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August 2007

Arrows pointing upwards for Sanfrecce

30 Aug 2007(Thu)

Tokyo, August 28, 2007: Even without suspended goal machine Ueslei, Sanfrecce Hiroshima were a good match for Yokohama F Marinos in a 2-2 draw at Nissan Stadium on Sunday evening.

I particularly liked their midfield four of Komano on the right, Toda and Aoyama in the middle and Hattori on the left.

Komano and Hattori not only provide natural width going forward, they also cover the flanks for the three-man defence, which was anchored by the former JEF favourite Stoyanov.

With Toda, in his 2002 World Cup position of central midfield, and current Olympic team player Aoyama alongside in the engine room, the team looked compact, balanced and flexible in their 3-4-2-1 formation.

The “1” was Hisato Sato, whose running into the channels behind the Marinos back four caused problems all night for the home defence. Sato really is a bright and inventive player, a natural finisher in the box but much more than that around the pitch.

Thanks to the four players strung across the middle, Kashiwagi and Koji Morisaki could feel free to support Sato in attack – and both of them scored a goal by doing exactly that.

Kashiwagi is making his mark in Japan this season, graduating from the youth team to the Olympic team and establishing himself in the top flight. He is still only 19, though, and cannot be expected to turn it on match after match, even though fans look forward to his next goal celebration.

I wrote recently about his left-footed masterpiece in open play from the edge of the box against Vissel Kobe, as that goal marked him out as a player with special talent. Let’s hope he keeps working hard, keeps growing and keeps a smile on his face, as he is a breath of fresh air in Japanese football.

Even though Sanfrecce are only five points clear of the play-off place of 16th, I cannot see the Three Arrows being dragged into the relegation dogfight on the evidence of Sunday night.


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Japan bounce back with encouraging victory

27 Aug 2007(Mon)

August 24, 2007: Japan coach Ivica Osim and fans of the national team could not have asked for much more from the first game since the Asian Cup.

A home win against a good team, a couple of excellent goals, and no signs of any post-traumatic stress disorder on the return from Vietnam.

Perhaps it was significant that both goals in the 2-0 victory against Cameroon were scored by players who were not in the Asian Cup squad: Tulio because he was injured and Koji Yamase because he was not selected.

Tulio was sorely missed in the Asian Cup, and showed exactly why with his clever first-half header. The big central defender makes things happen, rather than waits for them to happen.

Too often in Hanoi I thought Japan were too passive -- with the emphasis on "pass" -- and did not force the pace, especially in the opening game against Qatar. This is why Tulio's return was so noticable, and I would still like to see Osim appoint him captain because of these leadership qualities and his ideal position on the pitch to influence the team.

As for Yamase, he has been on fire this season for Marinos, and his return to the squad was widely predicted. His goal was a gem, and brought a big smile to the face of Osim. Not only did he have the confidence and the will to shoot first time from the edge of the box, he also had the technique to pull it off. The result was a spectacular strike that drew gasps of admiration from the fans watching the match on the big screen at the National Stadium in Tokyo, before the Japan-Vietnam Olympic qualifier.

Without the Europe-based players, and with a few fresh faces around, it definitely looked like the start of stage three of Osim's rebuilding programme. There was more pace, solidity and energy about the team, as the likes of Okubo, Maeda and Tanaka tried to make their mark. Yamase certainly did, with his wonderful goal.

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Olympic team must keep it simple

23 Aug 2007(Thu)

August 21, 2007: The final qualifying round for the Beijing Olympics is about to start, and for me there is only one option for Japan – keep it simple.

Japan’s strength is out on the wings, with Mizuno on the right and Honda on the left, and the aerial power of Hirayama at center forward.

Readers know that I still have great reservations about Hirayama in general, and whether he is good enough to make the grade even in J1, but there is no doubt he is good in the air at the age-group level.

So while a direct style of play may go against what Osim is trying to achieve with the national team, I believe it represents Japan’s best chance of topping a group that is completed by Vietnam, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The priority must be to get the ball out to the wings, and get crosses into the box for Hirayama to wreak havoc. Primitive may be; predictable may be; but also pragmatic.

What I don’t want to see is Japan trying to pass the ball too much and either losing it in dangerous areas or squandering chances to shoot, which this Olympic team has been guilty of in previous games, despite their successful record.

This does not suit Hirayama’s style, and clearly coach Sorimachi has decided the Athens Olympian is going to be his main man in attack, hence the omission of the more refined, mobile and technically superior Bobby Cullen.

I think Japan’s defence is good enough, but where the team struggles is in the center of midfield. I do not think they have the quality to dominate a game in this area, but they can stretch opponents on the wings and provide a supply line to Hirayama in the middle. Then it is up to the second striker and the attacking midfielders to get up in support of Hirayama and be first to the knock-downs and the scraps in the box.

Like I said, not particularly pretty, but I think it’s Japan’s best chance. There is not much point trying to involve Hirayama in intricate passing moves across the line. Better to just keep him in the middle, tell him to watch for offside, and let the wingers or full backs, depending on the formation, just knock it into him.

I still think Japan can win this group, but only if they play to their strengths, persistently and unashamedly.


