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November 2007

Yokohama FC have nothing to lose

29 Nov 2007(Thu)

November 27, 2007: Who would have thought that the J.League championship would still be on the line on the last day of the season?

It looked as though Reds would wrap it up early and be able to take a breather before the FIFA Club World Cup in the second week of December.

But here we are, in the final week of the season, and Reds still have to win one more game to guarantee a second straight championship.

On paper, of course Reds should beat Yokohama FC at Nissan Stadium on Saturday, but we have seen in the J.League that anything can happen on the last day of the season -- especially at that ground. Just ask Tatsuhiko Kubo!

Look at the match from the perspective of Yokohama FC. It is a wonderful opportunity for them to end a miserable season on a high note, and give their fans something to celebrate over the winter months before they return to J2.

They have nothing to lose, whereas Reds have everything to lose in terms of the championship and indeed their pride. After all, the fact that they won the Asian Champions League has made them an attractive target for all rivals, and this is additional pressure the Reds players will have to learn to live with.

It could have been even worse for Reds if Washington had been sent off against Antlers on Saturday. After being booked for a late challenge on Araiba in the first half, Washington went flying over Sogahata in the second half as they chased a loose ball.

It was touch and go whether he would be booked for simulation – sorry, for diving – and I would not have been surprised at all if the referee had shown him the yellow card, followed by red. There is no doubt Washington tumbled theatrically, twisting in the air, but what saved him probably was that he did not appeal for a penalty. I think he came to his senses as he hit the deck and decided to get up and carry on, realizing that if he pushed his luck a little too far it might backfire on him.

Anyway, it was good to see the angry reaction of the Antlers players. I must admit I love it when players are furious with rivals who dive and try and win penalties or free kicks. I don’t think there is enough of this in Japan (angry reactions I mean; there is plenty of the other).

If a player feels an opponent is trying to con the referee and trying to get someone booked or sent off, give him a piece of your mind! Tell him he’s a cheat. Let everyone in the ground know he’s a cheat. Embarrass him. Humiliate him. Then maybe he won't do it again -- well, at least until the next game.

About the Reds-Antlers match in general: a thoroughly professional performance by Antlers, just like the good old days. Lovely goal by Nozawa. Good spot by the referee for Tulio’s handball. Looked harsh at first, but the decision was spot on.

But why, oh why didn’t Soma shoot on his favored left foot in the second half instead of trying to pass to Washington inside the Antlers box?

ends

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Toshihiro Aoyama – the unsung hero

26 Nov 2007(Mon)

November 23, 2007: It is usually quite easy to identify the stars of a successful team.

But in the case of Japan’s under-22s, where do you start?

As Philippe Troussier would have said proudly, “the team is the star” -- because that is so true of this generation of players, whose qualification for Beijing must be regarded as a major triumph.

While there may not have been any stars – is this a bad thing? -- there are certainly several unsung heroes who deserve praise.

One player in particular I would like to mention is the Sanfrecce midfielder Toshihiro Aoyama.

I thought he made a major contribution to Japan’s 1-0 victory at home to Qatar a few weeks ago when he came on as a substitute. He shows great awareness and anticipation, breaking up opposition attacks with a well-timed tackle or an interception. Nothing flashy; just good concentration and tactical discipline.

On Wednesday night, of course, he saved the day with that marvellous goal line clearance when the Saudis seemed certain to score. Had that gone in so early, then the match would have been very different.

I would have expected it to degenerate into a farce, with more gamesmanship and play-acting than anyone could tolerate as the Saudis held on to their lead. The stretcher would have been on every five minutes, and the goalkeeper would have stayed down after every corner and free kick sent into the Saudi box.

This is why it was so crucial for Japan not to concede the first goal – and why Aoyama’s contribution not only saved Japan but also saved the match from descending into chaos.

I also thought Hosogai had a fine game alongside Aoyama in the midfield engine room, giving Japan a bit of steel, experience and dynamism. He came into the game with confidence surging through him due to Reds’ successful season – and didn’t it show!

While their qualification for Beijing is a big success, this team is far from complete, and no one knows this more than Sorimachi.

But the coach has the basis of a well-organised, hard-working team, and a team that matured and toughened up considerably as the campaign went on.

