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July 2008

Crackling atmosphere at Kokuritsu

31 Jul 2008(Thu)

July 30, 2008: Even before the thunder and lightning struck, there was a special crackle around Kokuritsu on Tuesday evening.

Those famous light blue and white stripes of Argentina had attracted a big crowd to the National Stadium, over 43,000, and the match was played in a carnival atmosphere.

Even though the real thing -- Messi -- was not there, there were plenty of replica Messi shirts, as well as those of Veron, Batistuta, Saviola, Aimar and, naturally, Maradona.

Walking to the stadium was like walking through the history of Argentine football, and, if anything, the circumstances forcing the abandonment of the match added to the occasion.

Although there was jeering when the players went off with the stadium clock at 83 minutes, 35 seconds, and booing when the official announcement was made shortly after, the decisions were absolutely right.

First, the conditions were quite dangerous for fans and players alike with the lightning flashing all around; and second, the pitch quickly became unplayable due to the torrential rain.

Unlike the Antlers-Reds match on Sunday night when there was a lot at stake, it was not worth keeping everyone hanging around just to complete this Olympic friendly.

The 1-0 scoreline was about right, as Argentina were the better team but Japan hung in there and gave them a few scares.

My man of the match for Japan this time was the central defender Morishige.

I thought he had an outstanding first half in checking the runs of the Argentine forwards as they chased the delicate passes of Riquelme.

Like all good defenders, Morishige does not dive in to tackles recklessly, taking himself out of the game; he stands up, watches the ball, holds his ground and uses his body to shepherd players away from danger.

He plays with a natural aggression and intensity, especially in the air, yet is calm and focused at the right time and always stays goal-side of his man.

The positioning and play of Morishige was vital in keeping out Argentina in the first half, and his performance alongside the skipper Mizumoto will probably have sealed his place in the starting line-up at the Olympics, at the expense of Yoshida.

As for Argentina, they gave their many fans plenty to cheer, and not just the cool, right-footed finish of left winger Angel Di Maria.

With a midfield platform of Gago and Mascherano, Riquelme could dictate his team's rhythm like a conductor directing an orchestra; a calm passage here, a burst of energy there, but always fluid and in control.

Just a pity this concerto had to end early.


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Home's sweet Home's for Japan

28 Jul 2008(Mon)

July 26, 2008: That was an impressive performance by Japan at Home's Stadium Kobe the other day.

Not just the fact that they beat Australia, but because they showed good stamina in tough conditions and kept going right to the end.

With the Olympics just around the corner, no wonder the head coach was optimistic after such a confidence-boosting result.

But enough of the women.

The men played quite well, too, and coach Yasuharu Sorimachi must have been feeling pretty pleased with himself and his new-look team after the 2-1 win.

I thought the right back, Uchida, was Japan's best player, as he caused all sorts of problems for the Aussie left flank with his dashes down the wing.

It was Uchida's pass, of course, that led to Japan's equaliser, as Lee and Morimoto combined well to set up Kagawa, who finished smoothly into the corner.

Kagawa looked sharp and bright all night, running so freely off the left wing and injecting pace and adventure into the Japanese attack.

He certainly justified his selection on this performance, and the faith shown in him by national coach Takeshi Okada and Sorimachi, but I fear he is going to receive the ridiculous, over-the-top "Hirayama treatment" from the TV and media.

Even before kick-off, the overly loud stadium announcer saved a particularly piercing scream to introduce Kagawa, already dubbed the "Cerezo fantasista". Please...

And I noticed Kagawa's face constantly on the big screen -- the sort of spotlight they used to put on Sota Hirayama, even when he was sitting on the bench.

Expect more of the same hype and hysteria, starting with the Argentina game on Tuesday and all through the Olympics. The Japanese Messi, perhaps? I thought that was Ienaga.

While Kagawa impressed on the left side of Japan's four-man midfield, the same cannot be said of Keisuke Honda on the opposite flank.

The VVV-Venlo midfielder looked like a FFF-Fish out of water on the right side, quite unable to use his right foot when the situation demanded.
One moment in particular sticks in the mind, when Kagawa's through-ball in the 52nd minute sent him clear, but he shot with the outside of his left foot when the ball was begging to be struck with the right.

Funny, isn't it, how so many players with an excellent left foot just cannot or will not use their right, even at the very highest level.

