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June 2008

Luck was on Japan's side in qualifying draw

30 Jun 2008(Mon)

June 28, 2008: Philippe Troussier once outlined the qualities needed to be a successful coach.

His list included the usual things about tactics, strategy and man-management, but ended with the following.

"Above all," Troussier concluded, "a coach must be lucky."

Looking at the draw for the final Asian qualifying round for the 2010 World Cup, Takeshi Okada certainly had luck on his side in Kuala Lumpur on Friday.

It's not so much who Japan drew that stands out, but who they avoided -- Iran, Saudi Arabia and the two Koreas, as well as UAE.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are strong and experienced teams, and know what it takes to get to the World Cup, while any matches against South or North Korea are accompanied by so much political and historical baggage that it makes it difficult to actually focus on the football. These are not normal matches, and the odds are stacked against Japan psychologically.

And while the Emirates are no great shakes ('sheikhs' perhaps?), they are coached by Bruno Metsu, who enjoys something of a mythical status when it comes to the World Cup.

So, all in all, Japan have come out of this draw pretty well.

They have the top seeds, Australia, plus Bahrain (again and again), Uzbekistan (bring back Kazu!) and Qatar, described as "cosmopolitan" in one article I read recently, referring to their generous immigration policy.

The two matches against Pim Verbeek's Australia will be the most eagerly awaited by Japan, due to their growing rivalry, but it's going to be the away games against the others that hold the key to Japan's hopes.

In the third qualifying round they lost tamely in Bahrain and drew in Oman thanks to a penalty scored by Endo and a penalty saved by Narazaki.
They only beat Thailand away, and, let's face it, the Thais wouldn't be good enough to win J2.

So Japan's away form must improve significantly in the final round. They must keep the points ticking over in these away games, otherwise they will put themselves under too much pressure to win at home.

They can't afford to take the field with the same listless, pedestrian approach they showed in Manama in March, and hope to hang on for a draw or scramble a win.
They have got to take the initiative and be positive, and play like a team that has played in the last three World Cups and wants to go to a fourth.

The other teams will fear Japan because of their recent record in World Cup qualifying and because of the talent available to Okada, so Japan must live up to this reputation and dominate games, especially away from home.

I firmly believe Japan can finish in the top two and qualify for South Africa.

If they finish third in this weaker group, their chances of beating the third-place team from the other group would be low indeed.


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Mizumoto can bounce back with Kyoto

26 Jun 2008(Thu)

June 25, 2008: Even before the season started, Kyoto Sanga looked the best equipped of the three promoted teams to survive in J1.

Now, with the addition of Mizumoto, they are capable of doing more than that -- and losing their tag as a yo-yo team, constantly going up and down.

Despite what happened to Mizumoto at Gamba, he remains one of the best central defenders in Japan and has a bright future ahead of him.

He is quick and combative, and has already emerged as a leader, first with JEF United and then with the Olympic team.

What he lost at Gamba, though, was his confidence, possibly going back to his costly slip in the East Asian Championship in China which allowed Chong Tese to score for North Korea.

That was way back on February 17, and Gamba never saw the best of him.

So now he moves on to Sanga, joining the player he was meant to replace at Gamba, the much-travelled Sidiclei, in Kyoto's "Kato-naccio" defence.

Mizumoto will also be reunited with another former JEF favourite, Yuto Sato, in a team that is building up its depth in all departments.

He is a good signing for Kyoto, and has the ability and the character to bounce back into the national squad in time for the final round of Asian qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup, starting in September.

Can Koji Nakata do the same, following his return to Kashima from Basel?

First, Nakata must establish himself in the Antlers team, and that is not going to be easy.

Although he is an extremely versatile player -- so much so that it is as good as signing two players -- Oswaldo Oliveira has a settled side and plenty of cover at the back and in midfield.

Left back, central defence, central midfield...Nakata can do a good job in all these positions.

But Araiba, with his raids down the flank from left back, is a key component of the Antlers strategy; either Oiwa or Inoha can play alongside Iwamasa in the centre of defence, and Aoki and Ogasawara are a dynamic tandem in midfield.

Nakata must prove himself again for Kashima, despite his achievements of the past, and will have plenty of opportunity to do so with Asian Champions League, Nabisco Cup and J1 coming up.


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Why should Okubo go to the Olympics?

23 Jun 2008(Mon)

June 20, 2008: Yoshito Okubo only has himself to blame for his red card against Oman and subsequent three-match ban by FIFA.

