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December 2009

Cold play at Kokuritsu – and it was all yellow

31 Dec 2009(Thu)

December 30, 2009: It wasn't just the dazzling yellow boots of Michihiro Yasuda that sparkled in the winter sunshine at National Stadium on Tuesday.

His performance was bright and breezy, too, as he helped Gamba Osaka beat Vegalta Sendai 2-1 in the Emperor's Cup semi-finals.

Yasuda, who turned 22 as recently as December 20, made his name as a swashbuckling left back for Gamba and in Japan's Olympic team, but he looked very much at home on the right side in place of the suspended Akira Kaji.

With the steady and resourceful Hideo Hashimoto in front of him in midfield, the pair had the right side stitched up all afternoon and helped keep Sendai at a safe distance.

Going forward, Yasuda made the cross that led to an early goal from Lucas, following a weak punch by keeper Takuto Hayashi, and at the back he defended well, especially in his own penalty box. One moment really caught the eye, when in the 36th minute, he made a wonderful interception to deny Sendai striker Yuki Nakashima. The Sendai fans behind the goal appealed for a foul and a penalty, but it was a perfect challenge from Yasuda, who made clean contact to divert the ball for a corner.

Later, deep in the second half, he was under pressure from the Sendai attack down the left wing, but he showed maturity and discipline to stay on his feet and watch the ball, rather than lunging in and conceding a free kick or taking himself out of the game with a reckless tackle.

Yasuda looked focused and business-like throughout, so it was no surprise to learn after the game that he had recently decided to stay with Gamba and had a very clear mind about his future.

After all, it must have been frustrating for him in recent months, as he now appears to be third-choice left back – behind the converted centre half, Kazumichi Takagi, and Takumi Shimohira – and second-choice right back after Kaji. Presumably he could have moved on quite easily, but has committed himself to Gamba.

It was a wonderful day all round for football on Tuesday. The weather was perfect (officially 9.3 degrees C) as the match kicked off in bright winter sunshine at 3pm, and ended under the glow of the floodlights and a near full moon looking down on the famous old stadium.

I always think it is a great shame that the Japanese season is just ending in such ideal conditions, when the players and fans have had to slog through the hot and humid summer months of July and August – which is not football weather at all.


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Eleven matches before the World Cup? Surely too many.

28 Dec 2009(Mon)

December 25, 2009: The announcement that Japan were planning to play 11 matches in the build-up to the 2010 World Cup took me by surprise the other day.

Eleven? Is it really necessary to play so many? That seems an awful lot to me - two per month -- and you have to hope the quality of opposition for the friendly games is worth the while; unlike the recent farce against Togo.

The Asian Cup qualifiers against Yemen away on January 6 and Bahrain at home on March 3 are both competitive matches, and Takeshi Okada can look at a wide range of players in these two games.

Then there are the three games in the East Asian Championship in early February. Again these will be good tests for Japan, especially against China and South Korea, and games in which Okada can make only three substitutions. These matches should not be under-estimated in terms of the competitive nature in which they will be played. They will be hard and physical games, and Japan will do well to win all three on home soil in the East Asian Championship.

So there are five decent matches already. The only problem, of course, is that they are all against Asian opposition, and Japan will be facing one African team and two European sides at the World Cup. However, it was not long ago that Japan played the Dutch and Ghana on their visit to the Netherlands, and South Africa away, so they cannot say they are lacking experience against northern European or African teams away from home.

While accepting Japan need to play a couple of non-Asian teams, preferably away from home, do they really need to play six, as planned, on top of the five already mentioned? Personally, I don't think so, and two, or a maximum of three, would suffice.

And wouldn't it make more sense to leave these games until the end of the European season, when Okada can mix his J.League players with his Europe-based players.

I think the players would benefit more from a solid, routine-like domestic programme from March to May, rather than friendlies here, there and everywhere, before the final countdown to Cameroon on June 14 begins.


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Okada offers new year hope to young Blues

24 Dec 2009(Thu)

December 22, 2009: It's good to see that Takeshi Okada is giving a new year break to the veterans and calling up some fresh faces for the interesting challenge in Yemen on January 6.

This will be a good learning process for the young Blues, as it is a serious match and part of the 2011 Asian Cup qualifying campaign.

And there was absolutely no need to put pressure on the more seasoned players, especially with the Emperor's Cup still plodding along through to January 1 and the East Asian Championship coming up in early February.

Several selections catch the eye, notably the ones from the under-20 team that won the silver medal in the recent East Asian Games in Hong Kong.

At the back, Taisuke Muramatsu looked an accomplished central defender, and showed good instincts at the other end by scoring Japan's goal in the final against Hong Kong. Any striker, any goal poacher, would have been proud of that one.

