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June 2009

Antlers' ACL dream postponed

29 Jun 2009(Mon)

June 26, 2009: That was a long night in Ibaraki-ken on Wednesday -- and, you suspect, it is going to be a long, frustrating wait for Kashima Antlers until they can have another crack at the AFC Champions League.

They really wanted this one, a new title for the club, and with it a chance to play in the FIFA Club World Cup in the UAE in December.

But their challenge ended at around 10 minutes to 10 in this last-16 tie, when FC Seoul's Park Yong Ho beat the valiant Hitoshi Sogahata with the 14th kick of the shootout to clinch a 5-4 victory on penalties after a 2-2 draw over 120 minutes; Antlers having played the last 55 of those with only 10 men after the dismissal of Mitsuo Ogasawara.

So the J.League champions are out, as are Gamba Osaka, and there will be no Kashima Antlers-Barcelona match-up in Abu Dhabi -- not this year, anyway.

"It was a dream," Kashima's manager, Oswaldo Oliveira, said wistfully. "But we have postponed it to the next season. The dream is still just one more year."

Typical of Oswaldo to end our chat on a high note, already looking forward to next season with still plenty to play for this year -- a third straight J.League championship now alone at the top of the list.

I had been keen to ask Oswaldo about the content of his frenzied pre-shootout speech to his players in a circle in front of the Antlers bench.
Even above the noise of the Antlers fans -- possibly as many as 7,000 of the 8,069 spectators were behind the goal at the home end -- Oswaldo's rallying call could be heard high in the main stand.

"The players feel the pressure and we have to encourage them, especially the players with not much experience," he explained.

Ogasawara was long since gone, and Motoyama and Nozawa had both been substituted as fatigue set in, removing three certain kickers from Kashima's shootout list.

Two of the subs, Nakata and Masuda, failed to beat the Seoul keeper with the first two kicks, and, in sudden death, Uchida put the seventh high over the bar, clearing the way for Park's clincher.

"I have to comfort them," Oswaldo said of the trio.

"This happens often in a season in many places and in many teams, to great players. We have to be together for the next competition."

The dream may be over for Antlers this year, but Kawasaki Frontale and Nagoya Grampus are still there, and in the hat for Monday's quarter-final draw.


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Shunsuke: it all came right in the end

25 Jun 2009(Thu)

June 23, 2009: Not even the most ardent of Yokohama F Marinos supporters would begrudge Shunsuke Nakamura his move to Espanyol.

For a long time it looked like his return to Marinos from Celtic was a done deal when his contract in Scotland finished on June 30.

But when news of Espanyol's interest broke, there looked to be only one winner; and the player would finally have his chance to live his dream in Spain.

And it was his last chance, too, as he turns 31 on Wednesday, June 24 -- an advanced stage of his career to be making such a move.

So Shunsuke will head for Spain with the blessing of Japan, and the gratitude of Celtic after four successful seasons in the famous green and white hoops.

It's a fantastic opportunity for the player, especially with Espanyol moving into a new stadium this summer, and no doubt Shunsuke's presence will lift the profile of a club living constantly in the shadow of their more illustrious neighbours, Barcelona.

Last season, the four-time Spanish Cup winners finished 10th of 20 teams, but only five points clear of the relegation zone, and the big question concerns Shunsuke's ability to hold down a place in the Espanyol midfield.

He found his ideal level with Celtic, had the rugged midfield grafters to look after him and the manager, the now-departed Gordon Strachan, to bring out the best in him.

With Espanyol it's going to be a much tougher challenge, with the quality of opposition significantly higher on a weekly basis, so Shunsuke will need everything he learned in Scotland and at Reggina in order to succeed in Spain.

He will not have the time on the ball he enjoyed in Scotland, or the number of touches in a build-up, but his years in Scotland and Italy will have helped him prepare for the more physical side of the game, such as shielding the ball and using his body to hold off a defender.

One thing that he will always be able to rely on, though, is his deadly left foot in open play and at set-pieces, so he should be able to play his part in the team's attacking moves and keep himself in the news and in the first-team picture.

