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February 2009

Cahill goes from strength to strength

26 Feb 2009(Thu)

February 24, 2009: If David Moyes had his way, one of his own Everton players would be in line for the Player of the Year award in England this season.

The young Scottish manager would have no hesitation in picking a player familiar to Japanese fans and even more familiar to Japanese defenders: Tim Cahill.

The destroyer of Japan in Kaiserslautern when coming off the bench in the 2006 World Cup, Cahill demonstrated his skills as a centre forward for Australia in the recent 0-0 draw at Yokohama.

And it's due to his versatility and his commitment to the cause, as well as his all-round talent, that makes him such a favourite with Moyes in particular and Evertonians in general.

In recent weeks he has been playing as an emergency striker due to an injury crisis at Goodison Park, and Pim Verbeek sent him out as the lone forward against Japan, supported by Holman and Bresciano in his 4-3-2-1 formation.

I'm sure Japan were relieved about this, not only because Pim left Josh Kennedy and Scott McDonald on the bench but because Cahill was cut off on his own up front, and unable to make those late runs into the box that cause so many problems, especially at set pieces.

The fact that Yuji Nakazawa did such a good job in man-marking Cahill speaks volumes for Nakazawa's current form, and with Tulio alongside there was little room for Cahill to turn and attack. Apart from that fierce snap shot just before the break, Cahill spent most of the game with his back to goal, shielding the ball and trying to bring in his teammates, who were positioned too deep to really penetrate the Japanese defence.

Two days before the game, at Mitsuzawa Stadium on the Monday evening, I managed to get a question in to Cahill as he made his way to the team bus after training. I asked him where he'd be playing on Wednesday night, up front or in midfield behind the striker.

"I'd play in defence if they asked me," Cahill replied, and he probably meant it, too, such is his enthusiasm for the game.

Earlier, Pim had told me about a visit he made to see Moyes at Everton regarding the release of Cahill for Australia games, and the Everton manager made it clear he preferred Cahill not to be involved and to focus only on his club football.

"After that there were a few stories in the newspapers that Cahill might not be playing for Australia, but he sent me a text message informing me that none of the stories were true, and saying that he couldn't wait to join up with the team.
That shows you how committed he is to the national team," Pim said in the build-up to the Japan game.

The chances of Cahill winning either of the two major individual awards in England -- one from his fellow professionals and the other from the media -- are not that high, but the high praise from Moyes is perfectly justified.

I fear Japan have not seen the last of Tim Cahill just yet.

ends

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Hiddink could provide twist in the tale

23 Feb 2009(Mon)

February 20, 2009: Who would rule Chelsea out of the title race in England as Guus Hiddink takes charge to the end of the season?

Although Manchester United look in ominous form, and Liverpool their main threat, anything can happen with Hiddink now in control at Stamford Bridge.

He is one of the top coaches and man-managers in the world game, and has strong links in Asia having led South Korea at the 2002 World Cup and Australia four years later.

The first time I interviewed him, though, was at Yomiuri Land in 1998. He was preparing Real Madrid for the Toyota Cup against Vasco Da Gama, a match Madrid would win 2-1 thanks to Raul's sumptuous late goal.

The Real Madrid training session had been very eventful, not least because Clarence Seedorf and Ivan Campo had to be separated by teammates after coming to blows during an angry exchange.

Hiddink was very calm after the training session, saying such a bust-up was all part of football, just a clash of personalities. Campo, of course, would go on to be a big success in English football with Bolton Wanderers.

A few years later, in March 2002, I called in on a South Korea training session before they played Tunisia in a World Cup warm-up in Tunis.

Hiddink was in a furious mood, refusing to speak to the travelling pack of Korean media because they had been giving him a hard time and questioning his commitment to the cause.

Fortunately, Pim Verbeek was Hiddink's No. 2, and through my dealings with Pim in Japan he approached Hiddink as the middle man.

Hiddink called me away from the Korean press and very kindly gave me a few minutes of his time, during which his frustration was evident.

The Korean media wanted him out, and I remember writing an article at the time that the JFA should make a move for Hiddink now to succeed Troussier after the 2002 World Cup.

Events would make that impossible, just a few months down the road.

Now Hiddink is doing two jobs, looking after Chelsea as a favour to Roman Abramovich while keeping his main work as head coach of Russia.

With so few commitments in international football, you often wonder if the work of a national coach could be part-time alongside the role of a club coach.

