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October 2007

The significance of the Saitama semi-final

29 Oct 2007(Mon)

Tokyo, October 26, 2007: How significant was Urawa Reds’ win over Seongnam in their AFC Champions League semi-final on Wednesday night?

According to industry sources, it was one of the most important results in the last 15 years in terms of Asian football development.

There is no doubt that Japan drives Asian football, off the pitch in terms of sponsorship, marketing and television, and on the pitch with the J.League and the various national teams.

However, one thing has been missing since the Asian Football Confederation merged the old Asian Club Championship, Asian Cup Winners’ Cup and Asian Super Cup (which was contested by the winners of the first two competitions) into the AFC Champions League in 2002. That, of course, was a successful Japanese club.

All that has changed now Reds have booked a place in the Champions League final against Sepahan of Iran, and the marketing men feel that this has raised the profile of the competition to a new level overnight.

“Japan’s Asian Cup triumph in 1992…the launch of the J.League in 1993…Japan’s victory over Iran in 1997 to qualify for the France World Cup…and now Urawa Reds reaching the final of the Champions League. That’s how significant this result is,” said Nick Mould, Hong Kong-based president of World Sport Group’s North Asia operations.

This conversation took place in Tokyo the evening after events at Saitama Stadium 2002 on Wednesday night, when the formal proceedings finally ended at 10 minutes past 10.

The match had everything, didn’t it, and was played in a terrific spirit, despite the intense rivalry between the two countries and what was at stake.

When the match kicked off the atmosphere resembled a national team game, and my thoughts drifted back to 1997 and the World Cup qualifier between Japan and South Korea at National Stadium. At one point it looked like the result would be the same, too, as the Japanese squandered a one-goal lead and trailed 2-1.

On this occasion, though, Hasebe rescued Reds and the Japanese (and Brazilians, coached by Germans) came through in a penalty shootout.

Germans…a semi-final penalty shoot-out…how could Reds lose that one?


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Lessons to be learned from Yokohama FC

25 Oct 2007(Thu)

October 23, 2007: No matter how inevitable relegation may be, it still hurts when the time finally comes.

That time came early for Yokohama FC, a 3-0 defeat at Kobe on Saturday condemning them to a swift return to J2 with five J1 matches still remaining.

Statistics don't lie, and they show that last season's J2 champions have been completely out of their depth in the top flight, winning only three times in 29 outings, scoring only 17 goals to date, and being stuck on a meagre 11 points since August 18.

Reysol, who came up behind them in second place last season, and Vissel, who won a play-off against Avispa to clinch promotion, have both fared much better than Yokohama FC, thanks to bigger budgets, a stronger balance of Japanese players and better foreign imports.

In J2, an ageing, wily Yokohama FC made few mistakes and played with control and consistency to cross the finish line first in the marathon season. But teams need a bit more than that in J1, and Yokohama simply did not have the pace or the depth in quality to make an impact. In short, they had come as far as possible, and there was nowhere else to go except down.

Not even a change of manager, Julio Leal for Takuya Takagi, could turn things round, or give them fresh impetus for a while, and relegation was confirmed as early as October 20.

At the start of the season it looked so promising for Yokohama FC, didn't it?

New recruit Kubo scored an early candidate for goal of the season with his blockbuster in a 2-1 defeat at Saitama Stadium on the opening day, and then came that incredible match at Mitsuzawa Stadium when the minnows beat the Marinos 1-0. There was a real derby feel to that game, and the contrast in the mood of the two sets of fans snaking their way down the hill from the ground to Yokohama station after the game was a true football moment.

That seems like a different year now, though, and it will be interesting to see how Yokohama FC react to the reality of relegation in their next match -- a massive one for the visitors to Mitsuzawa on Saturday, Omiya Ardija.


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Okubo provides another piece of the Osim jigsaw

22 Oct 2007(Mon)

October 19, 2007: It is a time for belated celebration, a time for quiet optimism, and a time for Yoshito Okubo to finally start making an impact at the highest level.

His two fine goals in the 4-1 defeat of Egypt on Wednesday were long overdue, coming in his 21st appearance for the national team since making his debut on May 31, 2003.

