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October 2008

Tokyo would have been ideal for Gamba-Adelaide

30 Oct 2008(Thu)

October 28, 2008: The other evening I was asked an interesting question by an Asian football insider. "Which stadium would be better to host the Gamba Osaka-Adelaide United match, Banpaku or Osaka Nagai?"

I must admit that I don't particularly like either of them; Banpaku because the spectators are so far away from the pitch for a ground that holds only 21,000, and Nagai because it is too big and lacks atmosphere.

"Neither," I replied. "I'd play it at the National Stadium in Tokyo."

My friend was quite surprised by my answer, and asked for some details.

"Well, it's a big match, the first leg of the AFC Champions League final, and I think you would get a bigger crowd in Tokyo than you would at Nagai," I added.

"But what about home advantage for Gamba, and the loss of this game for their loyal fans?" Two fair points from my colleague.

"Gamba would not have home advantage if they played at Nagai Stadium, because their home is in Suita City, not Osaka. As for the fans, yes, it would be a hassle for them to travel to Tokyo for a Wednesday evening match, but Gamba have many fans in the Kanto area. They always have big support around Tokyo for J.League matches and I am sure many of them have not travelled all the way from Kansai.

"No, put the match at the home of Japanese football -- the National Stadium in Tokyo -- and have a 7.30 kick-off. With all the publicity in the national media from the beginning of the week, I am sure thousands of Japanese football fans would come out after work and support Gamba.

"And think of all the foreign football fans in Tokyo, not just the Aussies. Japan against Australia at the National Stadium on a Wednesday night? Sounds great to me!"

So that was my explanation, and my friend was beginning to like the idea, especially from a media and marketing perspective.

I have no idea if the National Stadium is being considered at such a late stage for the first leg on November 5, and the Asian Football Confederation's official website lists Expo 70 (Banpaku) as the venue, kicking off at 7pm.

At the beginning of this week, though, Osaka Nagai Stadium was not completely out of the picture.


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Gamba pass the test as the Arsenal of Japan

27 Oct 2008(Mon)

October 24, 2008: What a slick and confident performance that was from the away team in their Champions League match in midweek.

In a pressure-cooker atmosphere they remained calm, focused and clinical when it really mattered to run out comfortable winners.

Yes, that was a memorable display by Arsenal away to Fenerbahce, well worth the effort of waking up early on Wednesday morning in Japan to catch the occasion.

In the evening the action switched to Saitama Stadium 2002, where Gamba Osaka played like the Arsenal of Japan in beating Urawa Reds 3-1 in the second leg of their Champions League semi-final.

Like Arsenal, Gamba like to pass and move and torment the opposition before finally applying the killer touch. Sometimes they can overdo it with the intricacy of their build-up, but when they add a ruthless streak to their stylish approach it all looks too easy.

At a buzzing Saitama Stadium, Gamba were magnificent in the second half and left Reds a broken team.

Naturally they were ready for a first-half onslaught from the home team, and turned around only one goal down after Takahara had fired Reds ahead. After the game, Reds manager Gert Engels said the turning point of the match was his team's failure to add a second goal when they were in the ascendancy, and Gamba surely recognised that, too.

When the second half began, with the dangerous Sasaki on for Roni, the visitors had decided it was time for action. They knew that Reds could not maintain such a high tempo for the entire 90 minutes, so moved up a gear as smoothly as a finely-tuned engine.

Their teamwork and cohesion began to tame the individual talent within the Reds ranks, and their equaliser came quicker and easier than expected with Yamaguchi's free header at an Endo corner.

Although there was an element of luck about Myojin's goal that put Gamba 2-1 up on the night, there was no doubting who was on top by now, and who was looking the more dynamic of the two teams.

The longer the match went on, the more Gamba exposed Reds on the counter-attack, to the point that they looked like scoring with every attack in the last 15 minutes.

A wall of noise from the Reds fans urged their team forward, but they were running on empty and being stretched all over the park by the well-drilled Gamba unit.