It was a silly, petulant and unnecessary kick at keeper Ali Al Habsi after their goalmouth clash, and the referee had no option but to send him off.

His punishment was announced on Thursday, and it included a fine for the JFA.

With all this going on, I'm surprised to keep reading and hearing that Okubo is in line for his second Olympic appearance, this time as an overage player in Beijing.

While he would no doubt add a bit of zip and aggression to the forward line, I don't think Okubo should be considered at all after this latest indiscretion.

Even if coach Sorimachi does pick one, two or three overage players, why should Okubo be one of them?

No, he's let down his country with his red card, and an Olympic call-up would be hard to justify by the JFA.

What sort of a message does that give to youngsters around the country? Kick the keeper when he's on the ground, get sent off in a crucial World Cup qualifier -- and win a place in the Olympics!

As much a fan as I am of Okubo's, and still believe he can become a regular goal scorer for the national team, I don't think he should take the place of a more worthy candidate.

I have said before that I don't think Japan should include any overage players anyway, as the Olympics is more about experience than medals as far as the men's football team is concerned, and I'd rather take a young wild card such as Mu Kanazaki than Okubo, who will gain nothing.

And if Okubo is selected, the other teams will have done their homework and will be winding him up from the kick-off, waiting for him to explode and, hopefully, get another red card.

With only 16 outfield players, it would be a massive blow to lose one of them through suspension during the tournament.

Okubo must now set about restoring his pride by being a more mature captain of Vissel Kobe, rather than pulling on the blue shirt in Tianjin and Shenyang.


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Okada addresses problems on the left

19 Jun 2008(Thu)

June 18, 2008: The Grampus connection, the excellent left foot, keen interest from national coach Takeshi Okada...

We could be talking about Takashi Hirano back in 1998, when the former Grampus midfielder was in Japan's 22 for the World Cup in France, but 10 years on it's all about Keisuke Honda.

With their place in the last Asian qualifying round for the 2010 World Cup already secured, Okada is setting about addressing the weaknesses in his squad.

And, without doubt, one of these remains the lack of a left-footed player to patrol the left flank.

Hence the fact that Okada has promoted Honda from the Olympic squad and recalled the fit-again Yasuda for Sunday's match against Bahrain at Saitama Stadium.

I have said before that I am a fan of Komano's, but on the right side, not left.

Although he can ping over a decent cross from time to time, it's hit and miss whether he will make clean contact with his left foot -- and one miss in a critical area could prove costly against top opposition in the final round of qualifying.

This is why it's vital Okada bolsters this area, and why he will have a look at Honda in training this week and possibly against Bahrain.

Like Hirano before him, Honda is a natural left-footer and has a good physique. Although he is essentially an attack-minded player, he can work much deeper on the left flank, even at left back in a four-man defence.

Another selling point for Honda is his set-piece expertise.

He showed with the Olympic team again the other night against Cameroon that he has a wicked free kick which swerves and dips and makes life uncomfortable for defenders and keeper alike. Has Honda been studying the explosive free kick technique of Rivelino? Looks like it to me.

In the end, Japan's win in Bangkok was very straightforward.

It didn't take long for the heavy artillery (Tulio and Nakazawa) to blast through the Thai defence, but I still felt they needed more punch up front in open play when the ball was worked into wide positions. There was no target to aim at.

Now, with the job done, surely it would make sense to give Shunsuke a rest.

With stronger motivation, which Japan would have at home after their timid defeat in Manama, they should be able to beat Bahrain without Shunsuke.

Give him a break. Let his right ankle heal. Let him build up his fitness in summer training with Celtic and then take him back for the serious business in September.

I just can't see the point in risking him against Bahrain, even with all this talk of revenge.


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Umesaki -- the good and the bad

16 Jun 2008(Mon)

June 13, 2008: Tsukasa Umesaki -- What a quick, clever...totally annoying player he is.

A good player, for sure, with the potential, at 21, to be one of the best Japan has produced.

But doesn't he irritate you, the way he goes to ground so quickly and so often?

Against Cameroon at National Stadium on Thursday night, I reckon Umesaki set some kind of Japanese record: He'd only touched the ball six times but already won seven free kicks!

Okay, so I'm exaggerating a bit, but he really does overdo it on the theatrics, expecting the referee to give a free kick every time he falls down.

This is a dangerous assumption by Umesaki, because when the ref waves play on -- and sometimes they do -- he has taken himself out of the game and is no good to his team when he is on the floor appealing or grumbling.

