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August 2008

Verdy paint Tokyo green in city derby

28 Aug 2008(Thu)

August 27, 2008: One of the J.League's main focuses these days is promoting the local derby.

When it comes to the Tokyo derby, however, the J.League can relax as the two teams are doing just fine by themselves.

I have attended both J1 meetings this season between FC Tokyo and Tokyo Verdy, and they have produced incredible finishes to send the two sets of fans home with emotions at opposite ends of the scale.

FC Tokyo won Verdy's home game 2-1 at Ajinomoto Stadium in April thanks to a last-gasp own goal by the unlucky Shibasaki, but Verdy got their own back in Tokyo's home game at National Stadium on Saturday.

What a finish that was!

We were well past the three minutes of time added on at the end of the second half when Diego surged forward again and smashed a left-foot shot at the Tokyo goal. It was of Hulk quality and ferocity, and goalkeeper Shiota was relieved to divert it for a corner.

In front of the green pocket of Verdy fans in the corner, Diego swung the ball into the Tokyo box and Daisuke Nasu met it with a towering header to make it 2-1. Nasu obviously likes that end of the ground, as I remember him scoring another fine header into the same goal in a qualifying match for the Athens Olympics five years earlier.

There was only enough time for Tokyo to restart before the ref blew the final whistle, leaving the Tokyo players to face the wrath of their angry fans around the stadium as Verdy boss Tetsuji Hashiratani hugged his jubilant players as they trooped off in the pouring rain.

They say that revenge is a dish best served cold -- and how the Verdy fans must have enjoyed that one after being on the receiving end at Ajista earlier in the season. It was Verdy's first derby day win in league and cup for over five years, too.

Two great goals had set the stage for Nasu's late winner, first when Cabore fired Tokyo into the lead with an astonishing right-foot shot that whistled past Doi from 25 metres, and then when Oguro equalised for the Greens with a delicate chip over the advancing Shiota after a lovely little pass from Leandro.

On the subject of Doi, Verdy's former Tokyo keeper produced a magnificent save from Hanyu midway through the second half. Hanyu's sweetly-struck shot was curling towards the top corner when Doi stretched and tipped the ball over the bar for a corner -- a defining moment in the game.

Add into all this drama the controversy over Nagatomo's disallowed goal for offside against Konno, who was slightly behind Doi when the right back let fly from the edge of the box, and you can see why the Tokyo derby has sold itself so well this season.

Roll on 2009 -- if both teams are still in J1, that is.


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The basics were missing from Japan's game against Uruguay

25 Aug 2008(Mon)

August 23, 2008: Japan escaped quite lightly on Wednesday night; not at the hands of Uruguay, who won the friendly handsomely 3-1, but by the lack of media interest and analysis due to the focus on the Beijing Olympics.

It was a tame display by Japan, both individually and collectively, and must have caused a few more concerns for Takeshi Okada ahead of the World Cup qualifier in Bahrain on September 6.

As expected, the South Americans were strong physically, too strong for Japan, and showed the home team how to finish; they enjoyed scoring, whereas Japan looked uncomfortable and full of doubt in the same situations at the other end.

Here are a few basic observations from the match.

First, Japan lost too many 50-50s in the middle of the park; they didn't seem to be putting everything into the tackle, which enabled Uruguay to come away with the ball on a number of occasions, especially in the first half.

Second, I noticed Japanese players waiting for the ball to come to them, rather than moving towards it when receiving a pass. Basic stuff, and another open invitation for the South Americans to make an interception and regain possession too easily.

Third, the same common failing, not of not scoring (apart from the own goal) but of not shooting, which is even more annoying for me.

The chief culprit this time was Tamada, who was in a perfect position to let fly with his left foot as he broke through in the inside left channel in the second half. But what did he do? He back-heeled the ball at full speed, and the chance was gone. Shortly after, Okada took him off, which was a good move.

