Okada addresses problems on the left

19 Jun 2008(Thu)

June 18, 2008: The Grampus connection, the excellent left foot, keen interest from national coach Takeshi Okada...

We could be talking about Takashi Hirano back in 1998, when the former Grampus midfielder was in Japan's 22 for the World Cup in France, but 10 years on it's all about Keisuke Honda.

With their place in the last Asian qualifying round for the 2010 World Cup already secured, Okada is setting about addressing the weaknesses in his squad.

And, without doubt, one of these remains the lack of a left-footed player to patrol the left flank.

Hence the fact that Okada has promoted Honda from the Olympic squad and recalled the fit-again Yasuda for Sunday's match against Bahrain at Saitama Stadium.

I have said before that I am a fan of Komano's, but on the right side, not left.

Although he can ping over a decent cross from time to time, it's hit and miss whether he will make clean contact with his left foot -- and one miss in a critical area could prove costly against top opposition in the final round of qualifying.

This is why it's vital Okada bolsters this area, and why he will have a look at Honda in training this week and possibly against Bahrain.

Like Hirano before him, Honda is a natural left-footer and has a good physique. Although he is essentially an attack-minded player, he can work much deeper on the left flank, even at left back in a four-man defence.

Another selling point for Honda is his set-piece expertise.

He showed with the Olympic team again the other night against Cameroon that he has a wicked free kick which swerves and dips and makes life uncomfortable for defenders and keeper alike. Has Honda been studying the explosive free kick technique of Rivelino? Looks like it to me.

In the end, Japan's win in Bangkok was very straightforward.

It didn't take long for the heavy artillery (Tulio and Nakazawa) to blast through the Thai defence, but I still felt they needed more punch up front in open play when the ball was worked into wide positions. There was no target to aim at.

Now, with the job done, surely it would make sense to give Shunsuke a rest.

With stronger motivation, which Japan would have at home after their timid defeat in Manama, they should be able to beat Bahrain without Shunsuke.

Give him a break. Let his right ankle heal. Let him build up his fitness in summer training with Celtic and then take him back for the serious business in September.

I just can't see the point in risking him against Bahrain, even with all this talk of revenge.


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Umesaki -- the good and the bad

16 Jun 2008(Mon)

June 13, 2008: Tsukasa Umesaki -- What a quick, clever...totally annoying player he is.

A good player, for sure, with the potential, at 21, to be one of the best Japan has produced.

But doesn't he irritate you, the way he goes to ground so quickly and so often?

Against Cameroon at National Stadium on Thursday night, I reckon Umesaki set some kind of Japanese record: He'd only touched the ball six times but already won seven free kicks!

Okay, so I'm exaggerating a bit, but he really does overdo it on the theatrics, expecting the referee to give a free kick every time he falls down.

This is a dangerous assumption by Umesaki, because when the ref waves play on -- and sometimes they do -- he has taken himself out of the game and is no good to his team when he is on the floor appealing or grumbling.

But the boy can play, there is no doubt about that; and against Cameroon he surely secured his place in the Olympic 18.

He set up a wonderful chance for Morimoto in the ninth minute with a low cross from the right, but the striker put it wide of the far post. How costly a miss could that be for Morimoto, who is now struggling to make the squad.

In fact I think Morimoto was extremely lucky to stay on the field after that shocking challenge on the right back, Georges Ndoum. Maybe the ref was lenient on Morimoto because it was only a friendly and it was quite early in the game, 27 minutes, but I thought it deserved a red card at the time and even more so when I watched it again on TV later in the night.

So while Morimoto is doubtful, Umesaki is a certainty.

Going back to the Toulon Tournament, the young Reds schemer scored a lovely header against France, arriving in the box with a late run to meet Okazaki's exquisite cross from the right with a header from near the penalty spot that was perfectly placed inside the far post. The defenders never saw him, and the keeper had no chance.

That was on 16 minutes, and he spent the rest of the game on the floor annoying the French players and bench alike. (In Umesaki's defence, there's actually nothing wrong with annoying the French. I'm all for it really.)

Against Cameroon, he forced a great save from Joslain Mayebi with his clever, side-foot volley, again with a well-timed run into the box to elude his marker.

When Umesaki went off in the 67th minute, Sorimachi gave him an enthusiastic handshake as if to say, "Well done son, you're in!" And he deserves to be because he has a bright future ahead of him.

He is also extremely useful with his delivery at set-pieces; not yet the master of taking free kicks -- but certainly the master of winning them.


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Maki for Okubo would be logical move

12 Jun 2008(Thu)

June 11, 2008: Takeshi Okada has a reputation as a big thinker.

But I hope he does not think too much about how to replace the suspended Okubo for Saturday's match in Bangkok.