But the boy can play, there is no doubt about that; and against Cameroon he surely secured his place in the Olympic 18.

He set up a wonderful chance for Morimoto in the ninth minute with a low cross from the right, but the striker put it wide of the far post. How costly a miss could that be for Morimoto, who is now struggling to make the squad.

In fact I think Morimoto was extremely lucky to stay on the field after that shocking challenge on the right back, Georges Ndoum. Maybe the ref was lenient on Morimoto because it was only a friendly and it was quite early in the game, 27 minutes, but I thought it deserved a red card at the time and even more so when I watched it again on TV later in the night.

So while Morimoto is doubtful, Umesaki is a certainty.

Going back to the Toulon Tournament, the young Reds schemer scored a lovely header against France, arriving in the box with a late run to meet Okazaki's exquisite cross from the right with a header from near the penalty spot that was perfectly placed inside the far post. The defenders never saw him, and the keeper had no chance.

That was on 16 minutes, and he spent the rest of the game on the floor annoying the French players and bench alike. (In Umesaki's defence, there's actually nothing wrong with annoying the French. I'm all for it really.)

Against Cameroon, he forced a great save from Joslain Mayebi with his clever, side-foot volley, again with a well-timed run into the box to elude his marker.

When Umesaki went off in the 67th minute, Sorimachi gave him an enthusiastic handshake as if to say, "Well done son, you're in!" And he deserves to be because he has a bright future ahead of him.

He is also extremely useful with his delivery at set-pieces; not yet the master of taking free kicks -- but certainly the master of winning them.


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Maki for Okubo would be logical move

12 Jun 2008(Thu)

June 11, 2008: Takeshi Okada has a reputation as a big thinker.

But I hope he does not think too much about how to replace the suspended Okubo for Saturday's match in Bangkok.

Surely the solution is simple -- he just brings in Maki and tries to win this one where Japan are stronger, in the air.

With two set-piece experts in Endo and Shunsuke, right and left foot, respectively, and Nakazawa and Tulio already in the team, the addition of Maki would further boost Japan's chances of victory.

There is nothing wrong with taking a direct route, as Japan proved in the home win against Oman, and I hope they take the game to Thailand from the first whistle on Saturday.

The Japanese are bigger and stronger than the Thais, and quicker, more experienced and more technical; superior in every department, in fact.

The only way they can fail is in their heads; if they allow Thailand to get on top and don't play with the urgency and authority demanded of the situation.

This is why Maki would be a good outlet, occupying one or two defenders with his aerial power and opening up some space for a teammate to exploit, just like Hanyu used to do with JEF United.

The strongest part of Maki's game is his ability at the back post to get up above his marker and head the ball down into the danger zone, where Tamada can capitalise.

Add in the free kicks and the corners, for which the heavy artillery can move up from the back, and Japan should be able to create enough chances to win this game comfortably.

It might not be pretty; it might not be the style of football Okada ultimately wants to produce; but it is practical and logical against such opposition.

No one will care how Japan get three points, just so long as they do -- and, who knows, on the night it might be enough to book them a place in the last round of qualifying with one game to go.

Even if Okubo had not been suspended I still think there was a strong case for adding some muscle up front against Thailand, possibly at the expense of Tamada.

But now, the choices are down to either Maki or Yano up front with Tamada, and Maki's experience gives him the edge.

Japan beat Thailand 4-1 at home in the Saitama snow in February (both Nakazawa and Maki scored, remember), and I don't see why they can't do it again in the Bangkok humidity, provided they play to their strengths: aerial ability at set-pieces.


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Overage player debate nears conclusion

9 Jun 2008(Mon)

June 6, 2008: The big matches are coming thick and fast at the moment, and the Japan-Cameroon under-23 international on Thursday, June 12, is among them.

It's not big in that the result means much, of course, but it is still important and significant for coach Sorimachi and his Olympic hopefuls.

The last time I spoke with Sorimachi, after a trial game against Omiya Ardija at NACK5 Stadium, he said he would decide on the overage player issue after the Cameroon game.

He did not mean he would announce which overage players he would select, but whether or not he would call up any.

If he does decide to bolster his squad with one, two or three players over the age of 23, clearly he is thinking about the welfare of the clubs, as J1 will be ongoing.

"If I picked Tulio, Keita Suzuki and Takahara, for example, the Reds fans would be very angry with me," he said. "There has to be negotiation between the JFA and the clubs."

My own feeling is that Japan should go to the Olympics without any overage players.

