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August 2009

A good move by Okada

31 Aug 2009(Mon)

August 29, 2009: The inclusion of at least one player in Takeshi Okada’s squad for the Netherlands trip is a step forward for the national team.

Even though he is uncapped, this particular player has a lot of experience at club level and will be bursting with pride at pulling on the blue shirt should he get the chance.

Yes, it’s really nice to see Daiki Iwamasa in Okada’s squad. Or, to be more precise, back in the squad, as Okada has called him up before, in 2008, but not played him.

At 27, Iwamasa has been the rock on which Kashima Antlers manager Oswaldo Oliveira has built his defence, and the longer Antlers have stayed at the top of the table this season, the harder it must have been for Okada to leave him out.

So now he gets his chance, and hopefully will be able to start one of the two matches on the Euro trip; most likely the second one against Ghana on September 9, as the coach will want his first-choice team out there against the Dutch, meaning Nakazawa and Tulio in the heart of the defence.

I regard it as a step forward because Japan needs as much height and physical strength as possible in South Africa next year. Of course it is nice to fill the team with creative, ball-playing technicians, but there is the fear they could get blown away by teams from Europe, South America and Africa at the World Cup.

Iwamasa also has a tough mental approach, the attitude of a winner, and this quality cannot be under-estimated either.  It will be useful at both ends of the pitch, and his aerial power and aggression might actually surprise the opposition defenders when a corner comes over.

If the purists sniff that Iwamasa does not possess the footballing skills on the ground for this high level, then I would counter that his job as a defender, first and foremost, is to defend; to mark the centre forward and make sure he wins the headers at set-pieces and in open play. He is the reincarnation of Akita, an Okada favourite in 1998.

At Kashima, Iwamasa has the speed and the brains of Inoha alongside him – how close Inoha must have been to a call-up, too – and for Japan he’d be playing alongside Nakazawa, Okada’s right-hand man who has established himself as the most important player in the team.

Like the selection of Morimoto, it’s another good call by the coach, setting the scene for some interesting viewing over the next few days.


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Veteran anchors Kim-Tsune can keep Vissel afloat

27 Aug 2009(Thu)

August 25, 2009: Compared to the playing resources at his previous club, Toshiya Miura is in a pretty good position at Vissel Kobe.

The same can be said of the team itself now after those three big points at Oita Trinita on Monday night, as Vissel are in 13th position and eight points clear of the relegation zone.

There are still a lot of points to be won and lost before the end of the season – 33 to be precise – but Miura looks to have enough quality and experience around to keep them out of trouble. This was not the case at Consadole Sapporo, who – by Miura’s own admission – came up from J2 one season too early in 2007 and were just not equipped for J1 last year.

Miura has always placed a lot of emphasis on central midfield, and I remember him once, in his days as Omiya manager, raving about Oita’s pair of Brazilians after a league match at Komaba Stadium; how they controlled the game with their composure on the ball and their precise passing.

In the Vissel team now, Miura has the World Cup veterans Kim Nam Il and Tsuneyasu Miyamoto in the two anchor positions, protecting the back four and allowing Botti on the right and Koga on the left to push forward.

Just look how Vissel scored their first goal at Oita. When Oita missed a good chance and the loose ball fell to Kim inside his own box, he did not panic and simply hoof the ball away; he broke out of defence and gave the ball to Botti, who released Yoshida on the right wing. The Oita defence failed to close him down, and Yoshida’s cross was headed home expertly by Okubo arriving between two defenders.

At half-time, manager Miura made a good move, replacing Kondo with Ishibitsu at right back. Kondo had been given the runaround by the quick feet of Ienaga on Oita’s left wing in the first half, and by bringing on Ishibitsu it would push Ienaga back.  This is exactly how the second goal came about on 51 minutes, when Botti sent Ishibitsu racing down the right flank and his low cross was turned in by Yoshida at the near post.

Vissel should have won by more than 2-0 but squandered some clear openings as the match progressed. Miura must have been furious as he watched his players mess around in front of goal and try to play in a teammate instead of taking the responsibility to shoot. You could almost hear the Vissel players: “No, please, after you. I scored last season; it’s your turn now.”

When goal difference could be the difference between survival and relegation, there is no better time to shoot than when you are leading 2-0 away from home with the three points already in the bag.


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Okada-Morimoto: nothing to lose, everything to gain

24 Aug 2009(Mon)

August 21, 2009: News that Takeshi Okada will select Takayuki Morimoto for the Netherlands trip next month has certainly created a buzz around the national team set-up.

