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April 2009

Troubling times for Oita

30 Apr 2009(Thu)

April 28, 2009: Last season, everything went right for Oita Trinita.

But this year...

Everything that could go wrong did go wrong at home to FC Tokyo on Saturday, and a cruel 1-0 defeat with the last kick of the game -- a Kajiyama penalty -- left them at the foot of the table with just four points from seven matches.

The main talking point was the first-half dismissal of their pivotal Brazilian midfielder Edmilson, who received two yellow cards in the space of three minutes and was heading for the showers after 32 minutes.

The first yellow came after 29 minutes and there can be no complaints from the player over this one. After conceding a needless free kick for grabbing the back of Kajiyama's shirt, Edmilson reacted angrily to the decision and was promptly booked for dissent. The foul was silly, and the reaction was over the top, so he deserved that one.

But the second?

That looked very harsh to me; maybe a foul but never a yellow card after he turned into trouble and clashed with Kajiyama again.

When the red card came out, Edmilson at first seemed to accept it with a wry smile and started walking off the pitch; but after a few steps he lost it, and went back to have a go at the referee. He was fuming, and only the intervention of a few teammates prevented what could have been a serious disciplinary issue for the Brazilian.

In the end he received a one-match suspension -- ruling him out of the bottom-of-the-table clash at Kashiwa on Wednesday. I thought Oita might have appealed the red card, but on Tuesday the J.League said they had received nothing. While the club had every right to feel aggrieved by the second yellow for Edmilson, maybe they thought it better to keep a low profile, as his behaviour before leaving the field could have exacerbated the problem and brought an even lengthier ban.

With 10 men for an hour, Oita looked like they would escape with a point, only for Takahashi to panic deep into extra time and manhandle Akamine. Referee Hiroyoshi Takayama had no hesitation pointing to the spot, from where Kajiyama beat Nishikawa to earn a massive three points for Tokyo manager Jofuku.

What a tough finish for Nishikawa, who had pulled off some magnificent saves behind his overworked defence in keeping a clean sheet deep into stoppage time. Among them was a cool tip-over to deny Tokyo substitute Suzuki, whose expertly-executed volley from the edge of the box was dipping right under the bar. I note the Japanese TV commentator described it as a "loop shoot", a phrase they normally use for a "chip" or a "lob". This magnificent strike from Suzuki was neither a chip nor a lob, so "loop shoot" in no way did it justice. "Sizzling dipping volley" might have been more appropriate!


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Japan can learn from Aussies, too

27 Apr 2009(Mon)

April 25, 2009: If the level of Japanese clubs is giving their Australian counterparts a standard to aim for, then the Aussies are helping the Japanese develop, too.

Not so much in the technical department, but most definitely in the physical and psychological aspects of the game.

That's why clashes between these two sporting cultures at club and international level are always interesting to watch; and the two AFC Champions League games in midweek were no exception.

At a rain-drenched Todoroki Stadium on Tuesday night, Kawasaki Frontale were made to work hard for their 2-1 victory over Central Coast Mariners, who had been beaten 5-0 at home two weeks earlier by Kengo and Co.

The Australians lifted their game considerably this time, and seemed to enjoy the wet conditions as they slid into tackles from the opening whistle. The challenges may be rather more robust and heavier than usually to be found in the J.League, but it's good for Japanese players to come up against this. They have to learn to look after themselves, and stand up to the physical challenge posed by the bigger Australian players.

I often think the referees are far too soft in the J.League, and are too quick to stop play when someone decides to stay on the ground after an innocuous challenge. Instead of playing on, and telling the "injured" player to get up and get on with it, they seem only too happy to blow their whistle and race over to check on the condition of the "injured" player. The result is almost always the same -- he is not hurt at all, and is running around again within seconds, the "injury" having miraculously disappeared.

So I'm all for a bit of tough tackling and aggression, and also for some verbal volleys when players think their opponents are feigning injury. This also happened late on at Todoroki, with an Australian player telling a Japanese rival exactly what he thought of his feeble attempt to waste a few seconds.

Another thing I noticed was Central Coast captain Alex Wilkinson telling the referee, as the teams came out for the second half, to watch out for the Frontale throw-ins, suggesting that their low, snapping delivery was not exactly legal. I have seen this a lot in Japan and thought instantly "foul throw, ref", but it usually goes unpunished.

The following evening saw Newcastle Jets playing host to Grampus, when the referee featured prominently in the move that led to Ogawa's winner on 57 minutes by inadvertently intercepting a Newcastle pass in midfield and sparking the Nagoya counter! I wonder if the ref got an "assist" on the official score sheet?

