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September 2008

Gamba, Reds and yellows

29 Sep 2008(Mon)

September 27, 2008: A perfect result.

That's how Urawa Reds' German manager, Gert Engels, described his team's 2-0 victory over Al Qadsia on Wednesday night, giving them a 4-3 win on aggregate and a place in the AFC Champions League semi-finals.

It was also celebration time in Suita City, as Gamba Osaka beat Al Karamah of Syria 2-0 for a 4-1 aggregate success, but the Ogasawara-less Kashima Antlers fell 1-0 in Adelaide to go out 2-1. Antlers had their chances, didn't they, but neither Koroki nor Marquinhos could find the net in the first half, before Robert Cornthwaite had the last laugh by heading the only goal of the game to make amends for his calamitous own goal at Kashima.

Still, two out of four teams in the semi-finals is a good effort by Japan, and one of them will be in the final as the J.League rivals meet in the semi-finals. With Gamba also to entertain Reds in J1, this makes for a late-season three-match series with big prizes at stake.

Leading figures from the Asian Football Confederation and from their marketing partners were out in force at Saitama Stadium, bristling with pride at the spectacle before them.

With over 41,000 fans in the ground, and two great goals settling a hard-fought match, the AFC feel their premier club competition has finally arrived.

"Urawa Reds have taken it to the next level," an AFC official said.
"With their success last year they have proved that Asia has the pedigree at club level. It has set the bar for everyone else."

He went on to add that the expanded FIFA Club World Cup, guaranteeing the Asian champions a place alongside the glamour teams from Europe and South America, had sparked the Japanese clubs into life at the Asian level, and they were finally showing their true ability.

"I think they have realised that they can't just turn up and win," he said. "The level is higher than that, and they must play well to get through."

It's true that the profile of the AFC Champions League is increasing year by year, assisted also by the involvement of Australian clubs. Adelaide United's achievement in reaching the last four was headline news on CNN's excellent World Sport programme, and Yamazaki's goal for Gamba was selected as the Play of the Day on the same show.

And didn't the scenes from Saitama match up to anything else they show from the world of football -- more so, in fact, because of the number of Reds fans compared to the thousands of empty seats you often see in Europe.

Soma's goal was a cracker, smashing home a left-foot volley from 25 metres, and so was Tulio's. Again it highlighted his allround quality, as he dropped off his marker at the back post and controlled Ponte's free kick on his chest before lashing a half-volley into the net with the outside of his right foot. Superb technique from the big man, whose ability on the ground once drew comparisons with the great German defender Andreas Brehme from former Reds manager Holger Osieck.

But what on earth were Reds doing getting two players booked in injury time? Leading 2-0, the game as good as over, Soma received a yellow card for delaying a throw-in, and Tsuzuki for joining in a melee. Both of them are now just one yellow card away from missing the second leg of the semi-final, or perhaps part of the final.

"Unnecessary," lamented Engels.

More like ridiculous.


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Flag-gate, Alex and 'Sir' Alex

25 Sep 2008(Thu)

September 24, 2008: Thank goodness for Fukuda Denshi Arena, and JEF United's exhilarating 2-1 victory over Nagoya Grampus on Tuesday evening.

I must admit I needed that -- a good game, played in a fantastic atmosphere, and with fair play on and off the pitch.

It restored my faith in Japanese football after the ugly events involving Antlers fans at Kashiwa on Saturday, and there was a real buzz in the air around Soga Station after the game.

Yes, it was that good at Fukuare.

Grampus played like champions-elect in the first half, taking the lead with a wonderful long-range strike from Ogawa, but JEF turned it round with two goals at the start of the second period and then held on in a nail-biting finish.

Fukai was a hero for JEF on the night, scoring the winner and bringing pace and energy to the attack. Have JEF found the new Hanyu? The mini-Hanyu, with the left foot?

As a former Grampus player, Fukai was jeered by the travelling away fans, but nothing wrong or unusual with that. I would like to point out, though, that when Fukai had completed his "hero interview" for TV and trotted towards the "away" end to begin his lap of honour, the Grampus fans applauded him generously and he returned the compliment. This is the true face of Japanese football, and helped to wash away the bad memories of Saturday.

