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July 2009

Don't underestimate the target man's value

30 Jul 2009(Thu)

July 29, 2009: The long and winding road in muggy conditions to Saitama Stadium on Saturday was well worth it to see Josh Kennedy in action for Grampus.

The big man did not disappoint, causing chaos in the Reds defence and helping himself to a goal, too, courtesy of a bad mistake by Yamagishi in the Reds goal.

Towering target men can often be the target of unfair criticism based purely on their height -- "he can't run, he can't control the ball, he can't be involved in build-up play, he's poor on the ground" -- but it would be folly for the football technicians to write them off so easily. Just look at how effective Peter Crouch is in England.

No, Kennedy is a great signing for Grampus, as he is a natural outlet for his own defenders and guaranteed to create problems for opposing defenders.

If Grampus are under pressure, a 50-metre pass with a swish of Abe's left foot and the pressure is eased.

And when it comes to attacking, if in doubt knock it into the box and see what happens. Magnum did just that on Saturday, and Kennedy did the rest, leaving Tsuboi like a drowning man, struggling for air deep in his own penalty area.

Kennedy also played his part in Tamada's two goals, although the "No. 16" did not appear in the "assist" column on the official scoresheet and played down his role after the game, too.

But for both Tamada goals it was a case of long ball into Kennedy, Reds defence scrambling, and Ogawa finding the space to link with Tamada. Simple, but effective -- and difficult to stop, especially when Tulio was absent again.

Kennedy enjoyed other good moments, too; for example a superb clearing header to deny Takahara in the first half, and a midfield tackle on Ponte which took the Reds playmaker by surprise.

No wonder the Grampus fans produced a steady chorus of "Come on Joshua" as the match progressed.

After nine years in Germany, Kennedy has got the fresh challenge he wanted -- and the J.League has a player who will continue to make the news.


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Good luck to Ota in his Euro quest

27 Jul 2009(Mon)

July 25, 2009: When a player with nothing to lose except the quiet life decides to pack his bags and try his luck overseas, you can only wish him all the best.

Such is the case with Yoshiaki Ota, the 26-year-old winger who announced on Friday that he would leave Jubilo Iwata next week to seek a club in Europe.

A product of the Jubilo youth system, Ota could easily have stayed in the J.League and steadily added to his tally of 115 appearances and 21 goals.

But he has taken the decision to challenge himself, and try and find a club at the start of the European season.

Good luck to him, and I hope something works out.

Scotland would be a good start, as the stock of Japanese players is high after the success of Shunsuke Nakamura with Celtic, or Holland, where Keisuke Honda has made a name for himself after a difficult start.

Certainly Ota has something to offer with his pace down the right wing and his crossing ability, and I thought he had a fine game the last time I saw him in action, away to Omiya in a Nabisco Cup group match on May 20.

Although Omiya won 1-0, Ota caused plenty of problems for Ardija's left flank with his speedy breaks and penetrative runs into the danger zone.

These are qualities that could attract European clubs, and he has more chance of finding a club as a right winger than, say, a central defender, central midfielder or centre forward, where the physical aspect of the game is always against the average Japanese player.

And Ota does not need to be in too much of a hurry. He can give himself a few months to get sorted out, and if nothing happens he can always return to Japan next January, and join a club in time for the start of the 2010 season.

Ota has nothing to lose and everything to gain in terms of experience and adventure.


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A 'Baptista' of fire for Nelsinho

23 Jul 2009(Thu)

July 22, 2009: The manager out, the team next to bottom of the table, a home defeat in their most recent game and a key defender dismissed and now suspended...

On the surface of it things look bleak at Hitachi-dai, home of Kashiwa Reysol.

But if you stand back for a moment and look at the big picture, there is still plenty of time for Reysol to turn it round and avoid another relegation.

Even though the 2-0 defeat at home to Gamba left them with just 15 points from 18 games, they are only four points from safety and seven points out of 11th place. With 16 games remaining there are more than enough points available to scramble up the table, and their situation is by no means as desperate as JEF United's was last season.

The man they have turned to is Nelsinho Baptista, formerly of Verdy and Grampus and, at one point, close to being the coach of the national team.

The Brazilian's first job will be to tighten up the defence, as Reysol's goal difference of minus 18 could be a factor in whether they stay up or go down at the end of the season. And I don't just mean the back four, but Reysol's defensive work throughout the team, especially in the centre of midfield where they are particularly lightweight.

