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March 2008

Japan's "nothing" almost got "something"

31 Mar 2008(Mon)

March 29, 2008: One short comment from Bahrain's head coach, Milan Macala, said it all: "Japan had nothing."

Ouch! That hurts, doesn't it, coming from the Gulf veteran who knows Japanese football so well from his previous engagements.

But it was a fair assessment on Wednesday night, when Japan lost 1-0 in Bahrain to put themselves under a bit of pressure for the four-game group finale in June.

Japan looked slow and weary and lacked leadership and experience, particularly in the middle of the park. With Bahrain quick to press the man in possession, Japan could not get hold of the game or find any rhythm.

Even so, the "nothing" as stated by Macala looked like it was going to be good enough to get "something" -- meaning a point from a 0-0 draw -- until the blunder by Kawaguchi 13 minutes from time. Bahrain accepted the gift and no one could argue with the final result.

For all their lack of control and creativity, Japan could still have snatched one at the other end on two occasions in the second half.

Before Bahrain's goal, Okubo failed to connect with a superb Komano cross from the right, and after Bahrain's goal Abe did the same. These were two great heading opportunities that went begging, and it points to a lack of confidence rather than technique.

I wonder if the poor performance and result led to the low turnout (12,718) at National Stadium for the Japan Under 23-Angola friendly the following evening?

Those who did attend at least saw some energy and ambition from the Japan team in the face of a big, strong opponent.

Once again I was particularly impressed with the central midfield pairing of Hosogai and Toshihiro Aoyama, and they must have gone a long way towards securing a place in coach Sorimachi's 18-strong squad for Beijing.

They chase and they scrap, and keep the team ticking over with their ability to win the ball and move it on to the more creative, attacking players around them. In the closing stages, Hosogai played like Tulio in disguise with his swashbuckling efforts in the opposition box.

It is a pity Japan could not hold on for the win, but at least they could leave the field with their heads held high and the supporters feeling some pride.

This was not the case in Bahrain the previous night.


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A point in Bahrain would be fine for Japan

27 Mar 2008(Thu)

March 26, 2008: Japan's World Cup qualifier in Bahrain on Wednesday night will surely be a tough test for Takeshi Okada's team.

Of the six games in this third round of Asian qualifying, this always looked like the hardest assignment for Japan.

Under the circumstances, a draw would be a decent result to add to the three points Japan took at home to Thailand in the Saitama snow.

Even if Japan lose they would still have four matches to clinch one of the two qualifying places to advance to the 10-team, two-group final round. After Bahrain away, those four remaining games all take place in June, starting with Oman at home on the 2nd, Oman away (7th), Thailand away (14th) and Bahrain at home (22nd).

To prepare for this sequence of matches, Japan will have two Kirin Cup games in late May, so Okada will have plenty of opportunity to integrate the players he needs from Europe.

On the subject of which...I am still disappointed Okada did not call up Shunsuke Nakamura for this match.

I have been reading that the player was overlooked because of "club commitments" with Celtic. What, on Wednesday?

Nakamura played for Celtic against Gretna on Sunday, and will be in action in the Old Firm derby against Rangers on Saturday, but that does not rule him out of the Bahrain game.

It is not "club commitments" that is keeping him out; it is because Okada wanted time to prepare his team, and didn't want Nakamura joining the camp a couple of days before the game.

I have already given my reasons why I think Okada should have selected Nakamura, regardless of whether or not that Gretna-Celtic match went ahead, so will not do so again.

Suffice to say that Nakamura will be sitting around in Glasgow on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday with nothing much to do, while Japan are playing a World Cup qualifier not too far away, and other players are flying round the world in an international week to play for their country.

In fact, I am surprised a Japanese TV station or newspaper has not flown Shunsuke to Bahrain to be a celebrity analyst!

A prediction for tonight? I will go for 0-0.

Both teams won their opening game in the group and are regarded as the two most likely to qualify. The priority, therefore, may be not to lose to their main rival so early in the group.


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Frontale's 'Fab Four' struggling for rhythm

24 Mar 2008(Mon)

March 21, 2008: Who would have thought that after three games in league and cup Frontale's Fab Four would not have a goal between them?

Juninho, Chong Tese, Kazuki Ganaha and Hulk have so far drawn a blank, with Frontale's only two goals to date coming from midfielders Mori (against Verdy) and Ohashi (Vissel). Ohashi's goal was a little gem, by the way; just a pity they were 4-0 down at the time.

The latest disappointment came against JEF United at a cold, wet and windy Todoroki Stadium on Thursday afternoon, when the Chiba defence held firm and their counter-attack produced two goals in a classic smash-and-grab raid.