Normally, I love going to Hitachi-dai, home of Kashiwa Reysol. Great stadium, no running track, spectators close to the pitch, and always passionate, occasionally amusing fans who make every game interesting.

But the atmosphere was not good on Saturday. It should have been, as Antlers brought a large following for a big match, but there was a bad vibe in the air.

The "flag attack" on Alex was disturbing, and resulted in a lifetime ban on a Kashima fan, but I thought the second incident was even worse. Once play had resumed, Reysol quickly won a corner on the opposite flank.

However, Kurisawa was unable to take it as the end of a flag pole was jabbed towards his face, as opposed to the Alex attack when the pole bounced on the top of his head, not hurting him at all. Kurisawa could have been seriously injured, and it baffled me how slow the security people were to stop the nonsense. Full marks to referee Okada for leading the clean-up campaign.

Antlers fans have shown this season they are ready to invade the pitch -- after the Super Cup at National Stadium -- and there were further un-Japanese scenes as a few nutters smashed on the screen and threatened to climb over. Super Cup invasion...offensive banner of Antlers fans at Saitama...Reds-Gamba crowd trouble...flagpole attacks....what's going on this season?

That's why Tuesday's JEF-Grampus game provided the perfect pick-me-up, with plenty of respect from both managers, too.

Just think, if JEF escape the drop, football may have a second Scottish "Sir" Alex alongside the legendary Ferguson.

Arise 'Sir' Alex Miller of Chiba!


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Chances remain for Japan's ACL trio

22 Sep 2008(Mon)

September 20, 2008: Despite mixed results in the first leg of the AFC Champions League quarter-finals, there is still a good chance that Japan can provide three of the four semi-finalists.

Gamba Osaka are in the best position, 2-1 up against Al Karama from the first leg in Syria and now with home advantage on Wednesday.

Kashima Antlers could only draw 1-1 at home to Adelaide United, but have the experience, resilience and quality to win the second leg in Australia.

As for the holders, Urawa Reds, they will start their home game against Al Qadsia 3-2 down from the first leg in Kuwait, but knowing that a 1-0 win would get them through on the away goals rule.

It will be interesting to see how the Kuwaitis approach their away game at Saitama Stadium 2002. Will they set their stall out for a goalless draw from the first whistle, and try and hang on to their one-goal lead, or will they push for an early goal to pile the pressure on Reds, who would then need to score twice to make it 4-4 on aggregate and go through on away goals?

I reckon the first scenario is more likely, and the Reds players and fans alike must be prepared for a patient evening.

On the subject of Reds and the AFC Champions League, I have to agree with coach Gert Engels that the holders should have been defending their title from the start of the tournament, playing Asian football rather than the Nabisco Cup instead of receiving a bye.

It makes no sense, either, from a marketing and publicity point of view, as the Asian Football Confederation missed a wonderful chance to promote their premier club competition during the six group games.

The holders always attract publicity and generate revenue, yet their return game against Al Qadsia on Wednesday will be their first home match of the year in the ACL -- and possibly their last.

The AFC will be kicking themselves if the holders, with their huge support and publicity machine, play only two games in the defence of their title.

Regarding support, a crowd of only 7,004 at Kashima Soccer Stadium for the visit of Adelaide on Wednesday evening was disappointing to say the least. Together with a poor playing surface, it made for a grim spectacle when the TV cameras panned the arena.

Despite this backdrop, the teams played a good, competitive game, and set the scene for an intriguing second leg at Hindmarsh Stadium -- where Japan lost a penalty shootout to USA in the Olympic Games quarter-finals eight years ago.

After Travis Dodd had headed the Aussies in front at Kashima, reacting quicker than Araiba to a left-wing cross that skimmed off Aoki's head, Antlers needed a bizarre own goal by Robert Cornthwaite to equalise. No need for the TV commentators to laugh hysterically, though.

With Marquinhos in scintillating form but kept off the scoresheet in the first leg, he can produce the goods in the away game and keep Kashima involved.

Of Japan's three entries in the quarter-finals, Gamba Osaka looked the most vulnerable after slipping to eighth in the table with only two points from a possible 18.

But, football being the game it is, Gamba went and won away in Syria after falling behind early on.

They can afford to lose the home game 1-0 and still go through on away goals, but coach Nishino will be aiming for a quick kill to book a place in the semi-finals.


