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May 2009

A classic 'Clasico'

28 May 2009(Thu)

May 26, 2009: The "Tamagawa Clasico" lived up to its billing at Ajinomoto Stadium on Sunday afternoon.

The occasion had everything, from the rousing rendition of "You'll never walk alone" by the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra to three points for Kawasaki Frontale and a furious FC Tokyo manager Hiroshi Jofuku.

"JFK" was livid with the match officials, and felt two key decisions had led to his team's 3-2 defeat.

The first was that Bruno Quadros's shirt-pull on Chong Tese had been committed outside the area, and therefore it should have been a free kick and not a penalty; the second was that the free kick which led to Frontale's equaliser at 2-2 should never had been awarded.

I can agree with "JFK" on the second point, as Kajiyama looked to have made a good tackle, but on the first?

Sorry, for me it was a clear penalty, as the momentum continued into the box and robbed Chong of a goal-scoring opportunity. It was the easiest red card referee Kenji Ogiya will ever have to hand out, but thankfully no one was disputing that side of the incident.

Outside or inside? It looked like both to me, so why should Tokyo escape with a free kick after such a blatant infringement?

What can be Bruno's defence? "Ref, I timed my shirt-pull to perfection, just outside the box! How can you award a penalty? We have been cheated!"

Doesn't sound like much of a defence to me.

The whole game changed in an instant with Juninho's successful spot kick. From being 2-0 up with 11 against 11, Tokyo now found themselves leading 2-1 but with 10 against 11.

Playing Frontale is difficult enough with 11 men; playing them with 10 when they are angry and hungry is virtually impossible, even with a 2-1 lead.

Then came the second incident, with Kajiyama penalised for what I thought was a decent tackle. As the Tokyo players decided to hold a committee meeting around the scene of the crime, Frontale took the free kick quickly and Taniguchi was able to lash the ball into the roof of the net; fantastic strike, 2-2.

The white shirts poured forward menacingly, and Renatinho showed his agility and anticipation by grabbing the winner at the far post. The inevitable had happened, and the happy memories of the ska orchestra, of Konno's astonishing opening goal -- does he receive an assist on that one, too, for heading the corner against the bar to create his own shooting opportunity? -- and of Ishikawa's thundering low drive on the run now seemed a long, long time ago for the home faithful.

And for Jofuku.

ends

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Opportunity knocks for Naoki Yamada

25 May 2009(Mon)

May 23, 2009: Takeshi Okada caught a lot of people off guard with his squad announcement on Thursday afternoon.

In the build-up to the national coach's press conference at JFA House, there was little expectation of new faces or surprise selections for the Kirin Cup and World Cup qualifiers.

So when the name of Naoki Yamada was spotted at the bottom of the list of 10 midfield players in a squad of 26, a buzz began to circulate among the large media gathering.

This was a surprise; a pleasant surprise and even a bold move by Okada, who proved in 1998 with the selection of Shinji Ono that he is quite prepared to give inexperience a chance if he sees something he likes.

This now applies to Yamada, a 1.66-metre, 64-kg bundle of energy and invention. Still only 18, Yamada has quickly established himself as a Reds favourite this season, linking well with lone striker Edmilson as he breaks forward from midfield.

If Okada retains his 4-2-3-1 formation, the natural role for Yamada would be in the middle of the three, from where he can make those darting runs into the box, and the Kirin Cup gives Okada the perfect opportunity to test him with the pressure off.

The JFA will be happy, too, as the inclusion of Yamada provides a big talking point and focus for the media, guaranteeing plenty of coverage for the national team and a knock-on effect for the J.League -- not that Reds need any help to attract more fans.

I also like the fact that Yamada has come through the ranks at Reds, from junior youth to youth and now first team after starting at the Kita Urawa club, and is not some over-hyped "star" from the national high school championship thrown suddenly into the professional ranks.

Yamada is one of three uncapped players in the squad, the other two being central defenders Yamaguchi of Gamba and Makino of Sanfrecce. With Terada injured, Okada needs cover for his first-choice central defensive pairing of Nakazawa and Tulio, and is banking on the ACL experience of Yamaguchi and the youthful leadership, communication skills and personality of Makino to provide that.

Plenty of talking points, then, in Okada's announcement, but none more so than the adventurous selection of 18-year-old Yamada.

ends

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Plenty of promise in Finke's Reds

21 May 2009(Thu)

May 19, 2009: Despite collecting only one point from their last two home games, there wasn't much gloom and doom among Urawa Reds fans at Saitama Stadium on Saturday.

