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October 2009

Inevitable conclusion to Oita's "Mission Impossible"

29 Oct 2009(Thu)

October 28, 2009: Even if the writing has been on the wall for many months, the cold, harsh reality of relegation still hurts.

This was the case at Nishikyogoku Stadium on Saturday, when Oita's relegation to J2 was finally sealed with a 1-1 draw against Kyoto.

The moving scenes after the final whistle, with the large band of travelling fans in tears along with the Trinita players, illustrated the rapidly changing fortunes in football, as it was less than one year ago that  Oita enjoyed their finest hour: winning the Nabisco Cup.

On that occasion, manager Pericles Chamusca controlled a team led by three influential Brazilians, with Edmilson and Roberto in central midfield and Ueslei up front. Through this trio, Trinita could dominate an opponent with their patient, possession football, and capitalise on any opening thanks to the predatory powers of Ueslei.

But injuries to key players this season undermined all the good work of 2008, with Roberto and Ueslei long gone and Chamusca fired in a desperate attempt to turn things round.

New boss Ranko Popovic has clearly enjoyed his own “Mission Impossible” and has not been afraid to give youth a chance, but relegation was inevitable with such a meagre points tally to build from and has now been confirmed with four games remaining.

Just how many of their young Japanese players they can keep remains to be seen. Goalkeeper Nishikawa and attacking midfielder Kanazaki have been linked to Gamba and Nagoya respectively, while the third member of the “Holy Trinita” - central defender Morishige - should have several options on recovering from injury.

No matter who stays or leaves, the hope for the Oita faithful is that things can change again next year, and that they can mount a challenge to make a swift return to the top flight. After all, who would have thought, this time last year, that Oita would be the first team to be relegated in 2009?

While we are on the subject of the Kyoto-Oita match, full marks to the presentation by Sky PerfecTV. On the final whistle they let the human drama play out, instead of conducting a hasty pitch-side interview with a player - Kyoto goal scorer Hayashi for example -- and ruining the moment.

The body language of the Oita players, especially captain Takamatsu, and faces of the supporters captured the despair of relegation and the emotion of the game, and told the story more than any words could do.

ends

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"A-A-Akamine" back in the old routine

26 Oct 2009(Mon)

October 23, 2009: Looking on the bright side of Cabore's departure to Qatar in September, it has opened the way for Shingo Akamine to re-establish himself in the FC Tokyo team.

Akamine faded from the picture this season as manager Hiroshi Jofuku decided to go with Sota Hirayama up front alongside the big Brazilian.

But now the path is clear for Akamine to get back among the goals - and what a beauty he scored in the thrashing of Reysol last Saturday. It was classic Akamine, finishing so swiftly and so naturally to suggest the goals can flow again with Cabore no longer a factor.

Taking a slide-rule pass from Hanyu in his stride, Akamine beat Sugeno with a low drive into the bottom corner before the Reysol keeper had time to even think about the save. It was a magnificent goal, and the crucial one just before the break to open the floodgates in what became a 4-0 rout.

Cabore was an influential presence with his physical size and his mobility, but he was guilty of missing a lot of chances, especially in one-on-ones with the keeper. At times this season I thought his real Brazilian name must be “Cabaret” rather than Cabore, because it was so entertaining wondering where the next miss was coming from.

He was nowhere near as prolific as the likes of Magno Alves, Davi, Bare or Leandro - other Brazilians who switched from the J.League to the Gulf - so it was something of a surprise when so many teams, including Al Arabi, showed an interest in him.

Many Tokyo fans would have had mixed feelings, as the loss of Cabore meant a fresh chance for  "A-A-Akamine", a crowd favourite supported by a melodic chant which ranks among the best in the J.League.

On the subject of the FC Tokyo song selection, they will have to try a bit harder on the Hirayama front! A four-syllable surname just does not fit into the three-syllable name needed for a Tokyo take on the famous “Oo-ah, Can-to-na” version.

“Oo-ah, Hi-ra-ya-ma?” Sorry, that just does not flow at all - but there is still time to work on it before the Nabisco Cup final!

ends

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Diego delivers after dressing down from assistant ref

22 Oct 2009(Thu)

October 21, 2009: The JEF United-Kyoto Sanga match had everything at Fukuda Denshi Arena on Sunday afternoon, except for a winner.

It was a cracking game, played at a fast pace and in a fantastic atmosphere, and there were several sub-plots to the main storyline during the 1-1 draw.

For a long time it looked like JEF were going to win only their second home game of the season, only for a familiar twist in the tale with a late equaliser for the visitors.

