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November 2008

Namba, Ota stand out in J2

27 Nov 2008(Thu)

November 26, 2008: Yokohama FC will not be returning to J1 next season, but some of their players might be in line for a winter move to the top flight.

On the evidence of their strong team performance in a 2-2 draw at home to promotion-chasing Vegalta Sendai on Saturday, Yokohama have at least a couple of players who would fit right back in to J1 if top clubs came calling.

The two that impressed me most were centre forward Hiroaki Namba and left back Kosuke Ota.

Namba is a Japanese version of Chong Tese, Kawasaki Frontale's all-action North Korean striker, and looks considerably bigger and more powerful than his statistics suggest: 1.72 metres and 68 kgs. Like Chong, Namba puts himself about and is a constant menace to opposition defenders in the air and on the ground.

Even when Yokohama FC were relegated in 2007, Namba looked useful, if a little raw, and plays with a strong spirit.

Considering he will turn 26 on December 9, Namba has played fewer than 50 league games as a professional in J1 and J2, and has plenty of running and aggression left inside the tank. He would be good value for any J1 team looking to strengthen its squad, and a big miss for Yokohama FC should he move on.

Ota also stood out, on the left side of Yokohama FC's back four. Like Namba, he came down from J1 with the club in 2007 but remains unscathed from a psychological point of view.

Still only 21, he plays with an intensity and a tempo that reminds me of Oita Trinita's Masato Morishige -- and, coincidentally, wears the same shirt number, six. Ota is a sturdy 1.78 metres and 74 kgs, and likes to get forward and join his attack.

There are plenty of winter moves in the pipeline, and it would not surprise me if the names of Namba and Ota appeared on the shopping lists of several J1 clubs.


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Simple is the best way after all

24 Nov 2008(Mon)

November 21, 2008: After a recent J1 game at Nissan Stadium, the TV cameras focused on a banner at the away end.

Held up by a Kyoto Sanga supporter, the banner, in English, read: "Simple is the best way."

After watching Japan beat Qatar 3-0 in Doha on Wednesday night, I am wondering if Takeshi Okada saw the banner, and acted on it -- because that is exactly how Japan got the job done..

In recent times, Japan have managed to make a simple game look incredibly complicated with their intricate moves demanding perfect technique and timing, and their habit of over-elaborating in front of goal.

But in Doha they went back to the basics of football, and this more direct approach brought instant rewards.

Japan were knocking the ball into the channels to utilise the pace of the forwards and keep the Qatar defence on the back foot. Witness the opening goal of Tatsuya Tanaka, who latched on to Uchida's pass and finished smartly.

Japan were shooting on sight, as both Tulio and Tatsuya Tanaka demonstrated before the opening goal. Witness Tamada's superb strike for the second goal, which really knocked the stuffing out of Qatar so early in the second half. How many times have Grampus and Japan fans seen Tamada with the opportunity to shoot on his left foot, only to take an extra touch or try something flashy and waste the chance? This time he did the obvious thing, and shot first time from the edge of the area.

And Japan were crossing the ball into the box, keeping the goalkeeper under pressure. Witness the third goal, a beautiful cross from Shunsuke Nakamura to the far post, where Tulio gobbled up the chance with a straightforward header.

This is what impressed me most about Japan. They played with confidence and control, and kept things simple.

"Simple is the best way" -- and hopefully this will have cleared up a few things in the mind of Okada.


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Stojkovic and the Osim factor

20 Nov 2008(Thu)

November 19, 2008: Six games without a win; four points from a possible 18; only one goal scored in the last three games...

A record like this surely belongs to a team in danger of relegation.

But no, it belongs to Nagoya Grampus -- still in third place in the table, two points off the pace and with three games to go.

That just about sums up this crazy J1 campaign, in which no team has been able to string together a series of wins at the critical moment and pull away from the pack. Hence the fact that Grampus are still in there with a shout.

Nagoya's manager, Dragan Stojkovic, knows his team should be out of the title race with a run as poor as that so late in the season, but has been in the game long enough to know that anything can still happen, especially in Japan..

"We'll never give up," he said, with a twinkle in his eye as he left NACK5 Stadium on Saturday after Nagoya's 2-1 victory over Omiya in the Emperor's Cup.