A few weeks ago at Todoroki I saw both Tamada and Ogawa spurn clear openings to shoot for goal while playing for Grampus in a league game against Frontale. Tamada took a touch too much, enabling a Frontale defender to close him down, and Ogawa decided to cross the ball when it was easier just to hit it on his right foot in the second half.

Shortly after Tamada's missed opportunity early in the game at Todoroki, Magnum found himself in exactly the same position. Did the Brazilian need another touch to steady himself before shooting? Of course he didn't, and his blistering left-foot drive flashed into the back of the net.

After the game I asked the Grampus manager, Dragan Stojkovic, about this problem, as the Tamada-Magnum incident highlighted the difference between a Japanese and a Brazilian in front of a goal. Stojkovic said he couldn't do anything about it, as it was the feeling, the sense of the players, that counted at the decisive moments.

Tamada can do something, though. He can dust off his DVD of the Japan-Brazil game at the 2006 World Cup, and refresh his memory of how he scored that magnificent goal two summers ago.


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Okamoto -- beyond the call of duty

21 Aug 2008(Thu)

August 19, 2008: Many years ago I reported on a match between Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United at White Hart Lane.

Spurs won 3-1 thanks to a hat trick by Chris Waddle, but still the Newcastle goalkeeper, Gary Kelly, had an outstanding game.

After the game I interviewed the Newcastle manager, Willie McFaul, himself a former goalkeeper for Newcastle and Northern Ireland.

"Didn't Kelly make some great saves?" I asked, trying to put a positive spin on the defeat.

McFaul was not impressed.

"That's what he's there for, pal," replied the manager.

I always thought that a bit harsh. While it's true -- that the goalkeeper is there to save goals -- there are occasions when saves go beyond the call of duty because they are so unexpected.

This story came to mind at Kashiwa Hitachi Stadium on Saturday, near the end of the Reysol-JEF United match.

It had been a typically tight Chiba derby, and at 1-1 with five minutes to go was still there to be won and lost. Then came the defining moment.

Reysol magician Franca crossed from the left, the JEF defence failed to cut it out, and substitute Tatsuya Suzuki was in the clear with derby day glory beckoning. Enter Masahiro Okamoto, who was off his line in a flash and somehow managed to block Suzuki's left-foot drive.

I am sure the Yellow Monkeys behind the goal were already celebrating, just as the JEF fans at the opposite end were preparing for the worst, when Okamoto produced a save that went beyond the call of duty. He did the same in the recent 1-0 win at Kobe, defying all logic with his heroics.

In the first half, Reysol captain Hidekazu Otani caught the eye with his runs from deep midfield into the JEF danger areas, and also with his covering tackles, notably on Michael. (So those rumours were true after all -- JEF did finally sign Michael...just not Michael Owen; Michael Jefferson Nascimento!).

On the subject of tackling, Kazuyuki Toda has added a bit of bite to the JEF midfield, alongside captain Tomi Shimomura in the engine room.

Although Toda cannot complain about his first yellow card on Saturday, a foul on Otani after a careless mistake by Arai had given the ball away, he was harshly treated with his second yellow, and then the red, in injury time.

There was a tangle with Tadanari Lee, right in front of the Monkeys, and Toda grabbed Lee's leg, prompting a theatrical tumble from the Reysol forward which suggested he might have had more chance of an Olympic medal in gymnastics than football.

The referee, Toshimitsu Yoshida, had had a good game up to this point, waving play on when players just fell to the floor asking for a free kick, and a "get up and get on with it" warning to both Lee and Toda would have been more appropriate under the circumstances. It wasn't violent; just silly.

This match brought to an end the five-leg Yellow Series this season, with Reysol winning the league clash 1-0 at JEF, and the two Nabisco Cup group games and this one all ending 1-1. The pre-season Chiba Bank Cup, at Fuku-Are, also ended in a draw, before JEF won the penalty shootout.

There is clearly not much between the two teams, although the league table says otherwise.


