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March 2009

Reysol's new heroes

30 Mar 2009(Mon)

March 27, 2009: The Nabisco Cup is back, and with it the opportunity to vote for the "new hero" after each game.

Open to players aged 23 and under, the J.League very considerately indicates on the team sheet the players who are eligible for the award at each game.

On Wednesday it was Reysol-FC Tokyo at one of my favourite grounds, Kashiwa Hitachi Stadium, which is as lively as it gets with a crowd of 5,835 on a cold, wet night.

Twelve players, six on each team, were eligible, and my vote went to Reysol left back Naoki Ishikawa.

I am sure I was in a minority among the media, possibly even a minority of one, as Yuki Otsu would have attracted most of the votes. The young striker, who had celebrated his 19th birthday the day before the game, is a talented player indeed; flashy, quick and playing at a high tempo.

He was tripped -- but not hurt -- by Tokunaga to win the free kick from which Popo fired Reysol 2-0 ahead, and he was fouled (possibly) by Fujiyama to earn a penalty which he put away himself early in the second half for 3-1.

Later in the game he had Kanazawa in all sorts of trouble as he burst down the left wing, but the ref spared the Tokyo midfielder a yellow card.

So why not Otsu for "New Hero"?

Well, just a bit too fancy for my liking at the moment. He's got all the flicks and tricks, but he is still learning when to use them and, more specifically, when not to use them. Hopefully this will come with experience, and he will realise there are times when it is better to control the ball and make a short, safe pass, rather than attempt a high-speed spin which may or may not come off. If it comes off, the crowd will roar and the TV shows will replay it 15 times, but if it does not come off and he loses the ball and puts his team in danger, it will be regarded in some quarters as bad luck when it is not bad luck at all; it is a bad decision.

The substance must come first, and then the style, but young Japanese players often get these two the wrong way round.

Ishikawa is a good, solid left back and put over a superb cross for Yamane to nonchalantly turn in for 1-0 Reysol; nothing flashy here, just doing the right thing at the right time.

But, there again, Ishikawa is 23, 24 in September, so Otsu has time on his side for his game to mature around these extravagant skills.


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Ishikawa's defence catches the eye

26 Mar 2009(Thu)

March 24, 2009: There is no better sight to stir the FC Tokyo fans than that of Naohiro Ishikawa flying down the right wing and sending a low cross fizzing into the box.

And while we saw a bit of that on Saturday at home to Montedio Yamagata, it was another aspect of Ishikawa's game that really stood out: his defence.

Time and again Ishikawa would be racing back, putting the visitors under pressure and trying to regain possession.

In a match FC Tokyo needed to win after a dreadful start to the new campaign, Ishikawa played like a man possessed in his efforts to deliver three points.

When he was substituted after 62 minutes, Ishikawa had given it all, and thoroughly deserved his generous ovation from the Tokyo fans.

Although it does not show it on the J.League result sheet, the 27-year-old right winger had played a huge part in the only goal of the game, 10 minutes into the second half.

The official match sheet picks up with Nagatomo's barnstorming run down the left, his pass to Cabore and the lay-off to Hanyu, who controlled the ball with his right foot and stroked it home with his left. But it was Ishikawa scrapping away in midfield that gave Nagatomo the chance to break, so the goal came from Ishikawa's defence rather than his attack.

Shortly after the goal, Yamagata right back Takuya Miyamoto went in hard and heavy on Ishikawa, and was lucky to receive only a yellow card when a red would not have been excessive. The Tokyo bench were furious with the challenge, and Ishikawa was soon replaced by Suzuki.

In the end, Tokyo hung on for their first points of the season, on manager Jofuku's 48th birthday.

"JFK" would not have been happy with how his team played in the four minutes of injury time, though, as Nagatomo committed a needless foul deep in Yamagata territory to allow the visitors to turn and come forward, and Hirayama gave the ball away on the halfway line with a careless piece of play when it needed a cool head and calm control.

The game also brought a J.League debut for 18-year-old Yonemoto, who came on as a late substitute in central midfield alongside the "Guv'nor", Konno, allowing Kajiyama to push out wide.

This resulted in both match-winner Hanyu and new boy Yonemoto performing the traditional victory celebration in front of the Tokyo Kop after the game, and the Tokyo fans were happy at last.


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Plan A, B and possibly C

23 Mar 2009(Mon)

March 20, 2009: Takeshi Okada's "Plan A" has become very clear during World Cup qualifying.

