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September 2009

‘Three arrows' heading in the right direction

28 Sep 2009(Mon)

September 25, 2009: When a team scores a late equaliser to snatch a point away from home, you'd expect them to be reasonably content.

Not Sanfrecce Hiroshima. Not these days.

Their 1-1 draw at Kashiwa Reysol recently was regarded as two points lost rather than one point gained; evidence of the remarkable rise and renewed ambition of this modest club under manager Mihailo Petrovic.

Croatian import Mihael Mikic, in fact, has not given up on the championship just yet.

“We had a chance for three points, and then the chance to fight for the championship,” said the midfielder. “If we'd won this match we would have been only four points behind first place.”

Fighting talk indeed from Mikic, who has brought balance and consistency to the right flank in Sanfrecce's fluid 3-4-2-1 formation.

“We are having a great season,” he says. “From the second league to the first league and now a chance to be champion is unbelievable for this club.

“Sanfrecce is not such a big club. It is a little club, and what this coach is making here and how we play is something new in Japan.”

Against Reysol, Sanfrecce gave a very good impersonation of Arsenal on one of their more frustrating afternoons – plenty of possession but too much fancy stuff around the box and nothing much to show for it at the end.

Mikic admitted that their performance against Reysol had been the exception rather than the rule.

“We had so many chances to shoot from 16 or 20 metres but it was just pass-pass-pass, like Arsenal in England. We wanted to walk the ball into the goal. Maybe we must shoot more from 16, 18, 20 metres, but our boss wants a game with many passes.”

Mikic is thoroughly enjoying himself in his first season in Japan, and says that anyone back home in Europe who thinks the level of football here is low would be in for a big surprise.

The biggest difference, he feels, is the supporters – and he is certainly not complaining about that!

“In Japan the supporters are not so aggressive. They always give you the support and that is a little different from Europe -- not so much pressure.

“Here, when you play in the middle of the table okay; when you play up in the table okay; when you play a little down…well, they are not so happy but there is no big stress.”

ends

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It’s just not happening for Antlers

24 Sep 2009(Thu)

September 22, 2009: There was something missing from Kashima Antlers on Saturday at Nissan Stadium – and I’m not just talking about the impish creativity of Motoyama.

In general they looked tired, mentally rather than physically, as if the strain and pressure of striving for a third consecutive league title was beginning to take its toll.

The ruthless professionalism and confident swagger normally associated with Antlers had been replaced by doubt and uncertainty, and they looked a very vulnerable team in going down 2-1 to Marinos.

Still, I was surprised when the Antlers players were booed and jeered by a few of their own supporters after the game, because there was no questioning their effort on the day or the fact that they were still top of the table. How many other J1 teams would be satisfied with that situation? It’s a rhetorical question, of course, because the answer is 17, all of them.

After all these years in Japan, I still cannot work out what will happen when the players go to greet their supporters after the game. Sometimes I expect them to be criticised after a bad performance or a lack of effort, but they are applauded; other times I expect the fans, especially away from home where the bond is much stronger, to be proud and fiercely loyal in defeat, but they are on their backs!

I could sense all was not right on Saturday when the Antlers manager, Oswaldo Oliveira, accompanied his players for the ritual post-match bow in front of the fans. The finger-pointing and angry exchanges began when they walked down the steps in the corner to the dressing room, at which point Oswaldo came to the defence of his players.

Later, when everything had cooled down inside the corridors, I asked Oswaldo what was going wrong, what was missing from his magic formula.

He admitted that some of the players were feeling the pressure, and that the spark of self-belief was just not there at the moment.

“But this is common; it happens,” he continued.

“When you don’t score, when you miss the chance, when you commit some mistake you lose confidence – but it is not forever. You can reverse the situation and we are going to do that for sure.”

Reds, of course, did Antlers a massive favour by beating Frontale later in the day, meaning Antlers still held a four-point lead, even after writing off the “Watergate” affair – or maybe “Floodgate” would be more appropriate in football parlance – with Frontale on October 7.

