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September 2007

Bad game, good game at Komaba, Ajista

27 Sep 2007(Thu)

Tokyo, September 25, 2007: Two strange games at the weekend.

On Saturday I headed for Urawa Komaba Stadium and the Ardija-JEF United match. Played on a poor surface, the game was a terrible advert for Japanese football.

It was hard to believe that Omiya were fighting for their J1 lives, as the match resembled a pre-season kickabout or an end-of-season affair with nothing at stake for either team.

JEF won 1-0 with a goal from Saito, but their failure to add a second against 10 men in the second half was a major concern for manager Amar Osim. In the end JEF had libero Nakajima to thank for the clean sheet, first with a timely interception in his own goal mouth, and then with a fine tackle just outside the box.

But overall it was a poor spectacle, with too many passes going astray and few moments of inspiration or coordination.

Sunday at Ajista was much, much better, FC Tokyo against S-Pulse.

There was only one team in it for a while – and it wasn’t the home team.

S-Pulse, one of the biggest Japanese teams I have seen, started really well, looking bright, confident and well-organised.

Then suddenly they were 2-0 down.

The first Tokyo goal was an own goal, scored by the unlucky Kazumichi Takagi as he met Ishikawa’s cross from the right with a diving header into the far corner. All credit to Ishikawa, though, as his cross, clipped in early and on the half-volley, was a beauty.

As was the finish shortly after by Akamine, who drilled a left-foot half-volley inside the near post after an incisive run into the box from Fukunishi.

From being in control of the game, S-Pulse were now in trouble and staring defeat in the face. It was incredible how quickly the game had changed, and Tokyo never looked likely to let them back into it thanks to the driving force of Konno.

Konno, happily back in central midfield after his stint alongside Fujiyama in the centre of defence, is always my MVP – and that is before the game even kicks off. It is up to someone else to play better than Konno to win my vote, and it is rare that anyone does.

ends

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Two good results – but quarter-finals are far from settled

24 Sep 2007(Mon)

Tokyo, September 21, 2007: Both Japanese clubs achieved satisfactory results in the first leg of their Asian Champions League quarter-finals on Wednesday night.

Reds won 2-1 at home to Jeonbuk, Motors, while Frontale came back from Iran with a 0-0 draw against Sepahan.

Reds were the better team for long periods against the Koreans, who looked uncharacteristically sluggish and distinctly second best in all aspects of the game.

Until, that is, Robson Ponte went off with 10 minutes to go. This is when I thought Reds lost the initiative and the momentum, and Jeonbuk were able to raise their game and snatch one at the end against a Reds team that had started to panic.

Still, as manager Osieck said, Reds won the match – and he insisted they would be aggressive in the second leg. Even though a 1-0 victory for the Koreans would be enough to get them through to the semi-finals on the away goals rule, Reds surely have enough firepower to score again.

As for Frontale, they still have a lot of work to do against Sepahan at Todoroki.

A goalless draw away from home in the first leg was a good result for Frontale – but it must be remembered that it was not a bad result for Sepahan, either.

In the first leg, the home team did not concede a goal, and this could prove crucial in the return.

While Frontale will start as favourites, the Iranians remain extremely dangerous because if they score once, then Frontale will need two. The first goal at Todoroki will be vital, and Frontale must be careful they do not get caught on the counter if they try and kill the game too quickly.

It will be interesting to see Frontale’s tactics; whether they go for broke from the start and risk conceding a goal, or whether they play patiently and conservatively in trying to unlock the Sepahan defence. As I said before, a 0-0 draw at home for Sepahan in the first leg is far from a bad result, as the pressure will be on the home team in the second leg to force the pace.

On the face of it, the first-leg results looked good for Japan – but a lot can still happen in the second 90 minutes.

ends

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Trinita Tales: late substitution brings Oita downfall

20 Sep 2007(Thu)

September 18, 2007: The match is deep into injury time; the visitors are winning 2-1 and have made only two substitutions.

Guess what happens next?

That's right. There is movement on the visitors' bench, the board goes up and they want to replace the No. 11, a left winger, with No. 2, a central defender.

