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December 2008

Abe has another chance to 'appeal'

29 Dec 2008(Mon)

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.


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Old boys and cowboys

25 Dec 2008(Thu)

December 24, 2008: The small section of Kashima Antlers fans high up in the stands at the J.League Awards were in good voice on Monday evening.

There was plenty to celebrate after all. Marquinhos netted a hat trick of prizes as leading scorer, best XI selection and, the big one, MVP.

Right back Atsuto Uchida and centre half Daiki Iwamasa joined Marquinhos in the best XI; Oswaldo Oliveira was named best manager for the second year in a row, and Antlers old boys Yutaka Akita, Akira Narahashi and Hisashi Kurosaki were among the recipients of a special achievement award.

Such was the pride of the Antlers fans that they broke out in song at regular intervals, adding a bit of terrace atmosphere to the meticulously planned, meticulously formal bow-tie occasion at Meets Port near Tokyo Dome.

But perhaps their biggest cheer was reserved for another Kashima hero, still playing in J1 for Kyoto Sanga FC. It was, of course, Atsushi Yanagisawa, who was also named in the best XI alongside Marquinhos in the two-pronged forward line.

"Atsushi-goal" bagged 14 in 32 league games last term for the Purple Ones, playing a major part in keeping them in the top flight. It was his third selection in the best XI, and clearly the change of scenery from Kashima to Kyoto and fresh challenge had worked wonders for his game.

On the subject of changing scenery, Antlers manager Oswaldo was doing exactly that the next day, flying back to Brazil for a month's vacation in which the festivities would include the wedding of his daughter -- not to a footballer, to an engineer.

It's been a long few days for Oswaldo since his team clinched the championship on the last day of the season, at Sapporo on December 6. With the awards held rather late this time, on December 22, and with Antlers having been eliminated from the Emperor's Cup, Oswaldo has been counting down the days to his holiday -- and cooking quite a bit, too.

"I have been in Kashima alone for 16 days," he sighed, before the awards ceremony kicked off.

"There has been no training with the players and my Brazilian staff have all gone home. There is nothing to do, only cooking. My place is like a farm -- and I've been living like a cowboy!"

Maybe this cowboy lifestyle will be useful next season to win a shootout -- a penalty shootout, that is.


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Everyone a winner in Yokohama goal fest

22 Dec 2008(Mon)

December 20, 2008: No wonder the neutrals loved it -- eight goals and some of the world's most famous players in action in a competitive match in Japan.

No wonder Sir Alex Ferguson was content, having watched his Manchester United team put five past Gamba Osaka to book their place in the FIFA Club World Cup final, while entertaining the crowd, too.

And no wonder Akira Nishino was disappointed, not simply because Gamba lost 5-3, but because of the manner in which they lost: two straightforward headers from corners in the first half, the second of those coming in the only minute of stoppage time; and then conceding a third goal immediately after Yamazaki had given them hope with his smart finish past Van der Sar. That third goal was the killer blow, as Rooney got in behind Nakazawa and made it 3-1 as easy as you like. Game over, for the second time.

When Fletcher and Rooney, with his second of the night, extended the lead to 5-1, United looked capable of scoring seven or eight to really put Gamba to the sword, but two late goals by the Asian champions meant everyone could go home happy, especially FIFA. Not only had the game attracted almost 68,000 to the stadium and millions around the world in the 211 countries and territories taking it live on TV, it had helped to justify the existence of the tournament itself, which is still scoffed at far too often. A 7-1 or 8-1 win for United would have been no help at all.

Nishino, though, would have been very frustrated at half time, going in 2-0 down to headers from Vidic and Ronaldo, both from inswinging corners from the left foot of Giggs.

Those goals are about as English as you can get, supplied by a Welshman and scored by a Serb and a Portuguese. Vidic rose above Yamaguchi and headed home as easily as reaching up and picking an apple off a tree, while Ronaldo demonstrated again what a masterful header of a ball he is, a fact often overlooked because of his other, more extravagant skills on the ground.

At times the match resembled a friendly because of the gulf in class between the two teams, and United contributed to this environment with some casual play you would never see in the English Premier League, especially from Giggs in his attempts to please the Japanese crowd.

