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June 2007

Tongues wagging over Kashiwagi

28 Jun 2007(Thu)

June 26, 2007: There was a special goal on Saturday from a youngster with the potential to be a special player.

Yosuke Kashiwagi, still only 19 and a product of the Sanfrecce Hiroshima youth team, scored a goal of true beauty in the game at Vissel Kobe -- a goal that gets better with every replay.

Naturally it came from his left foot, and followed a lovely interchange between Sato and Ueslei. When the ball broke free on the edge of the box, Kashiwagi took one touch to control it before wrapping his foot around the ball and stroking a dream of a shot across the face of the goal and into the far corner from the left side.

Talk about "Bend it Like Shunsuke"! This was a wonderful goal in open play, and was followed by a celebration that further demonstrated his creativity without being offensive or provocative to the foe.

After a Roger Milla-style wiggle of the hips, Kashiwagi went ten-pin bowling and pretended to roll a ball down the alley, presumably for a strike.

Sanfrecce's second goal, in what turned out to be a 3-2 defeat, was another fine effort -- a textbook header from Ueslei to a masterful right-wing cross from Komano.

But who turned defence into attack in the first place by jinking his way up the right wing and waiting to play the decisive pass? Why, Kashiwagi again, showing the touch, pace, composure and quick mind that would have Ivica Osim purring.

Osim is already well aware of Kashiwagi, of course, and the upcoming FIFA World Under-20 Championship in Canada provides the perfect stage for the youngster to display his talents.

These are considerable -- but realising this potential is another matter altogether, especially with such a light frame.

For the moment, though, Yosuke Kashiwagi is a combination of Harry Kewell and Harry Potter -- a silky, left-footed schemer, with a touch of magic in those boots!


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Nakata, MLS would make a good team

25 Jun 2007(Mon)

June 22, 2007: Without saying a word, Hidetoshi Nakata is back in the news, less than a year after his retirement.

During a luncheon at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo on Thursday, national coach Ivica Osim said the door was open for Nakata to return to the team should he end his retirement and join a club.

So what are the chances of a Nakata comeback?

Having followed his career closely since seeing him play for Japan in the Asian Youth Under-19 Championship in Jakarta in 1994, I would not rule out a Nakata return at all.

In fact, on several occasions while reading all the Beckham-for-Galaxy stories, I have thought the United States and Major League Soccer would be the perfect place for Nakata to reinvent himself. He is the Asian Beckham after all, and a Nakata comeback in America would provide another massive impetus to the game over there.

As in the case of Beckham, all parties would win substantially.

I honestly think a Nakata comeback in MLS is a possibility, as he is still only 30 and would have three or four more years left in him, at least through to the 2010 World Cup.

I saw a few highlights from the Figo match the other week, and Nakata, now with long hair, reminded me of his early days with Bellmare Hiratsuka.

He looked far too young to have given up the game, and being back in that kind of football environment may have rekindled the fire and interest he had lost.

Also, it might be as simple as this: he might be bored after his year on the road and want some roots again. And where better than the States, in a growing league and where he would enjoy celebrity status.

America and its youth/pop culture would appeal to Nakata, and also enable him to increase his profile in this vast market -- perfect for when he decides to open his chain of swish (not Swiss) restaurants in the world's major cities -- Tokyo, New York, Paris, London, Rome, Milan...

Menu, decor, furniture, clothing, merchandise...a Nakata fusion from around the world.

I am sure this is his destiny!


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Lightweight Omiya need more muscle

21 Jun 2007(Thu)

June 19, 2007: A J.League Saturday that had started with an anti-climax at Todoroki ended in exhilarating style with a dramatic finish at Komaba.

First up in the Kanto football feast was Frontale-Reysol at sun-drenched Todoroki, where Kengo Nakamura really looked the part but the forwards on both teams wasted clear scoring chances in a forgettable 0-0 draw.

I was hoping Ganaha would get among the goals ahead of the Asian Cup squad announcement on Monday, but it just wasn't happening for him and he remains on one league goal for the season. He really needs an injection of confidence (is that legal under J.League rules?)

From Todoroki in the afternoon to Komaba in the evening, where there was a superb atmosphere and a big crowd of almost 17,000; two thirds of the stadium clad in orange, and the other third in...well, orange. Ardija against Albirex, and the Orange Derby certainly lived up to its billing in terms of controversy and drama.

First, the sending off of Niigata right winger Matsushita six minutes before the break. Whatever you think of his second yellow card for what the referee deemed a studs-up tackle, it was his first yellow that was ridiculous. The game was going nowhere after 25 minutes, Albirex were on top if anything, and Matsushita needlessly delayed play by kicking the ball away. Referee Osada was absolutely right to show him the yellow card, and I hope Albirex manager Suzuki will be critical of his own player rather than the officials.

With a man advantage, Omiya went on to win 2-1 with goals from Yoshihara and a soaring header from substitute Wakabayashi. Daigo Kobayashi played a big part in both goals, although he still looked a long way from full match fitness, unlike the lively Yoshihara and Fujimoto. But when Daigo has such quality with the ball at his feet, manager Robert Verbeek is happy to keep him on the pitch and get those minutes in.