This is enough reason to celebrate, without the need for individual stars.

ends

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is so close – but still so far

22 Nov 2007(Thu)

November 20, 2007: The Olympic Games in Beijing are just one win – or one draw – away for Japan, ahead of their match against Saudi Arabia at Kokuritsu on Wednesday night.

Yes, it is tantalizingly close, but far from a formality as the Saudis know they will qualify with a victory.

This all makes Wednesday’s match a tense, fascinating contest, all these months of qualifying reduced to what amounts to a cup final – winner takes all, or a draw taking all in the case of Japan.

After their defeat in Qatar, Japan got it exactly right in Vietnam and won handsomely with a performance full of authority, experience and goals.

Coach Sorimachi was rewarded for his attacking line-up with four goals, two for Reysol’s lively Lee, one for Honda from the penalty spot and the last for Hosogai with a superb header.

Sorimachi took a risk by playing only one defensive midfielder in Aoyama of Sanfrecce, and pairing him with the attack-minded Kashiwagi, his teammate at Hiroshima.

With Mizuno on the right and Honda on the left giving the midfield balance and width, Lee and the strong-running Okazaki led the attack.

While the first goal was dreadful defending at a set-piece, the second was thanks to Honda’s industry and wonderful cross, met firmly by Lee for his second goal of the night.

On an off the pitch, Lee has character and personality, and is learning his trade well under the guidance of Franca, one of my favourite players in the J.League.

Japan, of course, hold the advantage going into Wednesday’s “final”, but it would be suicidal for them to defend and play for the draw. I am sure they won’t – as the first goal will be absolutely crucial.

Japan must play very cleverly and maturely, striking a balance between controlling the game but not pushing too much to win it and, in the process, leaving themselves open to the counter.

ends

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Reds-Rossoneri: Finally (hopefully) a meaningful match

19 Nov 2007(Mon)

November 16, 2007: Everything went to plan at Saitama Stadium 2002 on Wednesday night when Urawa Reds finished the job and became Asian champions.

And if everything goes to plan at the FIFA Club World Cup next month, then Japan will stage one of the most attractive games in the history of football in this country.

On Thursday, December 13, Reds could be facing Milan at Nissan Stadium, Yokohama, in the semi-finals of FIFA’s revamped club world championship – and wouldn’t that be a treat for the nation!

A proper match involving a Japanese club against a top world team; a match that means something from a competitive standpoint instead of another dreary tour/training game; a match that will be watched around the world; a match that will put Japanese football in the spotlight.

The Reds-Rossoneri fixture is not fixed yet, of course, because Urawa must first beat the winners of the play-off between Waitakere United of New Zealand and Sepahan of Iran. Anyone remember them?

Even before the AFC Champions League final took place, the Iranians were already guaranteed a return trip to Japan for the Club World Cup. Win the Champions League and they would qualify as Asian champions; lose, which they did, and they would enter the play-off as the “host” team – due to the FIFA rule forbidding two clubs from the same football association taking part.

Sepahan will surely defeat the Kiwis, who won the Oceania title by beating Ba of Fiji on the away goals rule after a 2-2 draw.

But just because Reds beat Sepahan in the Asian final does not mean they are certain to do it again. The carrot of playing Milan in the semi-finals would be a huge incentive for any club team, so Reds will have to do it all again when they play Sepahan or Waitakere at Toyota Stadium on Monday, December 10.

I am sure the Reds fans will travel in their thousands to Nagoya – and I am sure also that the Reds “brand”, following their ACL success, will have started spreading around the country; meaning strong support from that region, too.

It may be mid-November, but there is a long way to go yet before this football year is out.

ends

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Consadole hanging on in J2 marathon

15 Nov 2007(Thu)

November 13, 2007: With all these mega matches around these days, it is difficult to know where to start this column.

So let's start at the top -- the top of J2, that is.

Under the former Omiya Ardija manager Toshiya Miura, Consadole Sapporo are approaching the finishing line of the long, long race for promotion.

After 46 of the 48 matches, Consadole have 87 points, two more than Verdy in second place. Kyoto Sanga FC are third with 81 points from 45 games, followed by Vegalta Sendai (80 from 45) and Cerezo Osaka (78 from 45).

The top two go up, the third-placed team plays the 16th-placed J1 team in the playoff, and at Sapporo Dome on Sunday, No. 1 meets No. 3...Consadole against Kyoto.