United will have to raise their game considerably in the final against Ecuador's "All Blacks" of Liga de Quito, while Gamba have the chance to prove their quality on a more level playing field, against Pachuca of Mexico, in the third-place playoff.


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Matsuura provides the highs in a season of Jubilo lows

18 Dec 2008(Thu)

December 16, 2008: Hans Ooft described Jubilo's year as a "roller-coaster season" after they had held off Vegalta Sendai to keep their place in the top flight.

But I always thought there were highs and lows, ups and downs, when you rode the roller-coaster, whereas in Jubilo's case this season it has been downhill all the way..

Until it came to the playoff, that is.

Just in the nick of time, Jubilo found a new hero in 19-year-old Takuya Matsuura, who scored all three goals over the two legs for Jubilo to survive 3-2 on aggregate.

Considering he only made his J.League debut on July 17, Matsuura played with confidence and verve to lead the way for his more seasoned teammates.

After Jubilo had fallen behind in the first leg, away from home, Matsuura pulled them level with a terrific strike with his left foot from the edge of the box. The game finished 1-1, and Jubilo had an away goal in the bank.

At home, Matsuura settled Jubilo nerves four minutes before half time with an eye-catching opening goal, using his chest to guide Maeda's left-wing cross over the keeper and into the far corner. This was no fluke. It was a bright piece of improvisation by the bustling little midfielder, as the ball was played in at a height which left him with no other option.

Matsuura's second, after 70 minutes, highlighted his ambition, skill and his power of positive thinking, as he latched on to Komano's clearance, held off two defenders and chipped the ball beyond the keeper for 2-0. The following day, at Toyota Stadium, Adelaide United captain Travis Dodd set up an almost identical situation with a storming run through the Gamba defence, but couldn't finish off the move as he rolled the ball wide of the far post.

Thanks to Matsuura's cool finish, Jubilo were in control at 2-0 heading into the four minutes of injury time. But the J.League would not be the J.League without late drama, and Vegalta captain Ryang Yong Gi provided it with a sparkling free kick past Kawaguchi to set up a crazy finish. A second away goal and Vegalta would have gone up, and Jubilo down into J2.

But Jubilo hung on, and when the final whistle blew, Kawaguchi collapsed to the turf in relief and remained there for a couple of minutes. Jubilo were still in J1, thanks to Matsuura's highs in a season of lows.


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Club World Cup: 'For the Good of the Game'

15 Dec 2008(Mon)

December 13, 2008: It's easy to criticise the FIFA Club World Cup, and to say that teams such as Adelaide United and Waitakere United have no place on the world stage.

But the same can be said of the World Cup.

Are the 32 teams that play in the World Cup every four years the best 32 teams in the world?

No, of course they are not. If FIFA wanted the best 32, most of them would be from Europe, plus Brazil and Argentina, and one or two from elsewhere.

But that's not the point. The competitions are for FIFA's six regional confederations, and it is not the fault of Waitakere United that they represent the weakest area, Oceania.

As long as the six confederations exist in their current state, FIFA has an obligation to support them and promote football in all corners of the globe.

And this is where the Club World Cup comes in, the chance for teams to win their continental championship and face the might of Europe or South America in the final tournament.

This is the most positive aspect of the Club World Cup, and why it has become a target for all clubs around the world. It may be a hassle for Manchester United to come all this way to Japan at this time of the season, just ahead of the busy Christmas and New Year holiday programme, but their presence lifts the whole profile of the tournament. In this way they are making a mighty contribution to world football, because they are official games when results will be remembered, as opposed to the friendlies they play on promotional tours.

For the players of Gamba Osaka and Adelaide United, who meet in the quarter-final on Sunday, this will be one of the most important matches of their career, with the chance to face Manchester United under the world spotlight in the last four.

So while it's fashionable to be negative, and criticise the quality of teams in the early stages, the Club World Cup must be looked at from the angle of promoting the game around the world. In this aspect it is an important FIFA event, and why it will continue to grow in stature.

I enjoyed the Adelaide-Waitakere game in Tokyo on Thursday night, and so did the crowd of almost 20,000. It was hard, fair, and both teams gave everything.

And if any J.League clubs are looking for a good left back under the "3+1" overseas player rule next season, Scott Jamieson had an outstanding match for the Aussies and is worth watching again against Gamba, especially against the lively Sasaki.