Admittedly, several of those appearances were restricted to only a few minutes as a substitute, but the pressure was building on him to deliver with each cap he received.

And now -- just like the public bus service in England -- you wait a long time, and then two come at once.

So good news for Okubo, who has improved overnight from no goals in 20 games to two in 21 -- an altogether healthier strike rate!

They say that one goal in three games is a decent return for a striker at this level, and Okubo is good enough to climb to that mark next year. Hopefully these goals will liberate him and he will continue to be aggressive and single-minded in his search for more.

It was Zico, of course, who gave Okubo his first chance, and talked him up a lot in 2003. But the goals did not come and he fell out of favour, missing his chance to make the 2006 World Cup squad.

Osim, too, was well aware of his qualities, but has made Okubo work and wait for his chances in the new set-up. Okubo started to repay that faith on Wednesday night and has put himself in the frame for a permanent place in the squad, but there is still tough competition in this department with the likes of Tatsuya Tanaka, Hisato Sato and Ryuji Bando.

Okubo fans, however, will feel that this is another part of the Osim jigsaw completed, another piece that fits the style and personality of the team. Apart from the result, then, this was a bonus at the end of the international year for Japan.


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Pixie -- a Grampus gamble worth taking

18 Oct 2007(Thu)

October 16, 2007: As soon as news broke that Dragan Stojkovic had resigned as president of Red Star Belgrade, his next destination seemed obvious.

Surely it would be Nagoya, due to his strong ties with the club and the fact that he is still regarded as a hero by the long-suffering Grampus fans.

Shortly after, it was out: Grampus had indeed approached "Pixie" about succeeding Dutch manager Sef Vergoossen, who had indicated he would be stepping down at the end of the season.

In football, one and one does not always equal two, but on this occasion the instant reaction to the Pixie story has, in fact, a lot of substance.

Hopefully the deal will be done and Stojkovic will return to Japan, as he is an extremely interesting and entertaining character, respected worldwide.

On the pitch I often thought he got a raw deal from referees, who would over-react to his explosive nature and show him a yellow card for next to nothing. His reputation went before him, and he could not let off a bit of steam without getting into trouble. And then more!

I wonder how he will be on the touchline? Calm and controlled, mature and responsible, or maybe like Buchwald and inclined to throw his suit jacket to the turf in frustration, disgust, anger, or all three?

One thing is for sure: the Grampus fans will adore him and regard him as the saviour, and the players will respect him and be inspired by him. All in all it makes sense for Grampus, who, let's face it, are desperate to be a force in the J.League year in, year out.

On a few occasions Vergoossen looked like he was on the right track, only for the team to take two steps backwards. He has had rotten luck with injuires, of course, especially to his defenders, but the season has fallen away badly after such a bright start.

In fairness to Vergoossen, he always said a top five finish would be good for this team, but they are unlikely to climb that high, while being well away from the danger zone.

Can Pixie turn it round? The club thinks it is a gamble worth taking -- and one guaranteed to boost the profile of the club on and off the pitch.

He would be a welcome return to the J.League, not just to Nagoya.


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Frontale were only trying to win the Champions League

15 Oct 2007(Mon)

Tokyo, October 12, 2007: The Kawasaki Frontale debate has been – and still is – an interesting one.

Were they right to rest most of their first-choice players for a league match at Kashiwa in between the two legs of their Asian Champions League quarter-final?

Or should they have fielded their strongest side against Reysol as a duty to their fans and to the rest of the J1 teams?

To me the answer is obvious.

Frontale were absolutely within their rights to do what they did, and no one should be telling them who to pick for any match.

In a way it is an insult to the Frontale players who did play to suggest they were not up to the required standard, as they are on the list of professional players and, therefore, available for selection.

In fact, looking through the Frontale team at Kashiwa on September 23, it is still a strong side, and would probably be good enough to stay in J1 if they played every week: Kawashima; Sahara, Kawamura, Ito; Igawa, Yabu, Taniguchi, Francismar, Ohashi; Ganaha, Kurotsu.

This is a good team, even though they lost 4-0 in a second-half collapse. If they had won, or drawn, would anyone have been complaining?

For me it showed how seriously Frontale were taking the Asian Champions League, something some other J.League clubs have not done in the past, contributing to Japan’s poor record.

