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January 2008

Shunsuke struggles but still shows his class

31 Jan 2008(Thu)

January 30, 2008: One of the biggest decisions facing Takeshi Okada is what to do with Shunsuke Nakamura?

Will Okada make him a key player, as Zico did, or will he phase him out?

Will he be prepared to carry Nakamura for long periods of a match in exchange for one moment of brilliance that can win a game?

It is going to be very interesting how Okada uses Nakamura in the coming months, but first the player must return to full fitness.

Against Falkirk on Sunday, Nakamura looked anything but fully fit -- but then provided the cross that enabled Scott McDonald to head the only goal of the game in first-half injury time.

It was typical Shunsuke. He had been a passenger until this point, hardly touching the ball in his position out on the right of midfield.

Then, in the three minutes of stoppage time, he found space on the right side of the box, shaped to cross with his right foot but, of course, checked back on to his left, and then picked out McDonald's run with a gem of a cross.

"A perfect delivery for an easy finish," purred the commentator. In the second half, Nakamura teased the Falkirk defence with "an enticing free kick", and the commentator then hailed his "telling contribution" on being substituted on 67 minutes.

Still on the comeback trail from his injury lay-off, Nakamura looked rusty in open play and off the pace, but all he needs is one moment of quality to change a game.

This is what Okada must balance, but not for the moment as what the player needs most of all is match fitness. The Kirin Cup at the end of May and the four World Cup qualifiers in June, two home and two away, will give the coach the perfect opportunity to address the situation.

Staying with Celtic, the Mizuno transfer from JEF United has been completed finally -- and the No. 29 shirt with the famous green and white hoops is already available on the official website, at a big discount, too, seeing as we are halfway through the season.

With a three and a half year deal, Mizuno has time to settle and establish himself in Scotland. Who knows, by the time his contract finishes he may be able to work out the Glaswegian accent!


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Okada gets down to business

28 Jan 2008(Mon)

January 26, 2008: If Japan's players can replicate the performance of Takeshi Okada in his press conference on Friday evening, then things are looking good for the national team.

Here was a man who meant business. He was serious and determined, but relaxed enough to share a joke on occasions, and with the confidence to declare that he was very much his own man and would be doing things his way.

Clearly his break from the game has given him a fresh focus, and he looked an altogether tougher character than the former assistant coach who was in the right place at the right time when Shu Kamo was fired in 1997: Oka-chan the friendly salaryman has become Okada-san the company president.

It was clear from the training, too, that Japan will have a go, and be prepared to take the game to the opposition -- another change from the more conservative approach in his previous reign.

Okada has already said that he wants to create a new brand of football, a style that will make an impact at the 2010 World Cup, and to do this he will demand speed, stamina, aggression and, above all, team work from his players.

One player in particular who appears to have caught Okada's eye early is Mizumoto, the Olympic team captain and likely partner for Nakazawa in the centre of defence, should the coach play four at the back.

Mizumoto improved and matured rapidly at JEF United last season, playing so well that Gamba decided it was time to take him on board, and he has the character and personality on the pitch that Okada is looking for.

The same can be said of Okubo, a player with a bit of fire and attitude. Okubo has always been better than his scoring record for Japan misleadingly suggests, and hopefully his goals against Egypt at the end of last season will liberate him and lead to many more from now on.

The relationship between coach and players looks extremely professional, too, built on trust and mutual respect, and it is hard to imagine Okada tolerating any dissent in the ranks; or even confronting any.

Yes, Okada looks like a man in total control; a man who knows what he wants and with the plan to get it. As he said himself on Friday, at least he has some time to work things out before the opening World Cup qualifier against Thailand on February 6. This match, of course, is the first target, and the friendlies against Chile and Bosnia will point him in the right direction.


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Beijing can wait for Honda

24 Jan 2008(Thu)

January 23, 2008: Keisuke Honda is choosing a good time of his career to try his luck abroad.

The left-footed midfielder is still only 21 years old and, having signed a two and a half year contract with VVV-Venlo, has plenty of time to settle and develop in the Dutch league.

If he does well, he can expect to move to a bigger club in Holland, or to a bigger league in Europe.

And if it does not work out he can return home and rebuild his career in Japan, in the same way Umesaki did after his spell with Grenoble.