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Amusing sideshow to Beckham saga

20 Aug 2007(Mon)

August 17, 2007: When he's playing he's big news.

When he's injured he's big news.

When he's scoring free kicks he's even bigger news.

There is no end to the David Beckham story -- and no end to the amusing list of headlines which have followed him to the Los Angeles Galaxy.

They are all, naturally, based on the hit movie "Bend it like Beckham" and have included the following:

On the subject of Beckham missing another match because of his ankle injury: Bench it like Beckham.

On the amount of Beckham merchandise being sold in Los Angeles and beyond: Vend it like Beckham.

On Beckham's recovery from the ankle injury: Mend it like Beckham.

The headlines are an interesting sideshow to the events on and off the field, and you have to wonder how long the editors can sustain their output.

Here's a few more to be going on with:

David wins an award for his gardening skills at his Beverley Hills mansion: Tend it like Beckham.

David joins another club on loan/rental: Lend it like Beckham.

David finishes his England career by scoring a hat trick of free kicks: End it like Beckham.

David changes position from right wing to right back: Defend it like Beckham.

So you see, Japanese readers, there are many opportunities out there to expand your vocabulary through football, especially with corny Beckham headlines.

See if you can come up with any more...

On the subject of Beckham and England, I cannot understand why Steve McClaren is talking about bringing him back to England to play a friendly against Germany when he knows he is far from fully fit.

Don't you think the Osim approach would have been better? Leave him alone, let him recover fully, select only 12 players including two goalkeepers...

Funny isn't it, how McClaren now needs Beckham for a friendly when he wouldn't have touched him with a barge pole a few months ago for European Championship qualifiers.


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Finish it like Juninho

16 Aug 2007(Thu)

August 15, 2007: When Jean Carlo Witte was at his peak with FC Tokyo, I used to think he was the ideal defender for Japanese youngsters to study.

Jean offered a 90-minute lesson in how to defend. Combative and aggressive in the air and on the ground, he knew when to clear the ball, when to pass the ball and when to break forward to help his attack.

Turning to the forwards, another Brazilian provided a coaching master class on Saturday, this time in the art of scoring goals.

Juninho's hat trick in Frontale's 3-1 defeat of JEF United at Fukuare was outstanding in its simplicity and execution. No long, mazy runs through the JEF defence, no thunderbolts into the top corner from 30 metres; just three precisely-taken and very different goals.

The first, from close range after Tateishi could only parry the ball, was about anticipation and positioning. He was in the right place at the right time, and was ready for such a moment. The goal looked easy -- but only if you were in position to score it in the first place.

The second was about confidence and improvisation. It was a toe poke, with the minimum of back lift, and reminded me of Romario or Ronaldo. It happened in the blink of an eye. One moment he was in the box with a couple of defenders on him, the next the ball was in the corner of the net. Ronaldo against Turkey in the 2002 World Cup semi-final at Saitama?

The third was my favourite, as he took a pass in his stride in the inside right channel. Instantly he swept it low into the opposite corner, giving Tateishi no chance again.

This was goal-scoring of the highest calibre, and a lesson for players of all ages, including fellow professionals.

Not so much "Bend it like Beckham" but "Finish it like Juninho."


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Ogasawara’s return paints new J1 picture

13 Aug 2007(Mon)

August 11, 2007: Watch out for Kashima Antlers!

This must be going through the minds of Gamba Osaka and Urawa Reds as J1 prepares to resume after the lengthy break.

Even though Antlers are 11 points behind Gamba, the return of Ogasawara from Messina should make them a different team.

And with Yanagisawa back from injury, they certainly look good enough in all departments to mount a title challenge over the last 16 games of the season.

They can’t afford to lose more than a couple of those games, though, as they have already lost four times compared to just once for Gamba and Reds – and draws won’t be much good either if they are to close the gap.

No, Oswaldo Oliveira knows there is only one way to make up this lost ground, and that is to attack and win. All of which should make for some exciting but also tense matches involving Antlers from now on.

The presence and influence of Ogasawara will make the players around him better, and there is plenty of depth in the squad, too.

One of my favourites at Kashima is Iwamasa, the successor to Akita as the defensive rock. I was chatting with Reds forward Washington recently and asked him which Japanese defenders were the most difficult to play against.

He said Nakazawa first, followed by Iwamasa, as he was big and strong and played like a defender should do – rugged and uncompromising. If Washington rates him that highly, his opinion must be respected.

Apart from Antlers, I also think Kawasaki Frontale cannot be ruled out just yet.

They went off the boil in the league after qualifying for the Asian Champions League quarter-finals, but anyone who saw their incredible Nabisco Cup victory over Kofu at Kokuritsu will know that the hunger and spirit is back.

Frontale have 28 points, 13 behind Gamba, and, like Antlers, must go for broke and hope the top two slip up.

As a Newcastle United fan, teams have been known to throw away big leads…


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And one more thing on Osim...

9 Aug 2007(Thu)

August 7, 2007: JFA president Saburo Kawabuchi does have a good point in the Osim debate; that he thinks the coach should watch the penalty shoot-out and not waddle off down the tunnel.