At JFA House on Thursday, the national team coach also revealed Plan B and possibly Plan C -- just in case Plan A cannot break down Bahrain on March 28.

Plan B will be Kisho Yano; a bit of height and physical presence from the bench if the smaller strikers are not clicking. Yano was preferred to JEF's Seiichiro Maki after his bright start to the season for Albirex.

Plan C could well be Mu Kanazaki, if Okada decides to put the Oita fireball on the bench.

Again, Kanazaki would offer something different with his extravagant skills and unpredictability, and is the kind of player who can pick up the pace of a game immediately after joining the action.

If the Bahrainis have dug in and are holding out for a point to keep Japan within their sights in the group, a flash of Kanazaki magic could be just the thing to open them up. Another factor is that the Bahrainis don't know too much about Kanazaki, so his bold, raw talent could take them by surprise.

This is a massive game for Japan, and victory would move them to 11 points from five games and on the brink of qualification. Okada has been saying that 12 points would be enough to clinch one of the two automatic qualifying places, whereas Australia coach Pim Verbeek is taking no chances and has set a target of 15.

In the four qualifying games of the final round, Japan have bucked the trend by winning both their away games and drawing both at home; and I cannot imagine them not winning three home games in a row.

With four players coming back from Europe, and the training camp starting from Tuesday -- four full days before the match at Saitama Stadium on Saturday night -- Japan have a wonderful opportunity to take a big step towards South Africa 2010.

Two of their final three games are away, against Uzbekistan and Australia, so three points on March 28 would remove a lot of the pressure ahead of the run-in. The time is right for a commanding home display, and Okada looked very satisfied with the progress of his team at the press conference on Thursday.


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For sale: Shovel, used only once!

19 Mar 2009(Thu)

March 17, 2009: They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, and that was certainly the case from the Yamagata-Nagoya game last weekend.

The steady snowfall, the orange ball; you could feel the winter cold just from looking at the photos on the J.League website.

So much so that the images make you want to stamp your feet on the concrete terracing and blow into your hands to keep warm, even though you are reading the article in a rather different climate.

While these may be particularly severe conditions for Japan, as they play their football through the heat and the humidity of the summer season, it is far from unusual in other parts of the world.

Clubs have found all kinds of ways to keep their fixture list in tact, including the installation of underground heating to keep out the overnight frost, or even by covering the pitch with a huge, plastic balloon.

A cheaper substitute cover was a thick layer of straw, and anyone who owns the brilliant triple-DVD of BBC TV's iconic "Match of the Day" programme will see some highlights of games at smaller clubs were the straw has been cleared and surrounds the pitch, which has received just enough protection for the game to go on. Great memories of a bygone era.

Perhaps my favourite snow tale, though, concerns growing up as a Halifax Town supporter and making regular visits to The Shay in the lower reaches of the English league.

Halifax had a big game one Saturday afternoon, at the end of a heavy week's snowfall, and on Friday the club contacted the local newspaper to ask for help from supporters.

The club said they had bought 100 shovels -- worth more than the centre forward at the time -- and appealed for fans to come to the ground on the Saturday morning and clear the snow, ready for the traditional 3pm kick-off. The "payment" would be a free ticket into the game.

Well, they had no trouble attracting 100 fans on the Saturday morning, and the work was completed quickly.

Happy with their efforts, the groundstaff supervisors went down the tunnel and into the clubhouse for a tea break, leaving the 100 fans outside on the pitch with three hours to kill to kick-off.

One of the more enterprising youths, however, worked out that the price of a new shovel was considerably more than a ticket to get into the match -- and when the groundstaff reappeared from their tea break 10 minutes later, the snow-clearers and the 100 new shovels had disappeared!

It's true what they: One picture is worth 1,000 words -- or 100 shovels in this case.


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Behind the scenes of Asian football

16 Mar 2009(Mon)

March 13, 2009: Things are getting nasty behind the scenes of Asian football.

The president of the Asian Football Confederation, Mohamed Bin Hammam, is fighting furiously to retain his prized seat on the 24-strong FIFA Executive Committee when the AFC Congress takes place on May 8.

Hammam has held the seat since 1996, six years before he became AFC president, and has vowed to resign as AFC president if he loses his FIFA place to the president of the Bahrain Football Association, Shaikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa.

The 46 members of the AFC are now being wooed for their votes in the secret ballot, and Japan has come down firmly on the side of the 43-year-old Bahraini; to such an extent that Takeo Okada, general secretary of the East Asian Football Federation, read out to the media the four resolutions decided by a gathering of some 19 football associations in Kuwait on Thursday afternoon.