And it is not as though Reysol were at the top of the table challenging for the title, or at the bottom fighting against relegation. In those circumstances, rival clubs may have had the right to complain. But, still, that is not Frontale’s problem.

They were doing what they thought was best for the club, and trying to win the Asian Champions League, so they should not be put in the dock for this.


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Terada shows true Gamba grit

11 Oct 2007(Thu)

Tokyo, October 9, 2007: Anyone doubting the resolve of Gamba Osaka to keep the pressure on Urawa Reds should have been at Hitachi Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

With the injured Bare off at half-time, and a goal down just six minutes into the second period, things looked bleak for Gamba.

But they managed to regroup, fight back in style and win 2-1 to collect another three points in their pursuit of the defending champions. After Reds won on Sunday, the gap between first and second remains at six points, but with six games remaining the title can still be won and lost.

Two of the three goals at Kashiwa on Saturday were top quality; first as Franca fired Reysol into the lead with a sumptuous, first-time right-foot shot which curled inside the post. Great work, too, from Tadanari Lee, cutting inside from the right flank before laying the ball off for Franca to strike home. These two work well together, and Lee could not have a better teacher in the art of the deep-lying centre forward.

Gamba’s equalizer was also a beauty, as Bando rose to meet Kaji’s pinpoint right-wing cross and send a powerful header past Minami.

As for Gamba’s winner? Well, it looked a harsh penalty call for me as Terada swept into the box and tumbled under challenge, and an unnecessary yellow card for Ryo Kobayashi, the right back.

Endo allowed the rumpus to die down before scoring another of his trademark penalties. He makes it look so easy when, of course, it is not, but it needs nerve, self-confidence and a sound technique to succeed with such a nonchalant approach.

The Gamba player who really impressed me on this particular afternoon, though, was the aforementioned Terada. Yet another product of the club’s youth system, the 22-year-old attacking midfielder stepped up a gear in the second half and popped up all over the place, be it crossing, dribbling or shooting. I thought he was the driving force of the Gamba comeback, and his more established teammates responded to his adventurous play.


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Chiba stands out for Niigata

8 Oct 2007(Mon)

Tokyo, October 5, 2007: A few weeks ago I bumped into Washington in Omiya one evening and had a quick chat.

I asked him who were the most difficult Japanese defenders he had come across, and he said Nakazawa first and Iwamasa second.

Now, there is a good chance he would add Kazuhiko Chiba of Albirex Niigata to the list.

Chiba had a fine game for Albirex against Reds at Saitama Stadium 2002 recently. Still only 22, he was asked to man-mark Washington in his own back yard – not the most pleasant of tasks on a Sunday afternoon.

And Chiba did just that in a performance that really caught the eye.

As we know, Washington did not score because he came up against an opponent who showed a lot of character and fight, as well as concentration in treacherous playing conditions.

Like Mizumoto, Chiba has a lot of personality as a player, and is not prepared to be intimidated by a high-profile Brazilian striker.

Like Inoha, Chiba plays with a maturity and composure beyond his years and inspires the players around him with his cool authority.

Like Abe, Chiba looks good at the back or in central midfield, where I saw him earlier in the season against Omiya at Komaba.

In short, Chiba is a natural football player, already with experience in Holland but still establishing himself in the J.League following his debut for Albirex in May 2006.

At 1.83 metres and 74 kgs he has a good physique, two good feet, a good footballing brain and a bit of attitude to go with it. One minute he was displaying his skills by bringing the ball out of defence; the next he was denying Washington with a fearless, perfectly timed block.

In these Osim days of versatility and adaptability, do not rule out Chiba from forcing his way into the national coach’s plans.


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Sakuma sets tough target for Ardija

4 Oct 2007(Thu)

October 1, 2007: Recent victories over Reds at Saitama Stadium and now Marinos at Nissan Stadium suggests a team challenging for the championship.

But no; we are talking about Omiya Ardija, who, despite these two eye-catching results, occupy the second automatic relegation place of 17th with just 24 points from 27 games.

When asked what his target was to guarantee safety, manager Satoru Sakuma said 40 points -- meaning five wins and a draw from the last seven games.