I caught up recently with "young Toshi" at Consadole's picturesque training ground at Miyanosawa. With Tudor House and the pink chocolate factory of (troubled) sponsor Ishiya on one side, mountains and even a windmill in the distance, it really is a lovely setting, especially in the bright sunshine of an early Hokkaido winter.

No wonder the manager was looking relaxed, despite the fact that his team resembles a marathon runner who has hit the front early, opened a huge gap and is now hanging on for dear life as the chasing pack breathes down his neck.

"I like living up here, you don't feel the stress," he told me, after the training session had finished and before he went on his daily 8-10 kilometre run round the pitch.

"Okada-san liked it as well," he added, referring, of course, to Takeshi Okada, who sought sanctuary in Sapporo after the madness of 1998.

Before the season started, I must admit I didn't think Consadole would be among the promotion candidates, with the likes of Verdy, Kyoto, Sendai, Cerezo, Bellmare and Avispa around.

"Me, too, I am surprised," said Toshi. "I thought maybe third or fourth would be good in the first season, and then next season we would be in a position to challenge. But we have been at the top since May and the players have handled it so well. They work hard every day."

They will need to keep working hard for a little bit longer. After Sunday's game against Kyoto, Consadole have a break until the last day of the season, December 1, when they are at home again, to bottom club Mito Hollyhock.

ends

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Another smart move by Gamba

12 Nov 2007(Mon)

November 9, 2007: Gamba Osaka know when they are on to a good thing.

They have proved this with their foreign signings, taking tried and trusted players who have made their mark at a previous club in Japan – Sidiclei, Magno Alves and Bare. No risk there.

Now comes the news that they have agreed a two-year contract extension with their manager, Akira Nishino, taking him through to the end of the 2009 season.

This is a smart move by the club, a two-year deal rather than one; not least because if the JFA comes calling for Nishino then at least Gamba will be able to negotiate a decent settlement to release him.

This is, of course, if the wheels fall off Osim’s Japan. I am not saying they will, because I think Japan are on the right track under Osim, but you never know what will happen in this game, as Jose Mourinho would tell you. Nishino, I am sure, would be at the top of the JFA list next time around.

The club is very settled and established at the top now, having won the league championship in 2005 and now the Nabisco Cup.

There is a strong youth policy and they do not waste money on players who cannot add something to the squad. The rumours flying around at the moment, of course, have FC Tokyo talisman Konno lined up for a winter move to Suita City – which would not go down well with the Tokyo faithful but would be an excellent signing for Gamba.

Konno is very much in the Myojin mould: solid, dependable, giving everything he has got for the team and constantly driving them forward.

Philippe Troussier once paid the ultimate compliment to the former Reysol star by saying that his perfect team would include eight Myojins and three others who could add something a bit extra. Myojin would give you a merit mark of seven out of 10 every game, never six, the Frenchman said, and I think Konno does the same -- and frequently more. In fact on some occasions I have given Konno 10.5.

At the start of the season I tipped Gamba to win the league. With four games to go their chances are remote, but this is more down to the resolve and depth of Urawa than a failing on Gamba’s part. Gamba acknowledge this, too, hence the new deal for Nishino.

ends

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Yasuda -- a new hero for Gamba

8 Nov 2007(Thu)

November 6, 2007: What a weekend for Michihiro Yasuda!

What a season, actually, as the 19-year-old left back/wing back has really emerged for club and country, at least at the age-group level.

Surely it will be only a matter of time before Ivica Osim promotes him to the senior ranks, as the national team needs a natural left-footer in there. At the moment Osim has two solid right-backs, Kaji and Komano, but the latter has been forced to play on the left due to the lack of an outstanding candidate.

I still like Komiyama at Marinos, and think he would be worth looking at, but Yasuda has come through the ranks at Gamba and through the national teams, playing for the under-20s in Canada this year and now in the under-22 squad pushing for Beijing.

Yasuda plays at a high tempo and likes to push forward, like many left backs. Roberto Carlos and Ashley Cole spring to mind, but the player he most reminds me of is the former England left back Graeme Le Saux -- there is the same "buzz" about him as he forages up and down the left flank.

Going back to the Japan-Qatar Olympic qualifier in Tokyo a few weeks ago, I thought the match was set up perfectly for Yasuda to come on in the second half -- not to replace Inoha at left back but to help him out further forward; bringing some balance to the team and forcing the Qatari right flank to retreat, as they were swarming all over Inoha. (Japan won 1-0 with 10 men, so Sorimachi was proved right in the end with his own selections.)