What was very noticeable watching the game on TV was the reaction of the home supporters whenever they thought a Japanese player was play-acting after a foul or a tackle. Again, this is quite new for most Japanese players, and something they are not accustomed to out of the comfort zone of the J.League.

All these things can only help toughen up the Japanese players in general, mentally and physically.


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Double dose of late drama

23 Apr 2009(Thu)

April 21, 2009: The writing was on the wall at the National Stadium on Saturday night.

FC Tokyo -- quiet, subdued, not their usual selves. JEF -- vibrant, confident, in great spirits.

And that was just the fans.

Before kick-off, the yellow army from Chiba was the one making all the noise in the away end, while the Tokyo fans seemed uncomfortable out of their familiar home surroundings of Ajinomoto Stadium. There was almost a sense of foreboding among them.

In a way it set the scene for the match about to take place, and gave a hint to the final outcome; an away win.

But no one could have predicted that quite incredible finish -- my second of the day, having earlier attended the Reysol-Grampus game at Hitachi-dai and witnessed Davi's injury-time, right-footed winner.

Even though Tokyo led through Ishikawa's silky strike on 18 minutes, they never looked sure of themselves or convinced they could go on to win. They lacked confidence and motivation, and allowed the match to drift away from them.

In contrast, JEF grew stronger as the game wore on and raised the tempo considerably, especially in the last 15 minutes.

A great little run from Alex to receive Yazawa's left-wing throw-in completely caught out the Tokyo defence, and enabled the Brazilian to cross the ball low for Maki to finish expertly. It was the 87th minute, and I was expecting scenes of jubilation on the pitch at scoring a late equaliser, but no; Maki collected the ball from the back of the net and raced back to the halfway line eager for the restart.

This positive attitude was rewarded when play opened up for Fukai, in the inside-right channel and on his favoured left foot, to clip the ball past Gonda and inside the far post for the winner. He never looked like he'd miss, did he?

After the game, JEF manager Alex Miller praised the "magnificent" Sakamoto, who had switched from right back to central defence for the second half and "never put a foot wrong" in plugging the gaps along the back line.

All in all, then, a double dose of J.League drama on Saturday -- and yet another reminder of what a wonderful, unpredictable game football really is.


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Tochigi players deposit bundles of luck in the J2 bank

19 Apr 2009(Sun)

April 17, 2009: “So what’s the problem in front of goal – technical or mental?”

This was the question I put to Tochigi SC manager Hiroshi Matsuda after their 0-0 draw with Tokushima Vortis on Wednesday night. (Tochigi had now scored just one goal in their first eight J2 games -- 12 hours of football!)

The coach considered both options before replying: “It’s luck.”

And he might be right, as the Tochigi players were not lacking confidence and were prepared to stream forward and have a go for the 90 minutes.

A deflection here…an opponent’s mistake there…a different decision by the referee or linesman…so many factors come into play that are out of your team’s hands and which can lead to an unexpected goal.

This is what Matsuda was meaning about luck, that the ball was not bouncing in their favour at the critical times.

“It was a good game, good effort, hard work from my players. Just missing a goal. We must keep going, just continue,” he added.

Or, as the banner of the yellow-shirted “Tochigi Addict” fans behind the goal at Nishigaoka said: “Keep on fighting.”

In keeping with the financial times of the day, Matsuda said he felt his players were depositing a lot of luck in the bank, and that one day they would be able to withdraw it and receive their reward. “I just don’t know when we can take it; when we will need that money,” he said.

In building the Tochigi team after his messy departure from Vissel Kobe last season, Matsuda has plenty of experience on board in the likes of Verdy old boys Yoneyama and Kurihara, as well as the team poster boy Okubo from Kyoto Sanga. Watching the game again on TV the following afternoon, the cameras were really giving Okubo the “Hirayama” or “Shunsuke” star treatment, which I still find annoying and unnecessary --  even after so many years in Japan!


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Long ball produces rewards for Marinos

16 Apr 2009(Thu)

April 14, 2009: While it is always nice to score the picture-perfect goal, there is nothing wrong with some good old long-ball football when the occasion demands.

This was the case at Mitsuzawa Stadium on Saturday afternoon, when Yokohama F Marinos romped to a 5-0 victory over a very poor Vissel Kobe team.

Three of the five goals came from straightforward long balls which the Vissel defence failed to handle; the other two were a left-wing break and flashing right-foot drive from Koji Yamase and a free kick from Kenta Kano which bounced over Tatsuya Enomoto.