It was interesting to see that Frontale manager Sekizuka had already abandoned his three-pronged strikeforce -- a commitment to all-out attack that suggested a name change may be appropriate: Kamikaze Frontale, perhaps?

Against Chiba, Sekizuka went back to the Frontale roots and played a 3-5-2 formation, with Ganaha and Juninho up front, Chong on the bench and Hulk injured. A close Frontale observer said it was, in fact, Hulk's heart that was injured...no goals, no longer the king like he was at Verdy, no confidence.

Could it be true? Has the Incredible Hulk turned into the Incredible Sulk so quickly?

I must admit I thought Frontale would do well this season, with no AFC Champions League commitments and a variety of explosive options up front to build on the solid base already in place.

They still might have a great season, of course, because there are 96 points to play for in the league and five more Nabisco Cup group games to overhaul Chiba.

Against JEF, though, they did not look like the big, bad bullies of old, battering teams into submission with their speed and power inside their Todoroki torture chamber.

Ganaha was off the pace; his replacement, Chong, was put in his place by a crunching Bosnar tackle on the left wing; and 19-year-old JEF substitute Yonekura was left to dance through the Kengo-free Frontale midfield to orchestrate the second-half counter-attacks.

Interesting player Yonekura. Same shirt number (22) as the departed "Goi Galactico" Hanyu, same high school as Hanyu, same position (attacking midfielder), but a rather different physique.

Whereas Hanyu buzzed around like a one-man ekiden team, Yonekura is more sturdy and robust, enabling him to win some physical battles in crucial areas of the pitch.

On the other hand, Frontale's most dangerous moments were the inswinging corners of Ohashi, who used the swirling gusts of wind to great effect and kept Tateishi on his toes.


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The rise, fall and rise of Gert Engels

20 Mar 2008(Thu)

March 18, 2008: After the unrest of Saturday and the turmoil of Sunday, Monday was just like any normal day at the Ohara training ground of Urawa Reds.

With Holger Osieck now history, ruthlessly fired the previous day, Gert Engels was the man in the spotlight -- again.

In his fluent Japanese, clipboard in hand, Engels was attempting to put the team back on track after the chaotic start to the new campaign.

He didn't have too many players to work with, as the squad was depleted by national team call-ups and injuries, but the foundations of the team for the Nabisco Cup were clearly in place.

The highlight of Monday's session for me was the set-piece expertise of new signing Tsukasa Umesaki. He was whipping over some wicked free kicks from the left flank, struck with pace and swerve and causing havoc for the keeper on each occasion. Has he been studying the technique of David Beckham? It certainly looked like it.

After training, Engels held two informal press conferences, first in Japanese and then in English, and was looking remarkably relaxed after his sudden elevation to manager of Asia's champion club.

There was a human touch, too, in his recollection of the dizzying events of the previous day, as he said his morning promotion and afternoon preparation for the official news conference at 4pm had scuppered his plans for a kickaround with his two children after training!

"I spoke to my kids and told them what had happened," he said.

"The first thing they asked was, 'What about Holger?' That was quite sweet of them, because they knew how I felt when it happened to me. I just said that business is like this."

On a more practical front, it is going to be an enormous help having a Japanese speaker in charge of the training; no need for an interpreter to try and get the message across on the practice ground, in team meetings and on the pitch.

And Engels is going to make sure that the players air their grievances to him rather than to the media, as criticism of Osieck from senior players led to the breakdown in communication.

"They know there is nothing to hide," said Engels.

"They can speak to me directly or to a coach who will then speak to me. I am available 24 hours a day for them."

It is highly unlikely there will be any criticism of Engels, though, as it is time for the club to put its house in order. Besides, the new manager is regarded as a good, all-round guy who has the respect of the players.

He has had setbacks with the closure of the Flugels and being fired by JEF United and Kyoto, but has proved he is a survivor -- all the way to the top of Japanese football.


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Okada is making a mistake in leaving out Shunsuke

17 Mar 2008(Mon)

March 14, 2008: There were a few talking points at JFA House in Tokyo on Friday afternoon when the squad list was handed out for the Bahrain away game on March 26.

Inamoto in -- generally welcomed as Japan need some muscle in central midfield.

Tamada in -- why not now he is fit? Who will ever forget his brilliant strike against Brazil in the World Cup?

Shunsuke not in -- now this prompted mixed feelings, but mostly negative.

Some reasoned that Nakamura would be playing for Celtic on March 15, March 18 and March 23 -- the last game, away to Gretna, just three days before the World Cup qualifier. Why should Okada pick him amidst this hectic schedule and when he will be able to train with Japan for a maximum of two sessions, maybe only one?

