December 27, 2008: There were several reasons why Nagoya Grampus challenged for the championship this season and eventually finished third to clinch a place in the 2009 Asian Champions League.
The influence of manager Dragan Stojkovic; the goals of Frode Johnsen; the dynamism off the bench of Keita Sugimoto; the sparkling play of Yoshizumi Ogawa, who would be named Rookie of the Year...all these factors contributed to Nagoya's rise.
Another key component of the Grampus engine was left back Shohei Abe, who played in all 34 league games and really caught the eye with his work up and down the left flank.
So it was good to see Abe being added to the national squad for Japan's training camp in Kagoshima, starting on January 10, ahead of the Asian Cup qualifier against Yemen in Kumamoto 10 days later.
National coach Takeshi Okada has had a look at Abe before, inviting him to a mid-season training camp, but by all accounts Abe did not do himself justice. You always hear Japanese players expressing their desire to "appeal" when given an opportunity, but the left back failed to do so and was a little too quiet during the camp.
But now he has another chance to impress, and I am sure Stojkovic will have given Abe the same kind of advice that Arsene Wenger gave him before taking over at Nagoya: To believe in yourself, and to be confident that what you are doing is correct.
In other words, it's a mental thing. Abe has the quality in that superb left foot, and the energy to rule the left flank in defence and attack, but he must impose himself on the play and make things happen, rather than waiting for them to happen.
With Yasuda of Gamba and Nagatomo of FC Tokyo still slogging away in the Emperor's Cup and not selected for the training camp, Okada could have used Komano or Yuki Abe on the left side of defence -- and might still do so against an opponent as weak as Yemen. But both these players are naturally right footed and do not look comfortable at left back in a back four, hence the late call-up for Shohei Abe now Grampus have been eliminated from the Emperor's Cup.
The Nagoya left back was included on the "long list" of 30 candidates for the J.League Best XI, and I was disappointed that he was not chosen among the five defenders. Those places went to Uchida and Iwamasa of Kashima, Tulio of Urawa, Nakazawa of Marinos and Yamaguchi of Gamba.
I must admit I like the look of that defence, but with Shohei Abe on the left. A tough back three of Tulio at libero, behind two big and solid markers in Iwamasa and Nakazawa, with Uchida flying down the right and the exquisite left foot of Abe giving balance on the left...
Sadly, though, the days of 3-5-2 for the national team look to be over.