At 1.82 metres and 72 kgs, Honda has a good physique to cope with the Dutch league. He will find it more physical than in Japan, the tackles and aerial duels more robust and combative.

There is a saying back home that teams have to earn the right to play football -- meaning first they must dominate their opponents by playing harder, running more and being more aggressive. Only then can a team expect to turn on the style and play more attractive football.

This is the first lesson Honda will have to learn, and adapt to this new mentality and discipline, both tactically and technically.

On the technical side, there is no doubt Honda has a fine left foot. Who could forget his incredible free kick against Hong Kong in an Olympic qualifier, when his shot from the right swerved and dipped and flew into the opposite corner, leaving the Hong Kong keeper stranded.

This quality, of course, is a bonus, because there is much more to Honda's game than his set-piece expertise.

He was one of Sef Vergoossen's favourite players at Nagoya with his work on the left flank, and I remember the Dutch coach complaining bitterly after losing a league game last season when Honda was absent on Olympic duty -- and having every right to complain in my opinion.

With the emergence of Yasuda at Gamba, Honda is no longer an automatic choice for the Olympic team. But this should not concern him for the moment. His priority and his goal must be to establish himself at VVV-Venlo and be a success in Europe. Beijing can wait for the next few months.


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Keegan, Gamba, Shearer

21 Jan 2008(Mon)

January 19, 2008: The other day I wrote about JEF United being the "crisis club" of Japan.

The equivalent in England, though for different reasons, was Newcastle United. All that changed, however, with the appointment of Kevin Keegan as manager for the second time -- the "third coming" in total of the so-called "Geordie Messiah".

For Japanese students of English football and culture, a Geordie is a person from Tyneside. Keegan is not a Geordie as he was born nowhere near the River Tyne, and many Newcastle fans are not Geordies, either.

But Keegan is a hero for the Geordie masses, and his return has put a smile back on the faces of Newcastle fans around the world -- including me! The Magpies were a laughing stock at Old Trafford last weekend, losing 6-0. They were a parody of what is expected from a team wearing the famous black and white stripes, but now there is pride and hope again.

I actually remember Newcastle losing 7-2 at Old Trafford in a League Cup tie in the mid-1970s, but at least they were competitive in that particular game and the fans had no reason to feel embarrassed. (The result is still referred to in a Newcastle chant to this day: "We hate Man U, 'cos they beat us 7-2!")

On the subject of Keegan and Japan, I wonder how many Gamba Osaka fans were at the match against Newcastle at Banpaku in the summer of 1996. Keegan was the manager at the time, "Sir Les" Ferdinand scored a wonderful header in a 3-1 defeat, and the manager of Nagoya Grampus Eight, a certain Arsene Wenger, was watching from high in the stands.

I was reporting on the game for The Journal, the morning newspaper in Newcastle, and it came at the end of a three-match tour that started in Bangkok, continued in Singapore and ended at Suita City.

I must admit I was expecting a laidback assignment following the mighty Magpies around the Far East, and arrived at the team hotel in Bangkok to see Keegan rushing through the lobby, chased by fans. I introduced myself, but Keegan had more pressing business. "I'm sorry, I haven't got much time at the moment," he said. "We've just signed Shearer. We'll chat later."

Yes, Newcastle had just broken the world transfer record with a 15 million pound deal for Alan Shearer -- and he would be joining his new teammates in Singapore.

So much for my leisurely summer assignment!


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JEF Disunited Chiba

17 Jan 2008(Thu)

January 16, 2008: When will the torment end for fans of JEF United?

The new season is still over seven weeks away but already JEF "Disunited" are being talked of as relegation candidates after a winter of discontent between the two main backers, Furukawa and JR East.

Mizumoto (Gamba), Mizuno (Celtic), Sato (Kyoto), Yamagishi (Frontale) and Hanyu (FC Tokyo) are either going, going or gone, and the return of the versatile Sakamoto from Albirex is the only bright spot.

JEF are used to losing good players -- Yamaguchi, Chano, Murai, Abe -- but never on this scale, and to describe them as the J1 "crisis club" even in January is hardly an exaggeration.

Well, at least they have a new manager in Josip Kuze, the Croatian coach who led Gamba in 1996 and 1997, but how many players he will have when they report back for training is anyone's guess.