Nelsinho will be looking for someone to hold the team together in that critical area, and allow the more attack-minded members of the squad to flourish.

The new coach will have seen already that he has an abundance of decent forwards, from the eccentric Franca to the dangerous Popo, from the honest graft of the workhorse Kitajima (so unlucky not to score with his adventurous snap shot that hit the bar against Gamba) to the tricks and flair of the youngster Otsu, and from the speed and energy of Lee to the bustling runs and shooting power of Suganuma.

The raw materials are there for goals, but Nelsinho will have to find the right combination and make sure everyone is playing for the team and not for themselves.

The last team he would have wanted to face on his Reysol coaching debut, though, would be Antlers -- and Antlers away. But at least this "Baptism of Fire" will give him an idea of the difference between top and bottom, and the task in hand for the rest of the campaign.


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How many times does a Brazilian cross the ball before turning pro?

20 Jul 2009(Mon)

July 18, 2009: Wandering along Boat Quay in Singapore the other night, I was attracted by the noise, colour and spectacle of a football match on three TV screens outside one of the riverside bars.

The striking red shirts on a pitch of dazzling green under the stadium lights...the roar of the crowd...the applause and groans of the bystanders watching the game outside the bar.

From a distance I thought it must be a Manchester United game, a replay from last season to keep their legions of Singaporean fans happy, but on closer inspection I was pleasantly surprised to discover it was, in fact, Urawa Reds against Sanfrecce Hiroshima, live from Saitama Stadium.

It was on the Football Channel, and I joined the audience just in time to see Takahara's through-ball to Edmilson for 1-1, followed by the Stoyanov foul on Takahara and Edmilson's penalty against the post, and finally Ponte's free kick and Edmilson's header for 2-1 Reds. An action-packed last 20 minutes or so, and the locals at the bar seemed pretty impressed with the J.League.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I read that the JFA president, Motoaki Inukai, had described the J.League as "boring" because Japanese players did not shoot enough.

Not only that, but he produced the preposterous statistics that a Brazilian player on average will have taken 300,000 shots on goal before turning professional, compared to 5,000 by a Japanese player.

How old is the "average" Brazilian when he turns pro -- 16? 18 at the most? That's a lot of shots at goal!

Do they include shots on the beach with their grandmother in goal on a Sunday afternoon, and shots in the street after dribbling round their two sisters and firing past the pet dog sleeping between two jumpers on the floor?

Really, to say that these statistics came from the Brazilian FA is ridiculous, and to use them against the J.League amounts to treason for the president of the JFA.

Of course Japanese football can be frustrating to watch when players take one touch too many and miss the chance to shoot. Almost as annoying (but not "boring") for me is when players get into good positions down the wing and refuse to cross.

I wonder how many times a Brazilian crosses the ball into the box before he turns professional compared to a Japanese player? The Brazilian FA will be able to tell you, I'm sure.

Not shooting and not crossing when it seems obvious suggest a lack of feel or lack of sense for the game when it should be natural -- but that is not the point at issue.

No, Inukai's observations and comments were ill-advised, and would not find too much support within the football community itself -- inside or outside Japan.

Certainly not down the Boat Quay the other night in Singapore.


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Davi and Co.: Let them go

16 Jul 2009(Thu)

July 15, 2009: So the J.League is losing another Brazilian goal scorer to the Gulf, with Davi leaving Nagoya for Umm Salal in Qatar.

But does this mean the J.League is losing its appeal or its reputation as the top professional league in Asia?

In my opinion, not at all, and if players such as Emerson, Bare and Davi want to swap the attractions and lifestyle of Japan for the money of the Gulf, let them go.

There are plenty more Brazilians around who can fill their boots, and the last thing I would want to see is Japanese clubs being held to ransom by the agents of the players demanding more and more money to reject the tax-free offers of the Gulf.

No, if money is their only concern, which it clearly is in these deals, the Japanese clubs should accept this and hold out for as big a transfer fee as possible.

Japan has given them a stage on which to display their talents, and if this leads to a mega-salary in the Gulf that will set them -- and their family's families -- up for life, then good luck to them.

But Japan should not mourn their departure, as it creates openings for new talent to join the J.League.