With three points now needed in Hanoi, maybe Sorimachi will put the in-form Yasuda in his starting line-up. After all, his confidence must be sky-high after being named New Hero of the J.League Nabisco Cup, and then MVP after his match-winning goal in the final.

He had a solid game on the left flank, going head to head with Frontale fruitcake Mori, who can be extremely dangerous when he is in the mood -- and dangerous to his own teammates when he is not.

For the goal, Yasuda, now pushing forward, was in the right place at the right time, just in front of Mori, to slide in and meet Bare's low cross from the right.

ends

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J1 – a table of two halves

5 Nov 2007(Mon)

November 1, 2007: At this late stage of the season, many teams have nothing to play for in terms of winning a championship, winning promotion or avoiding relegation.

One such club is Vissel Kobe, but manager Hiroshi Matsuda still has a target he wants to achieve.

“Our aim is to finish in the top nine,” he said, after a 3-1 victory at Kashiwa had helped his cause considerably.

“There are two halves in J1 – the top nine and the bottom nine -- and our target at the start of the season was to be in the top half. This is what we are aiming for now, and we are close to it.”

Indeed they are, as they stand 10th with 41 points from 30 games, only two points adrift of ninth-placed Yokohama F Marinos with four games remaining.

Vissel are always busy in the transfer market, and a couple of mid-season recruits were on view at Kashiwa: the left-sided midfielder Seiji Koga and defensive midfielder Jun Marques Davidson.

As I touched on in an earlier column, Koga looks a fine acquisition, not only because he brings balance to the left flank but also because it allows captain Okubo to play up front. Okubo never looked right on the left side of midfield, did he, because he is first and foremost a goal-getter, a single-minded striker who is much more effective running at the heart of the defence and shooting.

Matsuda told me that Koga had been one of his favourite players at Avispa, and that he had tried to sign him and centre half Chiyotanda at the start of the season.

“He is a natural left footer, the first at the club,” Matsuda said of Koga.

As for Davidson, he did well for Omiya before falling out of favour with previous manager Toshiya Miura towards the end of last season, but his transfer to Albirex did not work out at all and he never got a kick.

Davidson came on for the second half at Kashiwa to anchor the midfield – anchor being the appropriate word in the watery conditions. His long-term future is still up in the air, but at least now he is getting some playing time.

ends

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A splashing afternoon at Kashiwa

1 Nov 2007(Thu)

October 30, 2007: Who said a penalty shootout was a lottery?

Well, you weren't at Kashiwa Hitachi Stadium on Saturday afternoon for Reysol's home game against Vissel Kobe.

Now that's what I call a lottery!

It wasn't football as we know it, that's for sure; more like waterball on a pitch that was unplayable.

I arrived at 12.30pm, 90 minutes before kick-off, and the hardy Yellow Monkeys were already in place behind the goal, sheltering beneath makeshift blue covers. Very resourceful. The heavy rollers were fighting a losing battle trying to clear the deluge, and the floodlights were on for kick-off under heavy skies and heavy rain -- and getting heavier.

Even though the match would have been postponed in many other countries, my thought was...well, why not play? The conditions were the same for both teams, there were almost 9,000 fans in the ground, the TV feed was organised, and the logistics of a postponement for a mid-table game did not bear thinking about.

In fact it was quite interesting watching the game unravel. A good pass became a bad one, and a bad pass became a good one. The players had to think, adapt to the conditions and revise their technique -- the only danger they faced was drowning.

In the end, Vissel -- maybe they should be renamed Vessel Kobe for the way they mastered the water -- adjusted better, particularly Leandro. The Brazilian forward quickly worked out that you could actually pass to yourself, chasing down a ball that would stop in a puddle before the defender could react.

Leandro's first goal was a neat header to an excellent cross from Seiji Koga -- what a good signing he is by Kobe manager Hiroshi Matsuda, as it brings balance on the left flank and allows Okubo to play through the middle -- and his second was a wonderful finish under the circumstances, chipping the ball beyond Minami without breaking stride.

You had to feel sorry, though, for Reysol's Brazilian forward Franca -- an artist trying to paint another masterpiece on a soggy canvas that had been left out in a typhoon.

ends

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