On a personal level, I am happy to see the player get his chance in Spain. I would have been very disappointed if he had left Celtic to return to the J.League at this stage of his career, as he could have had at least one more season in Europe -- a crucial one, too, in the build-up to South Africa 2010.

Now he's got two years in the blue and white stripes of Espanyol, taking him to 33 in June 2011, and he can still end his career back in Japan after that.


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Aussies pulling away in rivalry

22 Jun 2009(Mon)

June 20, 2009: Switching sports for a moment, from football to tennis, Andy Roddick once provided a sobering response to a TV reporter's question about his rivalry with Roger Federer after another defeat.

"Rivalry?" Roddick replied, puzzled. "I don't think you can call it a rivalry when the same player wins every time."

Looking back on the Australia-Japan game at the MCG on Wednesday, I am wondering if Roddick's words apply to this rivalry, too.

Certainly the Aussie fans feel that way, and let Japan know it with their "Nippon: Forever in our shadow" banner on display at the famous cricket ground.

After all, it was a familiar story on Wednesday, as the ubiquitous Tim Cahill led his team's fightback with two goals to secure victory, just like he had done at Kaiserslautern in the World Cup summer of 2006.

Although Japan beat Australia on penalties after a 1-1 draw in the Asian Cup quarter-finals the following year, Australia picked up four points from the two qualifying matches for South Africa and finished five points clear in the group -- a big gap over eight games.

Clearly the Aussies are ahead in the rivalry at the moment, even though they did not particularly impress in either game against Japan.

At Yokohama, in the 0-0 draw, they lived dangerously with their short passes deep in their own half and showed Japan too much respect, playing Cahill on his own up front in Pim Verbeek's 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree formation.

At Melbourne, the giant Kennedy came in, occupying the defenders at set-pieces and allowing Cahill to operate in his shadow, but Australia -- Culina in particular -- were too casual and lethargic for long periods.

They only stepped it up for 25 minutes or so in the second half, but still this was enough to do what they had to do and score the goals to win the match.

In the absence of Nakazawa, Tulio fought gamely, and soared above a startled Cahill to head home Kengo Nakamura's left-wing corner on 40 minutes.

When the Aussies found some urgency after the break, Abe -- playing in the centre of defence alongside Tulio -- found Cahill too elusive. He lost him on Grella's deep free kick into the box, leaving Cahill to run in behind Tulio, who was marking Kennedy, and score with a looping header; and Cahill was one step ahead of Abe again in gobbling up the loose ball from Carle's curling corner from the right.

I really hope Kennedy signs for Grampus, as it will be good practice for Japanese defenders to come up against a player of his height (1.94 metres) and physicality on a weekly basis.


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Ups and downs on derby day

18 Jun 2009(Thu)

June 16, 2009: It's hard to know where to start when writing about the Saitama derby on Saturday, as there were so many positives for Reds and so many negatives for Ardija in the 6-2 scoreline.

What impressed me about Urawa even before the kick-off was that no fewer than eight of the 18 players on the team sheet (four in the starting line-up and four on the bench) came directly from the club's youth team.

On top of this, Tsuzuki, Tulio and Abe were with the national squad, and Ponte and Tatsuya Tanaka headed a list of injured senior pros.

So for Reds to run away with this one, when derby matches are traditionally tight, left German boss Volker Finke purring at the progress of his team.

There were some very well-taken goals among the six, too, my favourite being Haraguchi's to make it 5-1. Haraguchi has been overshadowed recently by the rapid rise of fellow teen Naoki Yamada, but on this afternoon he scored a beauty to underline his rich potential, checking inside a defender before curling the ball into the top corner with his right foot, beyond the keeper and over a defender.

Haraguchi can often over-elaborate, doing too much on the ball when he has already worked an opening, but on this occasion he got it just right -- some fancy footwork to open up the angle and then the sumptuous finish. Quick and clinical.

With Edmilson and Takahara linking well with the two young wide men, and Hosogai and Suzuki locking up the centre of the park, Omiya could not stop the red flow of attacks, especially with 10 men.