"The most important thing about this game was that we found the road to victory, and this will give us confidence for the last three league games, which we need a lot. Scoring two goals away is absolutely fabulous."

Grampus won it with two headers from Frode Johnsen -- the first an early gift from the Omiya defence, the second a masterful finish after a slick left-wing move involving Abe and then Magnum (really, Abe's pass up the line was a work of art, curling it round the Omiya defence and into Magnum's path as he broke up the left flank). Rumour has it that Johnsen will be playing for Gamba next season, and will be replaced by Davi from Sapporo, but Nagoya would miss the Norwegian centre forward's aerial prowess if these deals were done..

So Grampus came away with a win, and showed enough character and style to convince their manager that the J1 title is not yet out of reach.

Stojkovic also took heart from the words of his old boss, Ivica Osim, manager of the Yugoslavia team in which Stojkovic excelled at the 1990 World Cup.

"He told me he always enjoyed to watch how Grampus play, and it's really good to hear this kind of thing from him," Stojkovic said, after chatting with Osim for a few minutes after the final whistle.

I asked the Grampus manager what he had learned from Osim when they worked together, and he replied that the most important thing was that every player had to work for the team.

"A player must not be selfish, he must play for the group," Stojkovic said.

"He knew that I had extra talent as a player but I had to put this extra talent into the collective and play for the group. After all, the group wins the game. We had a great time working together in the national team and at the World Cup."


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Gamba -- the pride of...Ebisu

17 Nov 2008(Mon)

November 15, 2008: As the work day draws to a close and the bright lights of the evening beckon, there is no better place to be in Tokyo than Ebisu.

Especially when you are standing outside the Footnik bar, waiting for the doors to open at 5pm and welcome you into the warmth and a seat for the big match.

This was the scene on Wednesday evening, as football fans formed an orderly queue and passers-by wondered what all the fuss was about.

It was Adelaide United against Gamba Osaka, of course, in the second leg of the Asian Champions League final, live from Australia, and by the time the match kicked off at 6pm the bar was pretty full of blue and black stripes.

While some of the foreigners needed filling in on who was playing, where and why, the Japanese were well into it and soon celebrating wildly.

The nimble feet of Sasaki, the low shot, the parry and the finish from Lucas...1-0 Gamba, 4-0 on aggregate, and the game as good as over after only four minutes.

Just to make sure, Gamba added a second on the quarter-hour mark, this time Futagawa producing a peach of a pass for Lucas to convert again.

Several things impressed me from this point on: the way Gamba continued to play their precise passing game and did not resort to time-wasting tactics (the Arsenal of Japan in evidence again); the way the fans in the bar lapped it up and created a cup final atmosphere of tension, excitement and, finally, of pride; and how the red-shirted Aussie fans in the Hindmarsh Stadium did not leave their seats until the final whistle, even though their cause was hopeless.

Before kick-off, Adelaide's chances of overturning their 3-0 deficit from the first leg were slim, but even when they had disappeared altogether the home fans did not disappear from the stadium, creating a colourful spectacle for the TV images beamed around the world.

The quality of the goals, too, would have impressed the international audience, especially the speed and the skills of the Japanese players, despite both goals being scored by a Brazilian.

It was a great night at the Footnik -- more expensive than necessary due to the fact the match was not being shown on terrestrial television or even on TV Asahi's 717 channel on "Sky-Per" -- and the fans left the bar with a spring in their step and a lighter wallet. Everyone wins.

After the success of Urawa Reds last season and of Gamba now, the Japanese clubs have finally stamped their authority on the continent's premier club competition.

And how the organisers will be wishing for a Japanese club in the final next season, as the AFC has decided to scrap the two-leg format and play a single match at the National Stadium in Tokyo.


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Omiya darling: It's Klemen time

13 Nov 2008(Thu)

November 11, 2008: What a time for Klemen Lavric to become the darling of the Omiya faithful!

With the Ardija-Frontale match all square at 1-1 late in the second half, Lavric scored a memorable goal that will be talked about for seasons to come from Saitama to Slovenia...especially by him.