Surely the solution is simple -- he just brings in Maki and tries to win this one where Japan are stronger, in the air.

With two set-piece experts in Endo and Shunsuke, right and left foot, respectively, and Nakazawa and Tulio already in the team, the addition of Maki would further boost Japan's chances of victory.

There is nothing wrong with taking a direct route, as Japan proved in the home win against Oman, and I hope they take the game to Thailand from the first whistle on Saturday.

The Japanese are bigger and stronger than the Thais, and quicker, more experienced and more technical; superior in every department, in fact.

The only way they can fail is in their heads; if they allow Thailand to get on top and don't play with the urgency and authority demanded of the situation.

This is why Maki would be a good outlet, occupying one or two defenders with his aerial power and opening up some space for a teammate to exploit, just like Hanyu used to do with JEF United.

The strongest part of Maki's game is his ability at the back post to get up above his marker and head the ball down into the danger zone, where Tamada can capitalise.

Add in the free kicks and the corners, for which the heavy artillery can move up from the back, and Japan should be able to create enough chances to win this game comfortably.

It might not be pretty; it might not be the style of football Okada ultimately wants to produce; but it is practical and logical against such opposition.

No one will care how Japan get three points, just so long as they do -- and, who knows, on the night it might be enough to book them a place in the last round of qualifying with one game to go.

Even if Okubo had not been suspended I still think there was a strong case for adding some muscle up front against Thailand, possibly at the expense of Tamada.

But now, the choices are down to either Maki or Yano up front with Tamada, and Maki's experience gives him the edge.

Japan beat Thailand 4-1 at home in the Saitama snow in February (both Nakazawa and Maki scored, remember), and I don't see why they can't do it again in the Bangkok humidity, provided they play to their strengths: aerial ability at set-pieces.


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Overage player debate nears conclusion

9 Jun 2008(Mon)

June 6, 2008: The big matches are coming thick and fast at the moment, and the Japan-Cameroon under-23 international on Thursday, June 12, is among them.

It's not big in that the result means much, of course, but it is still important and significant for coach Sorimachi and his Olympic hopefuls.

The last time I spoke with Sorimachi, after a trial game against Omiya Ardija at NACK5 Stadium, he said he would decide on the overage player issue after the Cameroon game.

He did not mean he would announce which overage players he would select, but whether or not he would call up any.

If he does decide to bolster his squad with one, two or three players over the age of 23, clearly he is thinking about the welfare of the clubs, as J1 will be ongoing.

"If I picked Tulio, Keita Suzuki and Takahara, for example, the Reds fans would be very angry with me," he said. "There has to be negotiation between the JFA and the clubs."

My own feeling is that Japan should go to the Olympics without any overage players.

Sorimachi can pick only 18, including two goalkeepers, and there are enough good players at his disposal to select a decent squad.

I am not thinking about medals here, because talk of medals in Olympic football misses the point in Japan's case.

Unlike in many sports, the Olympics is not the pinnacle of a player's career.

They are well down the list, not only light years behind the World Cup but also behind continental championships and club championships, too.

I would rather the JFA pick players for the future, using the Olympics as a stepping stone to the national team and for young players to gain experience.

Even though three overage players would strengthen the team, I wouldn't like to see seasoned internationals brought in at the expense of a talented youngster who could really benefit; for example Nakazawa instead of Morishige, or Shunsuke instead of Umesaki.

In addition to this, the final round of World Cup qualifiers starts in September, so I would prefer to save my international players for this, rather than burning them out in China in August.

Sorimachi has named a squad of 21 for the Cameroon game, and there are others on duty with the national team (Nagatomo, Uchida and Kagawa), plus injuries such as Yasuda.

The job of picking 18 is going to be tough anyway, but maybe it will be a little clearer after Thursday.


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Tragedy and triumph at Yokohama

5 Jun 2008(Thu)

June 3, 2008: A day that began with apprehension and continued with sadness ended on a triumphant note against Oman at Nissan Stadium on Monday.

This was a big match for Japan after the timid defeat in Bahrain, and as we queued to enter the stadium in the late afternoon, word came of the death of Ken Naganuma.

In an instant, all the debates about Okada's selection and formation were irrelevant, as Japan had just lost a football pioneer.

I recalled the last time I had chatted with the former JFA president, and remember him telling me that over 1,000 children had just taken part in a tournament at Saitama Stadium 2002.

He was so proud and so excited about this achievement, and had a sparkle in his eye -- as enthusiastic about the game now as a young boy putting on his first pair of new football boots.

A moment of silence before the national anthems and black arm bands for the players created a sombre setting, before Japan burst into life and produced a performance to be proud of.

Japan did everything demanded of the occasion, and more.

Forget tactics and personnel; what impressed the most was their hunger, their positive attitude and their authority.