This time it was the burly attacking midfielder Diego who did the damage with his lethal left foot, blasting past Okamoto with just four minutes remaining. Diego was fired up all right, as he had been involved in a running battle during the second half – not with an opponent but with the linesman!

The official took exception to Diego's appearance, with his shirt hanging out of his shorts. So every time Diego went to take a corner on the right, the assistant referee would insist he tuck his shirt in before striking the ball.

It may be regarded as a silly rule – even by some match officials themselves – but nevertheless it is a rule, and Diego was not going to take anything until he was properly attired. At one point the linesman stood in the corner and would not even allow Diego to place the ball, prompting the frustrated player to spin around for a full inspection.

As soon as he took the kick, however, his shirt would flap out of his shorts again anyway, so we had to go through this comedy routine on a regular basis as the visitors piled on the pressure in the closing stages.

The “villain” of the piece on Sunday was the former JEF defender Mizumoto, who found his way to Kyoto via Gamba Osaka. Mizumoto was jeered relentlessly by the yellow masses but had the last laugh with a superb challenge in injury time to snuff out home hopes of a late winner.

Tackles were flying in all game, with JEF midfielder Alex setting the tone, and full credit to the referee for allowing play to continue with so much physical contact.

For JEF it was another two points lost, despite a fine performance by Kudo out on the right side of midfield. His attacking instincts and pace are much more suited to this Hanyu-style role, without the defensive responsibility of playing in the centre of midfield. Chugo and Shimomura is a more solid combination in the midfield engine room, but time is running out for JEF to find the right formula.

ends

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Togo: a turkey shoot for Japan

19 Oct 2009(Mon)

October 15, 2009: Here's a few scribbles from my notebook from Japan-Togo on Wednesday night:

(Before kick-off) What's wrong? The TV camera is not only on Shunsuke during the entire pre-match build-up! Japan has two players tonight: Shunsuke and Morimoto. Only nine are irrelevant, not the usual 10.

The on-screen graphic introducing Takeshi Okada includes the “best four” target. Why can't everyone just ignore this instead of talking it up? It is doing no one any favours.

2 minutes: The TBS commentator uses the horrible word “grounder” when referring to a low ball into the box; a result of living in a baseball culture I suppose. This word should be banned from football speak in Japan, along with “heading shoot” and others I will save for a later column!

4 minutes: This is going to be a turkey shoot. Togo are terrible.

5 minutes: 1-0, Okazaki, unmarked at the near post.

8 minutes: 2-0, Okazaki flicks in Kengo's low cross from the right.

11 minutes: 3-0, Morimoto collects the ball with his back to goal, holds off his burly marker, turns and rifles it into the bottom corner. Nice.

At this point I stop making notes because it has become a pointless exercise. The match is over already and even the commentators and crowd seemed bored. Japan's October Football Fest has turned into a Snooze Fest.

As we all know, Japan went on to win 5-0 and Okazaki grabbed his second hat-trick in the space of seven days, after his treble against Hong Kong the previous Thursday. With all his goals for the national team this year, and for S-Pulse, you'd think he could come up with a better goal celebration than the half-hearted, self-conscious arm-flapping effort that he dabbled with at Miyagi Stadium. Clearly this needs more work than his finishing.

On a more serious note, the JFA would have every right to complain to FIFA about Togo turning up with only 14 players. That is a disgrace, inexcusable compared to the criticism levelled against Scotland because 10 players withdrew “injured” from the original squad. Scotland still had seven players on the bench and the result could have gone either way until the own goal swung it eight minutes from time.

ends

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Why all the indignation about Scotland's squad?

15 Oct 2009(Thu)

October 14, 2009: The biggest surprise about the strength of the Scotland squad visiting Japan was that anyone was surprised at all.

Takeshi Okada seemed he had been let down personally by the mass withdrawals, and that it had prompted a rethink about his own team selection.

Personally, I can't see what all the fuss was about. It was a friendly match, a long way from home, at a time when the football season is jam-packed with club and country commitments. Withdrawals were inevitable, and I don't see why this should affect Japan at all.

You often hear coaches saying they are not concerned about the opposition, that the most important thing is to concentrate on their own team and their own game. So why all the stuffy reaction to Scotland's squad? Admittedly, 10 players from the original squad pulling out is a bit much, but Japan's reaction was somewhat disrespectful to Scotland.

For manager George Burley it was a chance to look at some new players now their hopes of qualifying for South Africa 2010 had disappeared, and he still had a decent defence, with Sunderland's Craig Gordon in goal, captain Stephen McManus in the centre of the back four and Celtic teammate Gary Caldwell in defensive midfield.