In the middle of the park, both Takuya Aoki and Kazuya Yamamura were prominent in the engine room, keeping the shape of the team as other players moved forward. Yamamura, who is still at university, was listed as a defender on the official JFA media release for the East Asian Games, but did a fine job as a defensive midfielder.

Up front, Kensuke Nagai and Yuya Osako got the call for Yemen. Nagai, as stated in a previous column, scored a lovely goal to beat South Korea 2-1 in the 121st minute of their semi-final, clipping the ball into the far corner when under pressure from a defender and the advancing keeper.

Osako did not do himself justice, however, and can play much better than the form he showed in Hong Kong.  In the semi-final against Korea he played as the lone striker, and looked uncomfortable as the target man, his control and distribution letting him down, but he improved a lot in the final against Hong Kong when he was playing slightly deeper and was able to collect the ball facing the goal rather than with his back to goal.

Antlers manager Oswaldo Oliveira thinks Osako can challenge for a place in Okada's squad for South Africa next June, and regarded last season as a learning process for the young forward. “Osako will be ready next season,” Oswaldo told me recently – and you have to believe him!

With the big man, Sota Hirayama, and the full-of-confidence Kazuma Watanabe also among the forwards, Osako will probably have to settle for a place on the bench in Yemen, but Okada is certainly giving him the chance to prove Oswaldo right.


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Okada said all the rights things over Shunsuke

21 Dec 2009(Mon)

December 18, 2009: Shunsuke Nakamura needed a friend this week and found one in Takeshi Okada.

With Nakamura struggling to adapt to the high-paced skills of Spain, Okada reassured him that he remained a key figure in his plans for the World Cup in June, no matter how his first season with Espanyol pans out.

At the moment it is not going too well, and the left-footed playmaker has been unable to stamp his authority on the game. La Liga is quick as well as technical, and players – especially midfielders – need a lot of stamina and physical fitness to keep going for 90 minutes.

On top of this, he is not playing for one of the leading teams, quite unlike his four successful seasons with Celtic playing for a big team in a small league and with time and space to show his full repertoire of skills on a weekly basis.

Anyone who thought Nakamura would be able to step up instantly from Scotland to Spain was misguided, and also forgot that Nakamura was 31 years old at the time of the transfer; around three years past the age widely accepted as a player's peak.

In recent days, both Philippe Troussier and, more importantly, Espanyol coach Mauricio Pochettino noted Nakamura's struggles to adapt.

Troussier, who always regarded Nakamura as a luxury player and abhorred the media obsession with him, went as far as to say Okada should start the World Cup with Nakamura on the bench because he held up the rest of the team. Without him, Troussier reasoned, the team could be more dynamic and have more options in their build-up play.

So was Nakamura right to move to Espanyol instead of returning to the J.League with Yokohama F Marinos or staying another season with Celtic, where he had found his perfect level and would be guaranteed quality match time throughout the 2009-2010 season?

This is where Okada's words this week really hit home, as he backed Nakamura's decision all the way and said it spoke volumes of his character and ambition. It had been Nakamura's dream to play in Spain, and this was his last opportunity, so he had to take it.
The easy option would have been returning to Marinos and having a free ride with the fans and media, but he was not quite ready to do that, even at 31.

I am sure the “Nakamura to Marinos” stories will start again soon, but I really hope he stays in Spain and sticks it out with Espanyol, at least to the end of the season.

The situation will be much clearer in May, and Okada will be able to assess the physical and mental strength of Nakamura closer to the World Cup.

For now, though, he said all the right things when he could have been harsher and warned that if he were not playing for club he would not be playing for country.


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Hong Kong: a learning experience for Japan

17 Dec 2009(Thu)

Hong Kong, December 16, 2009: Although Japan's under-20 team ended up with only the silver medals from the East Asian Games, it was a golden opportunity to learn a lot about the international game and the challenges that lie ahead.

First, the atmosphere inside Hong Kong Stadium was buzzing. With the home team in the final, tickets sold out and produced a bumper crowd of 32,000 - about 20,000 more than watched the recent Asian Cup qualifier between Hong Kong and Japan when they both fielded their full international teams.

There was a real passion about the home supporters, too; true pride in their own team. I lived in Hong Kong from 1989 to 1996 and watched hundreds of games around the former British territory, but I can never remember the Hong Kong fans getting behind their team as much as they did in the East Asian Games. It was as if the Hong Kong people had finally found their own sporting identity, following the 1997 handover to the motherland, and created an atmosphere that was worthy of a much bigger event.

