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May 2008

Okada still has questions to answer

29 May 2008(Thu)

May 28, 2008: If the Kirin Cup was meant to prepare Japan for the Oman game on Monday, Takeshi Okada must have more doubts now than he did a week ago.

What his starting line-up and formation will be is anyone's guess, apart from the goalkeeper (Narazaki) and back four (Komano, Nakazawa, Tulio and Nagatomo).

Of course Shunsuke Nakamura will be in, so that's six.

The rest of the places look far from settled -- and will Japan play 4-4-2 or 4-5-1?

Whatever he decides in the next few days, one thing is clear: Japan must attack hard from the start and try to grab an early goal, because the longer the match goes on without a goal, the more frustrated they -- and the fans -- will become.

Expect Oman to defend deep, as they will be happy with a draw.

This means Japan must get round the back of them, which they struggled to do against Paraguay, and get the ball in the box to create some chances in front of goal.

I want to see them putting Oman under pressure with players running at defenders, players shooting; in general playing at a high tempo.

Against Paraguay there was too much laboured build-up, too much pass-pass-passing in areas that were never going to hurt the opposition.

The Omanis will be happy to sit back and watch that from distance, as opposed to being forced on the back foot from the opening whistle by an aggressive Japan attacking down the wings and through the middle.

For this reason I would play Okubo, as he thinks positively and knows how to win free kicks in the Shunsuke zone.

I'd play Matsui on the left as he has the craft and the speed to get round the full back and send over an accurate cross. Ditto Yamase on the right, although this is not his natural position.

I just want to see some speed and dynamism on the wings, and some width to Japan's attack from the midfield, because they get bogged down with their intricate passing through the middle, and moves break down too easily without a chance being created for all the ball possession.

Suzuki and Konno would hold the team balance in the centre of midfield, and Shunsuke would be allowed to roam free, behind Okubo -- the solitary striker in a Rooney role.

I feel this team has speed, substance, width, experience, balance, height..and, dare I say it, goals -- at least two (and that's only half time!).

My team for Monday (4-4-1-1): Narazaki; Komano, Nakazawa, Tulio, Nagatomo; Yamase, Suzuki, Konno, Matsui; Nakamura; Okubo.


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Lee has earned his Olympic place

26 May 2008(Mon)

May 23, 2008: If Tadanari Lee was not already on Yasuharu Sorimachi's list of 18 for the Olympic Games, then surely he is now.

Displaying equal measures of industry and adventure, the Kashiwa Reysol striker scored the only goal of the game as Japan beat the Netherlands 1-0 in the prestigious Toulon Tournament for young hopefuls.

Sorimachi, it is true, has not much choice up front, as the forward department is quite bare; so much so that Yoshito Okubo is being tipped as a strong contender for an over-age spot.

But Lee for one has done enough in qualifying, and since then, to book his place.

Although he is quite lightweight for a target man, he has pace and a venomous left foot, and used his skill and strength to get the better of his Dutch marker before striking the ball home with the outside of his left foot. I also like his personality, as there is a spark about him on the pitch and a bit of attitude.

Another player who really impressed for Japan, but in an area where the competition for places is much stronger, was Masato Morishige, who played in the centre of the back four, alongside captain Mizumoto (although the TV feed listed Inoha, who played at right back, as captain).

With Aoyama, Inoha, Mizumoto, Yoshida, Morishige and, back home, Makino all in with a strong claim for a place, I don't understand the talk about Tulio and Nakazawa being needed as a central defender in the Olympics. This is one of the strong areas, although I am not saying the younger players are better than Tulio or Nakazawa.

Sorimachi's formation was interesting: 4-2-3-1, with Lee on his own supported by Mizuno, Taniguchi and Keisuke Honda.

This is a very pragmatic solution to Japan's lack of quality strikers in this age group, and the lone ranger up front is a common trend in the modern game (Rooney and Drogba in the Champions League final, for example)

Taniguchi had scored a couple of fine goals in a trial match at Omiya NACK5 Stadium recently, and Sorimachi used him in a more advanced role than he plays for Frontale in the hope he could hit some shots from edge-of-the-box range.

One last word on Inoha. He was guilty of some blatant shirt-pulling that went unpunished in the early stages, and I hope Sorimachi warns him against this.

Goals might be at a premium for Japan in the Olympics, so the last thing they need is to concede a penalty or a free kick around the box due to this unnecessary sort of foul.

Inoha is good enough to get the better of his striker without resorting to such sly and risky tactics.


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Self-policing can prevent escalation

22 May 2008(Thu)

May 21, 2008: Those were disturbing scenes at Saitama Stadium 2002 on Saturday.