From the wealth of the West, notably Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, to the influence of the East, with Japan, China and South Korea, through Central Asia and South East Asia, the representatives did not hold back in their criticism of Hammam.

"From the vote of trust we gave him, I am very sorry to say we have created a dictator," Shaikh Salman said.

Peter Velappan, the popular former general secretary of the AFC, went further. "What a monster," he said of Hammam.

With so many high-profile princes, sheikhs and football leaders at the meeting, Hammam naturally knew of the gathering, and the next day the rumours were that he was using the Qatar Head of State's private jet to fly around Asia to try and lock up votes. He was in India at the time.

Shaikh Salman is campaigning under the slogan of "AFC – Asia For Change," as he feels the management style of Hammam has caused huge divisions within Asian football.  But all the time he stresses that he wants the FIFA ExCo seat, which Hammam has held unopposed since 1996, and has no interest in becoming AFC president.

Hammam's term of office as AFC president does not end until 2011, but he feels he could not remain in that position if he loses his FIFA ExCo seat to the Bahraini. Hammam desperately wants to be the next FIFA president after Sepp Blatter, but is under tremendous pressure within his own Asian continent and even within West Asia, his home ground.

There is no sign of a truce in sight, so the campaigning and the cash will continue flowing until May 8.

Football at the top – not a pretty sight.


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Away day treats for promoted duo

12 Mar 2009(Thu)

March 10, 2009: Fed-up fans of Jubilo and Marinos might not agree at the moment, but there were a couple of big wins for the J.League on Saturday.

Big in more ways than one; not just the scoreline but because they were achieved by promoted teams against established J1 clubs.

This suggests there is no massive chasm between J1 and J2 -- although there is still a long way to go, and promoted teams usually retain that winning mentality from the presvious season's successful campaigns.

The Emperor's Cup at the back end of last season gave me a chance to watch both Sanfrecce and Montedio, and of the two I thought Montedio looked better equipped to survive J1 than Sanfrecce.

They looked bigger and more robust, and managed to keep their best forward in the close season: Hasegawa, not Toyoda -- although this was the opinion of a rabid Reysol supporter who still admired the tall, lanky striker.

At Iwata, Hasegawa scored two of Yamagata's six -- a sensational J1 debut for Montedio.

Jubilo were lucky to survive in J1 last term, and their fans must be bracing for another season of mediocrity -- at best.

Sanfrecce eliminated Verdy in the Emperor's Cup at Nishigaoka last season, a match best remembered for Diego's red card just before half time for assaulting the mischievous Stoyanov and contributing to a four-match ban, ruling him out of Verdy's relegation struggle.

Four of that Sanfrecce team scored in the 4-2 win at Yokohama, with Makino, Sato, Kashiwagi and Stoyanov all on the scoresheet.

Makino is a leader, a communicator, alongside the elegant Bulgarian at the back, and with a season of J2 behind him returns a more experienced and authoritative figure.

Although they were able to put four past the bigger, more physical Marinos defence, I still think Sanfrecce look a bit lightweight in midfield and attack, despite their mobility and trickery.

Time will tell, but there is no denying the two special away days for the two promoted teams. Good results for the J.League in general, but depressing for the two former champions.


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Tochigi boss Matsuda will be missed in J1

9 Mar 2009(Mon)

March 6, 2009: It is always interesting comparing Japanese players with more famous players from overseas, especially from a media perspective.

Philippe Troussier used to do it all the time with his youngsters: Kota Yoshihara was the Romario of Japan for his finishing in the box; Masashi Motoyama was the Ryan Giggs of Japan for his wing wizardry on the left; and Yasuhito Endo was the Redondo of Japan for his passing and long-range shooting.

In more recent times, another manager who likes to play the name game is Hiroshi Matsuda, now in charge of J2 newcomers Tochigi SC after losing his job at Vissel Kobe.

Towards the back end of last season he brought his Vissel team to Ajinomoto Stadium to take on Verdy, and was still singing the praises of his former defender Yukio Tsuchiya after the game. Five years earlier, Matsuda said, Tsuchiya was the best defender in Japan -- "the Japanese Cannavaro". Not the tallest of central defenders, but with a terrific leap, a natural intensity to his game and a fine athlete.

We also talked about Norio Suzuki, who was coming to the end of his first season with Kobe after his move from FC Tokyo.
And who should Matsuda compare him to in the world game?