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Japan crush Steel Roses

18 Aug 2008(Mon)

August 16, 2008: Just when Japanese football needed a boost back home, the women's team provided it at the Olympic Games on Friday night.

Their 2-0 victory over China's "Steel Roses" not only booked them a place in the semi-finals, it also prompted "Nadeshiko Fever" hype by the NHK commentary team.

And don't they deserve it.

This was a memorable performance by the women's team, who controlled the match and kept the Chinese at bay with their teamwork and spirit.

It is easy for critics to knock women's football, but these players really know the game and know how to play it.

In terms of composure on the ball, making the right decision in possession and playing a risk-free game, Japan displayed a maturity and professionalism that could go on and earn them a medal.

They now have two chances to medal, starting with their semi-final rematch against the United States on Monday in Beijing, but they will need to be at their best to achieve it.

The Americans have already beaten them 1-0 in this competition, and have not lost to Japan in 21 meetings.

But Japan are getting better as the tournament progresses, and will be full of confidence going into the semi-finals.

I saw their first match at Qinhuangdao, an uncharacteristically nervy 2-2 draw with New Zealand, and the 1-0 defeat by America was followed by that astonishing 5-1 victory over Norway to scramble into the quarter-finals.

Now the sky is the limit for the women's team, whose performances seem sure to spark an upsurge in the game on their return to Japan.

In Homare Sawa, they have an icon and a leader the men's team has missed since the retirement of Hidetoshi Nakata, and the team plays with a Troussier-style automatism and efficiency.

One player goes out, another comes in and knows exactly what to do, and the team retains its shape and focus throughout.

Yes, that was a terrific display against the once formidable Steel Roses, with Sawa again showing her heading prowess and Nagasato finishing ruthlessly to settle the match.

Japan can look back on the 2008 Olympic Football Tournament with pride after all, regardless of what happens from now.


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Taniguchi sums up Japan's frustration

14 Aug 2008(Thu)

Shenyang, China, August 12, 2008: My abiding memory of the 2008 Olympics will not be of Kosuke Kitajima. It will be of Hiroyuki Taniguchi.

The sight of Taniguchi on his knees, either with his head in his hands or beating the ground in frustration, sums up Japan's campaign -- so close to scoring, but so far from qualifying.

It happened against USA in the 1-0 defeat, and it happened again in the 2-1 defeat by Nigeria, when Taniguchi really should have scored from Yasuda's low cross from the left.

Not that I am blaming Taniguchi for Japan's demise. It's just that the image described above lingers in the mind and tells the sorry ("Sori"?) tale of Japan's campaign.

Funnily enough, the morning after the Japan-Nigeria game I was in the departure hall of Tianjin Airport, waiting for the flight to Shenyang, when I bumped into coach Sorimachi. The Japanese and Dutch teams were on the same flight.

I discussed Taniguchi with Sorimachi, and he laughed when I said I thought Taniguchi was playing in the wrong position. To me he looks like a central defender with his sturdy physique and his ability in the air, which he had displayed with some excellent clearing headers in the recent friendly against Argentina. Sorimachi remarked that Taniguchi had, indeed, started his professional career in that position with Frontale before moving into defensive midfield and now even further forward in the Olympic team, behind the lone striker.

At least Sorimachi could find a lighter moment in these troubled times, as he was clearly feeling the responsibility of the team's quick exit.

There is still time to regain some pride, though, as they face the Dutch here in Shenyang on Wednesday night.

The Dutch media are not happy with their team, though, and feel a victory over Japan is far from a foregone conclusion.

This must give Japan hope, even though they trained with only 14 outfield players on Tuesday, and one of those, Takuya Honda, is suspended for the next match.

Uchida and Yasuda are struggling with injury, and if both fail to recover I hope Sorimachi puts out the following team: Yamamoto; Morishige, Mizumoto, Yoshida, Nagatomo; Taniguchi, Hosogai; Okazaki, Lee, K. Honda; Morimoto.