Objects flying between two sets of fans; fences to segregate them being torn down; 800 away fans being kept in the ground for safety reasons before 10,000 home supporters waiting for them outside could be dispersed, finally, after three and a half hours.

It took me back to the bad old days of the Eighties, where these scenes were commonplace at football in England and wherever the England national team played.

But it is too early to talk of a major hooligan problem in Japan just yet, and the authorities have the opportunity to act quickly.

Whatever sanctions are imposed, and surely Urawa will be fined for failing to control the situation, a vital role must be played by the fans themselves.

Just like in the fight against racism at stadiums in England, supporters are urged to identify people who racially abuse players to security guards.

Hopefully this can apply in the J.League, as when children are hit by missiles thrown by other fans they will stop coming to matches and so will their mothers -- and that would be a massive blow for the reputation and the future of the J.League.

Japanese football prides itself on its family appeal, and quite rightly, too, as I still find the atmosphere refreshing at J.League games after the dangers of attending matches around England in the 70s and 80s.

So if responsible Gamba fans see an irresponsible Gamba fan throw a water balloon, give him (or her) a ticking-off. (I say "her" because at the height of hooliganism in England, the ring leader of Wolverhampton Wanderers was famously a woman).

Give the trouble-maker a piece of your mind, turn him (or her!) over to the authorities if necessary. Do something -- because this self-policing can play a major role in stemming the problem.

The J.League could do worse than bring together representatives of the official fan groups and advise them what action is necessary to avoid an escalation; Reds at Kashima for example, or Reds at Gamba?

Let's hope the scenes at Saitama were not the start of hooliganism in Japan, but the end.

Somehow, though, I don't think it is over yet.


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Matsui succeeds in tough environment

19 May 2008(Mon)

May 16, 2008: No prizes for guessing who will dominate the news in the build-up to the Kirin Cup and World Cup qualifiers.

Naturally it will be Shunsuke Nakamura, whose set-piece expertise and big-match experience were sorely missed by Japan in the defeat to Bahrain.

But it’s another of the foreign legionnaires I am looking forward to seeing the most, namely Daisuke Matsui.

The former Purple Prince of Kyoto has been an outstanding success in France with Le Mans, and could yet become a major influence in Okada’s Japan.

It is not just his play on the pitch that has impressed, but also how well he has adapted to life in France since moving there in 2004.

Let’s face it, France is not the easiest of places to settle. The language is extremely difficult to grasp, and the environment can appear very alien – hostile at times – even to other Europeans.

So Matsui has done tremendously well in making his name in France, whose league is regarded as fifth in the unofficial European table, behind the big four of England, Spain, Italy and Germany.

For those who have followed Matsui’s career since he started with Kyoto in 2000, his success may have come as a surprise. He always had the skill, of course, and the flashy moves that were pleasing on the eye, but he looked a bit of a show-off and a one-man band.

Pim Verbeek for one found the superstar treatment Matsui received at Kyoto quite frustrating – in the same way Philippe Troussier did with Shinji Ono early in his reign in 1998.

So Matsui has had to add some steel and discipline to his game, some substance to go with the style, in order to survive in a league known for its fast and physical African presence.

If Okada plays 4-4-2, Matsui would slot in nicely on the left side of midfield, with a good defender behind him. Pity Koji Nakata is not around.

Perhaps the best formation for Matsui, however, would be 3-4-2-1, so he could play as one of the two shadow strikers, behind the centre forward, and free of defensive responsibilities.

Wherever Matsui plays, he will be in a position to inject some much-needed pace into Japan’s attack.


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Chasing two hares is not easy for top dogs

15 May 2008(Thu)

May 13, 2008: A few seasons ago, Takeshi Okada described how difficult it was for a team to win both the J.League championship and the AFC Champions League in the same year.

It was like a dog chasing two hares, Okada said, during his time as manager of Yokohama F Marinos.

One hare was running in one direction, the other hare was going in the opposite direction, and the dog was in the middle, having to choose the juiciest prize.

Urawa Reds discovered this last season. After catching one hare, namely the AFC Champions League, they set off in pursuit of the J.League title, only to run out of steam and come up just short.

Now, the team that benefited from Urawa's late collapse last term, Kashima Antlers, are feeling the heat themselves.

The J.League top dogs in 2007 have fallen eight points off the pace as they attempt to book their place in the last eight of the AFC Champions League.

Gamba Osaka have already made it, joining Reds in the hat for the quarter-finals, and Antlers are well on course but must clear one more hurdle -- meaning they still need to win their last game, in Vietnam, to hold off Beijing Guoan.

Having beaten Nam Dinh 6-0 at home, it would be a major surprise if they failed to collect three points again, but, nevertheless, they must still go away and win the May 21 match to be safe.