It is truly a sorry state of affairs for JEF, as everything seemed to be going so well with their two Nabisco Cup titles and one of the best stadiums in the league, Fukuda Denshi Arena, near Soga Station.

I remember chatting to one of the club officials outside the ground last season and he told me the number of season ticket-holders had jumped from 1,800 at Rinkai Stadium to 5,000, which was a remarkable feat for the club. And JEF were taking as many fans away as used to attend the home games at distant Goi.

With an attractive team to watch and some exciting players, JEF were on the up and up. But now it has fallen apart, and the departure of Hanyu to FC Tokyo is the latest bitter blow.

Hanyu has been an outstanding player for United, a player who typifies the Japanese qualities so admired by Osim. But his talent and potential were spotted long before that, by a former coach, Jozef Venglos, in 2002. This was Hanyu's first season at United out of Tsukuba University, and while the media buzzed about Abe, Venglos told me he had never seen a player improve day by day, match by match, as quickly as Hanyu. What a shame, Venglos said, Hanyu had been lost to university football for so many years before joining a professional club -- in his opinion six years too late.

Happy memories -- and that's all JEF fans have at the moment.


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Mizuno is hardly the new Nakamura

14 Jan 2008(Mon)

January 11, 2008: So Koki Mizuno is "the new Shunsuke Nakamura" is he?

Must have missed that comparison in the years I have been watching him for JEF, but inevitably this is how the Scottish media have been describing him recently over the Celtic connection.

I can't think of anything the two players have in common, other than that they are Japanese.

There again, I remember receiving a call from a newspaper in England a few years ago asking me if it were true that Akinori Nishizawa was as popular in Japan as Hidetoshi Nakata. The call was from the evening newspaper in Bolton, and they were very disappointed when I informed them that no, Nishizawa was not as popular as Nakata -- Hidetoshi or Koji (the joke was lost, I am afraid).

Mizuno is far from the new Shunsuke, although, admittedly, he is definitely Japanese.

Koki is essentially a right winger; a player blessed with natural speed and who likes to take his man on down the wing and ping over a cross. Sometimes he will go it alone, cut inside and have a shot himself, with left foot or right.

He can also play a more central role, buzzing about behind the front line and running at defenders through the middle.

So no, Mizuno is not at all the new Shunsuke. He is an altogether different player but who still has a lot to offer. In fact, if Celtic boss Gordon Strachan is looking for typical Japanese qualities, then Mizuno is more Japanese than Shunsuke, who is not quick but who, given time and space to operate, is a beautiful passer of the ball, and a set-piece specialist. During his time coaching in Japan, Steve Perryman once told me that "Nakamura could open a can of beans with his left foot" -- and this is probably true (but I would not like to taste them).

Nakamura's passing could work quite well with the pace of Mizuno down the right wing, should the deal go through.

More bad news for the suffering JEF fans, though.


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Gamba strike again with Lucas move

10 Jan 2008(Thu)

January 8, 2008: True to form, Gamba Osaka have been busy in the transfer market for an overseas player – but they have not gone far to sign him.

On this occasion their target – and their catch – was the experienced striker Lucas, all the way from FC Tokyo.

Like other imports before him, Lucas represents no risk for Gamba as he has played in the J.League for four seasons and is a proven, consistent goal scorer.

His haul of 48 in 120 league games is a solid record, and he should work well alongside the powerful Bare next season; Bare, himself, of course, signed from Ventforet Kofu.

Lucas is the replacement for Magno Alves, who left in disappointing circumstances, but Gamba went back to Brazil for the man to fill Sidiclei’s boots at the back, Mineiro from Internacional.

But back to the Gamba policy of signing successful foreign players from other J.League clubs. They monitor their record, they check their character on and off the field – and then they offer them more money and the chance to challenge for titles. Easy really, isn’t it?

I was debating this issue with a Japanese colleague the other day, but he took a very different standpoint.

He thought it was bad for Japanese football that clubs did not go overseas and sign new foreign players to boost interest in the league. He thought it would be more attractive for fans if they were constantly being offered new faces from exotic lands (meaning Brazil, of course, such is the lack of imagination of most clubs).

I found this view hard to understand, as surely it would mean clubs wasting even more money on players (and their agents) they knew nothing about: Premier League wages for non-league players.