The third goal was a gem, with so many quick, slick passes that it confused the spectators as well as the Reds defence before Endo put them out of their misery with the perfect finish. It was like the end of a bull fight, cruel but inevitable, as the final rapier thrust of the matador took down the brave, bewildered foe.


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Is Okubo a fantasista after all?

23 Oct 2008(Thu)

October 21, 2008: There's never a dull moment watching Vissel Kobe; or, more to the point, watching Yoshito Okubo.

The Vissel skipper played a major role in his team's winner at Saitama Stadium 2002 on Saturday, a candidate for Goal of the Season scored by Leandro.

With just eight minutes to go, Okubo collected the ball on the right flank in his own half, and moved inside before picking out Leandro with a magnificent left-footed pass.

Leandro, streaking away in the inside left channel, still had a bit to do, as he checked inside a weak challenge by Keita Suzuki and stroked the ball into the top far corner.

"A fantastic goal," beamed Kobe manager Hiroshi Matsuda -- and indeed it was, reminiscent of Nozawa's super strike for Kashima in that pivotal victory against Reds towards the end of last season.

"A collective counter-attack," added Matsuda, and that's where Okubo comes in.

Matsuda has been playing Okubo on the left side of midfield in recent games, but he has still posed a big threat in front of goal.

In the first half against Reds he should have buried a header from Kim Nam Il's delicately-flighted cross, but put it wide, and then he failed to pull the trigger when he had a clear sight of goal on the edge of the box; instead he delayed, and then tumbled over Abe's superb tackle in a lame attempt to win a free kick.

Okubo improved in the second half, forcing two saves out of Yamagishi, hitting the bar with a fierce close-range drive and being pulled back by Tulio when breaking clear; an offence that went unpunished but could have earned the Reds libero a red card on another day.

But it was his through-ball to Leandro that eventually won the day, and had Matsuda glowing in the corridors of power after the game.

"Originally he was a midfielder," the Vissel manager said. "At high school he played attacking midfield, and I have always admired the quality of his passing. His last pass is dangerous, and today it was a killer pass. He has very good vision under pressure.
"I think his biggest quality is his passing. He had two good chances to score, but missed."

So what is Okubo? Goal-taker or goal-maker?

I still hope for the former, at national team level, but recent evidence suggests the latter.

On the subject of Vissel, they have been linked with the Marinos duo of Yuji Nakazawa and Koji Yamase for next season; leading to billionaire owner Hiroshi Mikitani being dubbed the Roman Abramovich of the J.League.

I asked manager Matsuda about the rumours, but he said it was not his business.

"I don't even know if I will be manager next season," he added. "I should find out by the end of this month."


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Okada can still change course

20 Oct 2008(Mon)

October 18, 2008: Looking at the cold statistics, Japan are still on course to qualify for the next World Cup.

Four points from two games is a satisfactory return, and if they can maintain this pace throughout the final qualifying round, a tally of 16 points from eight games would be enough to finish in the top two.

The customary route to qualification is to draw away and win at home, so Japan were already two points ahead of schedule by winning their opener in Bahrain.

All that's happened now, following the 1-1 draw with Uzbekistan, is that Japan have dropped back on course.

No need to panic, then; and JFA president Motoaki Inukai has already declared he has no intention of changing course by firing Takeshi Okada.

It is Okada who must decide if he needs to change course in terms of the style of play.

Does he continue with his policy of selecting small, quick forwards in the hope they can unlock defences with their passing and movement?

Or does he go back to basics and play a more direct game with different personnel, using the flanks, crossing the ball into the box and shooting from distance?

I sincerely hope he changes course and starts picking a bigger, more experienced team, especially up front, as I fear the players he is selecting are not ready for the task. The four points may be on the board from two games, but the team looks fragile and vulnerable and could crash any time soon. There is still time to toughen up, which they must do in Qatar on November 19.