Second, the pitch. Unfortunately, for such a magnificent stadium, the playing surface was a long way removed from the smooth and green snooker tables of Japan. It cut up easily, and a sharp turn of the studs could bring up a fair-sized chunk of turf. Again, though, good experience of away conditions for the Japanese youngsters.

Third, the referee. I avoid criticising referees wherever possible because they have a tough enough job as it is. But Japan really did suffer from some strange decisions, especially in the awarding of free kicks around their own box. The funniest one, though, came at the end of extra time. The stadium clock clearly showed 14 minutes and 49 seconds when the Vietnamese referee blew the final whistle - only 11 seconds short, admittedly, but still most unusual. Credit to the Japanese players, too, as they surrounded the ref and pointed at the clock rather than just accepting it and preparing for the penalty shootout. The ref's response was to point at his wrist watch, possibly purchased, at a generous discount, earlier in the day at a Mong Kok market stall.

Although Japan lost the shootout 4-2 after a 1-1 draw, the young players of coach Nishimura will have taken home a lot more than their silver medals. Maybe even a new wrist watch.


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No substitute for effort, fighting spirit

14 Dec 2009(Mon)

Hong Kong, December 11, 2009: Sometimes I think I have been in Japan too long.

For example, last night (Thursday) I asked a media colleague in Hong Kong what had impressed him about Japan's performance in their last-ditch 2-1 victory over South Korea in the East Asian Games semi-finals.

I was expecting him to talk about the formation of Japan, or the tactics and strategy of Japan, but instead he said simply: “I was impressed because they won. They did not give up and kept trying to the end, and were rewarded with a goal in the last minute of extra time.”

This was a very accurate answer, and I almost felt ashamed for asking the question – but it is the price you pay for being in Japan for so long, and often losing touch with the fundamentals of the game: effort, hard work, team spirit and a positive attitude.

I have no idea how much publicity this victory for a Japan under-20 team received back home in Japan, but honestly it was a memorable night at the Hong Kong Stadium.

Japan took the lead on nine minutes with a cracking first-time shot from Kosuke Yamamoto (Jubilo Iwata), but Korea pulled level with a deflected free kick just 11 minutes later.

There was nothing to choose between the two sides as they entered 30 minutes of extra time, and the result looked destined to be decided on penalties until Kensuke Nagai (Fukuoka University) settled the issue with Japan's last attack in stoppage time. Breaking clear in the inside right channel, Nagai clipped the ball into the far corner under pressure from the keeper and a Korean defender to send the Japanese bench into ecstacy.

Another media colleague sitting next to me said it was a Michael Owen-style finish – but he would say that as a Manchester United fan from George Best- country Northern Ireland – while I likened it more to a classic, angled strike from the Liverpool and Scotland maestro, Kenny Dalglish.

Whatever, Nagai had won the game in the 121st minute for a Japanese team that struggled for long periods but had kept fighting to the end.

We can often talk too much about tactics, technique and strategy in the Japanese football media, but they count for nothing without a fighting spirit and an attitude that can win the game like the Japan team did at the East Asian Games on Thursday.

The Saturday showdown against Hong Kong, who edged North Korea on penalties in the second semi-final, promises to be a cracker. I hope you can watch it in Japan.


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Okada realistic about Japan's tough opening game

10 Dec 2009(Thu)

December 9, 2009: The first match of a World Cup campaign can often hold the key to a team's prospects for the rest of the tournament.

Win and you are in pole position to advance, with three points on the board and two games to come. Draw and you have a base to build on. Lose and the pressure is on immediately.

Avoiding defeat in the opening match is a must, which is what Takeshi Okada was talking about on his return to Japan from the draw in Cape Town. This is not a negative approach at all by Okada; it is pragmatic and realistic, as a point would give the team confidence and something to work from for the next two games.

In South Africa, Japan will open against Cameroon. Even though the Indomitable Lions are not what they used to be - and have not been for many years - they will still be a formidable foe on African soil and with a massive crowd behind them.

Forget about passing and movement and technique, the most important thing for Japan on that day will be character and spirit; to stand up to the robust and physical Africans and not to be intimidated by their stars of today and tradition of yesteryear.

Although much of the spotlight will fall on Inter striker Samuel Eto'o, Cameroon possess another type of player that Japan badly lacks in a crucial area of the field: Alex Song.

The growing number of Arsenal fans around the world may rave about the likes of Fabregas, Van Persie, Nasri, Walcott, Rosicky and Arshavin, but Song gives the team balance with his brilliant work in the midfield engine room. Still only 22, he plays with a maturity beyond his years at this high level, and he will be the rock Japan's attack will have to work around before they even hope to get a sight of goal.