Elsewhere, Yoshida let himself down with his ill-advised chest-down which let in Australia to open the scoring, proving how costly one moment of casual schoolyard football can be against experienced professionals.

As for Taniguchi, getting himself booked for his attempted slam dunk on a right-wing cross...

He'd only been on the field for 12 minutes, from the start of the second half, when folly took over.

Suppose he had fouled someone, accidentally, a little later and earned a second yellow card, reducing the team to 10 men in such stifling conditions; that first yellow would have been even more irresponsible.

I hope Sorimachi tells him that.

Overall, though, Japan played better than I expected. More compact, more dangerous. More confident.

The women's team weren't bad either.


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Football -- beautiful and cruel

24 Jul 2008(Thu)

July 23, 2008: We are always being told that football is the Beautiful Game -- but don't forget it's a Cruel Game, too.

Just ask any Kyoto Sanga fan who was at Nishikyogoku Stadium on Monday night for their home game with FC Tokyo.

What a cruel finish that was for the home team, who had played so well for 90 minutes and for the first two of three minutes injury time.

Then it all went so horribly wrong, as they conceded an equaliser and had to settle for a 1-1 draw.

As Kyoto manager Hisashi Kato said after the game, the atmosphere in the dressing room was more like a defeat.

"My players are all disappointed because we needed only one minute of patience," Kato sighed.

Lots can happen in one minute, and lots did at Nishikyogoku.

First, Kyoto right back Tatsuya Masushima was blown for a foul on Sota Hirayama. This was a surprise in itself, as Hirayama had been given nothing all night by referee Akio Okutani. On one occasion, in fact, I am sure the ref penalised Hirayama for breathing. It couldn't have been anything else.

So Tokyo had a free kick on the left, and the exhausted Kyoto players trotted back one last time for one last bit of defending.

As two of Tokyo's substitutes, Emerson (right foot) and Yohei Otake (left) stood over the ball, you knew the game was far from over. This situation had "late equaliser" written all over it. Emerson it was who curled the ball into the box, but like a lot of Tokyo set-pieces that night it looked over-hit.

Surely the Kyoto keeper, Yuichi Mizutani, would gobble this one up at the far post. I was so confident the game was over I had closed my notebook and was already thinking of the next big event in Kyoto that night -- okonomiyaki.

But Mizutani lost his bearings, missed the ball, and Tokyo's third sub, Shingo Akamine, said "maido okini" and headed it home.

Just as well, too, for the travelling fans behind that same goal had not been too impressed with their team. Akamine's equaliser and a 1-1 draw had, I am sure, saved them from a verbal battering by their own supporters.

As for the Kyoto fans, they were numbed into silence, but recovered to applaud their team off at the end. They deserved it, too, despite the late blunder.

Kato added: "The goalkeeper made a mistake, but every time he makes many saves for the team. I said to him 'it's football.'"

Football -- the beautiful game, the cruel game.


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The J.League's moonlight shadows

21 Jul 2008(Mon)

July 18, 2008: Several thousand J.League fans must have been grateful for the later evening kick-offs in midweek -- and the teams responded with value for money at both matches I attended.

On Wednesday it was FC Tokyo against Gamba at the National Stadium, followed by Reds against Verdy at Saitama Stadium on Thursday.

Both matches had a 7.30 kick-off, and that extra half-hour for fans to get to the ground surely contributed to almost 28,000 at National Stadium and over 35,000 at Saista.

These are excellent crowds for midweek games, and also good policy to split the fixtures over two match nights in terms of publicity and media/TV exposure.

Let's start at National Stadium. It was great to see Naohiro Ishikawa flying down the wing again for FC Tokyo, turning the clock back to when he was one of the most exciting players in the league.

Had centre forward Cabore been a bit sharper in front of goal -- as sharp as Akamine, for example -- FC Tokyo could have capitalised more on the dynamic wing play of Ishikawa.

But Akamine, Tokyo's "fox in the box", remained on the bench until the 81st minute, by which time Ishikawa was long gone and on the bench himself since early in the second half.

And what on earth was Sota Hirayama doing in the first half getting himself booked for simulation?

The big man had plenty of opportunity to shoot for goal, but was reluctant to pull the trigger. When the chance had gone, he made a late attempt to earn selection for Japan's Olympic diving team, and referee Takuya Maeda had an easy job in locating his yellow card -- once he had stopped laughing, that is.

