials were obviously admired by Alex Ferguson and Sven-Goran Eriksson to name but two.

This respect does not spread too far among the England support, though, and that must be worrying for the Football Association considering the thousands upon thousands of fans who travel all over the world to cheer – and now boo -- the team.

A 3-0 win over Andorra in midweek could not ease the pressure, and McClaren must be wondering what he has to do right to please some people.

This is where Japan and England differ so much, because in Japan you still support the team when the going gets tough, whereas in England – fans and media alike – we love to pile the pressure on and almost hope for failure to keep the news and the controversy flowing.

I remember once the Japanese fans getting very angry after a 1-1 draw with UAE at Kokuritsu in 1997, when it looked like Japan might miss out on the 1998 World Cup with the so-called Doha Tragedy of 93 still fresh in the mind. But all the trouble and the shouting came after the final whistle and outside the ground, not during the match as Japan toiled to try and claim three points.

I wonder what state the England team would be in now if the FA had been a bit more patient in looking for a successor to Eriksson. They could have got Luiz Felipe Scolari – but the FA insisted he sign the contract before the 2006 World Cup, and not after it. I heard this from Scolari’s good friend, Jose Roberto Guimaraes, who is head coach of Brazil’s women’s volleyball team. Jose Roberto told me he had spoken to Scolari a couple of times on the phone from Germany, and Portugal’s coach could not understand why England wanted the deal done before the World Cup. Scolari would have signed for England, but was put off by their attitude.

Clearly McClaren is struggling, and the London media would love Terry Venables back in the job.

I may as well get my choice in now – Steve Coppell. A great player for Manchester United and England on the right wing, studying at Liverpool University while playing for Man United, and an excellent coach with Reading.

ends

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