In fact there wasn't really any; more like appreciation of the effort put in, and an understanding that this new-look Reds team will take time to mature.

Their new manager, Volker Finke, gave off similar vibes after the goalless draw with Gamba Osaka, insisting that he could live with this result as there was plenty to build on for the rest of the season.

This was my third viewing of Reds live this season, and it is a much different story to last season.

Rather than the stale, pedestrian, and far from united bunch we saw last year, Reds have found a new purpose and a new collective spirit, with players knowing they must work for each other and be part of a squad. No free rides based on reputation or experience anymore -- and every chance of being taken off or dropped if the performance or motivation level dips.

In other words, players have to fight to earn their places, and then fight to keep them, and this has led to a renewed hunger and vigour throughout the team.

Much has been made of the contribution of youth team products Naoki Yamada and Genki Haraguchi, but there are other key factors behind this transformation.

One of them on Saturday was the display of captain Keita Suzuki, who is coming back to the boil after a tough year with illness and injury.

When Ivica Osim was national coach, Suzuki established himself as the midfield anchor with his mature and busy performances. Although he has faded from the national squad recently, he will be back if he maintains the kind of form he showed against Gamba. He was looking sharp and fit again, and, with Yuki Abe alongside, was keen to push forward at every opportunity.

Whether or not the national squad announcement on Thursday, May 21, comes too early for Suzuki remains to be seen, but Finke will not lose sleep if the player is omitted for the time being and given more opportunity to continue his progress within the club.

Edmilson, too, is thriving in his role as the lone centre forward, supported by Escudero on the right, young Yamada in the middle and Haraguchi on the left, and provided the final ball on each of the two occasions Yamada hit the woodwork. For the first one, Fujigaya made a smart, one-handed save to deflect the ball on to the post, and for the second he skimmed the bar with a first-time shot from the edge of the box as he tried to curl it round the keeper and into the top corner, Shinji Ono-style.

It was good to see Yamada hit that one early, as I felt Reds were taking too many touches and making too many passes around the box on several occasions, and promising moves would break down without even a shot at goal.

ends

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Yamase, Maeda in line for recall

18 May 2009(Mon)

May 15, 2009: As Takeshi Okada prepares to name a squad of around 26 players for Japan's next five matches, several names are cropping up as potential candidates.

Certainly the two Kirin Cup games on May 27 and May 31 give the national coach plenty of opportunity to experiment, before the more serious business of the three World Cup qualifiers in the first half of June.

His expanded squad will include the European contingent, though just how many of them Okada will use in the Kirin Cup is unclear.

Take Shunsuke Nakamura, for example.

According to the JFA on Friday he's not in top condition at the end of the Scottish season, and there are still two big matches to play for Celtic as they attempt to hold off Rangers in a tense finish.

Celtic's last match is on May 24, at home to Hearts, so Okada may well be tempted to just leave him out of the Kirin Cup altogether and save him for the World Cup games. I hope so, as he needs a break and Okada knows everything there is to know about him anyway.

This means there will be a starting place up for grabs on the right side of the three in the coach's 4-2-3-1 formation, and I know who I would like to see there.

It is another player Okada knows well, Koji Yamase.

When he is injury free and fully match fit, Yamase is truly a dynamic player and a real handful for any defender. He plays the game at a high tempo, loves to take people on and is never afraid to shoot from distance. In fact he is the kind of player who could fit in anywhere along that line of three in support of the main striker -- right, middle or left, such is his quality.

I really hope Yamase is given another chance as he has such a lot to offer, and still a lot to prove at the highest level; I also hope Yamase, if selected, plays with the same sense of freedom, aggression and adventure that we see with Marinos.

Another player who could be due a return is the Jubilo forward Ryoichi Maeda. Like Yamase, Maeda has been held back by injury, but on his day he is a very lively and effective player.

With the arrival of Korean saviour Lee at Iwata and the cunning presence of Gilsinho, Maeda has been leading the line in the style Okada is looking for in the national team -- mobile, quick and a link for the players around him. Maeda also has the height and the aerial ability to go with his other attributes.