The No. 11 walks off as slowly as possible, eating up a few more precious seconds, and the No. 2 runs towards his own goal, where his team is defending a corner.

The ball comes over, the heads go up, the net bulges and the home team has grabbed a dramatic equaliser for 2-2. The away team kicks off and the full-time whistle blows.

Was the away team just unlucky, trying to bolster their defence for the corner?

Or did they get their just deserts for blatantly running down the clock and trying to spoil the rhythm of the match by making a meaningless substitution?

However you may view this "tactic", I feel that the move by Oita Trinita manager Chamusca backfired on him big-time against Kawasaki Frontale at Todoroki on Saturday evening.

The match was 1-1 as we entered three minutes of additional time, but Oita substitute Teppei Nishiyama quickly changed that by shooting home left-footed into the bottom corner for 2-1. Cue mayhem from the Oita fans behind the goal, the players and bench, who celebrated as if they had won the World Cup.

Frontale, naturally, pushed for a second equaliser, and forced a corner on the right. At this point, Chamusca tried to change Shingo Suzuki (11) for Takashi Miki (2), but the referee waved play on.

Oita defended the corner, but in doing so conceded another, this time on the left flank. Now Oita made the change. Ohashi, a Frontale substitute, swung over the kick, and Igawa, another Frontale sub, headed home with the Oita defence all at sea; 2-2. Restart. Final whistle. Cue Oita players dropping to the Todoroki turf Doha-style.

I can't help thinking that Chamusca shot himself in the foot with that late move. His team were focused, they were defending what was surely Frontale's last chance, and they were ready to attack the corner and clear their lines.

Then everything stopped for a few seconds as the change was made. Did they lower their guard and lose concentration, handing the initiative to Frontale?

I think this played a part in the equaliser, so the change actually worked in Frontale's favour rather than Trinita's.

Looking back, I am sure Chamusca must wish he had just kept playing and trusted his team's ability to hold on.

ends

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Sorimachi’s team continues to improve

18 Sep 2007(Tue)

Tokyo, September 14, 2007: That was a vital win for Japan against Qatar in their Olympic qualifier on Wednesday.

An impressive one, too, considering they had a man sent off after 68 minutes and were up against a fast, strong and determined opponent.

Although I was not confident of Japan qualifying for Beijing in the early stages of the campaign, there is no doubt they are improving and looking more dynamic, more united and more business-like.

Now, with seven points from three games, they are in a good position to win the group, even with two away games coming up next.

Once again Sorimachi is going to have to make changes, because Takuya Honda is suspended for the next game and Kajiyama is injured. That rules out the coach’s first-choice pairing in the midfield engine room, so what is he going to do?

The first move is simple: He brings in Toshihiro Aoyama to replace Honda as the midfield anchor. I thought Aoyama made a big contribution to Japan’s 1-0 victory on Wednesday after coming on for Kajiyama in the 56th minute, particularly with his interceptions and tackles as Qatar surged forward.

I wonder, then, if Sorimachi might move Inoha into the center of midfield, giving Japan a very solid base for the two away games. After all, Keisuke Honda will be available again after missing the Qatar game through suspension, and he could easily slot into the left side of the new-look four-man defence.

Inoha found himself in the eye of the storm in the second half against Qatar, and was hanging on for grim life in his unaccustomed role of left back. I thought Sorimachi might bring on Yasuda and play him in front of Inoha to bolster Japan’s left flank, as the more attack-minded Ienaga was drifting and offering little protection.

Instead, the coach took off Mizuno and switched Ienaga to the right flank, where he played exceptionally well in the closing stages by keeping the ball and leading the counter-attack. This was the best passage of play I have seen from Ienaga, as he cut out the crowd-pleasing flicks and the show-boating and played solid, percentage football when the team really needed him to.

Another substitute, Kobayashi, was sent on to strengthen the midfield, although I have no idea why he preferred to roll around on the ground holding his face in the closing stages when he should have jumped up immediately and helped his team defend their slender lead. Did he expect the game to stop just for him? It didn’t, and Kobayashi had no option but to get up and run back, rather sheepishly.