In this context, therefore, I find Gamba’s policy quite reassuring and good business – and if other clubs complain they have “stolen” their best foreign players, they should give them two- or three-year contracts at the outset; although that, admittedly, is a massive gamble and expensive risk.

I cannot see how anyone can question Gamba’s policy.



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Total Football, Total Japan

7 Jan 2008(Mon)

January 5, 2008: Takeshi Okada is not exactly holding back in his comments since returning as national coach.

First he told the players his target is to achieve Asia's highest ever finish at a World Cup, meaning third place at South Africa in 2010.

Then, in his interview for New Year's Day, he said he wanted to play a brand of football that would leave its mark on the world game, in the way that the Dutch team of 1974 did with their Total Football.

My reading of those comments is that he is not trying to copy the tactics of master coach Rinus Michels, as this would mean Okada having to unearth a Cruyff, a Neeskens, a Van Hanegem, Haan, Krol, Rep.....the names still roll off the tongue and conjure an orange-hued dream, don't they! Rather, he wants Japan to play a unique style of football, based on speed, movement, passing, fitness and organisation. In other words, to perfect the style started by Osim and which was glimpsed on occasions at the Asian Cup.

This is bold and ambitious talk from Okada, setting the scene for an interesting year ahead during which Japan will face some tough tests on the long road to South Africa (a minimum of 14 matches to qualify, maximum of 18).

Against Thailand, Bahrain and Oman, Japan will have to take the initiative away from home as well as at home and force their football on their opponents. Not only this, they will have to add a sharper edge to their play, and be more ruthless and single-minded when the opposition goal beckons instead of passing the ball to death. This is why I feel Okubo could emerge as a major player this year, and why the news of Takahara's imminent return to the J.League, with Reds, is a massive bonus for Okada and the national team.

After all, why should Takahara -- or any other Japanese player for that matter -- waste their time on the bench in Europe, putting their international career in jeopardy, when they could be playing in front of 50,000 every home game at Saitama, or in packed grounds around the country? I am sure the return of Takahara will add a couple of thousand to every Reds away game, too, and the player will be under the nose of the national coach, his schedule in sync with the commitments of club and country.

It is a sensible move by Takahara, one that will benefit Japanese football as a whole in this critical year ahead...a year of Total Japan.


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Sanfrecce still scrapping

4 Jan 2008(Fri)

January 2, 2008: After the Antlers-Sanfrecce final on New Year's Day, a lot of the talk surrounded a player who wasn't even playing. Such is the stature of one of Japan's most exciting prospects, Yosuke Kashiwagi.

With relegation to J2, should Kashiwagi stay with Sanfrecce or accept a lucrative offer and move on? Kashiwa Reysol want him, and surely others, too.

Would his chances of progress in the Olympic team and national team in 2008 be damaged if he played in J2?

Naturally, the Three Arrows are hoping he will stay, as Kashiwagi is not only important on the field but off it with his marketability.

After the final, which Sanfrecce lost 2-0 without the suspended Kashiwagi, I had a chat with the club's managing director, Toyoharu Takata.

His view was that Kashiwagi should stay and play a full season in J2 -- 42 matches next season in the expanded 15-team division -- so that his game becomes more consistent.

"He is still very young so naturally his performance can be up and down," Takata said of the left-footed midfield wizard, who turned 20 on December 15.

"If he stayed with Sanfrecce I am sure he could close that gap over the course of next season so that his performance level is more constant."

There is logic and pragmatism in Takata's stance, and evidence that a season in J2 is not necessarily a backward step.

Just ask Gert Engels, the former Kyoto manager and now No. 2 at Reds, how much Park Ji-Sung improved during his season in J2 with Purple Sanga. The heavy schedule exposed the young Korean to competitive match situations on a Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday basis almost every week, Engels says, and gave him an edge that training could never do. PSV Eindhoven and Manchester United would agree.

The situation for another Hiroshima hot property, wing-back Yuichi Komano, is different to Kashiwagi's, as he is already established in the national team. Vissel Kobe are keen to take him.

Takata, however, insists that national team coach Takeshi Okada has made it clear he would still pick Komano, and others, if they were playing in J2.

It's been a long fight for Sanfrecce in 2007 -- and they are still scrapping to keep their top players for J2. How many of these contests can they win?

A 1-1 draw looks a good bet.


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