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February 2008

There's Something About JEF

28 Feb 2008(Thu)

February 27, 2008: First impressions can be misleading, especially before the start of a long campaign.

But there was something about JEF United Chiba at Fukuda Denshi Arena on Sunday that suggested this season might not be the struggle predicted by many after losing half their team in the winter.

There was an energy and a vibrancy about their play in the Chiba Bank Cup at home to Reysol, as if the players were out to prove a point.

Rather than the end of an era, it was more like the start of a new team, with opportunities for fresh faces.

After the game, new coach Josip Kuze acknowledged this factor, and reassured JEF fans that there was no danger of his team being at the bottom.

It might take some time, he said, but he had some good young players with a lot of potential and enough experience to build a "serious" team.

And, as anyone who was there could not fail to notice, they also have Eddy Bosnar.

At 1.91 metres and 88 kgs, the shaven-headed Australian central defender is a formidable sight, and packs a ferocious free kick with his left foot.

He endeared himself immediately to the JEF faithful in the crowd of 12,933 with some crunching tackles that seemed to surprise the Reysol players, and it will be interesting to see how referees react to his robust style this season. I hope they can differentiate between a foul and a hard tackle, and base their view on the challenge rather than the reaction of the rival player.

JEF, who have lost Mizumoto at the back and the midfield quartet of Mizuno, Sato, Hanyu and Yamagishi, will need Bosnar to paper over the cracks at the start of the campaign, as well as their experienced players such as Saito, prodigal son Sakamoto, the new leader Shimomura (my JEF MVP last year) and, when he is fit again, Maki.

In Maki's absence on Sunday, Kuze played a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Nakajima playing very deep in front of the back four, and Reinaldo the lone striker. One player Kuze has high hopes for is Kota Aoki, the Yasu High School product who started on the left side of midfield before moving up front.

Aoki, as we know from his days with Yasu and occasional J1 appearances, has a lovely left foot, and Kuze thinks he has the potential, at 20, to be a "great" player.

This is always the silver lining with JEF. Stars leave but their places are filled quickly, although admittedly not at the current rate of five at a time.

However, on the evidence of Sunday, when JEF missed six or seven injured players, the early signs are positive.


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Japan stay cool in Chongqing foul fest

25 Feb 2008(Mon)

February 23, 2008: Japan were winners on two counts against China in the East Asian Championship on Wednesday night.

First the result, a 1-0 victory away from home; second, the way Japan conducted themselves in a provocative, occasionally violent, environment.

The worst incident, of course, was the terrible foul by keeper Zong Lei on Michihiro Yasuda early in the second half. Immediately it happened my thoughts went back to 1982, and the brutal assault by West Germany keeper Schumacher on Frenchman Battiston in that epic World Cup semi-final.

The situation was very similar, as the player raced down the middle and flicked the ball past the onrushing keeper before being flattened.

Schumacher's was much worse, as it involved his whole body crashing into the player, and his reaction did not help as he waited, hands on hips, to take the goal kick, showing no concern for the stricken Battiston.

At least Zong was shown the yellow card, but surely if the referee deemed it a foul it must have been a red card. The Chinese keeper clearly aimed a mid-air kick at Yasuda with his right foot, the ball having already gone past him. It was deliberate and dangerous, and the Japanese camp had every right to be furious.

There were others, too, notably on Narazaki, who showed admirable restraint and sportsmanship to get up and get on with it when he could have reacted angrily or stayed down for several minutes after clumsy challenges by the Chinese.

Again I thought of Schumacher in that 1982 World Cup semi-final, when French winger Didier Six had the audacity to challenge him for a loose ball and felt the wrath of the arrogant German keeper. (On the subject of Harald 'Toni' Schumacher, his autobiography "Anpfiff", or "Starting Whistle", is an entertaining read, and highly recommended to Japanese fans and football historians).

Under the trying circumstances, with the Chinese players losing the match and losing their cool, the Japanese players emerged with credit for continuing to play the game, although they were guilty of the occasional theatrics.

All in all, though, it was a poor advertisement for football in general, and for football in this part of the world in particular.

Fortunately, a few hours later, our faith in the game was restored when switching on TV for the Celtic-Barcelona Champions League game. Now wasn't that a treat after the nonsense of Chongqing.


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An age-old problem in age-group football

21 Feb 2008(Thu)

February 20, 2008: Full marks to the Asian Football Confederation for punishing several national football associations for fielding overage players in an age-group competition.

North Korea, Iraq and Tajikistan have been fined and disqualified from this year's Asian Under-16 Championship following the results of MRI tests during qualifying, while five others who did not qualify -- Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, Kyrgyzstan and Macau -- were fined.

This is a step in the right direction for the football authorities, but they have an impossible task to stamp it out completely due to the systematic abuse of the regulations.

It all reminds me of an incident during the Asian Under-19 Championship in Jakarta in 1994, when Japan lost in the final to Syria.

Behind the scenes, everyone was talking about which teams were "clean" and which ones were not playing by the rules; and it was clear from the physical appearance of several players that their passports did not tell the whole story.

