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January 2010

Grampus: the Man City of Japan

26 Jan 2010(Tue)

January 25, 2010: Nagoya Grampus fans must be feeling pretty much the same way as Manchester City supporters at the moment: plenty of money flying about, star names coming in and talk of titles.

The big question for Nagoya is: can they rise to the top in the first season of their ambitious big-spending policy?

This is certainly the goal of manager Dragan Stojkovic and his employers; no talk of a top-three finish here to guarantee a place in the Asian Champions League for 2011 – only No. 1 is on the agenda.

Two of the new signings were unveiled on Sunday: Tulio from Urawa Reds and Mu Kanazaki from Oita Trinita. According to Stojkovic, Tulio had not been enjoying his football in recent seasons and the manager's goal was to put a smile back on his face at training and in his relationship with the supporters.

The manager will also be hoping the player's niggling injuries clear up, and Nagoya's failure to qualify for this year's ACL, after losing in the Emperor's Cup final on New Year's Day, may be a blessing in disguise for Tulio in a hectic World Cup year.

Personally, I was a bit disappointed when Tulio moved to Grampus, after all the transfer talk had focused on Europe – and in particular Wigan Athletic and FC Twente. I thought his ambition was to play in a good league in Europe and really test himself at a higher level, but obviously Pixie is a very charismatic and persuasive figure, and the salary on offer in Japan (thought to be 150 million yen per year) would have been hard to match for either of those two clubs.

Kanazaki is a great signing. He is my dark horse to make Takeshi Okada's World Cup squad because his speed, flair and unpredictability can add a new dimension to Japan's attack, especially off the bench in the last 20 minutes of a tight game.

Antlers, Reds and just about everybody else wanted to sign Kanazaki at the end of the season, but he had given his word to Nagoya and stuck to it.

Exciting times for Grampus fans, but a massive season ahead for Pixie as he must make an immediate impact with his expensive new team. Just ask Mark Hughes!


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Good timing for Inamoto, Okada

19 Jan 2010(Tue)

January 18, 2010: You can't blame Junichi Inamoto for coming home at the start of World Cup year and joining Kawasaki Frontale.

The former Gamba idol has been slogging away round Europe for several seasons now, and his move to France proved to be a bridge too far. Unable to make much impression with Stade Rennais in a very difficult environment, he finally decided enough was enough and headed back to the J.League.

It's good timing for Inamoto, as it will put him firmly in the spotlight in the build-up to South Africa, gaining match fitness week by week.

National coach Takeshi Okada will be pleased, too, as he knows “Ina” will be playing regularly rather than lost on the bench in Rennes. Although Okada has shown a clear preference for the Hasebe-Endo tandem in the midfield engine room, it does not mean Inamoto has no chance of breaking into the starting line-up, as his ball-winning ability, physical presence and experience can give Japan another dimension.

It's also going to be interesting to see how Frontale coach Takahata manages his players in the opening weeks of the new season, now that Inamoto has been added to the mix.

Last season, Sekizuka favoured Taniguchi and Yokoyama in the centre of midfield, with Kengo taking up more of a wide berth.

In many aspects Taniguchi and Inamoto are quite similar players. They both like playing box to box and making runs from deep, although Inamoto cannot match the extraordinary aerial ability of Taniguchi.

Yokoyama was a Sekizuka favourite, but it is difficult to see how he can get in the team this time with Taniguchi and Inamoto an obvious and irresistible combination.

I actually preferred the way Frontale played two seasons ago under Takahata, with virtually a 4-2-4 formation held together by the Kengo-Taniguchi partnership.

Maybe this is what Takahata will try again, with Kengo playing further forward behind the front three and Inamoto coming in alongside Taniguchi.

Like Nagoya Grampus, Frontale have a big squad, and it may take time for the respective managers to find the right blend. Inamoto's days on the bench, however, appear to be over – and the J.League in general will benefit from the return of this popular character.