I am sure Davi knows what he is letting himself in for by leaving Grampus for Umm Salal, and becoming another faceless Brazilian in a faceless league.

Compared to the crowds and the colour of the J.League, Gulf football is at a completely different level.

Having spent a considerable amount of time early this year in the Middle East, in Kuwait and Bahrain, and watched matches on TV, the most striking aspect of these leagues is that there is nobody there.

The fans must number in the hundreds, not thousands, and are usually to be found in the main stand.

So when the cameras sweep around the ground, behind the goals and down the back stand, it looks deserted, silent, and almost like a training match; except for the fact the foreign players are earning millions.

As a spectacle, as a challenge, as a career move...it cannot compare with Japan, so let them go and turn over a new page.


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More radical moves needed to boost Emperor's Cup

13 Jul 2009(Mon)

July 11, 2009: It's good to see the JFA thinking about how to improve the Emperor's Cup, because it has been in need of a major facelift for several seasons.

The latest plan is for all 36 J.League teams to enter the tournament at the second-round stage, bringing the J2 teams in one round earlier than usual and the J1 teams two rounds earlier. A final decision on this move will be made on July 17, just a couple of months before the 89th edition starts in September.

Officials hope it will spark interest in the earlier rounds, setting up the possibility of giant-killing acts around the country, but cynics will counter that it gives the J.League teams more opportunity to be knocked out and start their holidays immediately the J.League season finishes -- December 5, four long weeks before the cup final on New Year's Day.

And this remains the main problem, the timing of the cup, tagged on to the end of the league season when everyone has had enough -- players and fans alike.

Players lack motivation and just want to take their holidays after reporting for pre-season training in January; managers are forced to pick players they have already told will be released at the end of their contracts; and foreign players want to go home or want to find a new club for the following season.

Add to this melting pot of malaise the fact that teams are hauled across the country to play at neutral venues in front of small crowds, and it is easy to see why the Emperor's Cup in its current form has outlived its purpose -- to spread the game around the country. This was all well and good in the olden days, but the rapid expansion of the J.League has left these noble principles behind.

For me, the J.League and JFA must work closer in this issue. If the authorities are serious about saving the Emperor's Cup, one plan would be to extend the J.League season to the third week of December, reducing the gap before the New Year's Day final, and integrate the rounds of the Emperor's Cup into the weekend schedule.

Also, an open draw after each round might revive the flagging interest, with the dates available at the start of the season for the purposes of stadium bookings. This would avoid cup ties such as Gamba Osaka against Oita Trinita at Fukuda Denshi Arena, the home of JEF United, which makes no sense to anybody.

Last season, due to Gamba's involvement in the FIFA Club World Cup, Nagoya Grampus had to wait over three weeks between rounds of the Emperor's Cup, long after the J1 season had ended. Again, this is a situation that could be resolved with more drastic restructuring from the authorities.

At least they realise there are problems, but this is only a tiny step on the road to a more meaningful Emperor's Cup.


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Oita – leave the shirts of the injured at home!

8 Jul 2009(Wed)

July 7, 2009: It’s easy to feel sorry for Oita Trinita, stuck at the bottom of the table with a long injury list.

The trouble is, they are feeling too sorry for themselves, and need to change their mindset rather than their manager.

This was my impression at Todoroki Stadium the other week, before they lost, predictably, to Kawasaki Frontale.

As the players warmed up before kick-off, the away dug-out resembled a sports shop with various Trinita shirts on display, in numerical order and all neatly on hangers.

At first I thought it was the shirts of the starting members, given an airing before the players put them on for kick-off.

But they were actually the shirts of the missing players, the injured, and they filled the dug-out from end to end.

The obvious aim of this ploy was to show that the players were united, that the injured players were with their teammates in spirit and soul, fighting all the way and suffering all the way.

Personally, I thought this had the opposite effect – and would recommend the Oita management to leave the shirts of the injured players behind and actually focus on the players who were there and on trying to win the match.

It all seemed unnecessarily soft and sentimental to me, as if to say: “Look at us! Look at all our injuries! Look at all the players missing!”

Perhaps they should have had a violinist in the dug-out, too, playing melanchoilc passages, to complete the sob story.

No wonder they went down tamely, feeling too sorry for themselves and already lining up their excuses before the first whistle, never mind the last whistle.

Come on Trinita! Where’s your fight?