This is a big ask of his players, but Ardija's opponents include fellow strugglers Sanfrecce at home, Yokohama FC away, Oita at home and Kofu away.

What's more, they will finally have their own home stadium at Omiya Koen back on line for the November 11 clash with Trinita, following redevelopment.

One thing is for sure, Sakuma will be glad to leave the Komaba cow field behind, and play on greener pastures.

"Many of my players are small and technical. This is why we can win at Saitama against Reds and at Nissan Stadium against Marinos, on good pitches. At Komaba you cannot play football because of the pitch. It is just a physical battle," he said.

After the previous week's 1-0 debacle at home to JEF, Omiya lifted their game and their motivation several notches to score two excellent goals and win 2-0 against Marinos.

J.League journeyman Takashi Hirano -- one of the original Nagoya Grampus Three bad boys -- was roundly jeered by the Marinos fans before kick-off, and he provided the best answer with a flying header at the far post. It was Hirano's second appearance for Ardija, whom he joined on May 21 but suffered a knee injury on his first day of training and was out for two months.

"Good personality, experienced professional, gives 100 per cent in training every day. I believe in him," was Sakuma's assessment of the former Marinos man.

Yoshihara scored the second, cracking a right-foot shot on the run past a startled Enomoto -- and continuing his run all the way to the Omiya fans behind the goal. At the vast Nissan Stadium, that is approximately two kilometres, so full credit here to the referee, Joji Kashihara. He allowed Yoshihara his moment of glory, all the time looking at his watch but not showing the yellow card. Commonsense refereeing this.

Funnily enough, in the four minutes of stoppage time, Yoshihara got himself booked anyway for pulling back Nakazawa!

Well, you can't win 'em all...

For Sakuma, five out of seven will do nicely.

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In defence of Frontale forward Jong/Chong

1 Oct 2007(Mon)

September 28, 2007: Hopes of an all-Japan final in the Asian Champions League have been dashed with the elimination of Kawasaki Frontale at Todoroki on Wednesday night.

I must admit I feared the worst before the penalty shoot-out, as everything pointed to a Sepahan win. Frontale had dominated the match but failed to capitalise on several clear-cut chances, while the Iranians would have settled for a shoot-out even before the second leg kicked off.

Under such circumstances, Sepahan had nothing to lose, while Frontale were now under more pressure to finish a job they had started in Iran but could not quite manage at home.

So full credit to Sepahan. They had ridden their luck, and survived due to a combination of fine goalkeeping from Abbas Mohammadi and some wasteful finishing from Frontale, notably Juninho. Against the big, strong, occasionally violent and frequently cynical Irainian defenders, Juninho looked much smaller and lightweight than usual, but his speed and eye for an opening still got him into some decent scoring positions as Frontale poured forward.

With the swashbuckling Jong Tae Se (or Chong Tese if you prefer) alongside Juninho up front, it is not hard to see why Ganaha cannot get a look-in at the moment, and must settle for a few minutes off the bench.

A few words in defence of Jong/Chong.

In extra time, several Iranian players accused him of using his elbow in an aerial duel with centre half Hadi Aghily. He didn't. It was his head. He was a little bit late into a challenge, but it was not malicious, it was just...well, Korean.

From the theatrical reaction of Aghily's teammates, the blood must have been flowing freely, and they urgently beckoned the doctor/physio/stretcher bearers to come on.

This is when the referee is in a difficult position. Is the player really hurt, or is he faking like many of his teammates before? On this occasion he was hurt, but who could blame the ref for waiting a while because the Sepahan team had cried wolf so many times?

The Iranians accused Jong of using his elbow, and were trying to stir up trouble, but he didn't -- and, in his own defence, he pointed to his head when confronted by an irate Sepahan defender on the resumption of play.

So, in the absence of Frontale, good luck Reds!

In terms of fan base, Reds have an incredible success story to tell Asia and the world, and hopefully they can do it in the Champions League to qualify for the FIFA Club World Cup, regardless of where they finish in the J.League.

Even Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson was impressed with the sheer volume of Reds fans, commenting that, outside the top 10 teams in the Premier League, Reds had as good a following as anyone in England.

Top 10? So many?


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