Why not give second-choice keeper Yamamoto a run, as well as Yoshida, otherwise his inclusion will have been a waste of time. If Okazaki starts on the right, Keisuke Honda could switch to the left, where he looks so much more comfortable than on the right.

I am reluctant to move Morishige from the centre of defence, as I think he has been Japan's best player in the two games, but how else to fit in Yoshida unless Sorimachi reverts to three at the back; a system that worked so well in qualifying with Naoaki Aoyama, Inoha and Mizumoto and which he abandoned, along with two of that trio, to his obvious cost.


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Poor advertisement for Japanese football

11 Aug 2008(Mon)

Beijing, August 8, 2008: It has been a depressing few days here in China.

First the 2-2 draw by the women's team against New Zealand in Qinhuangdao, and then the 1-0 defeat for the men's team against the United States in Tianjin.

Actually, the 2-2 draw felt like a defeat, even though Japan came back from 2-0 down; another five minutes and I'm sure Japan would have won, but it was the Kiwis who celebrated after the final whistle with what appeared to be a toned-down “haka” in front of their fans.

I have been very disappointed with Japan in both games. They have let themselves down by not being able to do the basics, such as control the ball and pass the ball, and they have missed far too many chances in front of goal. This last fault is no surprise, though,  with New Zealand women's team coach John Herdman saying he knew that Japan would need 10 chances to score three times. Cruel, but true.

For the men, make that 10 chances for one goal, as they lost to a United States team that was not particularly strong. I thought this was their best chance to win a game, and now they must play Nigeria and the Netherlands with their backs to the wall. I hope they can hang on, and not collapse, but I am not optimistic.

Chatting with some Japanese press after the USA defeat, some thought Japan deserved a draw and were the better team for long periods.

I cannot agree at all. Uchida, the right back, is their most dangerous player, but the Americans closed him out in the second half after the Antlers youngster had caused trouble down the right flank with his runs and crosses in the first half.

I also don't know why coach Sorimachi did not select Lee in the starting line-up. He has consistently been Japan's liveliest and brightest forward, yet the coach preferred the out-of-sorts Morimoto.

As the second half wore on, on came Toyoda – a surprise selection in the 18 – but he looked out of his depth at this level. Although Toyoda felt hard done by when not receiving a penalty after a tussle with Maurice Edu, Japan cannot complain too much as they had started throwing themselves around all over the place by then anyway. Not a good advert for the Japanese game.

Freddy Adu thought he should have had a penalty, too, after a challenge by Nagatomo, but again I thought the ref was right in waving play on.

In the end, Japan fell to a goal they had been trying to score themselves, with the source the right back Marvell Wynne, a hard, low cross, and a fine strike by Stuart Holden from Mizumoto's interception. Nishikawa should have saved it, but the ball trickled over the line.

I can't  help thinking what would have happened if the situation had been reversed, and Uchida's cross had been half-cleared into the path of a supporting midfield player. Would the Japanese player have hit the ball first time, or trapped it, taken one touch too much, and been closed down, never even testing the keeper?

Depressing times indeed.


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JOMO Cup 2008 -- now that's more like it

7 Aug 2008(Thu)

August 4, 2008: Kashiwa Reysol have had some cracking Koreans over the years, none more so than the Holy Trinity of Hong Myung Bo, Yoo Sang Chul and Hwang Sun Hong.

Choi Sung Kuk, however, is not on the list of successes, as he played only eight times in a short, unhappy stint during Reysol's relegation season of 2005.

So maybe he felt he had something to prove in the JOMO Cup on Saturday, when the K-Allstars crushed the J-Allstars 3-1 at Kokuritsu in the revamped summer festival.

Choi scored a lovely opening goal for the K-League team and set up the third in a move that told the story of the match, and highlighted the difference between the two teams on the day.

