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July 2007

Gunes: Skill and strength are not enough

30 Jul 2007(Mon)

July 28, 2007: The FC Tokyo-FC Seoul "pre-season match" at Kokuritsu on Thursday evening was well worth the visit.

Not for the football, which was grim and goalless, but for the chance to get a few words with Senol Gunes.

A former goalkeeper and captain of Turkey, Gunes is the man who steered the Turks to their third-place finish at the 2002 World Cup, beating Japan and Korea in the process.

UEFA's Coach of the Year 2002 has been in charge of FC Seoul for six months, and had some interesting things to say on football in this part of the world.

Basically, he said, the Japanese had better technical skills and the Koreans were stronger physically, but both sets of players needed more than this to be a success at the highest level. In short, they needed to think more and think quicker.

"For the World Cup, the mentality must improve because the players cannot arrange the game, cannot manage the game easily," he said, through an interpreter.

"Technique and physique are not enough in football, so they have to get some good mentality so they can arrange the game, can manage the game in all conditions.

"The two countries' players should decide more quickly. That is the problem. When the ball comes to them, before they kick the ball they have to decide everything; they have to decide the next step."

One Japanese player who did this, of course, was Hidetoshi Nakata. You could always see him planning his next move before the ball had reached him. Add to this his skill level and robust frame -- the two qualities talked of by Gunes -- and it is clear why Nakata stood out among his Asian peers.

How Osim needed a player of Nakata's stature to lift his tired team against the Saudis, who were well worth their 3-2 win on Wednesday night. Japan came back twice but could not do it a third time, as the explosive Malek proved too hot to handle in the air and on the ground for Abe, Nakazawa and Kawaguchi.

Credit to the Saudis. After all, they have qualified for the last four World Cups. The result was not a surprise. A disappointment, but not a surprise.


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Osim lays foundations of New Japan

26 Jul 2007(Thu)

July 24, 2007: There were many positive aspects of Japan's victory over Australia, but there were some negatives, too, which Ivica Osim will be eager to rectify.

The positives included the calm, assured way in which New Japan controlled the game; how they came back to equalise quickly with a great goal from Takahara; and how they kept their concentration and discipline right to the finish.

These are all signs of a team that is mentally and physically strong, one that believes in itself and its coach.

However, the performance was not without its more frustrating moments, some of which I noted after the opening 1-1 draw with Qatar.

I still think Japan are not shooting enough when the goal is in range. One example was Nakazawa in the first half. He collected the ball deep in his own half and broke forward, and when no one came towards him he continued to break forward.

He was looking confident and determined and I was hoping he would let fly from 25-30 metres out with absolutely nothing to lose, but he seemed to doubt himself and, instead of shooting, attempted to find Takahara on the left edge of the box. The move broke down, and Nakazawa had to race back.

This was just one example, and an aspect of Japan's play that Shunsuke Nakamura has pointed out on several occasions in Hanoi. At one point in extra time, against 10 men, I thought Japan's tactics were to pass the ball so much that the Aussies would fall asleep, and then someone might actually think about scoring.

One of Maki's strengths is his ability in the air, especially at the far post (I am sure JEF fans, and the Gamba defence, will remember his prodigious leap to set up a goal for Arai at Fukuare this season). But against Australia, Japan seemed reluctant to cross the ball into the middle, and dithered too often around the box.

When Shunsuke knocked one deep, Maki did his job at the back post, Milligan did not do his in the middle, and Taka switched from right foot to left and scored another fine goal.

I think Japan need to find a balance between when to keep the ball and when to step it up and find that explosive, unpredictable element. (I am still pushing Yoshito Okubo for this role!)

But the style and identity of New Japan is set -- and Osim is well on course in his mission.


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MUFC -- a class act

23 Jul 2007(Mon)

July 20, 2007: Manchester United were magnificent ambassadors for...well, Manchester United, when they came to Tokyo at the beginning of this week.

Press conferences, charity work, training, playing, signing autographs; they were busier than the Vietnamese keeper against Japan.

On Tuesday evening, the Red Devils played the Red Diamonds, English champions against Japanese champions, and over 58,000 turned out to watch on a dank evening. In fact it was so wet, miserable and slightly chilly out there in the Saitama countryside that it reminded me of driving over the Pennines to Old Trafford (a different one) to watch cricket, only to be denied again by a Mancunian summer.