Unfortunately, the standard of Omiya's foreign players leaves a lot to be desired once again, with only central defender Leandro in the starting line-up of a struggling team and both forwards staying on the bench.

Maybe scouting trips to Romania and Brazil will have produced some muscular additions in attack and central midfield to Omiya's creative yet lightweight personnel.


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Apple alert for Frontale fans in Iran

18 Jun 2007(Mon)

June 15, 2007: Well, let's look on the bright side -- an all-Japan final in the 2007 Asian Champions League in November.

Reds against Frontale; one leg at Todoroki, the other at Saitama Stadium 2002. This would be the perfect scenario for Japan, wouldn't it, and it is still possible now the draw has been made for the knockout stages.

We knew before the draw that Reds and Frontale would be kept apart for the quarter-finals, but there was no guarantee they would avoid each other in the semi-finals, should they get there, of course.

One school of thought is that it would be better for them to meet in the last four, as it would guarantee Japan had a representative in the final.

But that's slightly negative in my opinion.

I prefer to take the ultra-positive approach, and back them both to reach the final now they have done the hard part by coming out of their groups. After all, there is little margin for error in the four-team preliminary round groups, as only the top one, not top two, go through.

So hopefully Reds and Frontale can get past Chonbuk Motors and Sepahan, respectively, in the quarter-finals, and will motivate each other in the semi-finals to set up an all-Japan showdown.

Reds will be at home to the reigning Asian champions in the first leg, on September 19, while Frontale will have home advantage for the second leg, on September 26.

My only advice to the Frontale fans thinking of heading for Iran is...take a crash helmet!

This is from my experience of joining 800 Japanese fans on a "dangan" tour to Tehran in March 2005 for the Iran-Japan World Cup qualifier.

We arrived at the hotel for lunch at midday, and were informed that there was already 100,000 fans in the Azadi Stadium six hours before kick-off!

When the convoy of buses with the Japanese fans arrived at the ground, it was like a scene from "The Gladiator" as we entered the arena like sacrifical slaves to the slaughter, for the entertainment of the spectators. They had reserved a small section behind the goal into which Fukunishi would score Japan's equaliser in an eventual 2-1 defeat, but the stand above us was packed with Iranians who used the Japanese as target practice for a cascade of missiles -- fortunately none of them nuclear.

One Japanese girl had turned round to look at the giant electronic scoreboard above, and an apple had caught her full in the face, producing an ugly, massive swelling on her cheek but fortunately missing her eyes.

Frontale fans -- take those helmets, and watch out for flying apples. They pack quite a punch from the second tier of a stand.


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A one, two or three-horse race?

14 Jun 2007(Thu)

June 12, 2007: Last weekend was Round 14 of 34 in J1 -- and it may well go down as a turning point in the 2007 season.

Suddenly, Gamba Osaka are seven points clear, even though Reds have a game in hand due to their involvement in the A3 Champions Cup (what do the three As stand for anyway? Another Avoidable Absence?).

Reds stayed second in the J1 table, even without playing, as none of the teams within range could win on the day. A worrying factor for those predicting a two-horse race already.

All of which combined to propel Albirex Niigata into a lofty fourth place, following their 3-1 victory at home to Vissel Kobe.

Earlier this season I saw Albirex demolish a poor, but now improving, FC Tokyo at Ajista, and liked what I saw -- a tidy, well organised team with three good foreign players.

Only two of them were on duty against Kobe, and they accounted for all three goals.

Marcio Richardes, who plays on the right side of midfield, got the first two; with a free kick that deceived Tatsuya Enomoto by entering the middle of the goal rather than the corner, and with a crisp, close-range header.

The third goal was another stylish header following another clever move, scored by Edmilson -- one of my favourite foreign players in the league for his power and his poise, which is an attractive and dangerous combination. (In fact he is so smooth I am surprised Gamba have not signed him under their risk-free policy of relieving less glamorous clubs of Brazilian imports of proven quality and character! Maybe next season.)

Although the season is not quite at the halfway stage, seven points is a handy lead for Gamba and will keep their rivals under pressure.

Personally, I think two teams are capable of catching Gamba: Reds and Frontale, although both of them are drawing too many games and have won only six apiece this season, compared to Gamba's nine league victories. There's the difference.

In midfield and attack, Gamba have plenty of quality on the pitch and the bench, so the only area where they look vulnerable is a lack of cover in central defence for Sidiclei and Yamaguchi.


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Now that's more like the Taka of old

11 Jun 2007(Mon)

June 7, 2007: No doubt about it, Taka's back!

The two Kirin Cup games, and the Peru match in March, have revealed a hungry, mature and rejuvenated Naohiro Takahara; a player ready, willing and able to lead Japan's line again.

I must admit I went off Taka for quite a while, as he struggled at Hamburg and lost the cutting edge to his game. When he returned to the Japan team in those days he was not the same player, and his manner had turned from confident and ambitious to rather cocky without the results to back it up.

But the Takahara on display these days is a battler and playing with something to prove. He has come back well after his transfer to Eintracht Frankfurt and now looks the part, scoring goals, tackling back and running hard off the ball.