A 1-1 draw was fair enough -- but a consequence of watching Gamba is that for the next few days I can't stop singing the fans' catchy anthem, "Moonlight Shadow" by Mike Oldfield (or was it by Sally Oldfield?)

(By the way, one line in that has always puzzled me: "Four a.m. in the morning," she sings -- as if 4 a.m. could be in the afternoon! For English students, a good example here of tautology.)

Back to football, and to Saitama Stadium on Thursday night.

A full moon was shining brightly and it certainly brought out the beast in Tulio -- and the best in him, too.

At times it looked like there were three Tulios on the pitch for Reds, one at the back, one in midfield and one up front -- winning headers, winning a penalty, scoring a penalty, scoring headers, having Nasu for breakfast (as opposed to Nato for breakfast like most Japanese).

Congratulations, too, to referee Yuichi Nishimura for showing some commonsense and not booking Tulio for his theatrical goal celebrations, which involved running behind the goal and balancing rather precariously on the advertising board to milk the applause of the fans.

I was worried that the ref might book him for showing the passion and emotion FIFA president Sepp Blatter is always talking about, and was very encouraged to see him let it go.

Two very enjoyable J.League nights.

The only problem is..."4 a.m. in the morning -- carried away by a moonlight shadow (shadow)."

Try it on Youtube and you will see what I mean!


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Sorimachi's omissions are baffling

17 Jul 2008(Thu)

July 16, 2008: Disappointed? Definitely.

Puzzled? Very much so.

Optimistic? Not really.

The final selection of Olympic team coach Yasuharu Sorimachi on Monday left me feeling more than a little bit baffled over a number of issues.

First, I don't think the squad reflects Japan's strengths at all in this age group.
Second, the coach has left out some very good players who could have done a good job in China.

And third, he seems to be gambling unnecessarily in a number of areas with players who might come off, but who might not.

Going back to the qualification process, the strength of this team lay in two areas -- in defence and on both flanks.

If you sat down with a blank piece of paper after qualifying and filled in the positions on the pitch that were solid, the result would be the shape of a horse shoe.

Right side covered, all across the back covered, and left side full, too -- and with a big hole in the middle for central midfield and attack.

But by dropping Inoha and Naoaki Aoyama the coach has weakened a strong area. The same can be said for the solid, combative defensive midfielder Toshihiro Aoyama, a good squad player.

As for creativity, Umesaki looked ready to step up and play a leading role in this team, judging by his rapid development through the age-group teams and with Urawa.

And even though Mizuno has lost some spark from his time in Glasgow, he remains an exciting talent whose speed and trickery could have caused problems for opponents in China.

Overall, then, I feel Sorimachi has jettisoned several tried and trusted players who served him well in qualifying.

The coach says he must look forward, not backward, but qualifying only ended in November and these players have not become bad players in such a short time.

Without the mature, intelligent play of Inoha at the back, or the aggressive heading of Naoaki Aoyama, any combination of Mizumoto-Morishige-Yoshida in the centre of defence looks vulnerable, inexperienced and...well, rather quiet in terms of communication and leadership.

The coach is still well served at full back with Uchida, Yasuda and Nagatomo, but it's in midfield where Sorimachi looks to be gambling.

He is putting a lot of faith in Kajiyama, who for me is too casual in his playing style and can lose the ball with a careless flick in a dangerous area, and in Taniguchi, whom Sorimachi regards as his Inamoto-type forager through the middle.

Kagawa is and looks lightweight, even though Sorimachi and Takeshi Okada have identified him as a major talent. We have to trust their optimisim on this one for the time being.

Up front, I wasn't aware that Japan had so many good forwards at this age level -- five of 20 in the final training camp, and now four of 18 in the final party.

No, I believe Sorimachi has removed much of the strong foundations of this team and rebuilt it too hastily, looking to correct faults in areas that did not exist.

This was never a great team in qualifying, but they were hard to beat due to a well-drilled defence, especially with three at the back and four players strung across the midfield. That was a solid, balanced defensive unit that played to Japan's strengths, and there was still room for three attack-minded players.

With this selection, Sorimachi is trying to play a more open, attacking game, a policy which can be regarded as bold or as misguided.

For now, I will stick with the latter.


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Olympic football is a mess, at home and abroad

14 Jul 2008(Mon)

July 12, 2008: Japan have already won their first gold medal of the Beijing Olympics -- in the sport of how to completely mis-manage the overage issue.