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Marquinhos -- much more to his game than goals

11 Dec 2008(Thu)

December 10, 2008: The J.League Awards are late this season, not until December 22, so there is plenty of time for debate around the country.

Without further ado, here's my choice: Marquinhos of Kashima Antlers.

The Brazilian striker with the quick feet and quicker mind was one of Kashima's key players in 2007 when they surged past Urawa Reds to win the championship, but this time he's been the main man without question.

And yes, I would still have voted for Marquinhos had Ogasawara stayed fit, as I thought he was the team's most dominant figure even before the midfielder's knee injury at Kashiwa Reysol on September 20.

And no, I am not just voting for Marquinhos because he scored 21 goals, five more than the next best, Davi of Consadole.

Of course Marquinhos' strike rate is excellent, with those goals coming in 30 games, but it is his overall performance and influence on the team that really stands out, as it did last year.

He is a true leader on the pitch, and his experience and craft have played a huge part in the development of Tashiro in 2007 and of Koroki this season.

Just watch how he links with Koroki, and how he laid the platform for Nozawa's fantastic goal at Sapporo Dome on Saturday to clinch a 1-0 victory and their sixth league title. Admittedly, Nozawa still had a lot to do, as he controlled the ball, advanced and sent a right-foot shot whistling into the corner from 25 metres, but it was the clever pass of Marquinhos that opened up Nozawa's route to goal.

After Kashima's recent home win over Jubilo, I asked manager Oswaldo de Oliveira for his choice as J.League MVP.

He would not commit himself to one player, stressing the strong character of the group, but acknowledged that some stars shone brighter on different days. He mentioned Uchida from the pivotal victory at Oita and Iwamasa -- my MVP last season -- for his late heroics against Jubilo, but added that Marquinhos had played this role of saviour on a regular basis throughout the season.

It would be easy to give the J.League MVP award to Marquinhos on the strength of his 21 goals alone, many of which were outstanding individual efforts, but his game is about much more than that.

Marquinhos wins the day for me, ahead of teammates Uchida, Iwamasa and Aoki, whose consistently mature and driving performances in the middle of the park have cushioned the loss of Ogasawara.


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Commonsense prevails in Shunsuke saga

8 Dec 2008(Mon)

December 5, 2008: Someone has finally come to their senses at Yokohama F Marinos.

I could never understand all the talk of Marinos “preparing” a 10-million-dollar bid to bring Nakamura home in the January transfer window when he would have been a free agent anyway after June 30, 2009.

In the latest reports, that fee has dropped to 5 million dollars, but still it seems a waste of money to me when they could get him for nothing in six months’ time.

It all seems irrelevant now, though, as the deal appears to be off. Even in the economic downturn, I am sure that Nissan could have found 5 million dollars if they had really wanted to, but they have decided to wait.

Celtic will be happy, as the Japanese crowd favourite can help them win a fourth consecutive championship, and Marinos fans should not be too downhearted as his return home in July now looks a certainty.

So why all the talk earlier of the big transfer fee? If Marinos had really offered Celtic 10 million dollars to sign Nakamura in January, I am sure Celtic would have taken it. In fact they would have been crazy not to, knowing they would be losing him at the end of the season.

But I thought Marinos would have been crazy to pay it.

The only reason I can think of why Marinos would want him so quickly, in January, would be to stop other Japanese clubs from signing him for free next summer.

Someone like Urawa Reds, Nagoya Grampus or even Vissel Kobe could have offered Nakamura a huge signing-on fee, as well as a multi-year, multi-million dollar contract. Perhaps Marinos were worried they may not be able to match these personal terms, hence the need to pay a big fee for him when the other clubs would have held back.

By offering 10 million dollars, Celtic would have been virtually forced to sell him for such a good price with only six months’ remaining on his contract, and with plenty of good players in midfield and attack to maintain their momentum in the Scottish Premier League.

Personally, I am happy Shunsuke is staying with Celtic until the end of the season. He will be in top condition for Japan’s World Cup qualifiers early next year, and the winning mentality he has developed at Celtic will no doubt be reflected in his play for Japan.