His goal against Montenegro was a cracker, that flying header at the near post to Komano's pinpoint cross from the right, and he played well against Colombia, despite missing a decent chance to head the winner right at the death.

The Colombians clearly targeted Taka for some rough treatment, especially early in the second half, and Japan's centre forward complained bitterly to the Danish ref that he was the victim of elbows as the match progressed.

In Osim's 4-5-1 formation, Taka did a good job on his own up front, although I would have liked to see Maki in there from the start, alongside him, like the Peru game.

It seemed a strange choice to play Inamoto so far forward, and Osim realised it was a mistake by replacing him at half-time.

"Ina" just could not get into the game. I have always regarded him as a defensive midfield player who likes to push forward, and he looked lost in that advanced position.

Troussier once told me, while preparing Japan's team for the 1999 FIFA World Youth Cup in Nigeria, that he always thought Inamoto would end up as a central defender. It has not happened yet, but it may be one option for his new employers, Eintracht Frankfurt, or even for Osim if he wants another look at Ina in the future.


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Nadeshiko Japan show style

7 Jun 2007(Thu)

June 5, 2007: There were so many positives about Japan's 6-1 victory over South Korea in a women's Olympic qualifier the other night it is difficult to know where to start.

The result, of course, was excellent, and put Japan firmly on course for a place in Beijing next summer with three straight wins.

The manner of victory was also impressive, with the goals shared around and highlighting the quality and technique of the Japanese players.

As always, Japan played the game in a true spirit of fair play, and were a credit to the JFA in particular and the game of football in general.

Clearly not the biggest team in the women's game, they have developed a distinctive style of play and tactics that should give them a chance against the world's best. Like Osim's Japan, "Nadeshiko Japan" are trying to play to their strengths, such as speed, movement and organisation.

And I really like their midfield diamond, of Miyamoto at the base, Sawa at the top, Sakai on the right and Miyama on the left. Sakai and Miyama are both buzz bombs, and link well with their full backs coming up from defence on the flanks.

But, rather than knocking hopeful crosses into the middle, which would be food and drink for the bigger central defenders they will face at this year's World Cup, the Japanese have nurtured a very noticeable and suitable strategy to counter this problem.

The cross will be knocked long, beyond the far post, where a player has pulled off her marker at the last moment, and is able to nod the ball back into the middle. This puts the defence at a disadvantage, and allows the forwards to move in and attack the ball from close range, thereby eliminating the direct confrontation between big centre half and small centre forward.

It is a tactic which yields goals, and can be refined further as Japan play with width and speed and a good attacking rhythm.

There is a good feeling around Nadeshiko Japan, and head coach Hiroshi Ohashi must take a lot of the credit for the way in which they go about their business. They actually look like they are enjoying themselves, and there is none of the cynicism and gamesmanship that blight the men's game at the highest level.

Before the national anthem of Korea Republic, the home fans and Japanese players alike applauded with gusto – and it was nice to see the small band of Korean fans clap the Japanese players after the game as they went on their lap of honour.

The only disappointment was that only 8,779 fans turned up at Kokuritsu on a pleasant Sunday evening.

This team deserves more, and hopefully they will get it on August 12 for the visit of Thailand.


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Komano shines again in Japan's win

4 Jun 2007(Mon)

June 2, 2007: Although the quality and pattern of play fell away significantly in the second half, there was still enough positive aspects to take from Japan's 2-0 victory over Montenegro on Friday night.

The first was the two goals, beautifully crafted and expertly finished and which virtually killed the game by half time.

The opening goal had clearly been refined on the training ground, as Endo opened up a better angle from his left-wing corner and Nakazawa moved into position on the far post. When the ball came over, Nakazawa really attacked it and hit the target with a powerful header, proving again his value at both ends of the pitch.

The second was even better. Kengo Nakamura changed the direction of attack and Komano, breaking down the right, sent over a magnificent cross to the near post, where Takahara headed home in spectacular style.

A couple of minutes earlier, Komano had crossed too deep, and Takahara had shown his frustration by pointing to the near post. Komano adjusted his sights quickly and served up a perfect ball next time for Taka to head home.

Once again Komano was my man of the match, like he had been against Peru. Starting the match at right back and finishing it on the opposite flank following the introduction of Mizuno, Komano has established himself as a key player for Osim with his energy, intensity and versatility. He also knows when to clear the ball from dangerous situations or when to pass and move from deep, and he has a first-class attitude. Troussier would have loved Komano in his squad as he is the ultimate team player who just gets on with his job.

Osim's style of play demands quick minds and reactions as well as fast legs, and one step forward I noticed against Montenegro was how the players were in position to pick up the scraps from a move that falters. Playing at such pace and with such movement and intricate passing, mistakes will inevitably occur, but Japan's players have learned to read the situation and anticipate the break down.

Montenegro, it must be said, looked slow and lacked flair, but any team from the former Yugoslavia knows the game and deserves respect.

Japan's midfield pressing, though, put them under too much pressure, and prevented them from building any rhythm.

Colombia should be stronger at Saitama on Tuesday night -- but so should Japan.


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