Sorimachi can pick only 18, including two goalkeepers, and there are enough good players at his disposal to select a decent squad.

I am not thinking about medals here, because talk of medals in Olympic football misses the point in Japan's case.

Unlike in many sports, the Olympics is not the pinnacle of a player's career.

They are well down the list, not only light years behind the World Cup but also behind continental championships and club championships, too.

I would rather the JFA pick players for the future, using the Olympics as a stepping stone to the national team and for young players to gain experience.

Even though three overage players would strengthen the team, I wouldn't like to see seasoned internationals brought in at the expense of a talented youngster who could really benefit; for example Nakazawa instead of Morishige, or Shunsuke instead of Umesaki.

In addition to this, the final round of World Cup qualifiers starts in September, so I would prefer to save my international players for this, rather than burning them out in China in August.

Sorimachi has named a squad of 21 for the Cameroon game, and there are others on duty with the national team (Nagatomo, Uchida and Kagawa), plus injuries such as Yasuda.

The job of picking 18 is going to be tough anyway, but maybe it will be a little clearer after Thursday.


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Tragedy and triumph at Yokohama

5 Jun 2008(Thu)

June 3, 2008: A day that began with apprehension and continued with sadness ended on a triumphant note against Oman at Nissan Stadium on Monday.

This was a big match for Japan after the timid defeat in Bahrain, and as we queued to enter the stadium in the late afternoon, word came of the death of Ken Naganuma.

In an instant, all the debates about Okada's selection and formation were irrelevant, as Japan had just lost a football pioneer.

I recalled the last time I had chatted with the former JFA president, and remember him telling me that over 1,000 children had just taken part in a tournament at Saitama Stadium 2002.

He was so proud and so excited about this achievement, and had a sparkle in his eye -- as enthusiastic about the game now as a young boy putting on his first pair of new football boots.

A moment of silence before the national anthems and black arm bands for the players created a sombre setting, before Japan burst into life and produced a performance to be proud of.

Japan did everything demanded of the occasion, and more.

Forget tactics and personnel; what impressed the most was their hunger, their positive attitude and their authority.

Their status as one of Asia's top teams was under threat, and they responded with a magnificent display to send the crowd home buzzing.

A swashbuckling header from the captain Nakazawa to get things moving; a cool-as-a-cucumber strike from Okubo after Shunsuke Nakamura had picked out Tulio's bustling run from the back; and then a right-foot drive into the corner from Shunsuke after great work on the left from Matsui.

Predictably, all the post-match talk and the TV replays focused on Shunsuke's magic on the edge of the box, but Matsui's contribution must not be overlooked.

The French aristocrat is looking more and more like the finished product -- the performing sea lion of the Kyoto circus has become the lion king of Japan's World Cup qualifying campaign. And how the fans roared on the final whistle!

This was Japan how they can be, how they should be; a blur of brilliant blue.


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Taka: from Superman to Invisible Man

2 Jun 2008(Mon)

May 30, 2008: All strikers suffer a loss of form when the goals just dry up.

In such circumstances, the player's manager will inevitably say something on the lines of: "I am not worried just because he missed a couple of chances. He can't score in every game. Happens to everyone. I'd be more concerned if he wasn't getting any chances."

Enter Naohiro Takahara.

Had Taka been getting into position in the box and missing chances, Takeshi Okada would have left him in the squad. With a record like Takahara's, it would only be a matter of time before the chances started going in again.

But the problem for the player is that he is not getting any chances at all.

He is not missing a hatful every game; he just isn't in the game.

From Superman at the 2007 Asian Cup, Takahara has become the Invisible Man.

After a recent Reds game, when Takahara was substituted, I had a good chat with Gert Engels about his Boy from the Bundesliga.

"Of course he is worried," Engels said, "but not in a strange way. He has to be worried if he does not score and if he is substituted."

Engels said Takahara and the team were still getting to know each other, and that he was optimistic the goals would come once he learned how to cope with the packed defences Reds faced.

"Of course he is not happy with the situation," added Engels. "I think he is over-working at the moment. He is not cool. You have to be patient. That is the big point."

With Takahara clearly off the pace when he came off the bench against Paraguay the other night (yes, he did come on for Maki on 63 minutes), Okada decided it was best to send him back to Reds in the hope he would find some match fitness...find anything, really, from the Taka of old.

Takahara will be back -- and will be needed for the final round of qualifiers, provided there are no further mishaps in June.

The Invisible Man can change back and still be a super hero on the road to South Africa.


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