With the central striker’s role in Okada’s 4-2-3-1 formation very much up for grabs, the 21-year-old Catania forward will get his chance to shine in the two friendly matches against Holland and Ghana.

Okada, of course, has absolutely nothing to lose in calling up the former Verdy striker, and everything to gain as he may prove to be the answer to his problems in the build-up to the World Cup in South Africa.

Having established himself in Italy, after an initial spell on loan and following a serious knee injury, Morimoto has proved he has the talent and the character to succeed at the highest level.

And when he is playing, and scoring, in a league renowned for the quality of its defenders, the youngster should not be fazed by the step up to the national team.

One World Cup-winner who will not be surprised by Morimoto’s rise is the former Verdy manager Ossie Ardiles. I remember interviewing Ardiles in the Verdy clubhouse at Yomiuri Land and the Argentine legend was gushing in his praise of the young centre forward.

Morimoto had been named MVP of a youth tournament in Europe, and received his prize from the Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson. Ardiles said Ferguson had been mightily impressed with Morimoto’s fast and dynamic play, and would be tracking his career with interest. That interest may not be over just yet, even though the price of Morimoto would be significantly higher four years on.

Catania also think they are on to a good thing, as they have extended his contract through to June 2011 to guarantee a bumper transfer fee should bigger clubs start circling overhead, ready to snatch him from Sicily.

The call-up is just reward for Morimoto, and well timed by Okada, at the start of the new European season, and the player should feel instantly at home with Okada’s squad, despite the severity of the tests that lie ahead.


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Goal brings belated credit for Inoha

20 Aug 2009(Thu)

August 18, 2009: If a player’s profile needs a lift, a goal can never do any harm.

Such is the case with Masahiko Inoha, whose expertly-taken header earned Kashima Antlers a 1-0 win at home to Oita Trinita on Saturday.

Thanks to the goal, Inoha was interviewed on TV after the game and made Man of the Match, with a 7.5 rating, in the newspaper I read three days later. In short, the accomplished central defender was finally getting the attention that his steady and consistent performances have deserved.

A player of his ability, however, should not need a goal to project him into the spotlight, as his progress and development under Oswaldo Oliveira at Kashima has been noticeable over the past year or so.

Oswaldo thinks the world of this player, and constantly praises his ability to read the game, his composure on the ball, his game intelligence and, last but not least, his speed.  It is this latter quality that had Oswaldo purring in a recent chat at Todoroki, saying he was urging Inoha to push forward more in open play to give Antlers an extra man, comfortable in the knowledge that he could get back and cover due to his phenomenal pace.

The Antlers boss also said that Inoha had shown great character after the disappointment of being left out of Japan’s Olympic squad for Beijing – a team he had captained earlier in the qualifying campaign before losing this honour, surprisingly, to Mizumoto.

Funnily enough, it was during the Olympic qualifying that I watched Japan’s game in Hong Kong at a pub in Omiya along with the Ardija manager at the time, Robert Verbeek. Inoha was playing at libero in a back three, and his sumptuous passing and confident poise was drawing comparisons with Ronald Koeman; the swagger, the authority on the ball, the precise distribution.

Verbeek wanted to sign him for Omiya on the spot, and elevate him from the FC Tokyo bench, but it would be Antlers who would eventually swoop and turn him into a two-time J.League champion. Gert Engels has also told me on numerous occasions that Urawa Reds were interested in signing him from Hannan University in Osaka, but were beaten to the punch by FC Tokyo.

Oswaldo took his time with Inoha at Antlers, trying him at full back and also in central midfield before deciding categorically that central defence was his best position, alongside Iwamasa as the successor to Oiwa.

Now he is a permanent fixture in the team, although he must sit out the next match through suspension after picking up a yellow card later in Saturday’s match.


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Haraguchi: a good long-term bet for the top

17 Aug 2009(Mon)

August 15, 2009: Although Urawa Reds have just lost three in a row, they still look to be on a winner with at least one of their young players.

Genki Haraguchi really looks the part, and appears to have the most potential of all the youngsters. Yes, I include in that list Naoki Yamada, who has already played for the national team this season and settled quickly into J1.

For me, though, Haraguchi looks the better long-term prospect, and could go on to be a key player in the national team post-South Africa.

He has the physique, 1.77 metres, the balance and a good touch on the ball, but is still rather lightweight at 63 kgs. If he can fill out a bit over the next couple of years he could be a major talent.

His languid running and his ability to cut inside off either wing reminds me of a young Chris Waddle, and Haraguchi has a bit of spark, too.