Even though the Koreans had just gone 2-0 up and could have been excused for sitting back, see how central defender Kim Chi Gon pounced so swiftly to intercept a Japanese move and play the ball out to Choi on the right wing.

Choi galloped into the open prairie, the J.League defence scattered, and timed his pass to perfection to pick out Edu, who confidently chipped the ball over Narazaki with his left foot for 3-0. Game over.

I must admit I was surprised I enjoyed this match so much.

The old format was a crashing bore, an allstar snooze fest, and a match the players would have preferred to skip.

J-East against J-West belonged on the J-Scrapheap, along with extra time, golden goals, penalty shootouts and a two-stage system full of flaws.

But full credit to the J.League and the K-League in coming up with a formula to justify the expenditure of the sponsor, Japan Energy Corporation.

It was a tough, competitive game, with tackles flying in and a few running battles going on as the match developed.

In short, it was a proper football match, and the occasion was lifted by the noisy support of the Koreans in a crowd of 27,629.

Yes, the two professional leagues could be on to something good here, and MVP Choi was already talking about his desire to play in next year's match.

Although his J.League stay in 2005 was brief, the 25-year-old midfielder was laughing all the way to the bank on his latest trip to Japan with his prize money of 1 million yen and his new Mercedes-Benz.

By all accounts he is keen to have another go in the J.League, and his performance will not have gone unnoticed by the club scouts on Saturday.

I liked the big defender, Lee Jung Soo, who started at right back and moved to left back, and picked up a yellow card for a crunching tackle on Mu Kanazaki three minutes from time.


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Reds-Bayern was worth the effort

4 Aug 2008(Mon)

August 2, 2008: A waste of time and money, or a useful exercise for all concerned?

There are two ways of looking at the Urawa Reds-Bayern Munich match the other night, and I will try to be positive and say that, yes, it was just about worth all the effort and the expense.

A crowd of 27,292 was low by Urawa's standards but still not bad for a Thursday night friendly at Saitama Stadium, and the visitors put on a good show in winning 4-2.

They got the job done early, with two goals inside the first 20 minutes, and added a third before the break against a very ragged Reds side who did not do themselves justice at all in the first half.

The second half livened up a bit as Reds came back, and Yuki Abe's spectacular overhead kick to close the scoring 10 minutes from time sent everyone home happy.

All in all, then, a decent night's entertainment, and a glimpse of the power and precision of the mighty Bavarians.

Much of the pre-match talk had focused on who was not coming -- Ribery, Toni, Borowski -- but there was still plenty of quality in all areas of the pitch. Bayern did not need any help, but Reds gave it to them anyway with some poor defending and lethargic cross-field passing. It is not uncommon to see players in the J.League make casual, risky passes across field deep in their own half, inviting an interception and sucker punch from the opposition, but they are not punished as ruthlessly as they were by Bayern the other night.

It was not all bad news for Urawa, though. Keita Suzuki looks like he is coming back to peak condition -- his pass to Soma to set up Umesaki's goal was a gem -- and Sergio Escudero appears ready for a run in the first team with his energy and bustle.

Reds manager Gert Engels also praised the performances of teenagers Shunki Takahashi and Genki Haraguchi, the latter having turned only 17 as recently as May 9.
It was refreshing to see Takahashi hitting a shot on the run when he found some space on the right, and hopefully he will continue to do this and not follow the bad habit of wanting an extra touch before shooting.

One small complaint about post-match protocol.
There was an unnecessarily long delay after the final whistle and before the awards ceremony, and I thought it would have been a nice gesture for the Bayern players to walk round the pitch and thank the fans who had stayed to the bitter end.

Although many fans were on their way home by the time Bayern received the trophy and Podolski his MVP prize of 3,000 Euros, many more had remained to cheer the players.

A relaxed lap of honour by the two teams together would have been a fitting conclusion to the occasion, but the Bayern players disappeared down the tunnel, apart from five who performed "warm-down" drills on the pitch.

Shame that. The fans deserved more.


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