This is a really bad trend at the moment, and something coaches should stamp out among their own players -- especially when they are already down to 10 men.

ends

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Two points lost for Saudis, not Japan

13 Sep 2007(Thu)

Tokyo, September 11, 2007: One point gained or two points lost?

That is the question being asked after Japan’s 0-0 draw away to Saudi Arabia in their Olympic qualifier on Saturday.

Before the game, a goalless draw would have been regarded as a good result, but when the Saudis were reduced to 10 men on 63 minutes, the tide turned in Japan’s favour. Unexpectedly, Japan now had a good chance to take all three points.

They could not manage it, but this does not mean the 0-0 result should be taken as two points lost.

I still regard it as a satisfactory result away from home, and sets Japan up nicely for a crack at Qatar on Wednesday night.

Teams having a man sent off can often lift their game. They feel hard done by, they run more for each other, they move up a gear in motivation as they will be regarded as heroes if they can hold on to what they’ve got, or do even better.

I thought the Saudis did this, and played well with 10 men, but they will still view the match as two points lost, not one point gained at home.

Sorimachi’s selection was interesting, not just for dropping Hirayama but also for bringing in Uchida on the right flank and moving Mizuno further forward, alongside Ienaga and behind the lone striker Morishima.

Uchida played well, as he has done all his career at Kashima, but Mizuno was less effective in this more central role. I must admit I prefer to see Mizuno bombing up the right flank, taking defenders on his with pace or cutting inside and letting fly from distance.

It was reassuring to see Inoha back from injury at libero, although Sorimachi retained Mizumoto as his captain. The back three of Aoyama, Inoha and Mizumoto must be as good as it gets in this final stage of Olympic qualifying, and the problems for Japan lie further forward; not in scoring goals but in controlling the midfield.

Sorimachi must now decide whether to restore Mizuno to the right flank at the expense of Uchida, and bring in a second striker alongside Morishima for the home game against Qatar.

Japan are still on course for Beijing with four points from two games, but they need all three against Qatar at Kokuritsu with their next two matches away from home.

ends

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Tough target for women's team at World Cup

10 Sep 2007(Mon)

September 7, 2007: There can't be many Japan teams who have gone into a World Cup fresh from a 2-1 victory over Brazil.

But that is the case of the women's team, "Nadeshiko Japan", who open their FIFA Women's World Cup campaign against England in Shanghai on Tuesday, September 11.

Thanks to the generous support of Kirin, Japan were able to play two warm-up matches in recent days, against Canada at Kokuritsu and against Brazil at the home of JEF United, Fukuda Denshi Arena.

I attended them both -- but, sadly, the crowds were sparse -- less than 2,000 at National Stadium on a Thursday evening and just over 4,000 at Fukuare on a lovely Sunday afternoon.

The fans who did turn up, though, were really into it, and there is a very positive vibe around the women's team in general.

It's also a good time to be a member of the women's football scene in Japan, as the JFA is clearly sparing no expense in the development of this area of the game.

In his programme notes for the games against Canada and Brazil, JFA president Saburo Kawabuchi says: "Of all Japan's national squads, only Nadeshiko Japan can be considered close to achieving world-class status. Make no mistake -- Nadeshiko Japan's breakthrough will have a significant and lasting impact on other Japanese national teams."

Strong words indeed from the Captain, who states the target for the 2007 World Cup and 2008 Olympics is the semi-finals, and long-term to be in the world's top five by 2015. (They are 10th at the moment).

This is a big ask by Kawabuchi and the JFA, especially for this World Cup and next year's Olympics, and I hope it will not be regarded as a failure if they don't make it.

Several people have been asking me about the strength of Japan's first opponents in the Women's World Cup, England. I have to admit I haven't got a clue.

I like women's football but I don't go out of my way to see what's happening in England. I couldn't even name you one big girl who plays in the England team -- apart from Emile Heskey.

As luck would have it, I stumbled across a dusty copy of the pocket-sized football bible "Playfair Football Annual 2004-2005" the other day. Under the category of "Other Football" there was a whole chapter on "Women's Football". Well, not a whole chapter actually, but the bottom half of Page 329, under news on the English FA Academy Under 17 League.