I have to say I agree with the Captain on this one -- Kawabuchi, I mean, not Kawaguchi.

Even though it was always on the cards that he would head for the dressing room before the shoot-out with the Socceroos, given his track record with JEF United, I was still surprised he refused to watch the Korea climax.

After the Aussie game he said he didn't want to die of a heart attack on duty with Japan, so the only thing I can think of for the Korea game was that he didn't want to die of boredom.

If ever there was a time for Osim to change course and stay to watch the shoot-out, this was it. After all, it couldn't get any worse, unless Shunsuke had tripped over his boot laces on his run-up, fallen head first and headed the ball into the arms of the Korean keeper; or Endo had actually crossed it from the penalty spot.

With Japan having lost the shoot-out, Osim now has no excuse that he is a jinx for his own team -- so next time (in South Africa 2010 of course), please stick it out with the boys.

Apart from watching Osim disappear down the tunnel, another amusing sight was seeing him join in the team huddle. As big as two Hanyus, possibly three, he didn't exactly look comfortable performing this rather namby-pamby bonding exercise.

Whatever happened to the old, stiff-upper-lip style of Alf Ramsey, with his Churchillian address before extra time in the England-West Germany World Cup final of 1966.

"You've beaten them once, chaps. Now go and do it again," Ramsey told his players (although I am not sure he actually said "chaps" -- but he should have done.)

By the way, did anyone try counting all the Japanese players and staff in the team huddle? There were hundreds of them! Who were they all? Agents? Hairdressers? Manicurists?

No wonder the JFA needs all these friendlies.


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may need 18 games to get to South Africa

6 Aug 2007(Mon)

August 4, 2007: If you are having problems fitting in all this football, spare a thought for the J.League fixture-makers.

The Asian Football Confederation announced the dates and qualifying process for the 2010 World Cup on Friday, and Japan may have to play as many as 18 games to get to South Africa.

And with the next Asian Cup scheduled to take place in Qatar in January 2011, Japan will have to qualify for that, too, after finishing only fourth in the last one.

It all adds up to more football than anyone knows what to do with, so good luck to the fixture planners in their efforts to keep everyone happy.

As everyone knows by now, Japan were seeded fourth of the 43 teams in the Asian qualifying competition for the 2010 World Cup, behind Australia, South Korea and Saudi Arabia, and ahead of Iran.

These top five teams all received a bye into the third qualifying round, where they will be joined by 15 qualifiers in five four-team groups. The top two in each group advance to the fourth round, meaning six matches for Japan between February 6, 2008, and September 10, 2008.

The remaining 10 teams for the fourth round will be split into two groups of five, giving Japan (presuming they are still around) another eight games between October 15, 2008, and September 9, 2009.

The top two in each group qualify for South Africa. The two third-placed teams play off home and away, and the winner then faces the Oceania champions over two legs for the last spot in South Africa.

If Japan finish third in their fourth-round group they will need 18 games to qualify, the last four of these taking place between October 10 and November 21 – just when the 2009 J.League championship is reaching its climax.

In those circumstances, how on earth the qualifying games for the 2011 Asian Cup would be fitted in, too, is anyone’s guess – as is the likely physical and mental condition of the Europe-based players Japan will need to get to South Africa.

For any Japanese player with the chance of moving to a club in Europe, this must be a big consideration for the next couple of seasons.


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Woeful end to Japan’s Asian Cup

2 Aug 2007(Thu)

July 31,2007: The less said about the Japan-Korea match the better.

But here’s a few words before it is consigned to the history books – and I am sure the JFA would strike it from all records if possible.

I thought the match was a shambles and, at times, an embarrassment for Japanese football. The harder they tried, the worse they got – and the referee put everyone out of their misery by blowing his whistle to end extra time.

Neither side wanted to be there, but unfortunately there were two important reasons why the match was worth winning.

First, it was Japan against Korea.

Second, the winner would book a place in the 2011 Asian Cup in Qatar – one of six automatic qualifiers, note – and therefore do away with the hassle of qualifying during World Cup year in 2010.

Despite this, I am still surprised Osim made only one change to the team, a midfielder, Yamagishi, for a forward, Maki, leaving Takahara on his own again up front.

This formation did not work against Qatar, and it did not work against Korea as it left Japan short on numbers in a crucial area. No wonder they rarely looked like scoring.

I thought Osim should have made wholesale changes to freshen up the team and give the regulars a rest before returning to their clubs. Had Japan lost in those circumstances it would have been more palatable, but to lose, albeit on penalties, with his top team undid a lot of the good work that had gone before.

I was feeling quite positive after the group stage, after the win against Australia and even after the defeat against the Saudis.

But Saturday’s game was one too many. As the match progressed, everything pointed to a Korea win. The point-blank block by Lee from Nakazawa; the red card for Kang, giving the Koreans every excuse to retreat; Hanyu’s shot striking the defender, who wasn’t even looking; the smooth penalty-taking of the Koreans…

So it was left to Hanyu to join the long list of grief-stricken players who have missed in a penalty shootout.

He should forget about it as quickly as possible, while the rest of Japan should try and forget that this play-off ever took place.


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