When Pim was back in Japan recently for the Australia match, conversation over coffee on Monday afternoon turned in this direction.

On Monday morning Pim had just three players in town, with more due that day. What can a national coach do in such a situation?

Scott McDonald could have arrived earlier, with Celtic's consent, just like Shunsuke, but Pim said he was better off playing for Celtic at the weekend rather than coming to Japan and training alone.

Hiddink has already said he will stand down at the Bridge at the end of the season, and concentrate only on Russia, but this relaxed mindset and nothing-to-lose approach may yet bring a late twist to the Premier League tale.

ends

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Taka can play himself back into national team

19 Feb 2009(Thu)

February 18, 2009: As the goalless draw with Australia is consigned to the history books, already the talk has started about Japan's next qualifier, at home to Bahrain on Saturday, March 28.

The main subject of discussion -- again -- is who's going to score the goals, or goal, that can earn Japan three more points.

Morimoto, playing for Catania, has his fans, although I was not impressed with him in the build-up to the Beijing Olympics or in the Olympics themselves. He looked a bit lost on the international stage, even at the Olympic level, but maybe his confidence is higher midway through the Serie A season.

Another player with a loyal following is Yanagisawa, who was rejuvenated at Kyoto last year after such a distinguished career with Kashima. He led the line tirelessly and banged in a few goals just for good measure -- 14 to be precise, the best by a Japanese -- to earn a place in the J.League Best XI.

In Takeshi Okada's 4-2-3-1 formation, Yanagisawa's movement off the ball and, especially, his acceleration away from his marker suggest he could do a good job in linking the attack.

Both Morimoto and Yanagisawa, if the latter starts the new season well, have a chance of coming in for the Bahrain game, but the player I will go for is Takahara.

I still think Taka has a future at the highest level, despite his season-long struggle at Urawa last year.

I know it was easy to criticise Taka -- and also Edmilson -- for Reds' failings, but I would like to defend Taka for a moment, as I felt Reds' troubles went much deeper than that.

The injury and then lack of match fitness for Ponte...Gert Engels' reluctance to unleash the creative flair of Umesaki...the coach's loyalty to established players who were simply not performing...all these factors played a part in Takahara's poor first season with Reds.

But the former Jubilo forward remains an international-class striker and has proved throughout his career that he knows where the goal is. If Reds start well under new boss Volker Finke and Taka looks sharp and hungry then Okada may well be tempted to bring him back.

It wouldn't exactly be a gamble, would it?

ends

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Matsui fails to take his chance

16 Feb 2009(Mon)

February 14, 2009: With a point apiece from the goalless draw at Yokohama on Wednesday, Japan and Australia took another step on the road to South Africa 2010.

But one Japanese player in particular took a step back, and that was a big disappointment on a night of tension and, ultimately, frustration.

I am referring to Daisuke Matsui, who was the one surprise in Takeshi Okada's starting line-up, coming in on the left side at the expense of Yoshito Okubo.

The early signs were encouraging, as Matsui won the ball on the right wing and then won a free kick when he was brought down.

But after that he reverted to his old self -- too much showing off, too much over-elaboration and not enough substance at the end of all his possession.

This was the Matsui that really irritated Pim Verbeek when he was coach of Kyoto Sanga, and the Matsui I thought -- and hoped -- we had seen the last of.

I thought the modern, Euro version of Matsui was more mature, more disciplined, and played responsible, percentage football as opposed to circus football; that the days of Matsui the performing seal, producing another extravagant trick to draw gasps from the crowd, were thankfully at an end -- but Wednesday proved otherwise.

Of course Matsui has tremendous natural skill and balance, and has added a certain physical edge to his game during his time in France. If I could compare him to an English player I would be tempted to say he had the potential to be as effective as Peter Beardsley, whose craft and cunning around the box set up so many England goals for Gary Lineker.

But Matsui is now 27 -- 28 in May -- so it's too late to be talking about potential. He is at his peak, yet he won only his 14th cap against the Aussies; nowhere near enough for a player of his ability and creativity.

In the 57th minute, Okada had seen enough, and took off Matsui after he had lost the ball one too many times for his own good, and the good of the team.

Matsui had been given a big chance by Okada but had failed to take it, and this was a major disappointment and something of a surprise. I thought he was the real deal these days, but no.

For me, Endo produced the two best moments of the match, both from instinctive, first-time plays. The first was his superb strike at goal which needed an acrobatic save from Mark Schwarzer in the 70th minute; the second, shortly after, his delicious curling cross from the left wing to the back post. Pure class.