Injuries happen, bad luck happens, but there’s no need to force it down everyone’s throat. Get on with it!

Instead of feeling sorry for them, I thought they were a bunch of namby-pambies, crying publically over their misfortune instead of rolling up their sleeves and scrapping for all they were worth.

Do yourselves a favour, Oita – and think positive, even after 13 straight defeats.

After Pericles Chamusca appeared to have been fired by the club, it now looks like he will be given another chance, maybe the last one, away to Jubilo on Sunday.

Before talking tactics, leave the shirts of the injured in Oita. Don’t take them and display them at Iwata!


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Inamoto remains positive, optimistic

6 Jul 2009(Mon)

July 4, 2009: You have to take your hat off to Junichi Inamoto.

He’s just joined his seventh club in Europe – Stade Rennais – and still has the ambition to play in the World Cup in South Africa next summer.

Despite his problems over the years, and his struggle for recognition and a regular first-team place, Inamoto can be regarded as a success story in that he has shown tremendous mental strength and determination to keep going in Europe when it would have been much easier to come home to Japan; to the comforts of the J.League, to the easy money and to the appreciative support of the fans – and media -- around the country.

Instead he has stuck it out, and has always managed to find a decent club to play for when his agent has started putting his name about.

At Rennes, of course, he is well known by the former Gamba manager Frederic Antonetti, so he does not have anything to prove to him. He will even be wearing the familiar No. 6 shirt with the Red and Blacks.

But what I think Inamoto will find difficult – and new – is the French language and lifestyle. It will be much tougher to adapt to everyday life in France than it was in England, Turkey or Germany, and in this respect he has a Japanese “sensei” in Daisuke Matsui, now at Grenoble after his move to Saint-Etienne did not work out at all.

Matsui really threw himself into the French culture, going out with teammates in the evenings to build up his language skills rather than sitting at home playing computer games from Japan. This has been a key to Matsui’s survival in France, and shows that it takes a lot more than football skills alone to make an impression in Europe.

With a two-year contract at Rennes, Ina has the time to settle, adjust and to enjoy his football, and if he can force his way into the starting line-up this season then surely Takeshi Okada will not give up on him, especially as he needs a bit more muscle and power through the middle.


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All-Japan quarter-final has its upside

2 Jul 2009(Thu)

July 1, 2009: What a letdown, Kawasaki Frontale and Nagoya Grampus being drawn together in the AFC Champions League quarter-finals.

It was a similar feeling to when two English teams have to play each other in the UEFA Champions League; you wish for something different, a new challenge against a team from a different country rather than another couple of matches against opponents they meet on a regular basis anyway.

I was really hoping that the two J.League clubs would be kept apart in Monday’s draw, and that Japan would have had a chance to get both teams through to the semi-finals. It could also have meant that Japan would not be represented at all in the last four, nor, more importantly, in the final at Tokyo National Stadium on November 7 – but it was a chance worth taking as I have faith and confidence in the J.League teams.

On a purely practical level, at least Japan will have one team in the semi-finals, and on current form you would have to say Frontale are the favourites to win through this two-leg quarter-final against Grampus.

Frontale, remember, were the first J.League club to advance to the knockout stages of the ACL, clinching their place in the last eight before Reds in 2007, when Urawa would go on to win the title.

On that occasion, Frontale went out of the competition without losing a game, drawing both legs against Sepahan of Iran before losing a penalty shootout at Todoroki.

Two years on they look much stronger and have more self-belief, and should have too much firepower for a Grampus team struggling to match the consistency of last season. Josh Kennedy, the towering Australian striker signed from Karlsruhe, will add a new dimension to their play, and give the Frontale defence plenty to think about, but overall Kawasaki look better equipped to win this one.

The feeling within Asia is that if you can stop Kengo Nakamura you can stop Frontale, but this is way off the mark in my opinion and fails to recognise the talent in that team, and the threat in the air, on the ground and down the wings. Kengo is a key player, of course, but there is much more to Frontale’s game than the smooth-operating playmaker  --  greatly admired by JEF United Chiba boss Alex Miller.

There is no chance of Dragan Stojkovic putting all his eggs in one basket and focusing solely on stopping Kengo, as he knows as well as anyone there is much more to Frontale’s game. In his second season as Grampus manager, the young Serb will need everything he has learnt so far to come out on top of this one when the two teams meet on September 23 and September 30.


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