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The Shunsuke Debate resumes

18 Sep 2008(Thu)

September 17, 2008: The new season is up and running; the Shunsuke Season, that is.

Will he stay in Glasgow or will he return to Japan and his first love, Yokohama F Marinos, at the earliest opportunity?

This question is not new, as it seems to resurface on a regular basis, but on this occasion it really does look like the end of his time in Scotland is near.

Citing family reasons and the tough travel schedule for international matches, Nakamura has given the strongest hint yet that he will leave Celtic and return to Yokohama in the January transfer window.

His current deal with Celtic does not end until June 2009, and there is an option for him to stay for another season, which would take him right through to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, should Japan qualify, of course.

But his recent comments suggest he has had enough, and that the home comforts are proving to be a bigger and bigger attraction.

Personally, I hope Nakamura stays in Scotland, at least until the end of this season.
He has been a big success in the green and white hoops since moving to Scotland in the summer of 2005, and has another UEFA Champions League campaign to look forward to, including two more group games against Manchester United.

There is no doubt his own game has matured during his time in Scotland, and he has developed a winning mentality which rubs off on his teammates when he plays for Japan. They look up to him, and while he is not a leader in the mould of Hidetoshi Nakata, he is an inspiration to the national team.

In the coming months, Japan will need his influence to get through their World Cup qualifying group, but if he returns to Japan in January he might lose this competitive edge to his game and become less effective.

No matter the opposition, the Scottish Premier League keeps him tough and focused, and the competition for places in Gordon Strachan's starting line up is strong. On top of this, the Champions League gives him the chance to shine under the global spotlight. This is too much to give up at this moment of his career.

The J.League can wait.


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Oita's 'Holy Trinita' light the path

15 Sep 2008(Mon)

September 13, 2008: There can't be many times when Japan's 'team of the moment' comes from Kyushu.

But that's the case with Oita Trinita these days -- just one point off the pace as J1 resumes and safely in the final of the Nabisco Cup for the first time.

Under their young Brazilian manager Chamusca, Oita have enjoyed a breakthrough season in 2008, and will be attractive opposition for Urawa Reds at Saitama Stadium 2002 on Saturday afternoon.

Three young players in particular have caught the eye for the "Pride of Kyushu" -- goalkeeper Nishikawa, central defender Morishige and the attacking midfielder with the extravagant futsal tricks, Kanazaki. Let's call this trio of Nishikawa, Morishige and Kanazaki the "Holy Trinita", as they are lighting the way forward for the Kyushu faithful.

I rated Morishige as Japan's best player in the Beijing Olympics -- admittedly the competition was not strong -- and it was his rise in stature in the first half of the year that led to the shock omission of S-Pulse's Naoaki Aoyama, who had been Japan's best defender in qualifying.

Funnily enough, Morishige and Aoyama will now go head to head, so to speak, in the Nabisco Cup final at National Stadium on November 1.

Overall I am looking forward to an open, entertaining game between two teams not usually in the spotlight.

This can only be good for the game in general in Japan, rather than having the J.League super powers clean up in all competitions.

S-Pulse boss Kenta Hasegawa is one of the nice guys of the game, and, like Chamusca, has some good young Japanese players at his disposal.

What I also like about S-Pulse is their willingness to shoot from distance, in evidence again when Masaki Yamamoto put them on the road to victory in the second leg of the semi-final at Gamba.

There was an interesting incident in that second leg, when S-Pulse were 3-1 up and in control midway through the second half.

Marcos Paulo, a driving force in the middle of the park, stayed down after a challenge but was clearly not hurt seriously, if at all. In fact he was almost on his feet again when a teammate kicked the ball out of play on the left wing, in order for Marcos Paulo to receive treatment he did not need.

On the resulting throw-in, Gamba did not give the ball back to S-Pulse. They played on and tried to score, despite the booing of the S-Pulse fans.

I thought Gamba were absolutely right to keep the ball. It's not the decision of an S-Pulse player to stop the game; that is for the referee to decide.

How many times do you see a team that is leading kick the ball out for an "injured" teammate to receive treatment? Too many.

I think the referees are far too soft in these situations, and should wave play on as soon as the team that is leading tries to delay the match with such dubious tactics.

Hopefully there will be none of this nonsense in the Nabsico Cup final, and the players and coaches will respect the occasion and put on a good show for the big TV audience.