When right back Taishi Tsukamoto knocked the ball into the Frontale box, there didn't appear to be much on for the big man as the cross was slightly behind him. But, with his back to goal, he teed the ball up, turned in an orange blur and rifled a ferocious right-foot shot into the far corner. "Klemen time" had arrived, and Ardija hung on for 2-1 and three precious points in their battle to avoid the drop.

It was a gutsy display by Omiya, who were well worth the win against a disappointing Frontale team. Considering the visitors could have gone top of the table with a victory, you would never have thought so watching their performance, which lacked the urgency and self-belief demanded of the occasion. I was quite surprised that the away fans cheered their team so generously on the final whistle, as it was not a display to suggest they had the right mental stuff to win the championship, despite having the players.

Omiya looked sharper and hungrier all afternoon, and were given a bright start by Chikara Fujimoto on his 300th career appearance in the top flight. The home supporters were even treated to his trademark "Fujimoto Foxtrot" after he had opened the scoring on 26 minutes, prodding home the loose ball after Lavric's low drive had struck the post.

I thought this might wake up Frontale, and switch them on to the task at hand, but when they did equalise nine minutes later it came completely out of the blue. Nakamura's free kick from the left was headed clear by Lavric, only for Frontale right back Mori to meet it with a dipping, swerving volley from 30 metres that flew past a startled Ezumi and into the Omiya net.

I thought I'd have to wait a long time to see a better goal than that at NACK5, but the wait lasted just 42 minutes -- until Lavric brought the orange house down with his cracker after 77 minutes.

Which brings us round to the headline of this article -- based, of course, on the famous old ditty, "Oh my darling, Clementine." I always think of that song when I hear Lavric's first name, Klemen, so what better time to exploit it than this!

I'm sure his agent, who was watching the match along with another J.League client, Sanfrecce manager Mihailo Petrovic, was singing something on the final whistle -- but more like the Abba classic, "Money, Money, Money"...


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Frontale gearing up for title push

10 Nov 2008(Mon)

November 7, 2008: The gap between J1 and J2 never looked wider than when Kawasaki Frontale entertained Montedio Yamagata in the Emperor's Cup fourth round at Todoroki on Monday afternoon.

Although the visitors took an early lead, they were quickly put in their place by Frontale and ended up losing 3-1. No disgrace in that, but Frontale were operating in cruise control for the last third of the game when victory was already assured.

Among the crowd was Omiya manager Yasuhiro Higuchi, and his notebook must have been pretty full as he prepared for Frontale's visit to NACK5 on Saturday.

With four games to go in the J1 season, Frontale played with an authority and a fluidity to suggest they are perfectly capable of winning their first title, despite being two points off the pace in third place.

After Saturday's game at Omiya they then have consecutive home matches against Gamba Osaka and Vissel Kobe, and finish away to Verdy. All four are very winnable for Frontale, especially with their abundance of riches up front.

Due to the fact that Chong Tese was born in Japan, in Aichi Prefecture, Frontale can field a four-strong foreign strikeforce, with the burly North Korean centre forward leading the line and supported by the pace and power of Renatinho on the right and Juninho on the left. Their third Brazilian, Vitor Junior, is listed as a midfield player, but he buzzes around the top three with no defensive responsibilities at all thanks to the central midfield tandem of "Captain Kengo" and Taniguchi.

Their formation is more 4-2-4 than 4-3-3, and is full of goals from all angles; not just from the strikers but from the late runs of Taniguchi into the box, the shooting quality of Nakamura and from the heading ability of the big defenders at set pieces.

Against Yamagata they were relentless if not quite ruthless, and Higuchi must have left the stadium wondering where to start on trying to stop this attacking machine when the two sides meet at Omiya on Saturday afternoon.

And if Frontale look impressive at the moment, just think how strong they could be next season when the "3 plus 1" rule comes into effect; three foreign players, plus a fourth provided he is from an Asian country. For Frontale read "4 plus 1" -- three Brazilians and a North Korean, plus, perhaps, a South Korean or Australian?

And, if they retain everyone from this season, still with Ganaha and Kurotsu on the bench...


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Logical -- but still a surprise

6 Nov 2008(Thu)

November 4, 2008: When the champagne corks had stopped popping and the fizz had finally fizzled out at the National Stadium on Saturday, the result of the Nabisco Cup final was quite logical and even predictable.