After a recent draw against Omiya Ardija at NACK5 Stadium, Kashima manager Oswaldo Oliviera said ideally he needed two teams to cope with such a demanding schedule.

The travel, the difference in climate and conditions...and then a hungry J1 team waiting for them on their return to Japan.

This was another major factor in the fight on two fronts, Oswaldo stressed, as the J1 team had more time to prepare and focus only on the J.League fixture.

Oswaldo was not making excuses, though, Far from it. He was just elaborating on the Okada theory of trying to catch two hares at the same time.

If Antlers can follow Gamba into the last eight -- giving Japan three teams in the quarter-finals and a chance of three in the last four as they cannot be drawn against each other -- then at least they have time to regroup.

Which hare will Oswaldo try and catch then?


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More JEF jottings as Miller moves in

12 May 2008(Mon)

May 10, 2008: Saitama Stadium 2002 is earning a reputation as the graveyard of J.League managers in 2008.

Okay, so it is only two managers who have fallen the next day after losing a match at Saista, but the mood in the corridors of power was eerily similar.

First it was Holger Osieck, who was fired after Reds lost at home to Grampus only two matches into the new campaign.

And this week it was Josip Kuze, whose reign at JEF United lasted only 11 games, which yielded a paltry two points.

The following day, Thursday, JEF announced that Alex Miller would take over, leaving his coaching post at Anfield to try and save the Chiba club from relegation.

Although Miller will have his own ideas, he could do worse than heed the words of Gert Engels, who succeeded Osieck at Reds and has taken them to the top of the table.

Admittedly, the German has better players to work with, and a much bigger and more experienced squad, but, still, his observations can also apply to United.

Engels said his first job was to change the mood of the players, to make training fun so that the players looked forward to match day.

He also said he encouraged Reds to play more direct, more straight, and less across the pitch. One of the first things Miller will notice, and no doubt wince over, is the Japanese tendency to play short passes in dangerous areas, even on the edge of their own box.

When this comes off and a team plays its way out of trouble, it is very pleasing on the eye. When a team has no confidence, however, it is suicidal.

I am sure the first thing he will tell them is to play safe, meaning knocking the ball down the line, out of trouble, instead of across their own box. This may seem a very British trait, but it is also very practical and risk-free in such a precarious situation.

Another Engels point was to find a settled formation, so that all players knew their job and when changes had to be made, the new player was completely comfortable in his role. Echoes of Troussier here.

Kuze tried to play a 4-5-1 formation from the start, but a succession of injuries and strategic breakdowns did not allow him to find a settled team or system.

This is going to be hard for Miller, too, as he will be starting from scratch with a group of players low on confidence and with niggling injuries aplenty.

At least Miller will have some time, though, as the summer break follows the 13th round of games, just two home matches from now.

It will be like JEF's season starting over, four months after everyone else.


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Desperate JEF must break the curse of Fukuare

8 May 2008(Thu)

May 7, 2008: What a mess JEF United are in at the moment.

Two points from a possible 33, the future of the manager already in the headlines, and with frantic but so far fruitless efforts behind the scenes to try and sign new players.

The one thing that has remained constant is the support from the Chiba faithful.

They were in their thousands at Saitama Stadium 2002 on Tuesday, more yellow in the away corner than used to be around the whole ground at Ichihara Rinkai Stadium during the dark days.

"They are the best supporters I have ever played for," says Australian central defender Eddy Bosnar.

"If we'd had a run like this at Dinamo Zagreb I wouldn't have been able to go out for dinner. No way. But here...they are fantastic."

And really it's the JEF supporters you feel sorry for the most, as the Osim World has crumbled around them and they are left standing in the dusty ruins.

I have to admit I did not think things would be as bad as this at the start of the season, although I was very much in a minority.

Of course it was going to be hard losing five first-team regulars in Mizumoto, Mizuno, Sato, Hanyu and Yamagishi, but a backbone of Saito-Shimomura-Maki remained, fleshed out by Osim era veterans, hungry new recruits, impressive youngsters such as Matsumoto at right back and Yonekura in midfield, and the foreign contingent.

And after seeing them win handsomely at Todoroki in an early Nabisco Cup fixture, I thought they were looking good.

In the league, though, the curse of Fukuda Denshi Arena struck again. I think a pivotal moment in the season came at home to Vissel Kobe when they were leading 1-0 going into injury time, only for a Norio Suzuki rocket to make it 1-1.

Had JEF held on in that game, their fourth in the league, and secured three points, I honestly feel they would have been up and running, and could have built on this.

That early buzz has disappeared now, though, and captain Shimomura was a forlorn figure after the 3-0 defeat against Reds.