I remember conducting an interview with a Syrian player after they had won their semi-final. We were sitting in the main stand of the vast national stadium, with an interpreter helping us out.

The interview went smoothly back and forth until I came to my last point, a routine check on the player's personal details.

"Can I just get your date of birth," I asked, with absolutely no ulterior motive.

For the first time the interview stalled, and the interpreter became involved in a discussion with the player. Clearly there was some doubt about it, and the pair were beginning to look uncomfortable.

Then I realised why, and I think they could sense my embarrassment. The interview had gone well, they were very friendly and cooperative, so I ended the matter by digging in my bag and finding a team list, complete with the date of birth of all players.

"Here it is," I said. "Is this right?"

They nodded enthusiastically before we shook hands and went our separate ways; crisis averted.

The Japan team, by the way, was captained by the playmaker Suguru Ito, who would go on to join Nagoya Grampus Eight.

Koji Kumagai, whose career with Kashima Antlers would be dogged by injury, was named Best Defender, despite playing in central midfield, and Susumu Oki was up front.

Oh...and there was someone else I remember vaguely on Japan's right wing who looked pretty decent. Now what was his name? Hidetoshi something...


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Yasuda gives Okada new option on left

18 Feb 2008(Mon)

February 16, 2008: These are still early days in the Takeshi Okada reign, and the East Asian Championship in China will give him the chance to learn more about his players and test his ideas in a competitive environment.

One area he will want to address is finding a natural left-footer to bring balance to the team, especially at the back.

So far he has been using Komano at left back, but the player is clearly more comfortable and more effective on the right.

Okada is not short of options on the right side, however, with both Uchida and Zico favourite Kaji available; so Komano finds himself on the left.

I am a big fan of Komano's, admiring his tenacity and his positive approach, and his robust frame makes him an awkward customer for opponents to deal with.

But he still looks like a temporary solution, a compromise, on the left, and the late call-up of 20-year-old Yasuda will give the coach another option.

Yasuda has risen quickly from youth team to Olympic team to national squad, and will surely win his first senior cap in China, where Japan will play three matches in seven days.

In Okada's 4-4-2 formation, the two full backs are expected to provide the width going forward, rather than the midfield players, so it is imperative that the left-sided player can ping over an accurate cross on a consistent basis.

Komano's delivery with his left foot is erratic to say the least, and if Yasuda can supply this it will add another dimension to Japan's attack and make them much more dangerous in the box.

There are other candidates, too, such as Alex when he regains full match fitness at Reds, and Komiyama at Marinos.

Another player with an excellent left foot is Seiji Koga at Vissel Kobe. Now 28, Koga was an inspired signing from Avispa midway through last season by his old boss Matsuda.

Depending on the team performances in China, if Okada is looking for an experienced stop-gap to bring a natural balance on the left flank, he could do worse than check out the former Marinos man Koga when the new season starts.


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Good news for Chiba, Terada

14 Feb 2008(Thu)

February 13, 2008: It was good to see two players in particular in Japan's Olympic squad so early in the season.

The first was Kazuhiko Chiba of Albirex Niigata; the second Shinichi Terada of Gamba Osaka.

Neither player was a key during Japan's tense qualifying campaign, but both are in a position now to force their way into the final 18 over the next few months.

Although Chiba is listed as a defender, he can also play in central midfield and certainly knows the game. This is clear in his every move, and his versatility is a big advantage with places so limited.

I remember last season Chiba having a fine game for Albirex against Reds at Saitama Stadium 2002, man-marking the man mountain Washington and emerging with great credit, despite his team's 1-0 defeat to a late Ponte cracker.

Washington was an expert in winning free kicks and penalties, as well as scoring goals, but Chiba stuck to his task, played with concentration and focus, and refused to be bullied by the burly Brazilian.

In short, Chiba showed some attitude to go with his talent, in the same way Mizumoto did for JEF when marking Juninho at Todoroki last season. This is always good to see in a young Japanese player, especially against an experienced and accomplished Brazilian striker.

As for Terada, I think he is a terrific prospect. He is quick, incisive and adventurous, with two good feet and an eye for goal. Gamba coach Nishino will demand more consistency from Terada this season as he tries to win a starting place in the silky smooth midfield, but his quality is not in doubt.

I feel that both Chiba and Terada have what it takes to jump from fringe member in 2007 to Olympian in 2008.

Regarding the national team for the East Asian Championship in China, it is the four strikers who have everything to play for.

With Okada's top three forwards -- Takahara, Okubo and Maki -- all missing, Bando, Yano, Maeda and Tashiro have the chance to impress.

Personally I hope Bando gets among the goals; he deserves to for wearing a short-sleeved shirt and no gloves when coming off the bench against Thailand in the Saitama snow last week...

Now that's what I call the Samurai spirit!


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Tsuboi offered something different in Japan's defence

11 Feb 2008(Mon)

February 9, 2008: Keisuke Tsuboi's decision to retire from international football was a big suprise.

The 28-year-old defender with 40 caps felt he had no future in the national team under Takeshi Okada so announced on Friday that he was going to concentrate solely on his club, Urawa Reds, from now on.