I couldn't understand why Fujimoto felt it necessary to shove Takahara in the back as they followed the flight of Hosogai's cross to the back post. You could see the push clearly from halfway up the main stand, and it didn't look like "Taka" would reach the ball anyway. A second yellow card for Fujimoto, followed by red, a penalty for Edmilson, 2-0 against 10 men and game over.

Omiya, with Croatian centre back Mato Neretljak given a break from Nabisco Cup duty to prepare for J1, capitalised on some sloppy Reds defending to grab two consolation goals, but they couldn't wait for the final whistle to end the torment and get out of there. Of course they felt hard done to by Urawa's opening goal on 38 minutes, when Naoki Yamada looked well offisde, but that was no excuse for the second-half collapse.

Having started the Nabisco Cup group with seven points from three games, conceding only one goal, Omiya shipped 16 in their next three, losing 7-0 at Hiroshima, 3-1 at home to Marinos and now 6-2 against Reds.

Saitama derby? More like a demolition derby -- and problems galore for Omiya as the league prepares to resume.


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Japan must refocus quickly before MCG test

15 Jun 2009(Mon)

June 12, 2009: The 1-1 draw with Qatar was quite predictable in the end.

A team already qualified for the World Cup and struggling for motivation against an opponent with everything to play for but not good enough to get it.

Still, it was a very disappointing performance by Japan, who one minute looked too casual and relaxed and the next minute too exhausted to keep going.

If they play like this on Wednesday against Australia at the famous Melbourne Cricket Ground, they could be in for a hiding -- if the Aussies can motivate themselves to the required level and have the ambition and adventure to win handsomely; an approach they shunned in the 0-0 draw at Yokohama when they showed Japan far too much respect and almost paid the price at the death.

I don't know why Okada/Oki kept Shunsuke on so long against Qatar, replacing him only in the 81st minute. He was clearly fatigued and suffering, but still he stayed on when it should have been time for a summer holiday.

Captain Nakazawa had a bad day at the office -- but at least it came in a meaningless match for Japan, with the pressure off -- and Okazaki spent more time trying to win free kicks than he did actually trying to score a goal; a very unsavoury aspect of Japan's game, I'm afraid.

The biggest disappointment for me, though, was Abe, who was given a chance to shine in central midfield in the absence of Endo and Hasebe.

Unfortunately, even Abe fell foul of the nonsense football that continues to plague Japan, as he gave the ball away carelessly in midfield with an attempted flick to a defender; way too casual, and an error that would have been punished by a better team.

Abe is a much better player than that, and although he tried to make amends with some good defensive work, the damage had been done and he was withdrawn before the hour.

Overall I thought Hashimoto was Japan's best player; he was busy, business-like and tidy, which was enough on the night to overshadow most of his teammates.

Having scored so early, through an own goal, Japan thought they could cruise, and a misplaced arrogance crept into their game. This is not nice to watch, and they should remember where they are in the world and where they are trying to go.

A sound defeat at the hands of Australia might be just what they need to bring them back to earth after qualification, and refocus them on the incredibly difficult challenges that lie ahead.


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Semi-final talk can wait

11 Jun 2009(Thu)

June 8, 2009: Semi-finals in South Africa?

For the moment I'm not even thinking about that (and I wish Takeshi Okada would stop talking about it), especially as we don't even know the formation of the groups; and will not do so for six more months.

No, I am thinking about the first time Okada was in charge, when he pulled off his salvage job in the autumn of 1997.

Remember the crowd trouble at Kokuritsu after the 1-1 draw with UAE?

The fans were going crazy, throwing chairs and other debris outside the main gates of the National Stadium when it looked like Japan might miss out on a place in France 98 and have the dubious distinction of co-hosting 2002 without having played in a previous World Cup.

How embarrassing would that have been, and how much damage would it have caused to the game in general in Japan?

Then came the unexpected win in Seoul, the thrashing of Kazakhstan at home and, of course, the magical night in Johor Bahru when a Hidetoshi Nakata-inspired Japan beat Iran 3-2 in the play-off to book their place after all.