The fact that Song has also played in the centre of defence for the Gunners shows his strength and his versatility -- the ideal player to protect his defence, to retain possession in midfield and to break up the opposition's flow.

By the time June 14 comes around, Song will know the game of Endo, Hasebe and Nakamura (both of them) inside out, and will be prepared accordingly.

As Okada says, avoiding defeat in the opening game is a priority - and it is going to take a lot more than nice technique and pretty passes to achieve that. I hope Japan are ready for a scrap against a team that will be fired up and playing like men possessed on their own continent.


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Please, FIFA, no African teams for Japan

7 Dec 2009(Mon)

December 3, 2009: Hands up all those Japanese fans who would like to be drawn with South Africa at the next World Cup.

Sorry, not me.

I know it sounds attractive being drawn in the same group as South Africa from the eight seeded teams, but a match like that would be a difficult hurdle to overcome.

After all, FIFA desperately wanted the World Cup in Africa – and FIFA will desperately want as many African teams as possible to advance from the first round to build momentum around the continent.

So South Africa v Japan in the first round? Sounds like a Mission Impossible for the boys in blue, with all the advantages the host nation would enjoy. Japan would be playing against more than 11 players; they would be playing against a continent and playing against a football establishment that would like to see only one winner from this contest.

Sorry to be negative, readers, but I don’t think this would be a fair fight with all that’s going on in the world game at the moment, and FIFA’s refusal to even try to clean up the game following the “Hand of Henry” incident.

FIFA will want South Africa to advance, make absolutely no mistake about that, and I would not want to see Japan as the sacrificial lambs.

If I could pick a seeded team for Japan, I would probably go for Italy. That may sound strange, with Italy being the defending champions, but the Italians are notoriously slow starters and always seem to be full of self-doubt before a big tournament.

Furthermore, the Italians are not the kind of team that would attack, attack and keep attacking to inflict as much damage as possible. It is not in their character. Why win 5-0 when 1-0 also earns three points?

This is their mentality on the international stage, and why Japan could feel quite comfortable for long periods in a match like this and even enjoy a lot of possession. I would not rule out a Japan draw against Italy for this reason, whereas a match against attack-minded teams such as Brazil, Spain and the Netherlands could be brutal for Japan’s flimsy defensive structure.

On the eve of the draw, here are my choices for Japan (Pot 2) to have a decent crack at reaching the second round: Italy (Pot 1), Chile (Pot 3) and Slovakia (Pot 4).

But please, no African teams!


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Marquinhos was out of order against Gamba

3 Dec 2009(Thu)

November 30, 2009: There was much to admire about Kashima Antlers’ performance against Gamba Osaka on Saturday: The finishing of Koroki, the lovely goal by Nozawa, the sheer effort and focus of the Kashima players to win this crucial match.

But there was something I did not like about Kashima near the end of the game, and something I hope will not be repeated at Saitama Stadium on Saturday if they are on their way to victory and a third consecutive title.

It involved Marquinhos, who decided to show off his skills by flicking the ball up and goading the Gamba players. They were already 5-1 down and this was really rubbing their noses in it.

Myojin was fuming, and steamed in to the next tackle after Marquinhos had passed the ball. And even Gamba striker Pedro Junior, who had been booked for a blatant dive in the first half, wandered over to his fellow Brazilian to ask him what on earth he was doing showing such disrespect.

It was the kind of act that, at worst, could get the player’s leg broken by an angry opponent looking for revenge, or spark a brawl on the pitch and a riot off it. Imagine the scenario if Antlers are winning 2-0 at Saitama Stadium on Saturday with five minutes to go, and Marquinhos decides to taunt the Reds defenders and juggle the ball on the touchline. It could be nasty, and a violent end to the season, so I hope Oswaldo Oliveira makes this clear to his talismanic striker.

I was wondering, in fact, if that was why Marquinhos walked off the pitch into the dugout before the final whistle, leaving his team with 10 men as all three substitutes had been used. The game was won, of course, but at least he was out of harm’s way and safe from a lunging tackle by an irate Gamba player looking for some payback. Oswaldo said Marquinhos had come off because of a slight back injury, but the Antlers manager was also aware of the Gamba players’ anger as the incident happened right in front of the Antlers bench.

No, I didn’t like this unnecessary act by Marquinhos, who has contributed so much to the rise of Antlers under Oswaldo and has been like an assistant coach in the development of Koroki, Tashiro and Osako.

What an occasion Saturday promises to be – Reds trying to stop their bitter rivals from winning the title in their own back yard. It does not need any extra controversy to fuel the fire.


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