"I am hoping he can play in the style of Chris Waddle when he was with Marseille," said the then Vissel manager. "You know, a left-footed player on the right wing cutting inside and shooting for goal."

At the start of last season, Matsuda said he had high hopes that Suzuki could force his way into the national team somewhere on the left flank, either at the back or in midfield, but abandoned this plan and moved him out to the right flank in his "Waddle" role.

Now we'll never know what could have happened, as Matsuda was not retained at the end of last season and replaced by the Brazilian coach Caio Junior.

Matsuda will be missed around J1 for his more worldly observations, which always make interesting talking points whether you agree with him or not.


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Chugo comes home to JEF midfield

5 Mar 2009(Thu)

March 3, 2009: It's not only Kashima Antlers who are benefiting from the coaching of Oswaldo Oliveira.

JEF United Chiba should profit, too, with the astute signing of Masaki Chugo.

Along with the likes of Tashiro and Koroki in attack, and Inoha in defence, Chugo really blossomed at Kashima under Oswaldo; so much so that JEF snapped him up in the close season to give their midfield a bit of bite.

Chiba-born Chugo is not new to the JEF set-up, of course, as he played for the club at junior youth and youth levels in their days as JEF United Ichihara, before moving on to Komazawa University and then Kashima.

He proved himself to be a solid all-rounder and dependable squad member with Antlers, playing mainly as a holding midfielder but also at the back, alongside the centre half or at right back in Kashima's tried and trusted 4-2-2-2 formation.

JEF boss Alex Miller hopes he will bring some stability and rhythm to the midfield engine room, alongside Shimomura, and allow more attack-minded players such as Kudo to push forward and concentrate on creating rather than defending in the middle of the park. Kudo, who has a Hanyu-style buzz about him, was one of the few bright spots in last season's struggle, and he should be even more effective this time in a more advanced role.

Between them, Chugo and Shimomura will be able to keep the team ticking over and enable them to take a grasp on the midfield, which JEF were unable to do on many occasions last season, even with the mid-season addition of Toda.

Another good signing by JEF is the versatile Brazilian Alex from local rivals Reysol.

I thought Alex was under-used by Kashiwa last season, as he is always lively and dangerous and has a great left peg. He proved himself to be a regular scorer with Avispa Fukuoka in J2 but never really established himself last year at Reysol. He will give Miller more options on the left in defence, midfield and even in attack.

Both Chugo and Alex are safe and steady additions to the JEF squad, and will add a bit of experience and knowhow to the team.


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Frontale: A title dark horse or not?

2 Mar 2009(Mon)

February 27, 2009: What constitutes a dark horse to win the league title at the start of a new season?

That's a tough one when it comes to the J.League this year, and I was not completely satisfied with the answer I gave in a recent questionnaire for Soccer Magazine.

I chose Kawasaki Frontale, simply because of the fact they have never won J1 and because nobody outside the leading group from last year, plus Reds and Gamba, stands out.

But would it be a surprise if Frontale won the league, or Nagoya Grampus for that matter, on the strength of their high positions last year?

Oita Trinita? Surely they played to their maximum potential -- if not beyond it -- in a terrific season in 2008, but Ueslei is a year older and their opponents a year wiser.

FC Tokyo? Maybe, if their superb fans can turn Ajinomoto Stadium into a fortress, but I don't think they are good enough to keep going the whole year.

S-Pulse? Their forward line and midfield are strong, but they will miss Takagi at the back, so not really a dark horse, either.

See what I mean?

It's very difficult picking a team from outside the top bracket with the potential to challenge for the title over the course of the campaign; which is why I went for Frontale, as Antlers, Reds and Gamba have dominated in recent seasons.

Looking back on last season, Frontale had a great chance to win the league with a kind run-in over the last four games, but blew it with a surprise defeat against Omiya Ardija at NACK5.

I was very disappointed with Frontale that day, as they played like a team who did not believe they could actually win the title when it was a very open race.

I thought they'd come out all guns blazing and really try to take control from the opening whistle, but they allowed their modest opponents to gain the upperhand and eventually win it 2-1 with a marvellous strike by Lavric, their tall Slovenian centre forward.

That was the day Frontale lost the title last season, yet they still received generous applause from their massive away following after the final whistle. That really puzzled me, as I thought they deserved a bit of stick for succumbing quite tamely on a day they could have roared ahead of the pack -- and stayed there.


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