Yet it was still a surprise, at least for me.

I really thought S-Pulse were going to win this one. They had the momentum and the form going into the final, whereas Oita had wobbled a bit lately and were looking vulnerable.

But on the day Trinita played the perfect game, and strangled the life out of S-Pulse with their efficient and ruthless brand of football.

The first goal was always going to be vital in this match, and once Trinita scored it they looked in complete command.

They were able to keep S-Pulse in their tight grip, and still find time to break away at the right moment and score a second to underline their superiority on the day.

It was a great victory for the club and for their young Brazilian manager Pericles Chamusca, ably assisted by his three assistant coaches on the pitch: Edmilson and Roberto in the middle of the park and Ueslei up front.

Yes, I know they are not officially assistant coaches, but they have such a strong influence on the team they could be referred to as "player/coach."

As for S-Pulse, they just didn't get going, did they?

Their plight was highlighted by the total eclipse of Edamura, playing at the top of the midfield diamond and working behind the strong-running front two, Hara and Okazaki.

I had forgotten Edamura was still on the pitch when he was substituted after 82 minutes, such was the superb defence of Trinita.

Although Takagi could have done better with a first-half shot he pulled wide, and Yajima came close with a left-foot shot on the turn late on, S-Pulse struggled to get a sight of goal all afternoon.

I must admit they puzzled me in the very first minute of the match, after Fukaya had fouled Hara to concede a free kick on the left side of the Oita box.

So early in the game, I expected S-Pulse to send up the heavy artillery, Aoyama and Takagi, and just let Hyodo swish one into the mixer with his accurate left foot. At that stage of the final, nerves would still have been jangling and a mistake in defence could not have been ruled out.

But instead, S-Pulse tried an intricate practice ground routine that went wrong, as Hyodo was forced to shoot with his weaker right foot. The ball sailed high and wide, and Oita were never even tested from this set piece. What a waste!

Trinita were worthy winners, while S-Pulse manager Kenta Hasegawa must wish he could turn the clock back and start again from Saturday lunchtime.


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Fitting choice for 'Mu Hero'

3 Nov 2008(Mon)

November 1, 2008: Individual awards within a team game can often produce intense debate, but there cannot be too much argument over the announcement of the Nabisco Cup New Hero.

On the eve of Saturday's final between Shimizu S-Pulse and Oita Trinita at the National Stadium, the J.League declared 19-year-old Mu Kanazaki as the competition's rising star. There were several other candidates from either team, but Kanazaki was a worthy winner.

The attacking midfielder won't turn 20 until February 16, but he has already made his mark with his flashy futsal skills and the high tempo at which he plays the game.

Another advantage is his physique, a sinewy frame of 1.80 metres that suggests he could catch the eye of talent scouts from Europe.

By all accounts he is already on the winter shopping list of several top J.League clubs, as is his team mate, Masato Morishige, with Nagoya Grampus among the admirers of Kanazaki.

This would make sense, as Grampus manager Dragan Stojkovic likes his players tall and likes them to be confident and full of ideas on the ball.

Kanazaki fits the bill perfectly on all fronts, and is the kind of player a manager like Stojkovic could improve further with his knowledge and vast experience.

Credit, therefore, must go to Trinita's Brazilian boss, Pericles Chamusca -- surely a candidate for Manager of the Year at the J.League Awards Night on December 22 at Tokyo Dome.

His two Brazilian midfield players, Edmilson and Roberto, provide a solid base on which Kanazaki can weave his magic in the last third of the pitch. With these two, playing in front of a back three anchored by Morishige, keeping the shape and the balance of the team, Kanazaki is virtually free of defensive responsibilities as he roams the pitch looking for openings and linking with his two strikers.

Kanazaki is an exciting talent and has scored too many remarkable goals this season for them to be a fluke. This New Hero award acknowledges his contribution, and the club will be hoping it is not the last piece of silverware they pick up this season.

Going into Saturday's Nabisco Cup final against S-Pulse, there is a possibility of a domestic treble in terms of League Cup, league championship and Emperor's Cup, so Chamusca will need the creative talents and energy of Kanazaki more than anything from this point on.


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