I watched Tsuboi training with the national squad at Inage in Chiba Prefecture last Saturday and he seemed in high spirits, but was left out of Okada's 18-strong group for the Thailand match on Wednesday.

The coach stuck with the Nakazawa-Abe partnership in the centre of defence, and preferred Mizumoto on the bench to either Tsuboi or Iwamasa.

One problem for Tsuboi is that Okada is playing with a back four, whereas the Reds defender is much more at home on the right side of a back three. In that position he can use his strengths, which are speed and his man-marking ability.

When Reds are on the attack there is no better player than Tsuboi to hold back and keep an eye on the opposing striker waiting to counter. With his pace and his anticipation in one-on-one situations, Tsuboi is very effective at cutting off those counter-attacks when danger threatens.

In this respect he offered something different to the national team -- but the rise and rise of Mizumoto has shunted Tsuboi further back in the queue for a place in Japan's defence.

Another Reds player not going to China for the East Asian Championship is Takahara, who has not been at his best in the Japan blue so far since his return from Germany.

But this will not be a concern for Okada as everyone knows what Takahara is capable of when he is in top condition, and the three matches in China will give the coach a chance to try a few combinations with his five forwards: Maki, Yano, Bando, Okubo and Maeda.


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Thai coach creates talking points

7 Feb 2008(Thu)

February 6, 2008: Now here's an interesting one for Japanese football fans, particularly Yokohama F Marinos supporters.

Who is the better player, Koji Yamase or Shunsuke Nakamura?

Thailand's coach, Chanvit Phalajivin, has no doubt. He thinks Yamase is better, and picked out the Marinos schemer as one of Japan's top players during a pre-training chat with a handful of media at Nishigaoka Stadium on Monday afternoon.

When asked which Japanese players impressed him the most, Chanvit gave the backbone of the team: Nakazawa, Suzuki and Takahara.

"But I also really like the player who scored two goals in their last game," added the Thai coach.

Yamase, pointed out the media.

"Yes, Yamase," said Chanvit. "I think he's better than Nakamura. He's young and has time to develop."

Which Nakamura, Kengo or Shunsuke?

"The one in Scotland," confirmed Chanvit.

Interesting...and quite a confidence-booster for Yamase.

I wonder what Takeshi Okada thinks? We will find out pretty soon as the World Cup qualifying campaign progresses and Nakamura (Shunsuke, not Kengo) returns to full match fitness with Celtic.

Chanvit made another interesting point regarding his own players, saying that many of them dreamed of playing in the J.League.

This would motivate them in the match against Japan, Chanvit said, hoping their talent would be recognised by J.League scouts.

It is a noble thought, and you would like to think there is a chance of a Thai player adding some spice to the J.League, but don't hold your breath.

As much as I would like to see more variety in the transfer policy of the clubs, what can a Thai player do that a Japanese can't?


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Yamase deserves starting place against Thailand

4 Feb 2008(Mon)

February 2, 2008: Coaches can often be led to an improvement in their team due to unforeseen circumstances.

Take the example of the Japan-Bosnia match the other night, when an early injury for Maki led to the introduction of Yamase in the 33rd minute.

Yamase was quick to make his mark, adding some zip and zest to Japan's plodding midfield. Sure enough, in the second half Japan went on to win 3-0, with Yamase setting up the first for Nakazawa and scoring the next two himself.

Surely the Yokohama F Marinos schemer has played himself into the starting line-up to face Thailand on Wednesday, probably at the expense of Kengo Nakamura on the right side of midfield. This would leave Suzuki as the lone "volante", Endo on the left and Okubo at the top of the diamond, behind Maki and Takahara.

I was very happy to see Okubo in the starting line-up against Bosnia, albeit in a deeper role behind the forward line. I wasn't sure if Okubo would be as effective in this position, as his chances against Chile had come by playing as an out-and-out striker.

But Okubo made some very good runs from deep against Bosnia which took him beyond the back line, and he was unlucky not to connect inside the box.

Certainly, with the workhorse Maki charging around after anything that moves -- he set up the clear shooting chance for Takahara against Chile, remember, by doing just that -- and with Takahara looking for space in the box, opposition defenders have plenty to keep them busy even before calculating Okubo's darting runs.

I also thought Yamase lifted the mood of the team and of the fans by being confident and aggressive, and by being prepared to shoot. Okada pointed out after the match that Japan had been too casual in the first half by trying to score the picture-perfect goal. Endo and Uchida were both guilty of declining to shoot when the goal was in front of them, instead opting to pass the ball and with it the responsibility.

This is not a new problem for Japan teams, but is still irritating and frustrating to say the least. Okada can get even tougher on this point by simply substituting a player in the future, or dropping him. Yes, I think it is that important at this level!

Looking ahead to the opening World Cup qualifier, Japan can win comfortably against Thailand if they play in a professional, business-like manner from the start. They must be aggressive. They must shoot. They must take an early chance and not let up.

This is the team I expect Okada to turn out: Kawaguchi; Uchida, Nakazawa, Abe, Komano; Suzuki, Yamase, Endo, Okubo; Maki, Takahara.


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