Four points clear at the top, eight matches to go, a third consecutive league title drawing closer – that’s a time for unity, for closed ranks, rather than abuse.

ends

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Memories of Yomiuri, Verdy

21 Sep 2009(Mon)

September 18, 2009: Things seem to go from bad to worse for Tokyo Verdy, to such an extent that you wonder if the end is near.

For all traditionalists we hope not, as the club has played a huge part in the development and transformation of Japanese football since its founding in 1969.

Verdy were the first Japanese team I ever saw when they came to Hong Kong to play local favourites South China in the 1991-92 Asian Club Championship. I had seen many games in Hong Kong up to this point, and they had all been low-key affairs in front of cynical spectators who took a delight in jeering the mistakes of the players. I always used to think that the average Hong Kong football fan was the most impartial I had ever come across: they wanted both teams to lose.

But when Verdy, or should I say Yomiuri SC in those days, came to town, this was something completely different. There was a real buzz in the humid evening air on the walk from Causeway Bay to the national stadium, and the atmosphere inside was crackling. This was a proper match, for sure, and the Chinese fans pelted the Japanese bench with debris all game, earning South China a fine from the Asian Football Confederation.

A couple of years later, in October 1993, I travelled with another Hong Kong club, Eastern, for an Asian Club Championship match against the renamed Verdy Kawasaki at National Stadium. Trailing 1-0 from the first leg at Mongkok Stadium, Verdy turned it round and won 4-2 (4-3 on aggregate) with a couple of goals apiece from Bismarck and Shinji Fujiyoshi. There were 44,000 at Kokuritsu that night, despite Verdy missing all their national team players.

They were in Doha for the final qualifying round for the 1994 World Cup, and on the morning of Japan’s last match, against Iraq, Verdy’s Dutch coach Frans Van Balkom took me round the clubhouse at Yomiuri Land. I had never seen anything like it – boxes and boxes of fan mail for the likes of Kazu, Kitazawa, Takeda and Ramos; so much it blocked the corridors!

That evening I met up with Eastern’s foreign players to watch Japan-Iraq in a bar in Roppongi – and I had never seen anything like that either. One minute singing and celebration, the next utter despair and an empty bar within seconds of Iraq’s late equaliser.

Yomiuri Land--Doha…what a three-day trip to Japan that turned out to be!

Verdy battled on without the Yomiuri Shimbun, and now they’ve got to survive without NTV. Let’s hope they make it, otherwise only memories will remain.

ends

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Grim scenes at Fukuda Denshi Arena

17 Sep 2009(Thu)

September 15, 2009: JEF United fans witnessed a miracle last season. Or perhaps “Miller-cle” would be more appropriate after the work of Alex Miller in keeping Chiba in J1.

But this year, with the Scotsman long gone, the landscape is bleak around Fukuda Denshi Arena – and I don’t just mean the smoking chimneys and steel works.

Saturday’s 1-0 defeat at home to Albirex Niigata was about as grim as it gets, and time is running out for JEF to turn it round and pull off another great escape.

Losing at home (again) was bad enough – but losing to a header by the opposition centre forward (Yano) at a free kick, and then squandering several clear chances to equalise was just increasing the torment for the home supporters.

On this occasion, Fukai was the main culprit. Last season, when he played such a big part in JEF’s revival, Fukai would have buried at least one of those chances, especially in the second half when the ball was played through on to his powerful left foot but he just didn’t get hold of the shot properly. The earlier opening, in the first half, after he had jinked through the Albirex defence on the edge of the box, was not quite so straightforward, as the ball was on his much weaker right foot and he scooped it over the bar.

There were mistakes galore in all areas of the pitch, though, as JEF gave the ball away carelessly and made too many needless fouls.

The tone was set from the opening minutes, after Yonekura had won a free kick near the right corner flag. The game was only four minutes in, and I expected Fukai to test the Albirex defence and keeper with an inswinging free kick, especially as Bosnar had moved up from the back to try and cause some damage. But Fukai rolled the ball out to the edge of the box in a training ground move that broke down, and it was the JEF keeper, Kushino, who ended up making the save at the other end!