What disappointed me most against Uzbekistan was that Okada's bench did not have the personnel to offer a more direct threat, as the introduction of Okazaki and Koroki was more of the same after Okubo and Tamada.

As for Kagawa, I am surprised Okada has brought him back into the fold so quickly.

After being selected for the Olympics, he had a good game against Australia's under-23s in a friendly at Kobe, but was out of his depth in Beijing.

I thought the best course of action would be to leave him alone in the J.League for a year or two, and allow him to develop, but Okada has obviously seen something special. He might be proved right in the long run, but at the moment he has more pressing issues -- today, not tomorrow.


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Cramer: Japan must find the new Kamamoto

16 Oct 2008(Thu)

October 14, 2008: After a goal-filled final of the All Japan Under-18 Youth Championship on Monday, there was only one striker on the mind of German coaching professor Dettmar Cramer.

And it wasn't anyone from the astonishing match he had just witnessed, a final which ended Urawa Reds 9 Nagoya Grampus 1...that's right, 9-1. (Not even Nagoya Grampus 8 would have been good enough on this day.)

With a glint in his eyes, Cramer spoke wistfully of Japanese hero Kunishige Kamamoto, and said he was convinced there was another Kamamoto out there. The Japan Football Association just had to find him to cure what he described as "the Asian disease" -- the lack of an outstanding goalscorer in the national team.

"If this happened in the Sixties, it can happen again in the 21st century," Cramer, now 83, said at Saitama Stadium 2002.

"Japan needs a scouting system to find the second Kamamoto, and that means time, money, organisation and enthusiasm. The talent is there because I have just seen it, but we have to locate it. In the 1960s we found it in Kyoto; maybe the next Kamamoto is in Hokkaido. It is Japan's duty to find him."

Cramer is regarded as the Godfather of Japanese football for the role he played in building the game here in the 1960s. The pinnacle, of course, was Japan's bronze medal in the 1968 Mexico Olympics, when Kamamoto was the tournament's top scorer and Cramer was the team's technical director.

"He first came to me in 1961 when he was a high school boy in Kyoto. I was holding a junior camp, and he played one half of a trial match. He scored two goals in 45 minutes and I took him immediately as a new player for the national team.

"In 1965 he was the best centre forward in Asia, and in 1968 he was outstanding in the Olympic Games. He was the best scorer of the 16 teams, and these included Brazil, Spain, Hungary, Bulgaria and France."

Cramer, who went on to coach Bayern Munich to two European Cups in the mid-1970s, said he had asked Kamamoto himself to find the new Kamamoto.

"I told him, 'Kama', you must go around the country and find the second Kamamoto. I am sure Japan has another Kamamoto."

So what qualities must a scout be looking for?

According to Cramer, "Self-confidence, instinct. He wants to score and he believes in himself. He must have strong willpower. From there you develop the skills."


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Dreadful showing by Japan at Big Swan

13 Oct 2008(Mon)

October 11, 2008: Despite a goal from Kagawa and an energetic showing from Koroki, the happiest people after the Japan-UAE match must surely have been Uzbekistan.

There has been a lot of talk about Japan's Young Guns and how they changed the match, but frankly I couldn't find anything positive to come out of the 1-1 draw at Niigata.

I thought it was awful, at times embarrassing, and the worst Japan performance since the goalless draw with South Korea in the 2007 Asian Cup third-place playoff; a match Japan would lose on penalties (if anyone was still watching by then).

It was the kind of game which probably left the JFA wondering why they had organised a friendly in the first place, as it caused more damage to confidence than it did to pointing the way forward for the big test against the Uzbeks on Wednesday.

Japan's finishing was comical, even by their own low standards, especially from Okubo. When Tamada set him up with his low cross from the right early in the second half, Okubo looked certain to score, but put the chance over the bar. I have long supported Okubo, and defended his poor ratio of goals to games because many of those appearances were as a late substitute, but what can you say about that?