If only Japan had a striker who could think as quickly and execute as precisely as that...

ends

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Okada, not Verbeek, gives off positive vibes

12 Feb 2009(Thu)

February 10, 2009: The mood of the two coaches on the eve of the Japan-Australia World Cup qualifier suggested a rather different picture to the one being painted in the previous days.

If anything, Takeshi Okada looked the more relaxed and confident of the two, whereas Pim Verbeek had appeared rather tetchy and guarded.

The Dutchman would not even admit Tim Cahill would be playing, never mind in which position, and gave a brusque "no comment" when asked about the form of Japan's backup keepers.

And for all his efforts to insist that the pressure was totally on Japan, he still gave the impression he was feeling the strain, too.

"Japan have to win and we would like to win. That is the difference," he said.

Which, of course, is not true. Japan do not have to win at all, as I have said before, and I think a draw would be a decent result for both teams to keep them ahead of the pack. The more he says it, the less convincing it sounds.

Verbeek's official press conference kicked off the proceedings at Nissan Stadium on Tuesday afternoon, and the open training session that followed suggested Cahill would be playing in an advanced position, either alongside Brett Holman or just off Josh Kennedy.

With Japan's recent defensive problems at set-pieces, you would think the 1.94-metre Kennedy would be a certain starter to try and unsettle the home defence.

The opening stages of the match appear set in stone -- Australia pumping long balls into the box for Kennedy to cause mayhem, and for Cahill to pick up the pieces; and Japan to counter with their speed, movement and passing, qualities that could unlock the Aussie defence down the middle and bring Mark Schwarzer into the game on a regular basis. Just who will feature in Japan's attack remains to be seen.

By holding his training sessions behind closed doors, Okada has managed to take the pressure off his own players and control the information provided to the media. Clearly his experience from 1997 and 1998 was coming into play, and he gave off positive vibes in his press conference without giving away any details.

In contrast, Verbeek appeared to be trying too hard to be calm and relaxed in his approach, and was not his usual animated self.

The Dutchman was feeling the pressure of the occasion, too, make no mistake. Whether his players do is an entirely different matter.

ends

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Striking options endless for Okada

9 Feb 2009(Mon)

February 6, 2009: Takeshi Okada has the kind of problem every manager would like before a big match -- just who to pick and who to leave out of his forward line against Australia on Wednesday.

Even though Shunsuke Nakamura, Okubo and Matsui are all due back from Europe, home-based players Okazaki and Kagawa staked their claim to a starting role by scoring in the 5-1 defeat of Finland.

Add in Tatsuya Tanaka and Tamada, and Okada is spoilt for choice as he looks to fill the four attacking positions in the 4-2-3-1 formation.

Presumably Tamada will lead the line, and Shunsuke will play on the right of the three, a position from which he can cut inside and use his left foot to devastating effect, be it a clever pass behind the defence, teasing cross or long-range shot.

Okubo, who has quickly impressed Felix Magath at Wolfsburg, would be naturally at home in the centre of the three, collecting the ball deep and running at defenders through the middle.

And Matsui would be perfect on the left, his Euro experience and trickery on the wing adding width to Japan's attack.

This would leave us with a Shunsuke-Okubo-Matsui strikeforce to support Tamada, and would surely cause a few problems for the Aussie defence.

It would also mean there would be no place for Okazaki, full of confidence after his two goals against the Finns, Tanaka or Kagawa -- all three possessing the speed and the low centre of gravity that Okada favours and that could surprise the Australians.

Shunsuke-Okazaki-Okubo is another possibility, as is Shunsuke-Okubo-Kagawa...the list goes on, and Okada will be considering all permutations in the build-up to this massive match.

Who knows, he could even play Endo on the left of the three, clearing the way for Inamoto -- impressive against Bahrain -- to partner Hasebe in the two-strong engine room and give Japan a bit of bite in the middle of the park.

I'm worried about the keeper, though, whoever Okada chooses, as the Australians are so strong in the air at set-pieces. Maybe Tsuzuki's club connection with Tulio will earn him the nod. A great game in store. A great occasion for Japanese, Australian and Asian football.

And here's the team Okada might put out, playing 4-2-3-1: Tsuzuki; Uchida, Nakazawa, Tulio, Nagatomo; Endo, Hasebe; S. Nakamura, Okazaki, Okubo; Tamada.