Okada has plenty of options in terms of selection, and the names of Koji Yamase and Ryoichi Maeda must be in his thoughts as he prepares for the May 21 announcement at JFA House.

ends

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Bando goes bananas; Nam-il from the halfway line

14 May 2009(Thu)

May 12, 2009: Football is all about passion and emotion, as FIFA president Sepp Blatter keeps reminding us.

The trouble is, when you show too much passion and emotion, you can often receive a yellow card.

Just ask Ryuji Bando.

Those were joyous scenes at Banpaku on Sunday, when Bando scored his first league goal of the season 10 minutes after coming on as a substitute.

His clinical finish into the bottom corner, after allowing Endo's sumptuous pass to run across him in the inside right channel, was the final nail in Reysol's coffin, the visitors slumping to a 4-0 defeat.

Bando loves his football, and this was plain to see when he hurdled the advertising board, removed his shirt and whirled it round his head as he raced round the track. With new signings Cho Jae Jin and Leandro blocking his route to the starting line-up, Bando was determined to make his mark -- and did so with his goal and his Iniesta-style celebration to pick up the yellow card.

No doubt he felt it was worth it, just to release the frustration of sitting on the bench. You could say it was a case of getting it off his chest, in more ways than one.

From one amusing incident to a rather bizarre one in the Vissel Kobe-Nagoya Grampus game on the same afternoon.

I am, of course, referring to the amazing own goal by Vissel's Korean midfielder, Kim Nam Il.

As the TV replays show, he started the "move" well inside the Grampus half, before back-tracking into his own half and seeing his long-range back-pass elude his goalkeeper Enomoto and sail into the net. Grampus striker Davi was celebrating long before the ball crossed the line, such was the hopelessness of the situation for the Vissel defence.

And if the Grampus fans want to rub it in whenever they meet Vissel in the future, they could do worse than check out an old Tottenham ditty used to taunt their fierce north London rivals, Arsenal.

It involved the former Tottenham midfielder Nayim, who scored a sensational goal for Real Zaragoza against Arsenal in the 1995 European Cup Winners' Cup final from way out on the right touchline, some 20 metres inside the Arsenal half. Spotting Arsenal keeper David Seaman off his line, Nayim's inch-perfect lob dropped just under the crossbar for a goal that even the Tottenham fans celebrated with the chant "Nay--im, from the halfway line!"

"Nam--Il, from the halfway line!" fits quite nicely...

ends

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Salman -- swimming upstream at AFC Congress

11 May 2009(Mon)

May 8, 2009: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, May 8, 2009: If you thought the Chelsea-Barcelona match was full of incident and controversy, try attending an AFC Congress.

In Kuala Lumpur on Friday, the 23rd AFC Congress lasted six hours -- 90 minutes x 4 -- and it was gripping entertainment from the opening whistle.

With all the accusations of incompetence and conspiracies flying around, just like at Stamford Bridge, it was easy to forget that the main event, Agenda Item 11.1, was to elect a representative to the FIFA Executive Committee. It felt from start to finish like an election for the AFC presidency itself, such was the rewards and power at stake for the winner.

The result has been well-documented now, a 23-21 victory for the AFC president, Mohamed bin Hammam, over his challenger, Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa, president of the Bahrain FA. Two of the 46 member associations spoiled their ballot paper, meaning that only half of Asia supported Hammam, who has held the FIFA ExCo seat unopposed since 1996.

The Japanese were firmly in the camp of Shaikh Salman, as were the Koreans, and these two Asian heavyweights were among 28 football associations who attended an afternoon meeting of Shaikh Salman supporters the day before the Congress.

If all 28 voted for the Bahraini -- a keen Manchester United supporter, by the way -- then they would achieve their campaign slogan of “AFC -- Asia For Change”, but the signs were ominous in the early stages of the Congress when the Salman camp was defeated heavily in votes regarding financial matters.

These votes were conducted in the open, though, through voting delegates in the Congress hall, but the FIFA ExCo vote would be a secret ballot. Without being under pressure and under scrutiny from the Hammam camp, the football associations would be able to choose their FIFA ExCo member without fear of recrimination. This would be the big chance for change.

And, like Chelsea against Barca, they came very close but missed out by the narrowest of margins.

The build-up to the Congress revealed everything bad about football politics, from both sides, and after his victory Hammam said one of his tasks would be to repair bridges with Dr Chung Mong Joon after their much-publicised slanging match.

There is a lot of work to do to unite Asia, and although Hammam has vowed not to change his style of leadership, clearly he must be humbled by the experience.