Their status as one of Asia's top teams was under threat, and they responded with a magnificent display to send the crowd home buzzing.

A swashbuckling header from the captain Nakazawa to get things moving; a cool-as-a-cucumber strike from Okubo after Shunsuke Nakamura had picked out Tulio's bustling run from the back; and then a right-foot drive into the corner from Shunsuke after great work on the left from Matsui.

Predictably, all the post-match talk and the TV replays focused on Shunsuke's magic on the edge of the box, but Matsui's contribution must not be overlooked.

The French aristocrat is looking more and more like the finished product -- the performing sea lion of the Kyoto circus has become the lion king of Japan's World Cup qualifying campaign. And how the fans roared on the final whistle!

This was Japan how they can be, how they should be; a blur of brilliant blue.


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Taka: from Superman to Invisible Man

2 Jun 2008(Mon)

May 30, 2008: All strikers suffer a loss of form when the goals just dry up.

In such circumstances, the player's manager will inevitably say something on the lines of: "I am not worried just because he missed a couple of chances. He can't score in every game. Happens to everyone. I'd be more concerned if he wasn't getting any chances."

Enter Naohiro Takahara.

Had Taka been getting into position in the box and missing chances, Takeshi Okada would have left him in the squad. With a record like Takahara's, it would only be a matter of time before the chances started going in again.

But the problem for the player is that he is not getting any chances at all.

He is not missing a hatful every game; he just isn't in the game.

From Superman at the 2007 Asian Cup, Takahara has become the Invisible Man.

After a recent Reds game, when Takahara was substituted, I had a good chat with Gert Engels about his Boy from the Bundesliga.

"Of course he is worried," Engels said, "but not in a strange way. He has to be worried if he does not score and if he is substituted."

Engels said Takahara and the team were still getting to know each other, and that he was optimistic the goals would come once he learned how to cope with the packed defences Reds faced.

"Of course he is not happy with the situation," added Engels. "I think he is over-working at the moment. He is not cool. You have to be patient. That is the big point."

With Takahara clearly off the pace when he came off the bench against Paraguay the other night (yes, he did come on for Maki on 63 minutes), Okada decided it was best to send him back to Reds in the hope he would find some match fitness...find anything, really, from the Taka of old.

Takahara will be back -- and will be needed for the final round of qualifiers, provided there are no further mishaps in June.

The Invisible Man can change back and still be a super hero on the road to South Africa.


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Okada still has questions to answer

29 May 2008(Thu)

May 28, 2008: If the Kirin Cup was meant to prepare Japan for the Oman game on Monday, Takeshi Okada must have more doubts now than he did a week ago.

What his starting line-up and formation will be is anyone's guess, apart from the goalkeeper (Narazaki) and back four (Komano, Nakazawa, Tulio and Nagatomo).

Of course Shunsuke Nakamura will be in, so that's six.

The rest of the places look far from settled -- and will Japan play 4-4-2 or 4-5-1?

Whatever he decides in the next few days, one thing is clear: Japan must attack hard from the start and try to grab an early goal, because the longer the match goes on without a goal, the more frustrated they -- and the fans -- will become.

Expect Oman to defend deep, as they will be happy with a draw.

This means Japan must get round the back of them, which they struggled to do against Paraguay, and get the ball in the box to create some chances in front of goal.

I want to see them putting Oman under pressure with players running at defenders, players shooting; in general playing at a high tempo.

Against Paraguay there was too much laboured build-up, too much pass-pass-passing in areas that were never going to hurt the opposition.

The Omanis will be happy to sit back and watch that from distance, as opposed to being forced on the back foot from the opening whistle by an aggressive Japan attacking down the wings and through the middle.

For this reason I would play Okubo, as he thinks positively and knows how to win free kicks in the Shunsuke zone.

I'd play Matsui on the left as he has the craft and the speed to get round the full back and send over an accurate cross. Ditto Yamase on the right, although this is not his natural position.

I just want to see some speed and dynamism on the wings, and some width to Japan's attack from the midfield, because they get bogged down with their intricate passing through the middle, and moves break down too easily without a chance being created for all the ball possession.

Suzuki and Konno would hold the team balance in the centre of midfield, and Shunsuke would be allowed to roam free, behind Okubo -- the solitary striker in a Rooney role.

I feel this team has speed, substance, width, experience, balance, height..and, dare I say it, goals -- at least two (and that's only half time!).

My team for Monday (4-4-1-1): Narazaki; Komano, Nakazawa, Tulio, Nagatomo; Yamase, Suzuki, Konno, Matsui; Nakamura; Okubo.


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Lee has earned his Olympic place

26 May 2008(Mon)

May 23, 2008: If Tadanari Lee was not already on Yasuharu Sorimachi's list of 18 for the Olympic Games, then surely he is now.