Now, in Okada's second stint in charge, Japan have qualified with two games to spare; and this is enough to celebrate for the time being without any talk of semi-finals.

It proves how much Japan have improved in Asia, thanks mainly to the strength of the J.League; a fact all opposing coaches highlight in the aftermath of defeat.

I was chatting with Frode Johnsen the other day at Kashiwa Stadium, after his S-Pulse team had beaten Reysol in a Nabisco Cup group game, and he said S-Pulse had so many good players they could field two teams strong enough to play in J1.

This strength in depth at club level is providing a constant flow of players to the national team, and Okada has been able to build on this and infuse the talent from Europe to add more experience and toughen them up mentally and physically.

Qualification this time has been a breeze, admittedly helped by the weaker of the two groups and the absence of South Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia in particular.

In 1997, Japan's opponents in their final qualifying group were South Korea, UAE, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and only the top team advanced directly to France. Japan finished second so had to face Iran, whereas now Asia has the luxury of four automatic qualifiers plus half a place for the play-off with Oceania. And while qualification may appear easier now than in 1997, don't forget there was no Australia in the AFC in those days. That's a huge difference -- and why many in West Asia would love nothing more than to see the Aussies kicked back into Oceania.

Japan's prospects in South Africa can wait, but the fact they have qualified with two games to spare and have a year to prepare should not be under-estimated. How Saudi Arabia or Iran, two Asian super powers, would love to swap places with them!


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Japan's main man...

8 Jun 2009(Mon)

June 5, 2009: Who's Japan's main man these days?

Many would automatically say Shunsuke Nakamura because of his set-piece expertise and his big-match experience.

Others, probably wearing red at weekends, would go for Tulio because of his natural leadership qualities, his fighting spirit and his all-round skills.

But, for me, it's no contest these days, as I feel Yuji Nakazawa is the main man by a considerable distance -- and has been for some time.

He's always there; he is rarely injured, unlike Tulio, for example; he is dependable and he is inspirational. In short, Nakazawa has grown into the role of captain and has become the ideal right-hand man for the manager he knows so well, Takeshi Okada.

In fact it would not surprise me at all if Nakazawa popped up with the winning goal in Tashkent on Saturday to book Japan's place in South Africa with two games to spare. A Shunsuke corner, an Endo free kick...and the unmistakable head of Nakazawa nodding the ball into the net to lead his team to victory.

I remember the Asian Cup qualifier in Bahrain earlier this year, when Japan lost 1-0 due to some sleepy defending by Uchida following a deep free kick from the right. Nakazawa was in a class of his own that day, and saved Japan from a heavier defeat with a performance of pride and determination that put his teammates to shame.

No doubt he will be in the same kind of mood against the Uzbeks on Saturday, and this time will be guaranteed better support by a Japan team buoyed by two straight 4-0 wins in the Kirin Cup. Much has been made of the quality, or lack of quality, of Chile and Belgium, who both sent under-strength teams due to club commitments; but Japan can only beat what is in front of them, and learn things about themselves rather than about the opposition.

One example must be that Okazaki, with three goals in the two Kirin Cup games, will surely start; possibly as the lone striker supported by the line of three.

Those goals will have done him the power of good, and hopefully Japan in general will play with the same kind of positive attitude and spirit of adventure they displayed in the Kirin Cup. They were not a waste of time at all.


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Iwashita -- head and shoulders above the rest

4 Jun 2009(Thu)

May 31, 2009: When Kazumichi Takagi packed his bags for Gamba Osaka at the end of last season, Shimizu S-Pulse manager Kenta Hasegawa did not have to look too hard for his replacement.

He was already there: Keisuke Iwashita.

At Hitachi-dai on Saturday, Iwashita had an outstanding match in the centre of defence as S-Pulse beat Kashiwa Reysol 2-1 in Nabisco Cup Group B.

On a day when three or four S-Pulse players staked a claim for the media vote for the New Hero under-23 award, Iwashita certainly earned mine for his commanding and combative contribution.