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A perfect start, despite the chaotic finish

11 Sep 2008(Thu)

September 10, 2008: Before the game, everybody in Japan would have settled for a 3-2 victory in Bahrain.

That is what the record books show, so I am not going to get too despondent over those last few chaotic minutes.

Of course Japan should not have been hanging on after going 3-0 up with five minutes to play, but they had enough goals in the bank to survive the late scare and emerge with all three points.

Therefore it was mission accomplished -- an away win in their opening game of the group -- and they can now watch the other four teams jostle for position in the second round of games on Wednesday, when Japan have a breather.

By the time Uzbekistan visit Saitama on October 15, the group should be taking shape already, and Japan can put themselves in a strong position to take one of the two automatic qualifying spots with another three points in their second game.

What impressed me about Japan at Manama was their professional and positive approach from the kick-off, and how they set about taking control of the game from the opening whistle and showing Bahrain who was boss with some aggressive, confident play.

They did not do this in the 1-0 loss earlier in the year, but on this occasion they made Bahrain look like a poor team.

I loved watching Matsui tease them on the left wing. I have written before about how much his game has matured and developed in France, and he looks like he can do anything he wants at this level. He has the confidence and the technique to hold the ball, invite the challenge from the defender, and then wriggle free with that sudden burst of acceleration. He is a joy to watch, and has emerged as one of Japan's main weapons in their qualifying bid.

I still have reservations over the centre of midfield, however. The combination of Endo and Hasebe, especially with Shunsuke Nakamura on the right and Matsui on the left, looks too brittle as a unit, and the big, strong Uzbeks could test them in this area, surging through the middle.

Maybe Okada will have a fully-fit Keita Suzuki in there against the Uzbeks, shielding the back four, but this would mean changing a winning formation.

I still think Japan are lightweight in this area, though, and need more muscle and defensive quality than either Endo or Hasebe can provide.

Abe can do the job and so can Konno, but sadly the latter must be suffering from shell-shock after events in Manama. Nakazawa clearly blamed Konno, who had only been on the pitch a couple of minutes, for Bahrain's first goal, telling him he should have cut out the cross on the edge of the box.

Will Konno's confidence be down? I doubt it. He is a good player with the right attitude and character, and has nothing to prove to anyone.


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Brazilian master's finishing school

8 Sep 2008(Mon)

September 6, 2008: He first came to Japan in 2000. He is now 36 years old and with his third J.League club. The goals keep coming.

I am talking, of course, about Ueslei, the master goal scorer and one of the main reasons behind the rise of Oita Trinita this season.

In the Nabisco Cup semi-final first leg at Nagoya on Wednesday, Ueslei rescued Trinita with an equaliser for a 1-1 draw, five minutes after Grampus had gone in front.

And what a beauty Ueslei's goal was; so simple, so inevitable.

Admittedly, the Nagoya defending was poor, first as Bajalica was beaten in the air by Takamatsu and Abe's attempted header back to the keeper was weak.

But see how Ueslei anticipated the mistake, running around Abe so that when the ball did fall to him he was in the perfect position to slot it past Nishimura, who had no chance to save it.

This was classic Ueslei; the predator, prowling the box and ready for the kill. Nine times out of 10, possibly even 99 times out of 100, Abe's header would have landed safely in the keeper's arms, but Ueslei was prepared for the one occasion it didn't and collected his reward with another goal.

Grampus fans know all too well of his quality, and so does Nagoya manager Dragan Stojkovic, his former teammate.

I have noticed this season that Ueslei makes the point of jogging to the Grampus bench before the kick-off and embracing Stojkovic. The mutual respect is obvious.

It is the kind of respect that leads me to think there could be a coaching job awaiting Ueslei in Japan when he decides to hang up his boots. He is the ideal person to coach young strikers, and to make them focus on scoring a goal.

There is only one thing on Ueslei's mind whenever he gets the ball, and that is to try and score; hence the occasional attempt from the halfway line if he spots the keeper off his line. Always thinking. Always plotting.

I know this is a natural instinct, something that cannot be coached, but he can work on the psychological and technical aspects of finishing with Japanese forwards.

Ueslei still has a lot to offer Japanese football.