Scotland defended well and seemed to be enjoying themselves as Japan tried to break through. Once again I thought Japan took too many touches around the box and tried one more pass than necessary on occasions, and this gave the Scottish defenders the chance to intercept, tackle and block.

The Scots offered little going forward, let down by poor delivery at set-pieces, but don't forget the visitors came very close to taking the lead when Burnley's Steven Fletcher was denied by Eiji Kawashima in that one-on-one on 73 minutes. That would have been very embarrassing for Japan, considering the pre-match criticism of the Scotland team.

Scotland were looking good for a 0-0 draw, until the unfortunate own goal by Christophe Berra (Wolverhampton Wanderers) as he tried to cut out Yuichi Komano's excellent cross from the left eight minutes from time. Keisuke Honda gave the final scoreline much more respectability with his late second for 2-0.

The Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, says he would scrap international friendlies altogether because they serve little purpose, with players pulling out “injured” or being put at the risk of injury, and national coaches fielding second-string teams with little hope of working on anything constructive or relevant to a real match situation.

There were over 61,000 reasons why the JFA will disagree with Wenger, but, still, they should not be surprised or complain when invited countries arrive with under-strength teams.

ends

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Anyone remember who was in goal for Japan against HK?

12 Oct 2009(Mon)

October 9, 2009: One of the positive things about not having NHK BS is that it forces you out of the apartment into a local pub to watch the match in a party atmosphere.

It can also produce some amusing observations from fellow viewers, such as this one during the Japan-Hong Kong game on Thursday night: “Who is Japan's goalkeeper?”

It was 5-0 at the time, and, to be fair to the viewer, he was a late-comer and had only been watching for about 15 minutes. It turned out to be a good question, because we had not seen Japan's goalkeeper for a while and were struggling to recall who had actually started the match.

“It's Nishikawa,” someone said eventually.  It was indeed, but it might as well have been Tulio or Nakazawa such was Japan's domination over a very poor Hong Kong side.

It was like a game of “attack and defence” we used to play on the park, using only one goal and with teams of four or five players taking it in turns to attack and defend.  That's how one-sided the Asian Cup qualifier turned out to be, with Japan winning 6-0 and missing enough clear chances to have finished in double figures.

Playing on his home ground, Okazaki grabbed the headlines with his hat trick; his first of the night from Hasebe's razor-sharp pass being the pick of the bunch.

I liked Nagatomo's goal, too. He showed such a positive approach and quick feet in rifling the ball into the net with his right foot, beating the keeper at his near post. I really think Nagatomo has the all-action game and the personality to be a success in Europe, and plays in a position, left back, where height is not a vital factor.

Elsewhere, Okubo and Matsui will have to improve if they want to stay in the squad on the road to South Africa, as more candidates are emerging to put them under pressure. Maybe this is what Okada learned from the Hong Kong match, and the other players will be hungry for action in the remaining two games against Scotland and Togo.

As for Hong Kong, I was very disappointed at the low level of their play. I lived in Hong Kong for eight years and followed the football closely. They did have some good players in the early 1990s – local Chinese as well as imports -- and the game has a strong tradition and following, with 60 players from five clubs turning professional as far back as 1967. Even though they had an under-strength team here, it was no excuse for the poor play: the lack of marking, the lack of stamina and physical strength, and the suicidal tendency to play the ball into the middle of the pitch when under pressure rather than knocking it long down the line, away from danger.

ends

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Abe's free kick, Kengo's relief

8 Oct 2009(Thu)

October 7, 2009: Two of Japan's national squad members caught the eye over the weekend - one for his sumptuous free kick and the other for his grass-slapping celebration of a teammate's crucial goal.

First to Saitama Stadium 2002 on Saturday, where Yuki Abe's free kick against his old team JEF United was the talk of the town.

Some 20 metres out, Abe had a five-man wall in front of him, with Aoki, Fukumoto and Maki forming the central three positions. 

Unlike some defensive walls, which break apart and leave gaps, or in which players shut their eyes or even duck under the ball, this JEF wall held firm and jumped high to try and block. Still Abe was able to float it over the right section of the wall and bring the ball down inside the near post of Okamoto, who pulls off some astonishing saves in open play but couldn't get a finger on this one.

For JEF it was a bitter disappointment, the goal coming just three minutes after Fukai had fired the visitors in front,  but for Reds it just got better with every replay on the big screen; the gasps of appreciation growing in volume with every angle of the goal.

Although Okamoto will feel he should have done better in covering that area of his goal, it should not take anything away from Abe's beautifully-flighted, almost nonchalant execution. Having watched Abe score one of the best goals I have ever seen in Japan - a blistering, curling free kick around the wall against Costa Rica in an Olympic friendly on the road to Athens 2004 - I have often wondered why he doesn't take more for Reds. Maybe this strike against JEF will change that.