I remember him from last season as a left back, his path to the centre of defence blocked by the tall and talented combination of Takagi and Naoaki Aoyama. But with Takagi's winter move to the Asian club champions, Iwashita has been given a chance to establish himself in the middle of the back four -- and is grabbing it with both hands, both feet and his head, too; his soaring back-post header from Hyodo's corner surprising the Reysol defence and fans alike with his athletic leap and power.

Like all good centre halves he really attacks the ball in the air and plays with an intensity that never allows the opposing strikers to settle or relax. At times it seems like Iwashita and Aoyama are having a private duel to see who can get up highest and clear the ball furthest, such is their aerial aggression.
Both these players are 22 years old, so conceivably could remain in tandem for six years or more; an encouraging thought for S-Pulse, who would be well advised to tie them down on long-term contracts, if they haven't already done so, to at least guarantee a handsome transfer fee if they were poached by a bigger, wealthier club.

After the game I spoke to S-Pulse's Norwegian striker, Frode Johnsen, about Iwashita, and the big man could not praise him highly enough.

"He is very important for S-Pulse," Johnsen said. "He is a great football player, and every day he gives 100 per cent in training and in games. We are lucky to have him."

Such was Iwashita's low-key squad role with S-Pulse before the departure of Takagi that Johnsen admitted he could not remember much about him when he was leading the line for Grampus.

"I think sometimes he played at left back, but he is strong, he's fast, he has good technique and can see the game; that is important."

Aoyama and, particularly, central midfielder Masaki Yamamoto were also candidates for the New Hero award, but on the day Iwashita was head and shoulders above the rest -- just like he had been against the Reysol attack.


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VVV: Vitality-Vibrancy-Victory

1 Jun 2009(Mon)

May 29, 2009: There was much to admire in Japan's performance against Chile at Osaka on Wednesday night.

They played with a vitality which promised a bright future, and with a vibrancy that Chile could not repel; all of which led to a handsome 4-0 victory.

Vitality-Vibrancy-Victory. This is what the "VVV" could well stand for in VVV-Venlo, home club, at least for the time being, of Keisuke Honda.

Filling in for Shunsuke Nakamura on the right side of the "3" in Takeshi Okada's 4-2-3-1 formation, Honda's energy and willingness to run at defenders and shoot really stood out.

The official match record credited him with seven attempts at goal, including, naturally, his cool finish to complete the scoring in stoppage time. That's a refreshing statistic for a Japanese player, as so often we see them decline the chance to shoot when in a good position to do so.

A classic example was the first goal, scored by Shinji Okazaki in the 20th minute. The bustling S-Pulse striker did wonderfully well to control the ball and, with his back to goal, hold off the Chile defence and lay it back to Honda. Despite being a long way out, there was only one thing on Honda's mind, to shoot for goal with his powerful left foot. When Miguel Pinto, Chile's captain and keeper, could not hold it, Okazaki followed up to steer the loose ball into the net.

Then came Yuji Nakazawa's "Total Football" moment, as the big centre half appeared on the right wing, showed nifty footwork and produced a gem of a pass behind the Chile defence and into the path of Okazaki. Another top-quality finish and it was 2-0, with Okazaki enjoying his second two-goal game for the national team. (His first double, in the 5-1 rout of Finland, didn't do him much good, though, as he was dropped for the next match, the World Cup qualifier against Australia).

Although Okazaki started on the left side of the "3", with Kengo Nakamura in the middle and advised by Okada to think of Steven Gerrard in this role, the S-Pulse forward and lone striker Keiji Tamada had already begun to inter-change before Tamada hobbled off in the 39th minute.

To be honest I am growing weary of Tamada, staying down after an innocuous challenge and seeking advice and/or treatment from the bench. I think Okada is, too, judging by his less-than-sympathetic response on some occasions, as I am sure he would prefer for Tamada just to get on with it and stop whingeing.

Now, with Okazaki playing so well on his own up front, Okada could decide it's time for a change of the "1" at the top of the formation.


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