Displaying equal measures of industry and adventure, the Kashiwa Reysol striker scored the only goal of the game as Japan beat the Netherlands 1-0 in the prestigious Toulon Tournament for young hopefuls.

Sorimachi, it is true, has not much choice up front, as the forward department is quite bare; so much so that Yoshito Okubo is being tipped as a strong contender for an over-age spot.

But Lee for one has done enough in qualifying, and since then, to book his place.

Although he is quite lightweight for a target man, he has pace and a venomous left foot, and used his skill and strength to get the better of his Dutch marker before striking the ball home with the outside of his left foot. I also like his personality, as there is a spark about him on the pitch and a bit of attitude.

Another player who really impressed for Japan, but in an area where the competition for places is much stronger, was Masato Morishige, who played in the centre of the back four, alongside captain Mizumoto (although the TV feed listed Inoha, who played at right back, as captain).

With Aoyama, Inoha, Mizumoto, Yoshida, Morishige and, back home, Makino all in with a strong claim for a place, I don't understand the talk about Tulio and Nakazawa being needed as a central defender in the Olympics. This is one of the strong areas, although I am not saying the younger players are better than Tulio or Nakazawa.

Sorimachi's formation was interesting: 4-2-3-1, with Lee on his own supported by Mizuno, Taniguchi and Keisuke Honda.

This is a very pragmatic solution to Japan's lack of quality strikers in this age group, and the lone ranger up front is a common trend in the modern game (Rooney and Drogba in the Champions League final, for example)

Taniguchi had scored a couple of fine goals in a trial match at Omiya NACK5 Stadium recently, and Sorimachi used him in a more advanced role than he plays for Frontale in the hope he could hit some shots from edge-of-the-box range.

One last word on Inoha. He was guilty of some blatant shirt-pulling that went unpunished in the early stages, and I hope Sorimachi warns him against this.

Goals might be at a premium for Japan in the Olympics, so the last thing they need is to concede a penalty or a free kick around the box due to this unnecessary sort of foul.

Inoha is good enough to get the better of his striker without resorting to such sly and risky tactics.


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Self-policing can prevent escalation

22 May 2008(Thu)

May 21, 2008: Those were disturbing scenes at Saitama Stadium 2002 on Saturday.

Objects flying between two sets of fans; fences to segregate them being torn down; 800 away fans being kept in the ground for safety reasons before 10,000 home supporters waiting for them outside could be dispersed, finally, after three and a half hours.

It took me back to the bad old days of the Eighties, where these scenes were commonplace at football in England and wherever the England national team played.

But it is too early to talk of a major hooligan problem in Japan just yet, and the authorities have the opportunity to act quickly.

Whatever sanctions are imposed, and surely Urawa will be fined for failing to control the situation, a vital role must be played by the fans themselves.

Just like in the fight against racism at stadiums in England, supporters are urged to identify people who racially abuse players to security guards.

Hopefully this can apply in the J.League, as when children are hit by missiles thrown by other fans they will stop coming to matches and so will their mothers -- and that would be a massive blow for the reputation and the future of the J.League.

Japanese football prides itself on its family appeal, and quite rightly, too, as I still find the atmosphere refreshing at J.League games after the dangers of attending matches around England in the 70s and 80s.

So if responsible Gamba fans see an irresponsible Gamba fan throw a water balloon, give him (or her) a ticking-off. (I say "her" because at the height of hooliganism in England, the ring leader of Wolverhampton Wanderers was famously a woman).

Give the trouble-maker a piece of your mind, turn him (or her!) over to the authorities if necessary. Do something -- because this self-policing can play a major role in stemming the problem.

The J.League could do worse than bring together representatives of the official fan groups and advise them what action is necessary to avoid an escalation; Reds at Kashima for example, or Reds at Gamba?

Let's hope the scenes at Saitama were not the start of hooliganism in Japan, but the end.

Somehow, though, I don't think it is over yet.


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Matsui succeeds in tough environment

19 May 2008(Mon)

May 16, 2008: No prizes for guessing who will dominate the news in the build-up to the Kirin Cup and World Cup qualifiers.

Naturally it will be Shunsuke Nakamura, whose set-piece expertise and big-match experience were sorely missed by Japan in the defeat to Bahrain.

But it’s another of the foreign legionnaires I am looking forward to seeing the most, namely Daisuke Matsui.

The former Purple Prince of Kyoto has been an outstanding success in France with Le Mans, and could yet become a major influence in Okada’s Japan.

It is not just his play on the pitch that has impressed, but also how well he has adapted to life in France since moving there in 2004.

Let’s face it, France is not the easiest of places to settle. The language is extremely difficult to grasp, and the environment can appear very alien – hostile at times – even to other Europeans.