The confidence had gone, he said, and compared to last season it felt like JEF were playing with only 10 men when they attacked due to the lack of options for the player on the ball, and with only 10 men when Reds had the ball. As captain, he told of how he had stepped in to break up an argument among players after the 3-0 defeat against Yokohama F Marinos.

Despite all the problems, I still feel JEF are good enough to get out of this situation and stay in J1. They have two home games -- against Kyoto and Oita -- before the long summer break, and six points would keep them in touch.

And if they falter at Fukuare again (and again), it's not a new manager they need -- it's an exorcist.


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Park Ji Sung -- the unsung hero

5 May 2008(Mon)

May 2, 2008: Sir Alex Ferguson says Paul Scholes will be the first name on his team sheet for the UEFA Champions League final against Chelsea on May 21.

But will there be a place for Park Ji Sung, the "made in Kyoto" midfielder who now enjoys cult status at Old Trafford?

On the evidence of the gripping semi-final victory over Barcelona, Park looks to have a good chance of starting the final in Moscow.

Once again he was one of United's unsung heroes, running tirelessly in both defence and attack to keep Barca busy. No wonder you will find words and phrases such as "industrious" and "lung-bursting efforts" in his profile on the official club website.

He really is a credit to the Asian game, isn't he? To Korea, to the J.League and especially to Kyoto Sanga.

He goes about his business in a professional manner, and never forgets the qualities that have taken him to the top.

There are no frills, no tricks; just good solid play, a strong mentality and the ability to make the right decision at the right time.

He has also made the right career decisions, too; first by joining Kyoto in June 2000 without having played for a K.League club, and then by following his mentor, Guus Hiddink, to PSV Eindhoven in January 2003.

After proving himself with PSV, notably against Milan in a UEFA Champions League semi-final, Park was signed by Ferguson in July 2005.

Since then he has continued to improve, despite having to fight back from serious knee problems, and can now look forward to another momentous occasion.

Hopefully the Asian Football Confederation will revise their long list of candidates for the 2008 Player of the Year award, because Park was not even among the 21 names released by the AFC on April 22.

Quite why the governing body in Asia should publish this initial list in April for an award to be presented in November is anyone's guess, as their flagship competition, the AFC Champions League, is only just getting warmed up.

But don't get me started on this AFC awards subject!

With his efforts so far this year, Park would be on my shortlist -- a shortlist of one.


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Tulio continues to revive Reds

1 May 2008(Thu)

April 30, 2008: One of the big reasons for the Urawa U-turn under Gert Engels is the form of defender turned midfielder Marcus Tulio Tanaka.

At first it appeared a stop-gap solution by Engels, moving Tulio forward to galvanise a struggling team with his energy and his aggression.

But it's working out so well that Tulio looks set to remain in central midfield for the considerable future, especially with a weakened Keita Suzuki recovering from a virus and several kilos lighter.

Reds needed a lift early in the season and Tulio provided it with his leadership, his ability to coax the best out of other players and, on a more practical note, his power in the air.

Against Consadole Sapporo at Saitama Stadium on Tuesday, Tulio was outstanding in his team's roller-coaster 4-2 victory.

Consadole manager Toshiya Miura singled out Tulio as Reds' most dangerous player, ahead of Takahara or Edmilson, and the man any team must shackle if they are to stop Reds.

"No matter which defender marked him man to man at set pieces, Tulio was always too strong," said Miura.

"This is one of the big differences between J2 and J1. In J1, the delivery of corners and free kicks is more accurate, and every team has a player who is very good in the air...Yano at Niigata, Tashiro at Kashima and Tulio at Urawa."

Against Consadole, Tulio notched his fifth league goal of the campaign, bulldozing his way through the visiting defence to head home Umesaki's left-wing corner at the far post, which Consadole had left unguarded.

But it was the one that got away, the effort that was disallowed in the 19th minute with Reds trailing 1-0, that continued to be discussed long after the final whistle.

Again it involved a perfect delivery from Umesaki, who shaped to shoot with a free kick but then changed his angle to pick out Tulio at the far post. A prodigious leap enabled Tulio to nod it back into the middle for Takahara to pounce in a red blur. A wonderful goal, or so everyone thought, including the scoreboard operator who flashed up 1-1, and the stadium announcer, before it was ruled out for offside against Tulio.

There is much more to his game than his heading prowess, of course, and former manager Holger Osieck once likened his range of passing, with either foot, to that of German full back Andreas Brehme.

Engels is convinced Tulio can be equally effective in this midfield role at international level, although he stressed this was not his business.

It is the business of Takeshi Okada, whose plodding team also needs shaking into life after losing their way in Bahrain.

Tulio for central midfield for Japan? It certainly gives the national coach food for thought before the Kirin Cup.


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