All this preparation, all these matches for the Olympic hopefuls, and yet an embarrassing ineptitude in the selection of Japan's overage players.

Make that non-selection, in fact, as the official withdrawal of Yasuhito Endo leaves Japan with no overage players at all.

The JFA were asking for trouble in the bungling way they went about it, and have been served up a double dose of disappointment as the drawn-out selection process reaches its conclusion.

First of all, the Yoshito Okubo incident.

Vissel Kobe were furious with the way the JFA tried to secure his release. They felt the JFA had sent the "invitation" through the back door, not the front, and would have nothing to do with it.

The concern over Okubo's fitness, after his knee operation in February, was, I feel, a smokescreen -- but whatever the reason, the fact is Vissel are
perfectly within their rights to say "no" to the JFA.

This is not being selfish by the club; it is not treason against the country.

The bottom line is Vissel need Okubo, their captain, in J1. They need his presence, his goals and they need points, as they are hovering just above the relegation zone.

Vissel pay Okubo's wages (a substantial amount I would imagine) and have every right to keep him at the club.

As for Endo, again you wonder at the JFA's thinking.

He had an exhausting June, both mentally and physically, with those four World Cup qualifiers; Gamba have a busy domestic schedule in July and August with J1 and Nabisco Cup quarter-finals; in September it's the start of the World Cup final qualifying round, as well as the AFC Champions League quarter-finals...surely the last thing Endo needed was to play three matches in seven days in the heat and humidity of Tianjin and Shenyang, and possibly more should Japan get out of the group.

Again, I can't believe the JFA did not think about this, no matter what a fully-fit Endo could have brought to the Olympic team in terms of midfield
organisation, set-piece expertise and a sound penalty kick technique should they be in a shootout.

As I said, the JFA have been asking for trouble, and could not have handled this overage issue worse if they had tried.

Thankfully it is now over -- and coach Sorimachi will name his 18-strong squad on Monday. Can anything else go wrong?

Looking on the bright side, this can't happen again in 2012, as the OFT in London will be exclusively for players aged 23 and under.

Let's face it, though, the whole Olympic football programme is a mess, as evidenced this week with FIFA statements to clarify the rules at this late stage and protests and questions from clubs in Europe over the release of players.

Japan, I am afraid, has created its own problems.


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Rising Reysol have clear focus

10 Jul 2008(Thu)

July 8, 2008: "Every game is like a cup final from now."

This is a popular phrase around the football world, and it is usually reserved for the end-of-season run-in when teams are fighting for every point to escape relegation or win a championship.

Kashiwa Reysol, though, appear to have adopted this philosophy early, judging by their excellent league form of late.

They have won five of their last six games, and followed up a 1-1 draw at Kashima before the break with wins against Reds and, on Sunday, Gamba.

All of this has been good enough to lift them into a lofty third place in the table, just three points off the pace and with confidence sky-high.

It's all looking very positive at Kashiwa at the moment, and they have one big advantage over their rivals at the top in that they can concentrate solely on J1.

They are out of the Nabisco Cup and, unlike Reds, Antlers and Gamba, have no involvement in the AFC Champions League.

There is no need to rest players, no need to rotate the squad to avoid exhaustion in a fixture backlog; their only focus is on the next league game.

In addition to this, they don't have any players in the national squad, and will lose only one -- Tadanari Lee -- to the Olympics.

This is enabling coach Ishizaki to turn out a fresh and full-strength team for every game, while most other clubs do not have this luxury.

Although Lee will be a big loss with his pace and his vibrancy, the artist Franca is back in business, and the lively Suganuma is ready to step up from the bench and can fit into the Reysol style smoothly.

Franca is far from match fit after his long injury lay-off, but his feet and his brain are as quick as ever, as he proved by setting up Ota's decider against Reds with a nonchalant through-ball and Lee's winner against Gamba with a lay-off from Popo's pass.

Gamba's keeper, Fujigaya, should have done better with Lee's low drive from the edge of the box, but that is not Reysol's problem.

Player for player, Reysol fall short of Reds, Antlers and Gamba, but in terms of a settled team and detailed preparation for the next league match, Kashiwa have an advantage.

For them, they can indeed treat every J1 game like a cup final, even before the season has reached halfway.