The other school of thought was that Okada should have called him up, as Shunsuke is in good nick and playing well, and it's more convenient to travel from Glasgow to the Gulf than it is to Japan.

I certainly feel that Okada should have picked Nakamura for this game, despite the tight schedule.

It is not as though Japan's midfield is in dazzling form, is it? While Inamoto will toughen them up and give them a bit of drive through the middle, surely there was still room for Shunsuke.

This is going to be a tough game, and one moment of magic from Nakamura could be the difference -- a brilliant free kick, a corner right on to Nakazawa's head, a slide-rule pass for Tamada to race on to, round the keeper and slot into an empty net...

In addition to this, the 21-strong squad will not be together from day one, so preparation is going to be patchy.

The bulk of the squad will leave for Dubai on Monday, but the five who play for Gamba and Antlers will not join them until Friday, after AFC Champions League games on Wednesday. Inamoto plays for Eintracht Frankfurt on Thursday, so the squad will be assembling in dribs and drabs over the course of a few days.

Given all this, and the importance of the game, I think Okada is making a mistake not calling up Shunsuke on this occasion. Good enough to play against Barcelona, but not against Bahrain, it seems.


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Omiya's Yellow Peril settles Orange Derby

13 Mar 2008(Thu)

March 12, 2008: It was the Orange Derby at Omiya on Sunday, but the Yellow Peril won it for Ardija.

With his dancing feet and his flashy yellow boots, Pedro Junior proved to be the difference between the two teams, sending Albirex tumbling to a 2-0 defeat.

The 21-year-old Brazilian forward was much too quick and clever for the Albirex defence, scoring the first goal himself and setting up the second for Daigo Kobayashi with another jinking run and shot.

Trailing 2-0 at the break, Albirex battered away at the Omiya defence early in the second half, playing toward their massive following behind the goal, but when they could not break through in that initial onslaught the result looked safe for Omiya.

All in all, then, a perfect start for Ardija at the rebuilt NACK5 Stadium, and their fans must be quietly confident about the season ahead. Not only because they have their own home ground from the start of the season, rather than touring Saitama prefecture for their home games, but because they may have finally sorted out their overseas signings.

Although this is Omiya's fourth season in the top flight, they can hardly be described as an established force in J1, as their finishing positions have been 13th, 12th and 15th.

And anyone who follows the team closely knows the main reason for this is their poor record in the overseas transfer market, which has always been a handicap in J1.

Toshiya Miura used to complain about it when comparing his foreign players with the likes of even Oita's, and so did Robert Verbeek last season. Anyone remember Alison, Enilton, Salles? Enough said...

Leandro, however, was a rock at the back in 2007, and started well again this time, while both Pedro Junior and Denis Marques joined the club last August.

Denis Marques made more of an impression than Pedro Junior in the second half of last season, but was on the bench against Albirex after an impressive pre-season by Pedro Junior.

Starting the season with a bit of stability in the foreign player department should be an enormous help for new manager Yasuhiro Higuchi, who has inherited an experienced squad in general.

In their opening match, Pedro Junior lifted Omiya to a higher level with all that dazzling dribbling in his yellow boots, and Ardija fans will be hoping he has a "knack" for scoring spectacular goals -- especially at NACK5.


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Reds favourites in J1 'Super League'

10 Mar 2008(Mon)

March 7, 2008: It is never easy to predict the champions of the J.League, even on the last day of the season.

So on the eve of a new campaign?

Almost impossible, but "impossible is nothing" as they say these days, and surely the 2008 champions will emerge from the J1 Super League.

I would say the Super League membership stands at four, led by Reds, Gamba and Antlers and with Frontale as the dark horse.

Apart from those four, I cannot see anyone else challenging -- unless Shunsuke Nakamura returns to Marinos in the summer and transforms his old team, Ogasawara-style.

My tip for this season, though, is Urawa, despite the fact they have lost the goals of Washington, the midfield craft of Hasebe and the extravagant skills (usually off the bench) of Ono. In addition to this, the injured Alex and recovering Robson Ponte will be out for a good few weeks yet, so the new-look team needs a good start.

Reds have bought well in the winter, and I am sure Takahara and Edmilson will work well together and share the goals out, rather than it being a one-man Washington show.

Umesaki is another fine signing, a bright and busy attacking midfielder who can operate all across the pitch behind the front line and help link midfield to attack.

I know Hasebe was a firm favourite of the Reds supporters with his surging runs from deep, but I always felt his potential was never quite fulfilled at Urawa. He had the ability to get hold of a game by the scruff of the neck and really dominate it, and his departure will be more than compensated by the combination of Abe and Suzuki in the engine room.