The opening minutes of a game are always a good time to test the opposition with a long ball. First, it puts them under immediate pressure when the nerves are still settling and can produce a mistake, and second it keeps the ball well away from your own goal and cuts out any chance of one of your own players making a mistake in a dangerous area.

It may not be attractive to the purist, but it gets results, as the Marinos fans quickly discovered.

A long ball from Matsuda, nifty footwork from Hyodo and a super finish from Watanabe with a sliding half-volley; 1-0 after two minutes.

A long clearance from Kim, indecision at the back between Miyamoto and keeper Enomoto and Watanabe flicks in his second goal of the afternoon; 3-0 after 21 minutes.

A long and seemingly harmless pass from Tanaka, Enomoto in all sorts of trouble again, Yamase scores with ease; 4-0 after 48 minutes.

For a team that needs a win, which Marinos did after two defeats and two draws in their opening four league games, this safety-first, no-frills approach produced positive results and builds confidence for the future.

The Vissel defence helped matters considerably, and Marinos know they cannot expect as many gifts as that, but the pressure of the long ball and the direct route led to most of the Vissel mistakes.

There is a time and a place for everything in football, but so often the simple way is the best.


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Grampus on top, but far from convincing

13 Apr 2009(Mon)

April 9, 2009: A league table is not supposed to lie, and Nagoya Grampus are top of Group E at the halfway stage of the AFC Champions League.

With five points in the bag from three unbeaten games, Grampus are in a good position to clinch one of the two qualifying places for the round of 16.

But manager Dragan Stojkovic will no doubt feel that his team are lucky to be at the top of the table, and will not be fooled by their lofty position in a tight group involving teams from the big four of Japan, Korea, China and Australia.

Grampus have failed to win either of their home games to date, drawing with both Beijing and Newcastle, and have two away games among their last three fixtures.

One thing is for sure: there is going to be no room for experimentation or rotation in the second half of the campaign, after such a poor showing in the 1-1 home draw with Newcastle Jets in midweek.

The team looked very different from the one that finished third in J1 last season, with Tanaka in at right back, Takeuchi on the left in place of Abe, and Davi and Hanai up front.

Tamada started on the bench, along with a couple of unsung heroes in the swashbuckling centre half Masukawa and “volante” Yoshimura, and Grampus took a long time to get going.

They lacked intensity and motivation from the start, and it was no surprise they fell behind so early when Tarek Elrich reacted quicker than any Grampus defender to poke home a loose ball after Narazaki had parried a low shot against his right post.

Narazaki, however, can be excused of all blame for his team’s below-par display in the first half, as there is not much he can do from his position to stir them into life..

There were long periods of silence at Mizuho Stadium as the home team spluttered and gave the ball away, and the poker face of Pixy told its own story in the dug-out..

He wanted some fire, some passion and some pace, and turned to Tamada to provide it in place of Hanai for the second half. This had the desired effect, and it was Tamada who pulled his team level with a Shunsuke-style free kick that was much too good for the visiting keeper.

Grampus may have ended the day on top of Group E, but Stojkovic knows his team must show much more urgency and concentration if they are to stay there, or finish in the top two.


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Chong grows in stature

9 Apr 2009(Thu)

April 7, 2009: Fans jeering a rival player is not necessarily a bad thing.

It usually means that they acknowledge he is a good player, maybe even fear him and no doubt wish he were playing for their team.

On the other hand, a player who is ignored by the opposing fans and greeted by silence during the team announcements means he hasn't done anything special to merit attention, so the boo-factor is an interesting gauge of the status of the players.

Take, for example, Chong Tese.
Kawasaki Frontale's burly North Korean forward has become one of the characters of the J.League, and his rise to the top ranks of Asian football is attracting the jeers of rival fans; a sure sign that he has made it.
The other week at Fukuda Denshi Arena, Chong was involved in a bruising battle with JEF's Australian centre half, Eddy Bosnar. On one occasion, the JEF fans massed behind the goal at the home end gave Chong a bit of stick, and he responded by waving at them with both arms as he trotted back.

The referee, Yuichi Nishimura, was not amused, and told Chong to cut out the gestures, which could be viewed as provocative.

I thought it was quite amusing, seeing Chong's extravagant reaction to the friendly baiting, and further enhanced his reputation and standing in the J. League.

Since then he's been in the news a lot while on World Cup duty, accusing the UAE keeper of spitting in his face in Pyongyang and then being an alleged victim of the food poisoning mystery in Seoul before they played South Korea. It was also during the Korea derby that Chong's header early in the second half at 0-0 was saved by Lee Woon Jae, and ruled not to have crossed the line.