So Matsui has done tremendously well in making his name in France, whose league is regarded as fifth in the unofficial European table, behind the big four of England, Spain, Italy and Germany.

For those who have followed Matsui’s career since he started with Kyoto in 2000, his success may have come as a surprise. He always had the skill, of course, and the flashy moves that were pleasing on the eye, but he looked a bit of a show-off and a one-man band.

Pim Verbeek for one found the superstar treatment Matsui received at Kyoto quite frustrating – in the same way Philippe Troussier did with Shinji Ono early in his reign in 1998.

So Matsui has had to add some steel and discipline to his game, some substance to go with the style, in order to survive in a league known for its fast and physical African presence.

If Okada plays 4-4-2, Matsui would slot in nicely on the left side of midfield, with a good defender behind him. Pity Koji Nakata is not around.

Perhaps the best formation for Matsui, however, would be 3-4-2-1, so he could play as one of the two shadow strikers, behind the centre forward, and free of defensive responsibilities.

Wherever Matsui plays, he will be in a position to inject some much-needed pace into Japan’s attack.


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Chasing two hares is not easy for top dogs

15 May 2008(Thu)

May 13, 2008: A few seasons ago, Takeshi Okada described how difficult it was for a team to win both the J.League championship and the AFC Champions League in the same year.

It was like a dog chasing two hares, Okada said, during his time as manager of Yokohama F Marinos.

One hare was running in one direction, the other hare was going in the opposite direction, and the dog was in the middle, having to choose the juiciest prize.

Urawa Reds discovered this last season. After catching one hare, namely the AFC Champions League, they set off in pursuit of the J.League title, only to run out of steam and come up just short.

Now, the team that benefited from Urawa's late collapse last term, Kashima Antlers, are feeling the heat themselves.

The J.League top dogs in 2007 have fallen eight points off the pace as they attempt to book their place in the last eight of the AFC Champions League.

Gamba Osaka have already made it, joining Reds in the hat for the quarter-finals, and Antlers are well on course but must clear one more hurdle -- meaning they still need to win their last game, in Vietnam, to hold off Beijing Guoan.

Having beaten Nam Dinh 6-0 at home, it would be a major surprise if they failed to collect three points again, but, nevertheless, they must still go away and win the May 21 match to be safe.

After a recent draw against Omiya Ardija at NACK5 Stadium, Kashima manager Oswaldo Oliviera said ideally he needed two teams to cope with such a demanding schedule.

The travel, the difference in climate and conditions...and then a hungry J1 team waiting for them on their return to Japan.

This was another major factor in the fight on two fronts, Oswaldo stressed, as the J1 team had more time to prepare and focus only on the J.League fixture.

Oswaldo was not making excuses, though, Far from it. He was just elaborating on the Okada theory of trying to catch two hares at the same time.

If Antlers can follow Gamba into the last eight -- giving Japan three teams in the quarter-finals and a chance of three in the last four as they cannot be drawn against each other -- then at least they have time to regroup.

Which hare will Oswaldo try and catch then?


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More JEF jottings as Miller moves in

12 May 2008(Mon)

May 10, 2008: Saitama Stadium 2002 is earning a reputation as the graveyard of J.League managers in 2008.

Okay, so it is only two managers who have fallen the next day after losing a match at Saista, but the mood in the corridors of power was eerily similar.

First it was Holger Osieck, who was fired after Reds lost at home to Grampus only two matches into the new campaign.

And this week it was Josip Kuze, whose reign at JEF United lasted only 11 games, which yielded a paltry two points.

The following day, Thursday, JEF announced that Alex Miller would take over, leaving his coaching post at Anfield to try and save the Chiba club from relegation.

Although Miller will have his own ideas, he could do worse than heed the words of Gert Engels, who succeeded Osieck at Reds and has taken them to the top of the table.

Admittedly, the German has better players to work with, and a much bigger and more experienced squad, but, still, his observations can also apply to United.

Engels said his first job was to change the mood of the players, to make training fun so that the players looked forward to match day.

He also said he encouraged Reds to play more direct, more straight, and less across the pitch. One of the first things Miller will notice, and no doubt wince over, is the Japanese tendency to play short passes in dangerous areas, even on the edge of their own box.

When this comes off and a team plays its way out of trouble, it is very pleasing on the eye. When a team has no confidence, however, it is suicidal.

I am sure the first thing he will tell them is to play safe, meaning knocking the ball down the line, out of trouble, instead of across their own box. This may seem a very British trait, but it is also very practical and risk-free in such a precarious situation.

Another Engels point was to find a settled formation, so that all players knew their job and when changes had to be made, the new player was completely comfortable in his role. Echoes of Troussier here.

Kuze tried to play a 4-5-1 formation from the start, but a succession of injuries and strategic breakdowns did not allow him to find a settled team or system.