It took Japan 72 minutes to open the scoring, thanks to the industry of Uchida after his Antlers teammate, Koroki, had hit the post with a header. Uchida retrieved the loose ball, kept his composure and picked out the unmarked Kagawa at the far post. Easy. 1-0.

Kagawa couldn't miss, could he? Well, actually he could, and did so later with a header when it seemed easier to score. I don't care how old Kagawa is, or how young at 19, at this level he should be burying chances like that.

It also worried me how quickly the Emirates equalised after going behind -- just five minutes.

I am sure they would have settled for 0-0 before the kick-off, and didn't look too interested in attacking as they maintained a pedestrian pace.

But when they stepped it up briefly, they scored through Ismail Alhammadi. Hasebe should never have been beaten on the far touchline, and a deflection sent Ismail's shot between two defenders on the edge of the box and beyond Narazaki. Was anyone surprised?

I was also disappointed with some of Hasebe's casual passing, especially when he rolled the ball out to the right wing, only to see it intercepted. Okada could not believe his eyes.

This was a very poor showing by Japan, and they need to improve dramatically to beat Uzbekistan in the World Cup qualifier at Saitama.


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S-Pulse earn reward for adventure

9 Oct 2008(Thu)

October 8, 2008: The day after the FC Tokyo-Shimizu S-Pulse match, several media colleagues who did not attend all wanted to know the same thing: "What happened to FC Tokyo?"

It was difficult to answer, as my lasting impression was of the vibrancy of the play and the quality of the goals of S-Pulse in their 5-1 victory.

Tokyo had not defended well in the first half, that's true, and the result could have been different had Konno -- of all people -- not headed directly at keeper Yamamoto shortly after Emerson had dragged Tokyo back into the game at 3-1 with 30 minutes remaining.

But overall it was the adventure and the confidence racing through the S-Pulse players that won the day -- and won it handsomely thanks to five different goal scorers.

When the Tokyo players backed off Yamamoto on the right wing, he found the far corner with a stinging low drive from 30 metres. 0-1.

When the Tokyo defence made a hash of Hyodo's inswinging corner, right back Iwashita was up there in the mixer to accept the gift. 0-2.

When Kajiyama was ambushed while dithering in possession deep in his own half, Edamura played in Hara and the forward performed a Zidane-esque pirouette to bamboozle Moniwa and clip the ball over Shiota. A fantastic goal by Hara. 0-3. Half time.

Apart from the execution of the goal, what really impressed me was Hara's primeval shriek of celebration, picked up by the pitch-side microphone and clearly audible on the excellent J.League After Game Show. He enjoyed that one, didn't he? And it makes you wonder what he's going to do if he scores an injury-time winner in the Nabisco Cup final?

Hara also played a huge part in Okazaki's goal, running directly at the Tokyo defence and passing for "Oka-chan" (nice banner, S-Pulse fans) to hold off Nagatomo and fire past Shiota. 1-4. With 12 minutes to go, game over.

Then Okazaki set up Toda for the fifth, keeping possession in a tight area and playing the ball back for the ex-Tokyo favourite to rifle into the bottom corner. Toda had received a warm reception from the home fans -- and in reply he gave them a high five, or 1-5 to be precise.

What happened to FC Tokyo?

In truth, they didn't do too much wrong at all. It was just one of those games when everything went right for the visitors.


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Tahara is just warming up as climate cools

6 Oct 2008(Mon)

October 3, 2008: A few months ago, Weekly Soccer Magazine asked some football writers around Japan to pick a player who was not in the national squad but who may add something different.

My suggestion was Yutaka Tahara, the burly centre forward of Kyoto Sanga FC.

I could have made a safer choice, such as Mitsuo Ogasawara, but preferred an element of risk and of the unknown. Tahara seemed to fit the bill, and in an area of the game where Japan is most definitely open to offers.

Perhaps it was my English heritage that led me to select Tahara, as the big, brave No. 9 is the hero of the boys' comic books -- the player who scores the winning goal in the cup final at Wembley by hurling himself into the flying boots in a muddy penalty box and bursting the net with a diving header.

