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March 2010

Park: There's just no stopping the Korean dynamo

23 Mar 2010(Tue)

March 22, 2010: What a credit Park Ji Sung is to his club, country and to Asian football!

Anyone who watched the Manchester United-Liverpool match live from Old Trafford on Sunday could not have failed to notice another astonishing performance from the all-action Korean midfielder.

The crowning glory, of course, was his superb diving header to seal United's 2-1 victory, hurling himself where the boots were flying and making the net bulge at the famous Stretford End. It really was a proud moment for Park, and no doubt for many people who have played a big part in his development and rise to stardom.

One of those would be Pim Verbeek. I interviewed Pim fairly recently at Saitama Stadium about Park, and the Dutchman said Park had been given a rough ride when first arriving at PSV Eindhoven from Kyoto Purple Sanga.

Basically, the more refined and technically sophisticated Dutch players thought Park did not run like a footballer, did not look like a professional footballer and did not play like a footballer. In the end, though, Park won them over with his attitude, his commitment to training, his energy on the pitch and his selfless running for the team. He could, in fact, play a bit, too, and his Champions League performances in the semi-finals against Milan one season played a big part in his move to Old Trafford.

And while he still looks a bit rough around the edges, giving the ball away carelessly and occasionally running up a blind alley and losing possession, his link-up play with Fletcher and Carrick made sure United dominated most of the game against Liverpool.

What I really admire about Park is how he puts himself between ball and opponent, not afraid to take the hits from behind and the studs down his ankles. He uses his body so well to protect the ball, and once he is in that position it makes it very difficult for an opponent to take it off him. This is why he wins so many free kicks, as any touch from an opponent coming in from behind is a foul.

In that same conversation with Pim, the Dutch coach said that, technically, Park was not in the same class as Nakata, Ono and Nakamura, but his physical stamina, energy and team ethic had taken him beyond the achievements of Japan's talented trio. Sunday's fantastic winner was yet another example of this.


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Beckham injury will bring mixed emotion

16 Mar 2010(Tue)

March 15, 2010: When David Beckham pulled up lame while playing for Milan on Sunday, the groans and sighs could be heard around the football world.

It looked serious from the outset, especially as there was no one near him – and the sight of him in agony on a stretcher told its own story; that his World Cup was over before it had even started.

Many Beckham fans – including myself – feel sorry for him, that his international career has ended this way without joining his country in South Africa. That is, of course, presuming there is no amazing recovery and unlikely comeback.

But while many Beckham admirers will miss him wearing the Three Lions, there will be many others delighted that he is no longer in the running for a place in the World Cup squad – and I am talking about the English media here.

Yes, I am not joking, Japanese readers, as I know this concept is alien to you, who worship your stars and stand by them through thick and thin. I attended four England games at the 2006 World Cup in Germany and was amazed by the anti-Beckham comments of some of the English press. They did not try to hide their loathing and contempt for Beckham, arguing that basically he was an impostor in the England squad and did not deserve to be on the same field as his teammates.

On one occasion a couple of English newspaper reporters almost came to blows as one attacked Beckham and the other defended him, so I dread to think what it would have been like four years on with Beckham in the squad in South Africa. That is not going to happen now, though, and in some ways this will come as a relief as the media can actually concentrate on the football rather than the Beckham circus, although I am sure they will find lots more frivolity to divert their attention.

For me, however, Beckham will remain a giant for all he has done for club and country. I was at Saint-Etienne in 1998 when he was sent off against Argentina – silly and petulant, agreed, but I support Gary Lineker’s opinion that it was never a red card offence – and I was at Sapporo Dome when he fired in the penalty to beat Argentina four years later.

There will be some now laughing at Beckham’s plight, celebrating his downfall and saying he deserved what he got, but it shows how out of touch the media can be with public opinion, judging by the reaction at Old Trafford when he returned with Milan last week, and of the club officials following his injury on Sunday.

Must admit, though, that I am not a big fan of his tattoos...


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Honda gives Okada plenty of options

9 Mar 2010(Tue)

March 8, 2010: Keisuke Honda as a forward?

Must admit that one caught me out the other night, when Japan played Bahrain, but at least it showed that Takeshi Okada is thinking hard about energising his team.

A couple of days before the match I was discussing Honda with a fellow foreigner and Japanese football observer, and he said his ideal central midfield pairing for Japan would be Inamoto and Honda. He was tired, he said, of watching Japan play lots of pretty little passes in midfield and around the box without an end product.

Both Inamoto and Honda, he added, were prepared to grab hold of a game by the scruff of the neck and make things happen; they were prepared to roll up their sleeves and take the game to the opposition, with Honda in particular always prepared to have a crack at goal, no matter the distance.

“But what about Hasebe and Endo?” I countered. “Okada loves those two in his engine room.”

This pair, along with Shunsuke and Kengo, Matsui and Okubo, could fight it out for the two wide positions in midfield, my colleague reasoned.

In short, he wanted some power and some adventure in there, and thought Inamoto and Honda could provide it, both defensively and going forward.

Okada must be thinking on similar lines, as he pushed Honda well forward in the Bahrain game for exactly this reason: to have a go at the opposition and show some dynamism and initiative.

As I said, this move took me by surprise, as I always thought of Honda as a wide player; on his natural left side, as an orthodox winger in front of a solid left back, or on the right, cutting in from the wing and peppering the goal with his tremendous left foot.

Whatever position Honda plays, I hope he keeps this sense of adventure and retains the confidence to take the game to the opposition.

For all the experience of Hasebe, Endo and even Shunsuke, I still think they lack this ability to really get hold of a game and dictate it; to really step up and drive and inspire their team mates when they need to add some urgency to their play.


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Matsui, Morimoto under the selection spotlight

2 Mar 2010(Tue)

March 1, 2010: Even though both teams have already qualified for the Asian Cup finals in Doha next January, the Japan-Bahrain match on Wednesday night will still be significant for at least two of the Japanese players coming back from Europe.

I am thinking of Daisuke Matsui and Takayuki Morimoto, whose places in the final squad for South Africa are far from assured.

Even though many fans believe - or maybe “hope” would be more appropriate -- Morimoto can be the saviour of the team, due to the potential he shows with Catania in Italy, the hard, cold facts of his national team career provide a sobering thought. So far, Morimoto has made only two appearances for Japan, as a substitute against Scotland and then as a starting member against Togo.

Although he scored a nice goal against Togo, the quality of the opposition left much to be desired and the 5-0 scoreline was one of the most lop-sided matches the national team must have ever played.

In Morimoto's favour, of course, is the dearth of quality strikers around in Japan, but he still needs to do a bit more for the national team to cement his place in the World Cup squad. A solid performance, some power and some presence in leading the line against Bahrain, is what Takeshi Okada will be looking for, and obviously a goal or two from Morimoto would help to seal the deal.

As for Matsui, he still blows hot and cold for the national team, and Okada has been very patient with him when he has not been producing. Similar to Okubo, in fact.

Matsui always looks the part - great touch, good movement, dangerous and lively - but the end product is often missing. I still feel he needs to cut down on the flashy stuff and show more substance, and this competitive match with Bahrain will give him the chance to do just that.

Of the other players called back from Europe, Hasebe and Honda are assured of their places in South Africa, and will not be under the same kind of pressure as Matsui and Morimoto.

So there is still much to play for, even though the job of qualifying has been completed by both teams.


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