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Stojkovic tips bright future for Nagoya Grampus Two

7 Jul 2008(Mon)

July 4, 2008: Dragan Stojkovic built his reputation as a player with natural attacking flair -- but he knows a good defender when he sees one.

And he's seen one at Nagoya; a defender with a great left foot, tough physique and, in his opinion, on the brink of selection for the full national team.

Surely he's talking about his 19-year-old central defender Maya Yoshida, who has already won a place in Japan's provisional 20-strong squad for the Olympic Games.

After all, Yoshida fits the above description perfectly.

But no; Stojkovic is referring to his left back, Shohei Abe, who had another impressive game in midweek when Grampus won 1-0 at JEF United in the Nabisco Cup.

At a time when national coach Takeshi Okada is desperate to find a left back who is naturally left-footed and 100 per cent reliable, Abe must be starting to show up on the JFA radar, in the slipstream of Yasuda of Gamba.

After the match at Fukuda Denshi Arena on Wednesday, I asked Stojkovic about his emerging left back.

"From my point of view he is very close to being in the national team," said the Grampus boss.

"He is a real full back, with an excellent left foot and good timing. Physically he is very good, so he has a lot of positive characteristics."

This is the second time I have written about the 24-year-old Abe this season, as he also stood out when Grampus beat Omiya Ardija at NACK5 Stadium.

He really does look the part, with his sturdy 1.71-metre frame and, as his manager says, his excellent technique.

Against JEF he was changing the direction of the attack with a swish of that powerful left foot, sending the ball out to the right wing and landing it on a one-yen coin from 50 metres. He plays with a Komano-style bustle and can maintain this high tempo for 90 minutes.

I had been hoping to take another close look at the left-footed central defender Yoshida that night, but Stojkovic gave him a rest on the bench and went with the imposing Bajalica-Masukawa partnership in the middle.

Still, it did not stop Stojkovic from singing the praises of Yoshida, or Maya as he calls him.

"He is only 19, very young, and everything that's happened is maybe a surprise for everybody, and for him also," admitted the manager.

"He has a good future, not only for Grampus but for Japanese football. It depends on him. His improvement is very amazing; in the last six months he has shown a good attitude. It is just the beginning. One day he can become a real leader."

Maybe just the beginning for Abe, too, even at 24.


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Inoha, T. Aoyama unlucky to miss out

3 Jul 2008(Thu)

July 2, 2008: Some advice for good young players in Japan: If the JFA asks you to captain the Olympic team on the road to London 2012, don't accept.

For Keita Suzuki in 2004, read Masahiko Inoha in 2008.

Just as Suzuki, the captain in qualifying for Athens, was axed by coach Yamamoto when it came to the crunch, the same has happened to the talented Antlers player Inoha.

Although Inoha was no longer the captain of the under-23s, having been succeeded by Mizumoto during qualifying, I still can't believe he has been left out of coach Sorimachi's provisional 20-man squad.

Along with the Sanfrecce midfielder Toshihiro Aoyama, Inoha can count himself extremely unlucky after playing such a key role in getting Japan to Beijing.

Inoha looked a certainty for selection when the team played with three at the back, as libero with Naoaki Aoyama on the right and Mizumoto on the left.

When Sorimachi switched to four at the back, Inoha's place in the starting XI was under threat; although he is also a good right back, Uchida is ahead of him for club and country.

Then along came Morishige and Yoshida, two more central defenders with big potential, and Inoha has lost out altogether.

I am very disappointed for Inoha as he is an intelligent, versatile player, and plays with so much maturity and authority. Keita Suzuki bounced back, and Inoha can, too.

As for Toshihiro Aoyama, obviously the inclusion of Endo as an overage player did not help his cause, but this is not the only reason.

Although he was not a regular starter in qualifying, I thought he made a big contribution when the pressure was on down the stretch.

And who can ever forget his incredible goal line clearance against Saudi Arabia, enabling Japan to qualify with a goalless draw.

I actually liked the Toshihiro Aoyama-Hosogai combination in central midfield; not the most creative pairing, admittedly, but they tackled and scrapped and could break up the play of the opposition.

With Sorimachi listing Hosogai as a defender, and with Toshihiro Aoyama out of the picture altogether, the coach's 4-2-3-1 formation is taking shape.

It looks like he will rely on Endo and Kajiyama as the midfield "2", with Umesaki, Taniguchi and Keisuke Honda the "3" supporting the lone striker, surely Lee.

Is this playing to Japan's strengths?


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