Chong is good for the game in Japan; a character and an entertainer, as well as being a powerful player with the reputation in Korea as the Asian Rooney.

I am sure the jeers will continue to grow -- flattery indeed for the player and for Frontale.


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Lost in translation? Not this time!

6 Apr 2009(Mon)

April 3, 2009: It was good to catch up with Gert Engels the other night in very German surroundings in Roppongi.

Over a platter of freshly imported sausage, accompanied by mustard, pickles and brown bread and washed down by a few glasses of white beer, we covered more ground than a meeting of the German Football Association’s technical department heading into a World Cup.

Gert, naturally, was still unhappy at being fired by Reds, as he felt he could have lifted them in the second year of his contract. But it was not to be, and the J.League veteran began the new season in the unfamiliar position of having no club and no dug-out to sit-in, either as manager, head coach or youth coach.

Overall, though, he was in good spirits, and looks forward to his next challenge. But he is going to take his time, and not jump at the first chance that comes along, as it will, inevitably, be with a club that is struggling. Rather, he is quite keen to work with younger players and build a team away from the spotlight, when his Japanese language skills and his coaching experience can prove a real benefit – and money-saver – for a smaller club.

Amidst the turmoil of losing his job, though, he did eventually find time to return to Germany for a belated new year’s holiday, and told me a very amusing story regarding Japan’s two players at Wolfsburg: Hasebe and Okubo.

Wolfsburg were playing away to Cologne, near Engels’ hometown of Duren, at the end of January, and Engels made arrangements to meet Hasebe and Okubo in the lobby of the team hotel.

As Engels was waiting, along came Wolfsburg coach Felix Magath, a tough task-master on the training pitch, putting his players through their paces with military precision and discipline.

Engels introduced himself to Magath and the two were chatting when Hasebe and Okubo appeared.

“Before I leave you,” Magath said to Engels, “please give the players these instructions in Japanese.”

Engels was happy to oblige.

The first message was for Okubo. “Tell him that football is not a circus!” said Magath.

“And tell Hasebe that he must use his body to protect the ball and keep opponents away from him. That’s all!”

Engels laughed at the instruction to Okubo, who has had the German fans puzzled as to why he tries a bicycle kick, among other things, when it is not necessary. Engels knows exactly why he does, because he has seen many Japanese players take the spectacular, crowd-pleasing option at the expense of the safe, percentage play.

Hasebe, whom Engels admires immensely because of his serious approach to the game, is going to have to toughen up in central midfield to face the physical challenges that will come his way, and no one knows that better than the stocky, sturdy Magath.

Engels is convinced that absolutely nothing was lost in translation this time.


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Urawa veterans upstage brat pack

2 Apr 2009(Thu)

March 31, 2009: The Nabisco Cup and “New Hero” award go hand in hand, as discussed in a recent column.

But this does not mean there is no room for “Old Heroes”, too; or, perhaps, “older heroes” would be more politically correct.

Urawa Reds had two of these in their 1-0 victory over Yokohama F Marinos at Nissan Stadium on Sunday, when goalkeeper Yamagishi and central defender Tsuboi really led their team from the back.

Yamagishi – at 30, seven years too late to be considered a new hero – produced a string of fine saves to keep the hungry Marinos attack at bay, especially in the second half. There was an instinctive, acrobatic flick to deny Saito on the turn, and then a good old solid near-post block to keep out Matsuda, who had displayed an immaculate first touch to control a long ball before shooting crisply on the half-volley.

Although Yamagishi was pretty busy all afternoon, he would have been even more so without the frequent interventions of Tsuboi. The boy Tsuboi, 29, has never lacked pace, and on this day he showed his ability to read the game and fill in all the holes with some smooth, timely tackles.

Overall, Yamagishi would have received my vote for “Old Hero”, if there had been such a thing, of course.

Urawa manager Volker Finke used two of the “Red brat pack” in his starting line-up, with Naoki Yamada at the base of his attacking diamond, and Genki Haraguchi on the left. Ponte, on the right, and Takahara, at the top, completed the diamond, and it was Haraguchi who won the penalty that produced the only goal of the game, five minutes before the break.

The 17-year-old Haraguchi was just a little too quick for Enomoto, who was shown the yellow card for his foul and thankfully not the red by referee Hajime Matsuo, for whom commonsense prevailed.

Ponte, looking trimmer and fitter than last season, dispatched the penalty and it was all Reds would need to claim three points – and keep the tricolore umbrellas of the home fans wrapped up.


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