This gives Reds an altogether tougher centre, not only protecting the defence but providing a solid platform for the attack to function.

Reds have two players for every position, and, unlike Gamba and Antlers, have no AFC Champions League group commitments until they enter at the quarter-final stage.

Frontale, disappointing in the league last season, should be strong enough to maintain a serious challenge this time. The explosive Hulk will give them a new dimension, and the addition of Yamagishi will tighten up the left side of midfield. With the stability and continuity from recent seasons, Frontale are a genuine threat this time.

But I'll go for Reds -- a year after tipping Gamba...


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Television's role in controversy

6 Mar 2008(Thu)

March 5, 2008: In near flawless English, Antlers manager Oswaldo Oliveira is a quote machine for the media after every match.

He was in particularly fine form on Saturday after the Xerox Super Cup, or the Xerox Super Mess as one English-language newspaper so fittingly described it the next day.

Amongst Oswaldo's cutting observations was the role of television in such controversies; or, rather, the lack of it -- a subject I have written about before as the approach of the TV stations here differs vastly to England and, presumably, most other countries.

Oswaldo pointed out that controversial incidents were often "passed over" and the coverage simply "jumped" to the next moment. No slow-motion replays. No analysis. No debate. Who was right? Who was wrong?

In Saturday's match, the sports news shows had a feast of fouls to dissect and devour, from the red cards to disallowed goals, from the penalty award to the retaken kicks (on both sides) and, of course, the rare pitch invasion.

Wouldn't it have been entertaining, educational even, to see those moments replayed and replayed from different angles in the weekend football shows; not just to show the referee may have been wrong on occasions (Kubo's penalty), but also to show he or his assistant was right, such as Tashiro's disallowed goal in the first half when clearly the flag was up for offside against Araiba before he crossed the ball. It wasn't Tashiro who was offside.

Many decisions look wrong or harsh on first viewing, but replays often prove the officials to be right. On a few occasions this season, for example, I have heard the colour commentators on the English Premier League apologise to the ref and admit he did, in fact, make a great call.

The controversies came so thick and fast on Saturday that it was difficult to understand what was going on, so a thorough debate and analysis by the TV pundits would have shed some light.

It never came -- and the repeat of the match I saw on the G+ Channel in the early hours of Sunday morning ignored the post-shootout melee to focus on a hero interview with Hisato Sato, completely missing the drama and the theatre unfolding behind them.

Oswaldo was trying to be fair to both sides in his assessment, saying he thought the red card for Sanfrecce was unfair, too, while pointing out that the Sanfrecce keeper had advanced off his line more for the penalty misses of Danilo and Motoyama than Sogahata had in saving from Stoyanov and Saito.

Ideal topics for debate and for conclusions, but they were "passed over" -- as Oswaldo would say -- on everything I saw later on Saturday and Sunday.


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J.League's 'one-stop shop' is a big hit

3 Mar 2008(Mon)

March 1, 2008: One of the highlights of the football season is over before a ball has been kicked.

The J.League's "Kick Off Conference" took place at the Tokyo Prince Park Tower Hotel on Friday afternoon, and featured the manager and a player from all 33 clubs, among them Okubo, Iwamasa, Keita Suzuki, Shimomura, Tamada and Tokunaga.

One J.League executive described it as a "one-stop shop" for the media regarding season preview work, and 700 media took advantage of this lavish public relations exercise.

I can't remember anything like this at all back in England, other than the Player of the Year award in London at the end of the season, organised by the Football Writers' Association.

At those events, players and managers were out in force, but, apart from the official business, it was all "off the record", and a chance to relax and chat over dinner.

The situations in England and Japan, of course, are very different.

English football does not need to provide such an organised pre-season event because the game is part of everyday life and the media attention never wavers. The media will turn up no matter how squalid the facilities, how hostile the reception, or how uncooperative the managers and players on occasions may be.

The J.League, on the other hand, had to woo the media in the early days, and hang on to them in a sporting establishment steeped in the history and tradition of baseball and sumo.

And the J.League has done a fantastic job in this aspect, as evidenced by the massive turnout on Friday and the ocean of information available at the 33 colourful club kiosks.

The main theme of the official part of the programme was the J.League's aim to attract 11 million fans in season 2010.

Last year the figure was 8.8 million, and it will need an increase of 7 per cent each season to achieve that goal. The target this year is 9.5 million for J1, J2, Nabisco Cup and the home games of the three clubs in the AFC Champions League, and this looks well within reach.

Clearly the J.League is firmly established in Japan's sporting world, but I cannot imagine the day when the authoritires here take the media for granted and scrap this glittering "one-stop shop".


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