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Japan should have learned lessons from Manama misery

4 Sep 2008(Thu)

September 3, 2008: Japan have the right players to beat Bahrain away on Saturday.

Whether they have the right attitude remains to be seen.

Will they be aggressive and take the game to the home team, or will they sit back and try to score on the counter?

I really hope they go into the match with a positive mindset, because this was the biggest problem when they lost 1-0 in Bahrain in March.

On that occasion they were not sharp, not hungry, and paid the price when Kawaguchi's mistake enabled Bahrain to take the lead and hold on to it.

This time, however, I think Japan will approach the match with more urgency and more professionalism, and try hard to win it from the outset.

Of course they need to adopt a killer instinct in front of goal, and shoot when the opportunity arises; this problem has been well documented in the past.
But another area in which Japan can improve is when they have possession out wide.

They can string together some nice moves to get the ball into a wide area, but then decline the chance to cross the ball into the box; instead they will knock it back and start again, leaving the opposition defence untested.

What I hope to see in Manama on Saturday night is Japan getting the ball into the box and putting the goalkeeper and defenders under pressure.
It may not be subtle or involve lots of patient passing on the ground, but it will produce mistakes from Bahrain and chances for Japan.

This is why I would select Maki up front, as he is a good target man and an outlet for any player in possession: Launch it into the box and Maki will be there, causing problems.

I have written before about his main strength, which is to win headers at the back post and knock the ball down into the danger area, where someone like Tamada should be waiting to pounce.

This is not rocket science; it is a simple, effective strategy. It is also a positive strategy, but not the only one; just an option.

Without a target man up front, the player in possession is short of options on the ball, and this leads to moves breaking down or going nowhere.

Japan must start the game by playing with authority and confidence, and must try and set the pace and the rhythm, even though they are the away team.

They have good players from a technical point of view -- but the attitude and spirit will be just as important at this stage of qualifying.

I think they will have learned from their last game in Manama, and can win this one. I'll go for 1-0 Japan.


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Reds gamble with Ponte fitness

1 Sep 2008(Mon)

August 30, 2008: Urawa Reds are playing a dangerous game with the fitness of their 2007 J.League MVP, Robson Ponte.

German coach Gert Engels is determined to get Ponte fit by playing him in first-team matches, but against Tokyo Verdy the other night he looked well below his best and off the pace.

After the game, Engels admitted it was a risk to play Ponte for the full 90 minutes, but said the player was always capable of a moment of genius.

"I needed him to play 90 minutes," Engels said. "Now we have two and half weeks before our next match to work with him some more."

On Wednesday they got away with it and drew 1-1 thanks to Abe's thumping header in the third of five minutes of time added on, but even then they nearly lost it when Diego and Oguro between them could not put the ball over the line with the goal at their mercy.

That late Verdy chance came from a free kick conceded by Ponte, who was forced to deliberately handle the ball after failing to control it -- clearly a result of fatigue.

Going back a bit further in the match, I also thought Engels gambled by taking off both Takahara and Tatsuya Tanaka at halftime, and replacing them with Edmilson and Nagai.

In the first half, the front two had hardly received the best of service, especially from out wide as Reds looked to be conserving their energy for a second-half onslaught.

But when Diego scored his superb goal just four minutes into the second half to give Verdy the lead, Reds were really up against it, and Engels could make only one more change.

When he eventually lost patience with Hirakawa, the coach replaced him with Yamada, a decision, Engels said, based on the veteran's composure.

There were several candidates to come off, among them Ponte, and I would like to have seen Umesaki or Escudero given a run to freshen up the attack, but neither of these talented youngsters would see any action.

Edmilson remains a disappointment, and it would not surprise me at all to see him back at Albirex Niigata next season.

I thought he was a good signing for Reds as he always impressed with Albirex, finding positions out wide, running smoothly with the ball and leading the line with a touch of class and with goals to match.

But for Reds he just hasn't got going yet; he looks nervous and, like Ponte, not fit.

There was one occasion in the second half when he had the chance to accelerate down the right flank; he would have done without hesitation in his Niigata days, but he did not seem interested and quickly passed the ball inside.

Despite all these attacking concerns involving Ponte, Edmilson and Takahara, Reds are still only one point off the pace -- a worrying sign for their title rivals with 11 games remaining and surely more goals to come from their forwards before the season is out.

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