I remember in the recent home game with Nagoya – a 3-0 defeat for Reds – when Haraguchi broke forward in the inside left channel and opted to shoot. The ball went wide, and Robson Ponte was not happy as he was unmarked on the edge of the box and demanding a pass from the winger.

When Ponte chastised Haraguchi, the youngster had a go back at him, which I thought was great to see; a young Japanese player not afraid to stand up to a vastly more experienced import. With all the criticism of Japanese players not shooting, I was delighted to see Haraguchi try his luck – and would have been disappointed if he had played a square pass to Ponte.

With all his long-term potential at 18, Haraguchi will have a few ups and downs in this early part of his career, and Volker Finke will be only too aware when to withdraw him from the firing line if the team’s form – or the player’s form – drop off.

Three straight defeats as they head to Gamba Osaka on Saturday is already putting the young players under pressure, and hopefully this will not affect the mindset of Haraguchi in particular, as he looks a very exciting talent for the long term.


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Honda in the spotlight with Anfield link

13 Aug 2009(Thu)

August 12, 2009: Keisuke Honda for Liverpool? Now there's an interesting one.

According to the player himself, Liverpool are keen on him. According to his club chairman at VVV-Venlo, Hai Berden, two of England's top five clubs are interested in him; which would make Liverpool a candidate again.

When you hear news of possible transfers, some sound right immediately and others sound way off the mark.

To me, this one sounds right, and I could see Liverpool being interested in signing Honda.

If they are, and if they want to complete a deal before the transfer window closes on August 31, then of course he should go.

But if the asking price of 10 million euros is too much and Liverpool -- or others -- decide to wait, then Honda is still in a good position.

He is settled with Venlo, he is captain and he is scoring goals in the top flight after being named MVP of the second division last season.

There is no need for him to jump at the first chance that comes along, as he is in the shop window playing in the Dutch first division against the likes of Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord. Holland is a big stepping stone to England, as Park Ji Sung will tell you.

This time last year I was at the Olympic Games in Beijing, following Sorimachi's bedraggled bunch around the country. My memories are grim, as the football was poor and Japan did not give a good impression of Japanese football at all (hardly surprising when the coach changed so many players after qualifying, including two of his best defenders in Inoha and Naoaki Aoyama, and central midfielder Toshihiro Aoyama).

But I do remember Keisuke Honda in the Mixed Zone -- the area where the players have to run the gauntlet of the media after the game, and stop and talk if they want or just keep moving to the exit and team bus.

Honda's English was very good and he was very happy to talk and talk, all the signs of a confident young man. The fact that he was made captain of Venlo, even in the second division, was a great achievement for a young Japanese player overseas. This should not be under-estimated, as it takes character and personality to be handed this role -- qualities Japanese players must possess to succeed overseas, as well as all the technical skills and physical fitness.

Whether Honda for Liverpool pans out, it is certainly putting him in the spotlight, and can only be a matter of time before he moves to a bigger club in Holland or to a bigger league in Europe.


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Ueslei will be missed

10 Aug 2009(Mon)

August 7, 2009: Japan's been good to Ueslei -- and there's no doubt Ueslei has been good for Japan.

His contribution has been immense, not just his output in goals but also in his approach to the way a goalscorer should play.

And this is why I hope Ueslei really does come back to Japan in some sort of coaching position, as he indicated on announcing his retirement as a player with Oita Trinita this week.

I think there would be a role for him in Japanese football, not just at club level but maybe even with the national team, on a part-time basis as some kind of specialist in the art of scoring goals.

This may seem a strange proposal in many countries, as the desire to score goals comes naturally, but in Japan it clearly does not and players need enlightening.

It is not a matter of technique, more of mindset and the instinct to go it alone and have a go for goal, regardless of the consequences.

So if Japan is looking for someone to help them in this awkward problem, they could do much worse than hire Ueslei as forward coach, even on a temporary basis to see if he can make a difference. How about three months before the World Cup in South Africa?

Whenever and wherever he had the ball there was only one thing on Ueslei's mind -- to shoot and to score. It always amused me when he shot direct from corners, and surprised me when the keeper was not expecting it, as this was far from a new weapon in his armoury.

Maybe shooting from corners on the left wing might be taking it a bit too far, but Ueslei could teach Japanese forwards when to shoot and instill in them the thrill of seeing the net bulge and the joy of celebration. Ueslei would not be afraid to shoot from halfway, David Beckham style, if the keeper had strayed a few metres off his line, and he had the natural scorer's gift to relax when a chance came along, rather than to panic, hurry and ultimately miss.