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Bajalica has high hopes for Maya

12 Jan 2010(Tue)

January 11, 2010: As Keisuke Honda leaves VVV-Venlo for CSKA Moscow, another former Grampus man, Maya Yoshida, arrives in Holland to maintain Venlo’s Japanese connection.

So how will the young central defender fare in the Dutch league? After all, not many Japanese defenders have moved overseas, as foreign clubs are usually attracted by the creativity and technical skills of Japan’s top players rather than by their defending.

No one is in a better position to judge Yoshida than his former central defensive partner at Nagoya, Milos Bajalica. Both players played their final game for Nagoya on New Year’s Day – the Emperor’s Cup final – as Bajalica was not retained and was heading home to Serbia.

Basically, Bajalica thinks Yoshida has everything it takes to succeed in Europe – but feels he must toughen up and must cut down on his individual mistakes.

“I think he will do well because the league over there is not too difficult, similar to Japan,” the Serb said.

“He is very calm for such a young player, only 21, and he has gained confidence. He jumps well and he has started reading the game well.”

Bajalica, however, is not the first to point out that the polite Japanese way – for example apologising to opponents after a foul, and helping them off the floor – may stand against them in Europe, where the environment is much more competitive, even in training as players fight to get into the starting line-up.

“He should forget about the goodness and the gentleness of Japan and be careful not to make any big mistakes because in Europe as soon as you make a big mistake generally you are out of the team. It is something to be careful about.”

This is something I have certainly noticed in Yoshida’s game, especially his annoying habit of using his chest to divert a high ball to a teammate, rather than simply bringing it under control. This is very casual and risky play, the kind of thing that will be discouraged quickly in Holland.

I asked Bajalica if he felt the same, and he replied: “He is young – it is the Japanese style!”

Just as Honda has moved on to bigger things in Russia, so, too, could Yoshida if he settles in at Venlo, starting at home to Feyenoord on January 24.

“It may become a stepping stone because he is so young and has improved a lot since I came here and raised his game level -- especially if there is another player in the team who can guide him, lead him and maybe calm him down from time to time,” concluded Bajalica.


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Sorry Pixie, but the ref was spot on

4 Jan 2010(Mon)

January 2, 2010: As much as I admire and respect Dragan Stojkovic, I cannot agree with his assessment of the “Tamada Incident” on New Year's Day.

Basically, Pixie thought Grampus should have been awarded a penalty in the 74th minute when Keiji Tamada went down in the Gamba box. It was 1-1 at the time, and the final scoreline of “Gamba 4 Grampus 1” could have been very different if a penalty had been given, the Grampus manager said in his post-match press conference.

Sorry Pixie, but I thought the ref, Kenji Ogiya, got it absolutely right in showing Tamada a yellow card for diving. After a patient build-up on the right flank, Tamada surged into the Gamba box. He was in the perfect position to let fly with his right foot, but instead of trying to score a goal he threw himself down in the hope of winning a penalty.

Had the ball been on Tamada's infinitely stronger left foot, then surely he would have shot, but it was on his other foot so he declined the opportunity. It was a clear yellow card for diving/simulation, and I applauded the referee for his strong response. After all, it was New Year's Day, not April Fool's Day.

Pixie, however, saw it differently. “It was a very clear penalty kick but he got a yellow card for simulation,” he told the media.

“I am not sure it was simulation. I have just spoken with Tamada in the dressing room and he said he was touched by the defender of Gamba. From what I saw on the bench, Gamba was very lucky.”

In situations like this, I'd like to see the manager ask his own player why he dived rather than tried to score a goal, and if necessary admonish him. This does not have to be in public, but in private behind closed doors once the emotion has died down a day or two after the game.

Pixie was right in saying that the final result could have been very different – but not if the referee had awarded a penalty; if Tamada had scored from this clear shooting opportunity.

Let's take nothing away from Gamba. It was a fantastic display to win the Emperor's Cup, and you wonder where the motivation and concentration comes from when they had already clinched their place in the Asian Champions League.


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