This is going to be hard for Miller, too, as he will be starting from scratch with a group of players low on confidence and with niggling injuries aplenty.

At least Miller will have some time, though, as the summer break follows the 13th round of games, just two home matches from now.

It will be like JEF's season starting over, four months after everyone else.


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Desperate JEF must break the curse of Fukuare

8 May 2008(Thu)

May 7, 2008: What a mess JEF United are in at the moment.

Two points from a possible 33, the future of the manager already in the headlines, and with frantic but so far fruitless efforts behind the scenes to try and sign new players.

The one thing that has remained constant is the support from the Chiba faithful.

They were in their thousands at Saitama Stadium 2002 on Tuesday, more yellow in the away corner than used to be around the whole ground at Ichihara Rinkai Stadium during the dark days.

"They are the best supporters I have ever played for," says Australian central defender Eddy Bosnar.

"If we'd had a run like this at Dinamo Zagreb I wouldn't have been able to go out for dinner. No way. But here...they are fantastic."

And really it's the JEF supporters you feel sorry for the most, as the Osim World has crumbled around them and they are left standing in the dusty ruins.

I have to admit I did not think things would be as bad as this at the start of the season, although I was very much in a minority.

Of course it was going to be hard losing five first-team regulars in Mizumoto, Mizuno, Sato, Hanyu and Yamagishi, but a backbone of Saito-Shimomura-Maki remained, fleshed out by Osim era veterans, hungry new recruits, impressive youngsters such as Matsumoto at right back and Yonekura in midfield, and the foreign contingent.

And after seeing them win handsomely at Todoroki in an early Nabisco Cup fixture, I thought they were looking good.

In the league, though, the curse of Fukuda Denshi Arena struck again. I think a pivotal moment in the season came at home to Vissel Kobe when they were leading 1-0 going into injury time, only for a Norio Suzuki rocket to make it 1-1.

Had JEF held on in that game, their fourth in the league, and secured three points, I honestly feel they would have been up and running, and could have built on this.

That early buzz has disappeared now, though, and captain Shimomura was a forlorn figure after the 3-0 defeat against Reds.

The confidence had gone, he said, and compared to last season it felt like JEF were playing with only 10 men when they attacked due to the lack of options for the player on the ball, and with only 10 men when Reds had the ball. As captain, he told of how he had stepped in to break up an argument among players after the 3-0 defeat against Yokohama F Marinos.

Despite all the problems, I still feel JEF are good enough to get out of this situation and stay in J1. They have two home games -- against Kyoto and Oita -- before the long summer break, and six points would keep them in touch.

And if they falter at Fukuare again (and again), it's not a new manager they need -- it's an exorcist.


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Park Ji Sung -- the unsung hero

5 May 2008(Mon)

May 2, 2008: Sir Alex Ferguson says Paul Scholes will be the first name on his team sheet for the UEFA Champions League final against Chelsea on May 21.

But will there be a place for Park Ji Sung, the "made in Kyoto" midfielder who now enjoys cult status at Old Trafford?

On the evidence of the gripping semi-final victory over Barcelona, Park looks to have a good chance of starting the final in Moscow.

Once again he was one of United's unsung heroes, running tirelessly in both defence and attack to keep Barca busy. No wonder you will find words and phrases such as "industrious" and "lung-bursting efforts" in his profile on the official club website.

He really is a credit to the Asian game, isn't he? To Korea, to the J.League and especially to Kyoto Sanga.

He goes about his business in a professional manner, and never forgets the qualities that have taken him to the top.

There are no frills, no tricks; just good solid play, a strong mentality and the ability to make the right decision at the right time.

He has also made the right career decisions, too; first by joining Kyoto in June 2000 without having played for a K.League club, and then by following his mentor, Guus Hiddink, to PSV Eindhoven in January 2003.

After proving himself with PSV, notably against Milan in a UEFA Champions League semi-final, Park was signed by Ferguson in July 2005.

Since then he has continued to improve, despite having to fight back from serious knee problems, and can now look forward to another momentous occasion.

Hopefully the Asian Football Confederation will revise their long list of candidates for the 2008 Player of the Year award, because Park was not even among the 21 names released by the AFC on April 22.

Quite why the governing body in Asia should publish this initial list in April for an award to be presented in November is anyone's guess, as their flagship competition, the AFC Champions League, is only just getting warmed up.

But don't get me started on this AFC awards subject!

With his efforts so far this year, Park would be on my shortlist -- a shortlist of one.


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Tulio continues to revive Reds

1 May 2008(Thu)

April 30, 2008: One of the big reasons for the Urawa U-turn under Gert Engels is the form of defender turned midfielder Marcus Tulio Tanaka.