I saw this quality and potential in Tahara, so put his name forward in the magazine survey as a player who was worth looking at but not, for a minute, suggesting he was the instant answer to Japan's problems. He might have looked a bit like Batistuta in his scraggly-hair days, but I was not saying he was the Japanese "Batigol".

With this is mind, though, it was reassuring to see Tahara being named Man of the Match by certain sections of the media when Kyoto drew 2-2 at Urawa on a cabbage patch of a pitch at Komaba on Wednesday night.

Playing alongside Yanagisawa and, for 26 minutes, until his unfortunate injury attempting a bicycle kick, the incredibly talented Fernandinho, Tahara was a real handful for the Reds defence, in the air and on the deck. He played a big part in Yanagisawa's equaliser, forming a one-man wall to protect his strike partner, and came close with a couple of towering headers as the match progressed.

"Maybe his top performance this season," Kyoto's manager, Hisashi Kato, said of Tahara after the game.

"In the summer season he is not in good condition. It's the same every year. In summer his condition goes down, and I don't know the reason because he is from a very hot prefecture, Kagoshima," added "Kato-Q".

"In summer he loses a lot of energy through perspiration, but now he is showing his top performance."

In previous chats with Kato-Q, the Kyoto manager said Tahara struggled to control his weight in summer because he gulped down too many sugary drinks in the hot and humid Kansai conditions.

But now, as the temperature drops and the humidity levels fall from summer baseball weather to conditions more conducive to football around the world, Tahara is just getting warmed up.

Are you watching Oka-chan?


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Gamba's midfield sinks Verdy

2 Oct 2008(Thu)

October 1, 2008: Although they have lost their Nabisco Cup title this season and lost a lot of ground in the championship race, Gamba Osaka certainly have not lost their confidence.

That was clear at Ajinomoto Stadium on Sunday, when Gamba put Tokyo Verdy to the sword in a comfortable 3-1 victory.

Two early goals put the visitors in control, and an inspired change from coach Nishino produced a third 20 minutes from time to kill off any hopes of a Verdy comeback.

There was even time for Nishino to hand a belated J.League debut to defender Mineiro -- in injury time, and up front as a replacement for the wasteful Roni. With his lanky 1.84-metre, 72-kg frame, the 26-year-old Brazilian looks more like a Kenyan marathon runner, and he tried to make up for lost time with some swashbuckling runs and a couple of left-footed strikes on goal. Maybe Nishino has found himself a new centre forward, a secret weapon in the form of the athletic Mineiro, in time for the AFC Champions League semi-finals against Urawa Reds...

But it was Gamba's rampant midfield that won the day, first as Endo scored sweetly with his right foot, and then when Myojin lashed in the second with his left -- a reward for his adventure as he moved forward to support his attack.

Endo made it look so easy, although I thought he should have shot at the first attempt when the chance opened up. Instead, he played the ball in short to Bando, and only when the ball broke loose did he have a go. There was nothing else on, so why not score a goal? It was a Shinji Ono-style finish, as he caressed the ball around the keeper and inside the far post, as easy as shelling peas.

The admirable Diego kept Verdy going with another high-energy, power-packed performance, pulling a goal back 10 minutes into the second half, before Nishino played his next card, replacing Bando with the nippy right winger Sasaki on 62 minutes.

The plan was obvious -- for Sasaki to run at Verdy's 35-year-old captain and left back, Hattori.

First, Sasaki set the alarm bells ringing in the Verdy defence by skinning Hattori and setting up Roni, who fired over the bar, and everyone expected the same move a few minutes later as Futagawa fed Sasaki in a similar position.

The Verdy defence backed off, but Sasaki had other ideas and took Doi by surprise with his crisp, right-foot shot that flew into the net for his first J1 goal in his 12th appearance.

With goal machine Bare long gone, Lucas injured, Yamazaki suspended, Bando quiet and Roni misfiring, who needs forwards to win matches?


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