United's tour, of course, had come under fierce criticism from both the Asian Football Confederation and from FIFA. The general feeling was that big European clubs like United came to the Far East just to take, take, take and not give anything in return; and were showing disrespect by touring when the Asian Cup was being held in Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand (have I missed any?).

This was absolute nonsense all along, and Sir Alex Ferguson gave the perfect reply when asked about it.

He said it was unfortunate that the tour clashed with the Asian Cup, but they had to take the window of opportunity when it was open, as players were committed to the European Championship and World Cup every second year. Fergie spoke of the charity work and the soccer schools, and insisted United were not trying to "steal" fans from other clubs.

"It is not about us taking. We also give," he said.

The match ended 2-2, and United's charity included a goal for Hideki Uchidate, who embarrassed Edwin Van der Sar with a Cristiano Ronaldo-style strike that swerved and dipped on its way into the net. Reds' second was a touch of genius from Shinji Ono, proving again that you can lose some of your physical fitness but you can't lose class.

After the game, Fergie picked out Yamada and Ono for special praise.

"I think number six (Yamada) did very, very well. I like him. I think he's a clever footballer and very mobile," said Sir Alex.

"And the number eight (Ono) in the second half, took his goal very well. A clever goal."

Rio Ferdinand also spoke of Ono -- this time by name -- and said he "always thought he was a very talented footballer -- and he showed that again tonight. I liked him at Feyenoord."

Oh, Shinji! What might have been...


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Defender Komiyama catches the eye as goals flow

19 Jul 2007(Thu)

July 17, 2007: The Asian Cup is not the only cup in town for Japanese players and fans at the moment, as there was a domestic treat during the storm-lashed weekend.

The four Nabisco Cup quarter-final second-leg ties yielded a total of 23 goals, with seven at Gamba Osaka-Urawa Reds (5-2), six each at FC Tokyo-Yokohama F Marinos (2-4) and Kawasaki Frontale-Ventforet Kofu (4-2), and four at Kashima Antlers-Sanfrecce Hiroshima (3-1).

On Saturday I took in Tokyo-Marinos at Ajista, and on Sunday Frontale-Ventforet at Kokuritsu, and both games were crackers.

Although Marinos won through only 4-3 on aggregate, they were 4-0 up in the second leg thanks to a dynamic performance by captain Koji Yamase. He was on fire in the soggy conditions, scoring the first goal with a lovely right-foot finish into the top corner and then chasing down a loose ball and crossing perfectly for Oshima to head the second.

I wondered if Yamase had a personal grudge against FC Tokyo, as he was on a one-man crusade to sink them. Plagued by injury during his career, he is still only 25 and has never looked sharper or more effective.

Another player who is impressing for Marinos is the 22-year-old left back Komiyama. He is bright, busy and plays at an intensity that appeals to national coach Osim. He has two good feet and does not hold back in the air, launching himself at anything that comes his way and winning some thundering headers.

On Sunday, Kofu striker Sudo was the unluckiest player around, scoring all five of his team's goals over two legs but still finishing on the losing side, against Frontale.

This was a fantastic match for the 10,000 fans who had defied the typhoon warning to trail to the capital. It was a true cup-tie played at beakneck speed with goals galore, one team in control then suddenly the other, and packed with incident such as the heated exchanges between Kofu teammates Akimoto and Inoue, and the wrestling match between Kofu defender Ikehata and Frontale striker Chong Tese.

Overall, Komiyama took my vote as Nabisco Cup New Hero for players aged 23 and below.


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Komano sets the right example

16 Jul 2007(Mon)

July 14, 2007: Now that was a whole lot better, wasn't it?

Not only did Japan beat UAE 3-1, they played with a much more professional and business-like attitude.

They added some steel and bite to their game, especially in the last third of the field, and had the victory wrapped up by half-time thanks to the extremely generous penalty award.

Still, it was worrying that UAE managed to pull one back with only 10 men, and there are clearly communication problems through the middle with the Kawaguchi-Abe-Nakazawa combination.

So Japanese fans must not get carried away, as the team only has four points and faces a last group game against the host nation. This will be a unique experience for the Japanese players in an incredible atmosphere, and they will have to tame the home team quickly in order to take control and avoid an embarrassing upset.

With their superior skills, experience and height advantage, though, Japan should be able to come through, but they will have to scrap furiously against Vietnam in the opening exchanges.