A prediction? I will play safe, and say 1-1. And I repeat...this would not be a bad result for Japan in anyway.

ends

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Cahill remains Aussie dangerman

5 Feb 2009(Thu)

February 3, 2009: There were two big surprises when I checked out the Everton home page the other day.

The first was that there was a section specifically for "Latest Injuries"; the second that Tim Cahill wasn't on it.

The fact that clubs dedicate web space to injuries and when each player is expected to return is a sign of the hectic pace and hectic schedule of the modern game, especially in the physically demanding English Premier League.

Cahill, as everyone knows, has had more than his fair share of injuries, and always seems to be coming back from his latest setback.

But judging by his recent performances for Everton, the attacking midfielder is in dynamic form and poses a massive threat to Japan in next week's World Cup cracker at Yokohama.

If Pim Verbeek is concentrating on shutting down the supply line from Shunsuke's silky left foot, Takeshi Okada will no doubt have Cahill marked down as the man to stop.

No one needs reminding of the damage Cahill inflicted on Japan when coming on as a substitute in that sun-baked World Cup opener at Kaiserslautern three summers ago, nor his boxing-style celebrations after each of his two goals.

Those images must be quite traumatic for Japanese fans to witness, and I don't feel Japan "avenged" that World Cup defeat at all by eliminating Australia from the 2007 Asian Cup in a penalty shootout. The World Cup loss was far more significant and is still the result remembered around the world when discussing these two Asian rivals.

Cahill remains a danger, especially with his well-timed runs from midfield. He is a superb header of the ball, and Japan must be careful to track those clever runs into the box if the big men -- Tulio and Nakazawa -- are preoccupied with the main Aussie strikers at set-pieces.

Even though Australia will miss the outstanding Brett Emerton on the right flank -- the Blackburn Rovers star is out for the season with a serious knee injury -- Verbeek still has plenty of experienced campaigners to call on for this mega-match at Yokohama.

None more so than a fully fit Tim Cahill.

ends

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Inamoto impresses in poor team display

2 Feb 2009(Mon)

January 30, 2009: Japan can have no complaints about the 1-0 defeat in Bahrain on Wednesday night.

They did not play well, especially in defence, and failed to mount any period of sustained pressure on the Bahrain goal as they chased the game in the second half.

Naturally they had their chances, notably through a sliding Tatsuya Tanaka volley in the first half and a smart, near-post header from Okazaki in the second half that earned applause from his captain, Yuji Nakazawa, but they did not deserve a draw.

On the subject of which, Nakazawa had a commanding game and stood between Japan and a heavier defeat with his covering play and aggression at the back. Later in the match he tried to stir Japan into life, Tulio-style, but received little support from his subdued teammates.

Apart from Nakazawa, the only other player who stood out was Inamoto, who started alongside Kengo Nakamura in the midfield engine room in Takeshi Okada's 4-2-3-1 formation. "Ina" always made himself available by dropping deep to collect the ball, and produced some incisive passes through the midfield. At set-pieces he managed to find space on the edge of the box and had a couple of decent attempts at goal, and in general played himself right back into contention for the World Cup qualifier at home to Australia with his mature performance.

In goal, Kawashima was all over the place, not knowing when to come off his line and when to stay, and in front of him Terada had an awful first half but improved in the second. On one occasion Terada made a very "J.League" mistake, trying to be too clever out on the left wing in a race for a loose ball and seeing the Bahrain right winger surge past him. I call it a J.League error because it is the kind of mistake you see when players become too casual in Japan and stop doing the basic things, which on this occasion would have been to simply put the ball out of play for a throw-in.

Uchida, quiet all game, was caught napping for the goal, ball watching at a deep free kick from the right and seeing left winger Salman Issa move across him and send a looping header into the far corner, with Kawashima always scrambling to make up the ground.

Nagatomo at left back could not lift his game, and Kengo failed to assert any authority in midfield, despite having little defensive work to do because of Inamoto's industry.

Up front, the Okazaki-Tanaka-Keisuke Honda line failed to gel with the lone striker Tamada, who looked quite sharp but who would surely be better deployed on the left of the supporting three rather than leading such a lightweight line.

No, a poor show by Japan, and Okada will have learned a lot about certain players on the fringes of selection with a full squad available.

I managed to watch the match live on Al Jazeera while on a business trip to Kuwait, but Japanese fans back home really missed nothing -- apart from Honda trying to win the Takayuki Suzuki lookalike competition with his blond mop of hair.

ends

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