At first it appeared a stop-gap solution by Engels, moving Tulio forward to galvanise a struggling team with his energy and his aggression.

But it's working out so well that Tulio looks set to remain in central midfield for the considerable future, especially with a weakened Keita Suzuki recovering from a virus and several kilos lighter.

Reds needed a lift early in the season and Tulio provided it with his leadership, his ability to coax the best out of other players and, on a more practical note, his power in the air.

Against Consadole Sapporo at Saitama Stadium on Tuesday, Tulio was outstanding in his team's roller-coaster 4-2 victory.

Consadole manager Toshiya Miura singled out Tulio as Reds' most dangerous player, ahead of Takahara or Edmilson, and the man any team must shackle if they are to stop Reds.

"No matter which defender marked him man to man at set pieces, Tulio was always too strong," said Miura.

"This is one of the big differences between J2 and J1. In J1, the delivery of corners and free kicks is more accurate, and every team has a player who is very good in the air...Yano at Niigata, Tashiro at Kashima and Tulio at Urawa."

Against Consadole, Tulio notched his fifth league goal of the campaign, bulldozing his way through the visiting defence to head home Umesaki's left-wing corner at the far post, which Consadole had left unguarded.

But it was the one that got away, the effort that was disallowed in the 19th minute with Reds trailing 1-0, that continued to be discussed long after the final whistle.

Again it involved a perfect delivery from Umesaki, who shaped to shoot with a free kick but then changed his angle to pick out Tulio at the far post. A prodigious leap enabled Tulio to nod it back into the middle for Takahara to pounce in a red blur. A wonderful goal, or so everyone thought, including the scoreboard operator who flashed up 1-1, and the stadium announcer, before it was ruled out for offside against Tulio.

There is much more to his game than his heading prowess, of course, and former manager Holger Osieck once likened his range of passing, with either foot, to that of German full back Andreas Brehme.

Engels is convinced Tulio can be equally effective in this midfield role at international level, although he stressed this was not his business.

It is the business of Takeshi Okada, whose plodding team also needs shaking into life after losing their way in Bahrain.

Tulio for central midfield for Japan? It certainly gives the national coach food for thought before the Kirin Cup.


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Hokuto -- the "suppon" that won't let go

28 Apr 2008(Mon)

April 25, 2008: The last thing Yasuharu Sorimachi needs is another good wide player forcing his way into the reckoning for the Olympic squad.

But that's exactly what he's got in Hokuto Nakamura, whose career is back on track after one and half years of injury problems.

Sorimachi had a good look at the 22-year-old Fukuoka flyer in the Olympic trials on Wednesday, when Hokuto (everyone calls him by his given name) played in the second of two full-scale practice matches, against Omiya at NACK5.

It wasn't quite the Hokuto of old -- the dynamic, marauding right back from Avispa's last J1 campaign in 2006 -- but he still has three months to sharpen up before Beijing.

I asked Sorimachi specifically about Hokuto, who was one of my favourite young players in the J.League before he suffered that serious knee ligament injury in October 2006.

"He's not 100 per cent," Sorimachi replied. "He can do more, but his performance was not so bad."

Then there was a pause, before he added: "We have many good side players..."

At this stage, Hokuto is fourth in line for a place on the right flank, if Sorimachi plays 3-5-2, behind Uchida, Mizuno and now Nagatomo.

If the coach plays a back four, he would be third choice, behind Uchida and Nagatomo, and this is not nearly enough to win a spot in the 18-man squad, including two keepers.

It is a tall order for Hokuto, who played only three league games in 2007, but all he can do is keep going, build up his match fitness and hope for the best.

It was certainly good to see him back in action on Wednesday, at right back in a four-man defence, and Omiya's experienced left flank of Hato and Fujimoto gave him a good work-out.

As well as being a robust overlapping full back, he is also known as a strong man-marker. This has produced the nickname "Suppon" -- the Japanese snapping turtle that bites and won't let go.

In English football jargon we'd probably call him a terrier -- a tough little dog snapping at your heels and refusing to leave you alone.

Turtle or terrier, one thing's for sure: Hokuto will not let go of his Olympic hopes after forcing his way back into the picture when all seemed lost.


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No wonder Kyoto were purple with rage

24 Apr 2008(Thu)

April 23, 2008: Some games make you despair for the future of football.

Take, for example, the Albirex Niigata-Kyoto Sanga match at the Big Swan on Saturday.

Basically, I thought the match was a disgrace, a terrible advertisement for not only the J.League but for the current state of the modern game. It was the kind of footballing fare that makes you want the J.League to gather together the captains/coaches of all clubs and ask them to simply play honestly, cut out the gamesmanship and try to give the football public in Japan a decent, attractive product to watch.

Naive, I know, but this was desperate stuff.