Against UAE, the presence of Maki opened up more space for Takahara, who produced two expert finishes to underline Japan's superiority.

But the player I was most pleased with was Komano. Very early in the game he cut in from the left wing and shot for goal, and soon after Endo ran through the middle and tried to score alone. This was great to see from Japan, players taking responsibility, and set the tone for the evening.

I hope they retain this positive attitude for the rest of the tournament instead of passing the ball to death on the edge of the box and refusing to shoot when they are in a good position.

Osim must encourage them to shoot, and encourage them when they miss the target, just like Komano did shortly after.

Taka's two goals put Japan well in control with less than a third of the match completed, and the penalty ended the game as a contest.

I must admit I could not believe it when the ref penalised the keeper for catching Endo, who had lofted the ball to the far post. But this is not Japan's concern, and Shunsuke brushed aside the controversey and scored convincingly from the spot.

Late in the game, Osim sent on his JEF United ekiden team of Hanyu and Mizuno to join Maki and old boy Abe -- further evidence that "JFA" stands for JEF Football Association -- in order to maintain an attacking tempo, and resting key players for the battle ahead.

Monday will be mayhem, and Japan's job is far from finished -- but this was much better.


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Japan must be more aggressive in attack

12 Jul 2007(Thu)

July 10, 2007: No wonder Ivica Osim was furious after Japan's 1-1 draw with Qatar.

I was angry, too, as I am sure many Japanese fans were around the country.

Japan, of course, should have won this game comfortably. They dominated possession and were in a different class to their opponents in terms of individual quality and big-match experience.

But without that second goal there was always a chance Qatar would come back and draw level, which is exactly what happened to ruin the night.

I was not so much annoyed with Abe for the foul that led to the goal, or for the failure to put away one of the clearcut chances that came Japan's way.

Abe was clearly waiting for Kawaguchi to come out and clear the ball, and when the keeper was not there he panicked and gave away the free kick. Abe's body language after his mistake told its own story -- that the equaliser was on its way.

As for the chances, the two that most spring to mind were Yamagishi's left-foot half-volley over the bar from Takahara's lovely header, and Hanyu's late effort that curled round the far post.

No, these were frustrating moments, but not the chief source of my anger.

I was annoyed because Japan would not shoot when the goal was in sight, notably Endo, who looked like he was aiming for the Assist King award. Japan were trying to walk the ball into the net with a series of intricate passes instead of letting fly from distance. I think they needed -- and need -- to be much more direct in their approach and play with more dynamism and aggression in the last third of the pitch.

For this reason, once again, I would play Maki alongside Takahara and sacrifice one of the midfielders -- but not Keita Suzuki, who was my man of the match.

The presence of Maki and Takahara would open up more options on the ground and in the air. If Maki is not scoring he is doing something, working hard for the team and being a constant menace to the defenders.

The result against Qatar could have been worse, but Japan will be in real trouble if they do not beat UAE on Friday the 13th.


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Japan are good enough to win the Asian Cup, but...

9 Jul 2007(Mon)

July 7, 2007: During the second half of Japan's goalless draw against Colombia on June 5, I felt convinced that Japan were good enough to win the Asian Cup.

After surviving a shaky first half, Japan had come back into it in the second period and were playing some good stuff against the Colombians.

You could sense the unity, the purpose and the goal of the players under Ivica Osim, and they were playing a brand of football that could brush aside Asian opposition.

One month on, the Asian Cup is about to start, and I think Japan will play well.

I am not saying they are going to win it, but I think they will show enough to suggest they are on the right track to qualifying for South Africa 2010 and putting on a good show in the next World Cup; something they did not do in 2006.

Osim, of course, is in a no-win situation in Vietnam, as his two predecessors, Troussier in 2000 and Zico in 2004, both steered Japan to the continental crown.

If Japan do not win for the third time in a row and fourth in all, I hope fans don't start saying Osim is not as good as Troussier or Zico, because this is clearly not the case.

Osim is giving out mixed signals about his targets. On the one hand he says that World Cup qualification is the priority ahead of winning the Asian Cup, but his selection contradicts that theory.

If he had been thinking of the future and not the present, he would have picked more Olympic players in his final 23, such as Honda for the left flank, Ienaga for attacking midfield and Inoha for central midfield/libero. Inoha has since been called up, of course, due to Bando's injury, and he can offer more options for Osim.