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Oswaldo's passion shines through

4 Dec 2008(Thu)

December 3, 2008: The season is not quite over yet, but you would have thought it was at Kashima Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

The incredible last-gasp goal by Iwamasa, the scenes of celebrations that followed, the post-match festivities for Antlers' last home game of the season, and the behaviour of manager Oswaldo de Oliveira throughout; it certainly had the feel of a championship-winning day.

But this is the J.League. There is still one game to go, and recent history has shown that anything could happen on Saturday.
With a two-point lead over second-placed Nagoya Grampus and a vastly superior goal difference (12), Antlers basically need only a draw at Sapporo to retain their crown.

The situation is similar to last year's final day, when Reds, already stumbling, were humbled by Yokohama FC, already relegated, and Antlers roared past to win their fifth league crown at their home ground. I can't see Antlers slipping up this time, though. They have a cold professionalism about them, and can usually find a way to produce the result they need when they really need it. It might not be pretty, but they will close ranks and grind it out to achieve their goal. Saturday's game at Sapporo Dome gives them the perfect stage to demonstrate the "Antlersism" brand again and collect even more silverware.

One thing's for sure: Oswaldo will have them primed for battle, with a combination of high motivation and composure.

It will actually be the Brazilian coach's 58th birthday on Friday, December 5, so he is in a position to win a league championship just two days into his new year! His passion for the game and for success appears to be growing stronger, judging by events last Saturday at home to Jubilo.

He was so emotional after Iwamasa's goal and so proud after the victory that several Japanese players -- naturally more reserved, of course -- looked slightly uncomfortable trying to reciprocate his boisterous Brazilian behaviour. Not so much a case of "lost in translation", more like "lost in celebration".

I asked him about the message he screamed -- and I mean screamed -- to the fans after the game from the microphone on the pitch.

"I thanked God for keeping for me the greatest moments of my life, to live in Kashima," he said, now very calm. "We won the championship here last year with a combination of results on the last day, and today we could have lost the chance but we scored at the last moment. My players are wonderful. They try all the time and never give up. It is the behaviour of champions."


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Hollywood Reds

1 Dec 2008(Mon)

November 29, 2008: It is quite appropriate that Urawa Reds have a working relationship with Bayern Munich, as they are doing everything possible to live up to Bayern's old nickname of "FC Hollywood" -- a reputation earned for events off the field rather than on it.

The latest twist in the Saitama soap opera is the imminent replacement of Gert Engels as manager by another German, Volker Finke.

Just like a Hollywood movie, there has been furtive plotting behind the scenes, rumours, demands and denials, broken relationships and victims in the final scenes.

On this occasion, it was not only Engels who paid the price for Reds' poor season, but the club as a whole for the crass way in which they handled it all.

Regardless of whether Engels deserved the bullet or not, the always amicable German deserved better treatment than that; with seemingly everyone else knowing he would be fired long before he was told face to face by his employers.

With three league games to go, Reds were only a point behind Antlers and still had a chance to reclaim the title. Admittedly, they had not played well as a team this season, despite the quality of players in all departments, but the cold facts did not lie -- that Reds were in second place and could be champions.

The management could not wait, though, and Finke was inside Saitama Stadium for last Sunday's match against S-Pulse. How Reds expected Engels to be oblivious of the development is beyond belief, as text messages had been flying around between agents and managers for some two weeks before the game.

With such an uncomfortable atmosphere, and with his fate as manager sealed, no wonder Engels was taking on more than S-Pulse in that crucial game. Reds lost, of course, and three days later the club decided it was time to tell him he would be fired at the end of the season, despite him having another year on his contract.

One of the English-language newspapers this week found the perfect word -- "shabby" -- to describe the treatment of Engels, who at least will receive a handsome pay-off from the club.

Engels has now been fired three times in Japan, by JEF United, Kyoto and Urawa, but will bite the bullet and see out his commitments with Reds this season, meaning the last two league games.

When he succeeded Holger Osieck two games into the current campaign, I described Engels as "The Survivor", and I am sure he can still do a job for another club with his Japanese language skills and coaching experience; but maybe he will be more comfortable in the No. 2 role.

At least Engels has come out of this sorry episode with his dignity in tact, which is more than can be said for Reds. If Engels deserved to be fired -- and that is not the debate here -- a club as big as Urawa could have handled this with much more class.


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