And what about Neto Baiano? After spending the afternoon appealing for free kicks, he was substituted after 61 minutes and was not happy. He headed straight for the tunnel in the corner, via a reluctant detour to the bench to ask why he was being taken off; not the kind of team spirit needed at a time like this, especially as Maki – a player who would run through a yellow brick wall for the team – was having to watch all this from the bench, still to be unleashed.

ends

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Japan salvage some pride in Utrecht

14 Sep 2009(Mon)

September 11, 2009: It all ended happily ever after in the Netherlands thanks to Japan’s remarkable 4-3 victory over Ghana in Utrecht on Wednesday.

Japan scoring four times against a fellow 2010 World Cup qualifier was something in itself, but also noticeable was the attitude Japan showed in the second half.

When they went 2-0 down it looked like game over, only for Kengo Nakamura to hand them a lifeline when the wickedly spinning ball caught out the Ghana defence. But when Ghana scored a third for 3-1 it looked like men against boys, as if Ghana could do what they wanted when they wanted.

A second heavy defeat in two matches was on the cards, but amazingly Japan turned it round with goals from Tamada, Okazaki and, finally, Inamoto.

What was really impressive about Japan in the closing stages was their mental fortitude. Ghana had played with a certain amount of arrogance from the kick-off, as if they did not take Japan seriously, and were showboating midway through the second half.

So it was good to see Japan give them their comeuppance, and capitalise on Ghana’s over-confidence and cockiness by staging their late goal flood.

This was important for Japan as they had to prove they could stand up for themselves and not accept their fate so meekly, as they had done against the Dutch.
The player who deserved a lot of credit for the reversal of fortunes was Nagatomo, the FC Tokyo left back who had conceded the penalty in the first half from which Ghana had taken the lead.

It was Nagatomo’s tireless work down the left that enabled Japan to punish Ghana’s careless defending with Tamada’s sweetly-struck left-foot shot into the far corner, and Nagatomo again who laid the ball on for Inamoto to drive low into the bottom corner for the winner. In between those two, Inamoto had crossed from the left for Okazaki, timing his run perfectly beyond the defenders, to score with his head for 3-3.

Takeshi Okada would surely have preferred a tight and compact 1-0 win to this error-strewn 4-3 roller-coaster, but at least he saw some pride and venom in his team to come back twice from what looked like a lost cause.

More important, though, than how they got out of the mess was how they got into it in the first place, so Okada has plenty to address before the next tests.

ends

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Painful memories from Enschede

10 Sep 2009(Thu)

September 8, 2009: If it was painful at times for the players, it was painful all the time for the pro-blue viewers of the Holland-Japan friendly on Saturday.

Rarely can the Dutch have played so badly for so long, lacking motivation and the urgency to step up the pace.

Yet still Japan could not score during their long periods of possession. Why did Okazaki try to control Shunsuke’s pass over the top in the opening minutes? Why didn’t he just hit it, so close to goal? After all, he had plenty of time to read the flight of the ball over the defender and get himself into position to shoot.

I say “possession” in the paragraph above rather than “domination” because Japan never dominated their opponents, despite having a lot of the ball in the first hour. Did they ever look dangerous in the last third of the pitch? How many clear-cut chances did they create?

It was like the Dutch were prepared to sit back and soak it up, and then just win the one-on-ones with the physical strength of their defenders against the lightweight Japanese attackers.

In the second half, the Dutch moved up from first to second gear and scored three times in the last 21 minutes. Japan, I am afraid to say, collapsed; a worrying thought because Holland were playing like it was a training game.

A quick word on the fouls by Nigel de Jong and Wesley Sneijder. De Jong’s foul on Shunsuke was clearly well planned, targeting his left foot, and the Japanese playmaker was lucky to escape injury in “metatarsal territory”.  No yellow. That would come later for a challenge on Nagatomo.

As for Sneijder, he would have been sent off immediately for his two-footed lunge on Hasebe if it had been in the World Cup or a club game, but the referee was lenient because it was only a friendly. No wonder Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk apologised to the referee at half-time for the violent conduct of his players.