Arsenal had won the women's league in 2004, one point clear of Charlton Athletic, and Arsenal won the cup, too, beating Charlton 3-0 in the final at Loftus Road, home of QPR. The crowd was over 12,000, and Fleeting scored all three for the Lady Gunners -- a headline writer's dream if ever there was one.

The women's game is growing around the world, and Japan is determined not to be left behind, so good luck to them in China next week.

I am looking forward to their matches against England, Argentina and Germany in Group A, and I hope many others are too.

ends

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Cho keeps S-Pulse racing forward

6 Sep 2007(Thu)

Tokyo, September 4, 2007: What a difference a goal makes, especially when it comes in the fourth minute of injury time in a local derby.

The clock was almost on 94 minutes when Cho Jae Jin stooped to meet the expertly taken free kick of Jungo Fujimoto and head the only goal of the Shizuoka derby at Ecopa on Saturday.

The goal sparked wild scenes of celebration, as Cho removed his shirt and threw it into the S-Pulse fans behind the goal. That was a great sight to see – and the tattoos were pretty impressive, too.

The repercussions were severe. Jubilo’s manager and former defensive anchor, Adilson, resigned in the wake of the 1-0 defeat, and the club must once again try to recapture the glory of yesteryear under a new manager, Atsushi Uchiyama, an in-house promotion. But not this season, as Jubilo are in J1 no-man’s land, ninth place with 34 points.

As for S-Pulse, they just won’t go away will they?

Kenta Hasegawa is doing a fantastic job with limited resources, and his team is packed with exciting young talent in all areas of the field. In central midfield, Ito – rated the best midfield player in Japan by Steve Perryman all those years ago -- holds it all together; there is Brazilian flair in the extravagant skills of Fernandinho, plus the strength and quality of Cho up front.

Although S-Pulse lie fourth with 44 points, eight behind Reds, they cannot be regarded as title challengers just yet. Not even dark horses, as that tag must surely belong to Kashima Antlers, who were simply irresistible in crushing Frontale.

But with another season of experience behind them, S-Pulse should be ready in 2008 to have a crack at the championship.

Their regional rivals Jubilo, meanwhile, must start again – again.

As I said, what a difference a goal makes.

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Passion, emotion and quite a bit more at Todoroki

3 Sep 2007(Mon)

Tokyo, August 31, 2007: FIFA president Sepp Blatter is always talking about football being a game of passion and emotion.

Sef Vergoossen, the forthright Dutch manager of Nagoya Grampus Eight, showed plenty of this the other night at Todoroki – and was promptly dismissed from the dug-out.

Personally, I felt Vergoossen was hard done by, not once but twice.

First, his left-winger Honda was extremely unlucky to be shown a yellow card for a perfectly legitimate attempt to get to a loose ball in the Frontale box. I thought Honda had every right to challenge for the ball, and even a free kick for a foul would have been debatable.

But a yellow card?

And it was Honda’s second of the night, so out came the red and he was off after 68 minutes.

Vergoossen, with his team leading 1-0 and looking good, was furious with the decision – and let everyone know. I am not sure which language he was using, but it didn’t really matter. It could have been Swahili and the message would have got through.

So Honda is off, the match is back on, and we could all sit back and watch Frontale try and equalize and watch Grampus invent even more ways to waste time.

Wrong.

One of the linesmen thought it necessary to draw the attention of the referee to Vergoossen’s colourful language, and the referee responded loyally by sending off the coach. This only exacerbated the problem, and prompted a fresh round of abuse and another delay when everything seemed to have settled down.

Fair enough, Vergoossen laid it on as thick as his moustache – more passion and emotion than Blatter could shake a stick at.

But surely a more appropriate course of action for the linesman would have been just to ignore it, let the game go on and maybe feel a bit of sympathy for the coach considering he had just lost one of his best players in dubious circumstances. It would have all died down, at least until the final whistle, but now it all flared up again.

I know the match officials have to endure way too much abuse in football, but there are occasions when they can cut someone some slack in the heat of the moment.

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