Even without Tulio and Mizumoto, a back three of Tsuboi, Abe and Nakazawa is good enough to win the Asian Cup, as is a back four of Kaji, Nakazawa, Abe and Komano. I really liked the Abe-Nakazawa partnership against Colombia, and Inoha is the perfect understudy for Abe at libero or in central midfield and a player who can only benefit from his time with the seniors.

To sum up, I think Japan can win the Asian Cup -- but it will not be the end of the world if they don't, provided there are signs that the Osim method is taking root.


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Please..no more Mexican Wave

5 Jul 2007(Thu)

July 3, 2007: I don't know about you, but that was quite a strange experience watching Japan beat Scotland 3-1 in the FIFA Under-20 World Cup.

The result was impressive for Japan, but the environment was unusual to say the least.

All those people walking around as the game was in progress; all the tents; and the near silence of the large crowd providing a training ground atmosphere for the players.

It looked as though the players were walking through a cow field to the stadium pitch, and that the football match was just part of a summer show. I was wondering what would be next on the entertainment programme, the sack race for boys or the egg-and-spoon race for girls? Or maybe it was time for the Victoria Vegetable Society to display their spring onions?

Whatever, it was a very surreal backdrop to the match -- and the situation deteriorated when the Mexican Wave began in the second half.

Sorry to be a kill-joy, but the Mexican Wave should be outlawed by FIFA at all football grounds, with anyone found guilty of starting it escorted to the nearest exit and banned for life. Rather than showing how much everyone is enjoying themselves, it reveals boredom and is disrespectful to the players trying their hearts out at a potentially career-changing moment.

Just think...a young player with stars in his eyes finally pulls off the Cruyff trick he has been practising in his back garden for two years, and half the audience are looking the other way, preparing to raise their arms and cheer.

Football is not about fun! "It is not even about life and death -- it is much more important than that," to paraphrase the late and legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly.

Against the big Scots, Japan won well in a confident team display (notably Umesaki) marred slightly by Japanese players feigning injury (Umesaki) and taking the ball into the corner (Umesaki) a good five minutes before full time.

The Canadian neutrals, brought up in the rough-tough world of ice hockey, did not appreciate the theatrics and were quick to boo and jeer the "injured" players. Good on 'em!

But please no Mexican Wave.


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Stoyanov: only one solution for JEF

2 Jul 2007(Mon)

June 29, 2007: Losing Ivica Osim; losing GM Ubagai and captain Abe; sliding down the table; now losing Stoyanov...

It has not been a good 12 months for JEF United Chiba.

There was, sadly, no other conclusion to the Stoyanov issue than the club terminating his contract.

He had come out in public and criticised head coach Amar Osim, and with it the club as a whole.

When Stoyanov refused to apologise, there was only course of action open -- to get rid of him.

I feel -- but may be wrong -- that Amar has been close to being fired this season, notably after the home defeat by Gamba on May 26.

But once Stoyanov had spoken out, the club could not be seen to be following the wishes of one, in their eyes, "rebel" player. This would look like the club was being run by the players, not by the management.

With the situation at deadlock, the club had to act first and make a strong statement, which was to kick out the rebel, no matter how good a player he was, or how much he was idolised by the fans.

So JEF have lost again -- at home again, you might say, because this was a homegrown problem.

I have to admit being a fully paid-up member of the Stoyanov fan club (emotionally, that is, not financially), as he was -- still is -- a wonderful football player.

He is a true libero, possessing the skill of two players.

I used to love watching him play; taking the ball off the keeper and spraying a 50-metre pass on to the toe end of Yamagishi on the left or Mizuno on the right.

But he was at his best, his most elegant, when moving forward, beating two or three men at a time as easily as an Austrian alpine skier glides through the gates of a slalom course. Then he would play a neat one-two and advance on goal, before shooting just as comfortably with left foot or right.

Defensively he used to trick and tease opposing forwards, allowing them to think they had a bit of time and space before making his move. He would time his tackle to perfection, always staying on his feet, and whip the ball away from the striker in a flash of yellow.

At the top of his game, Stoyanov was a different class to anything else in the J.League. He would make it look so easy it was almost funny to watch.

There was no denying, however, that he was a bit of a hot-head on the pitch. Off the pitch, his biggest mistake was to go public with his feelings and put the club in an impossible position.

The final result? Another defeat for JEF United Chiba -- through an own goal.


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