Ueslei was not the best trainer in the world and not the best team player off the ball -- I remember the former Grampus coach Verdenik despairing with him at times -- but Ueslei's answer probably echoed that of the great Romario when coaches questioned his work ethic: "Why should I train hard when I score in every game?" Romario had a point, didn't he?

Age, injury and, it seems, family issues in Brazil finally caught up with Ueslei, forcing him to hang up his boots at 37 (in Brazilian years, that is; approximately 42 elsewhere).

The J.League will miss him -- but I am sure one day he will be back. He still has a lot to offer Japanese football, and I hope someone in the right place can recognise this.


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Grampus must have confidence in Alex

6 Aug 2009(Thu)

August 4, 2009: You have to accept that Nagoya Grampus know what they are doing by taking Alex from Reds.

It seems like a risky signing to me, simply because there is such a big question mark against his fitness and whether, at 32, he can be effective any more over a sustained period.

He's hardly played for Reds in recent times, either through injury or through Volker Finke's rebuilding policy, and you have to wonder if there is anything left in the tank.

Alex will be keen to prove otherwise, of course, and Grampus will be keen to prove that the deal was not a mistake, so between them they could make things happen and give the player a new lease of life.

On his day, Alex is a valuable asset with his silky left foot, his speed and his experience, and he can play in a number of positions. I've always preferred him in a more forward position, and never thought he was suited to the left back role preferred by Zico simply because the defensive aspect of his game was not up to scratch at the highlest level.

Ivica Osim moved him further forward immediately when he took over from Zico, capitalising on his adventurous attacking skills without the burden of defending, and former Reds coach and manager Gert Engels always spoke in glowing terms of Alex's game intelligence; how he paced himself during the 90 minutes, knowing when to commit himself fully to attack and when to hold himself back.

Just where Dragan Stojkovic will use him for Nagoya remains to be seen, as his left side is already quite strong with Shohei Abe at left back and Magnum in front of him. Maybe "Pixie" will play him in a more central role, supporting the two strikers from midfield, but competition is strong in there with the likes of Yoshimura, Nakamura and Yamaguchi.

Provided he is match fit and stays physically fit, Alex will give Grampus several options as they look to add a bit of fizz to their play in the second half of the season.

But it still seems risky to me.


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Frontale's 'A' team finishes the job

3 Aug 2009(Mon)

July 31, 2009: One minute we were purring about Antlers, and what a classic Kashima performance it had been, and the next minute...

Well, what an astonishing game that was at Todoroki on Wednesday night, as Frontale came back from 1-0 down in the first leg to win 3-0 and book a place in the Nabisco Cup semi-finals.

For 90 minutes, everything went according to plan for Kashima. They had played so well, not only containing Frontale but creating chances at the other end, too.

The four minutes of stoppage time seemed generous for Frontale, as there had been no major incidents in the second half, but Antlers kept their heads down and even kept attacking.

When a member of the Antlers coaching staff on the bench waved his arms to inform his players that the four minutes were up, everyone waited for the final whistle.

But the whistle did not come, and then the unthinkable happened -- Juninho scored to send the home fans into a frenzy and instantly silence the big away following at the opposite end.

At first I could not believe Juninho's shot had nestled in the net. From my angle in the main stand, and from Juninho's angle, with the imposing frame of Iwamasa in front of him, I thought the ball must have gone wide and hit the stanchion behind the goal.

But no, there it was, and Juninho was racing away into the night to celebrate with the Frontale ultras in the corner. Iwamasa could not be blamed for the goal. I thought he made the right call in holding his ground and not diving in to challenge Juninho. If he had done that and made contact with the slippery Brazilian it would be an obvious penalty, and if Juninho had flicked it past him he would have been clear to shoot. Iwamasa probably worked out the odds of Juninho scoring from that angle, and presumed those odds would be stacked in the defender's favour. On this occasion, however, he was wrong, and somehow Juninho found the tightest of spaces to score his remarkable goal.

Antlers were fuming, because by their reckoning the four minutes of stoppage time was up and the goal had come in the 95th minute, hence the post-match comments of Oswaldo Oliveira. There was only time for Antlers to restart when the final whistle blew, and now the match had swung dramatically in Frontale's favour.

With the Frontale "A" team in action -- substitutes Renatinho, Chong Tese and Kurotsu supporting Juninho, and Kengo Nakamura in his central playmaking role rather than wide -- the home team were on fire. If Juninho had inserted the dagger into Kashima's heart, Renatinho and Chong twisted and turned it to complete the kill.

Is Frontale manager Sekizuka really following Philippe Troussier's philosophy and deliberately finishing games -- as opposed to starting them -- with his strongest team?


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