From Saista to Todoroki on Sunday, where Frontale banked the three points with a 2-0 win over Marinos. After Taniguchi's wonderful header had put them in front on 74 minutes, Renatinho sealed victory nine minutes later with a cool finish from Juninho's pass.

What amused me, well away from the goal celebrations, was the reaction of Kengo Nakamura. He dropped to his knees near the halfway line and beat the turf in relief, knowing they had overcome a big test of character just four days after crashing out of the ACL.

Kengo knew this was a big one, and it was also interesting to see him gather his troops in a circle after the final whistle and reaffirm their spirit and ambition. The ACL is gone, but the league championship is still very much within their grasp.

ends

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Iwashita call-up shows the door is still open

5 Oct 2009(Mon)

October 3, 2009: One of the problems for Japan on their two-match tour of the Netherlands recently was the lack of pace in the centre of defence.

Yuji Nakazawa and Tulio are the automatic choices in the heart of the back four, but against the Dutch and Ghana Japan frequently looked cumbersome through the middle.

This will be one of the reasons for the surprise call-up of Keisuke Iwashita for Japan’s three matches against Hong Kong in Asian Cup qualifying and against Scotland and Togo in friendlies over the next few days.

Iwashita has had a breakout season for Shimizu S-Pulse, playing in the centre of defence after being a makeshift left back last season. I remember interviewing Frode Johnsen after an S-Pulse victory at Kashiwa Reysol earlier this year and the big Norwegian striker was raving about Iwashita.

His main qualities, according to Frode, were his speed and his ability to read the game, and he spoke highly of his attitude in training.

Of the three upcoming matches, the Hong Kong game is the most important as it is a qualifier for the 2011 Asian Cup in Qatar, so it will be interesting to see if Okada picks Iwashita at his home ground. More likely he will start with his top two of Nakazawa and Tulio, and maybe give Iwashita a taste of international football in front of his home fans if Japan are in control during the second half.

Whatever happens it’s a just reward for Iwashita, and shows that Okada is still prepared to look at new players. It is a signal that the door is still open to the squad for South Africa, and plenty can happen between now and the next World Cup.

What impresses me about the 23-year-old Iwashita is his aggression in the air and the high tempo at which he plays the game. You could imagine him making life very uncomfortable for a centre forward because he is always there, challenging and tackling, with no fear or doubt in his mind as he hurls himself at the ball.

He is not the tallest centre back at 1.81 metres, but he has a mighty leap and is a huge threat at set pieces with his spring-heeled jump and determination.

There were some other interesting selections further forward in the team, but Iwashita was the one that stood out for me, even though it did not make the headlines.

ends

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You're in Josh, says Pim

1 Oct 2009(Thu)

September 29, 2009: “One Josh Kennedy, there’s only one Josh Kennedy…”

No, it wasn’t the Nagoya Grampus fans singing that little ditty after another Kennedy goal; it was Pim Verbeek, national coach of Australia, on a recent trip to Japan.

(Okay, he wasn’t exactly singing the song itself; more like singing the praises of his big target man.)

With 40 Australian players in Europe and several candidates in Australia challenging for a place in Pim’s 23-strong squad for South Africa, competition is fierce in all areas of the team – except for one, according to Pim.

“We don’t have a second Josh Kennedy,” Pim said. “If Josh is fit he will be in the selection.”

Reassuring words indeed some nine months out from the next World Cup for Kennedy, who is proving to be a great signing for Grampus and for Japan in general, with his height and aerial ability really testing the Japanese defenders.

It’s rare for managers to give such a vote of confidence to an individual player. Usually they will come out with a platitude -- “no player is guaranteed a place in the squad” or “everyone must fight for a place on merit, not on past form” – but with Kennedy it is easy to see why.

As he proves week in week out for Grampus, his very presence unsettles defenders and creates space for his teammates to exploit.

Timmy Cahill is the master of this when they are together with Australia, timing his runs to perfection to arrive in his shadow and hit the target with a thundering header.  This is why I was really surprised that Pim played so conservatively against Japan in their World Cup qualifier at Yokohama, leaving Kennedy on the bench and starting with only Cahill – a makeshift striker for Everton at the time due to an injury crisis – up front, at the top of the 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree formation.

In the few minutes Kennedy was on towards the end, Japan’s defence had more problems than in the previous 85 minutes or so.

I still think Pim paid too much respect to Japan on that evening, but the pragmatic Dutchman will answer that the ends justified the means – a point on the road to South Africa, where at least Josh Kennedy knows he will be playing next summer.

ends

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