Now let’s get back to football -- the global game that attracted the power brokers in the first place but which seems to be lost along the way.

ends

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MVP -- Most Valuable for Pixie

7 May 2009(Thu)

May 5, 2009: With all these exciting forwards around in the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League, I thought it would be interesting to find out Dragan Stojkovic's take on the modern European game the other day.

We were standing outside Hitachi-dai at Kashiwa, and Pixie had a few minutes to kill before the Reysol-Grampus game.

"So who's the best player in the world at the moment?" I asked him, and expected a predictable answer.

I did not get one, although the player in question plays for Manchester United.

"I really like Michael Carrick," Pixie replied.

"As a coach he is exactly the kind of player you want in your team.

"He links the defence to the attack, and never gives the ball away. He is not a spectacular player but he is a key player because he organises the game and controls the team."

The choice of Carrick by someone so gifted as a player, someone touched by genius and who could mesmerise opponents with his extravagant skills, may come as something of a surprise. But the Grampus gaffer is mellowing in his middle-age, and appreciating the substance needed to form the backbone of a solid, consistent, successful team.

"It would be easy to say Ronaldo or Messi is the best in the world, but as a coach you are looking for someone to hold the team together game after game and never drop their level," he added.

"Carrick makes the right pass and never makes a mistake. If he makes a mistake in his position he kills his own team."

I was impressed with Pixie's choice -- and not only because I am biased towards Carrick due to his north-east roots at the famous Wallsend Boys Club, which also produced England greats Alan Shearer and Peter Beardsley among others.

Carrick is the kind of player whose work often goes unappreciated in the modern era of superstars and stepovers, fancy-dans, fancy flicks and fantasistas.

"When I talk to people in Europe, even some of them do not like this style of play. They say it's more like a circus," Pixie concluded.

No wonder Stojkovic is always quick to underline how important his own Michael Carrick -- Keiji Yoshimura -- is to the Grampus team, deep in the midfield engine room.

ends

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Sekizuka's 'Manager of the Match' performance

4 May 2009(Mon)

May 1, 2009: The merit marks for players and managers always make good reading, but the ones I saw for the Kawasaki-Kyoto clash on Wednesday were particularly eye-catching. That's because El Golazo's man of the match, with eight out of 10, was...Takashi Sekizuka, the Frontale manager.

Whether you agree or disagree with the award -- and I am sure Sekizuka himself would be a bit embarrassed by it -- there is no doubt his team selection and his substitutions first refreshed the team and then strengthened it as the match wore on, leading to a handsome 4-1 victory.

Takuro Yajima played particularly well up front in place of Chong Tese -- the last player Sanga wanted to see coming on when they were already 3-0 down -- and was rewarded with his first league goal of the campaign. And what a goal it was, finishing off a classic Frontale counter to make it 2-0 on 63 minutes and virtually end the match as a contest against a Kyoto team that was rapidly falling apart.

The TV replays picked up the action as Vitor Junior split the Kyoto defence with a clever little ball to Juninho, whose low cross from the left was met at the far post by Yajima, arriving quicker than the left back, Yuta Someya. But the move had started with a headed clearance in the Frontale box to Sidiclei's cross from the right, and Frontale exploited the space up the left flank with both Sidiclei and Kyoto right back Daigo Watanabe out of position.

It was stirring stuff to watch, and broke Kyoto's resistance as first Juninho and then substitute Masaru Kurotsu -- who had replaced Yajima -- added further goals to complete the rout. The despair of the Frontale players at conceding a careless late goal to Koken Kato was clearly visible, and summed up their business-like mood as they try to climb the table following a stuttering start to the season.

In the first half, Frontale were lucky not to fall behind when Yohei Toyoda missed a great chance to head Kyoto in front from Someya's perfect cross from the left, but they quickly put this scare behind them to take the lead. Again it was a Sekizuka change -- Yusuke Tasaka on the left side of midfield -- that created the opening goal for Vitor Junior, defending from the front by blocking right back Makoto Kakuda and enabling Juninho to burst into the box. Kakuda would pay the price by being substituted at the break.

On the other bench, Hisashi Kato was moving his players all over the place to try and find some rhythm, but Frontale were much too good on the day. They had needed a boost, and Sekizuka had provided it before and then during the match; hence the rather unusual move of naming him man of the match ahead of Juninho's merit mark of 7.5!

ends

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