Footnote to the younger Japanese readers with Oranje stars in their eyes: Even in the glory days of the 1970s, the Cruyff-led team in 1974 and Cruyff-less version in 1978, the Dutch could always look after themselves in the physical side of the game. It wasn’t only Total Football that took them to two World Cup finals, so don’t be too surprised at the occasional bone-crunching challenge.

ends

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The cut and thrust of cup football

7 Sep 2009(Mon)

September 5, 2009: Surely Kawasaki Frontale will win something this year.

They are looking good to reach the Nabisco Cup final after beating Yokohama F Marinos 2-0 in the first leg of the semi-final at Todoroki on Wednesday night.

They are not out of the championship race yet, either, and can reduce the gap on Antlers to four points if they can win at Kashima next Saturday.

Then they have the AFC Champions League quarter-final against Nagoya Grampus, with the first leg at Tokyo’s National Stadium on September 23.

And finally, if anyone still cares about the Emperor’s Cup, with the final taking place four weeks after the league season has finished, then Frontale are still in contention on four fronts.

It was an enjoyable game at Todoroki on Wednesday, especially the last 20 minutes as Marinos piled forward in search of an away goal.

Kenta Kano came on and caused a few problems for the Frontale defence with his clever passes and accurate crossing, and big Kim Kun Hoan joined the action to help out Kazuma Watanabe up front.

With Yuzo Kurihara coming up from the back to win some headers in the Frontale box, and the sniper Koji Yamase looking to fizz one through on goal from the edge of the area, it was a surprise that Marinos could not get one back on the night.

As for Frontale, they scored their goals at crucial times; after 15 minutes through Chong Tese as the match was still settling down, and 12 minutes into the second half with Juninho’s header just to underline their superiority.

Frontale just love it when teams have to come at them and they can hit them on the break, and in Sunday’s second leg Marinos will have to be careful not to concede a goal in the first hour or so, otherwise it could be a long evening for them.

Manager Kokichi Kimura will have to strike a balance between making sure Marinos play as high up the pitch as possible and building some early attacking rhythm, while keeping the back door locked against any lightning raid by Juninho and Co. It’s the cut and thrust of cup football, and what makes it so different from league play.

ends

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Stage set for Orange-Blue treat

3 Sep 2009(Thu)

September 1, 2009: The mythical “oranje” against the Samurai Blue; Saturday afternoon kick-off in Holland, Saturday night prime time in Japan…

What a friendly this promises to be in Enschede for two teams who have already qualified for next year's World Cup in South Africa.

It's exactly the kind of test Takeshi Okada's team needs away from home, and it won't get any easier against Ghana next Wednesday in Utrecht: two very different examinations of Japan's credentials, one against the Euro technocrats and the other against the powerful and physical Africans.

Okada will be able to fill in all the gaps on his clipboard regarding the strengths and weaknesses of his team 10 months out from the World Cup, gaps left blank by the relatively low level of Asian opposition, with the exception of Australia.

How will Japan's central midfield hold up against the combative Nigel De Jong? How will the central defenders track the mobile and aggressive running of Dirk Kuyt? How will Japan's full backs contain Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben? Add to the attacking options the considerable threat of Klaas Jan Huntelaar, Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart, late call-up Ryan Babel…the all-star list goes on.

The good news, of course, is that coach Bert van Marwijk can start with only 11 players, although he will be able to give several of his bench a run as the match progresses.

One player I am hoping to see during the course of the afternoon -- although Atsuto Uchida might disagree – is the young Hamburg winger Eljero Elia. The 22-year-old left-winger will be returning to his former club, FC Twente, and will be keen to impress at his old home ground if van Marwijk lets him loose.

In this historical first meeting between the two countries at full international level, it will be interesting to see if the famous orange shirts of the Dutch team have any psychological impact on Japan, in the same way a rugby team facing the New Zealand All Blacks.

If Japan – missing the experience of first-choice keeper Seigo Narazaki -- play with confidence, maturity and organisation, and don't gift the Dutch any goals or penalties with careless, nervous errors, then the result might not be a foregone conclusion.

But it will need Japan to really stand up for themselves and not be intimidated by the home team. For Japan it will be a test of character and concentration rather than technical skill, and, for viewers left at home in Japan, the kick-off cannot come early enough.

ends

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