As you all know by now, Kyoto had three players sent off, followed by their manager, Hisashi Kato. In keeping with the club's main colour, "Kato-Q" went purple with rage at the series of dismissals and decided to redesign the technical area with some rather nifty footwork.

And no wonder he was angry, after seeing Sidiclei, Ataliba and Masushima all sent to the dressing room early.

So was it a dirty game? The card count suggests it was, but this was not the case at all.

It was more down to the high level of simulation and feigning injury -- and inexperienced refereeing -- that led to Kyoto finishing the game with only eight men and no manager on the bench.

Sidiclei, the captain, was sent off for two yellow cards in the first half, fouls on Alessandro and then Yano; Ataliba was shown a straight red for an off-the-ball incident with Yano that the TV cameras failed to pick up; and Masushima was sent off for two yellows. The first was for dissent after being penalised for a foul on Yano, and the second was for another aerial challenge on...yes, you've guessed it, Yano.

I have seen Kyoto play three times this season, and Masushima has impressed me on each occasion with his power in the air, the timing of his jump.

And he is not exactly built like John Terry, is he? More like a member of SMAP -- and it would be interesting to know exactly what Kyoto veteran Morioka said to Yano as he lay on the floor during the card chaos.

Albirex won their first league game of the season, but surely no one can take any satisfaction from a shambles like this.


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Young leader Nagatomo impresses FC Tokyo, Okada

21 Apr 2008(Mon)

April 18, 2008: Takeshi Okada has never been afraid to give youth a chance.

Remember Shinji Ono and Daisuke Ichikawa in early 1998, although the latter would be one of three players cut from the final 22 for France.

Among Okada's squad for the April 21-23 training camp is another very interesting youngster, 21-year-old full back Yuto Nagatomo of FC Tokyo.

According to club sources, Nagatomo has already established himself as a leader on and off the pitch, despite this being his debut season out of Meiji University.

At a fan festival in Shinjuku in February, for example, Nagatomo taught fellow newcomer Emerson how to bow and say the right words of greeting to the supporters.

And even on Saturday, after FC Tokyo had won a rip-roaring derby against Verdy, Nagatomo hung around long after the final whistle to show goal-scorer Hanyu how to perform the rousing victory ritual in front of the Tokyo fans at the away end.

Not that Nagatomo had scored himself, though; just that his presence in the Verdy box, in injury time, to meet Konno's header into the danger zone had resulted in an own goal by Verdy sub Shibasaki.

Like Komano of Jubilo Iwata, Nagatomo is a tough defender and difficult to shake off, as Verdy's Hulk discovered during the Tokyo derby.

Although he plays at left back for Tokyo -- the right back slot being occupied, of course, by Tokunaga -- Nagatomo can also play on the right flank. Indeed, right wing back was his position in the recent under-23 friendly against Angola, from where he supplied the cross for Toyoda to score Japan's goal in a 1-1 draw.

With a call to Okada's squad, the chances of Nagatomo making Japan's 18 for the Beijing Olympics have increased significantly.

Even though Olympic team coach Sorimachi has some experienced wide players in Uchida and Mizuno on the right, Yasuda and Honda on the left, Nagatomo's versatility makes him a good bet for the 18.

More rewards may come further down the road, but an appearance in the Beijing Olympics would be the perfect start so early in his professional career.


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The "F" word at Saitama

17 Apr 2008(Thu)

April 15, 2008: Amusing or offensive? Part of the game or over the top?

What is your take on "The Saitama Incident"?

I am talking, of course, about the ribald message from the Antlers fans to their Reds rivals before the big match at Saitama Stadium 2002 on Sunday.

It was meant to say "F**k You Reds", in three rows of large letters, but it never quite came together as the letters were passed up one by one over the crowd and assembled like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

The best they could manage was "F**k" on the top line (the two missing letters were correct -- congratulations), a sad and solitary "Y" on the middle line and a rather jumbled "R EOU" on the last line, with "D" and "S" floating near by.

This pre-match entertainment was actually more absorbing than the first half, as we watched the letters move up and down, across and back. In fact it was so entertaining I think the Antlers fans should construct a message before every game -- and offer a prize to the first person who gets it right.

When it finally became obvious what the message was intended to say, it told us two things: That the bitter rivalry between these two clubs had just taken an irrevocable turn for the worse; and that there is a serious shortage of English teachers in Ibaraki Prefecture, perhaps because everyone studies Portuguese so they can talk like Z**o.

Undeterred, the Antlers fans had another go at half time, abandoning the three-line message to settle for a more brutal "F**k Reds".

A colleague suggested wittily that they should have held up only the word "F**k" at the final whistle, having lost 2-0, but after Nagai's second goal the Antlers fans were in no mood for humour.

The reaction from media people close by was mixed.

One said it was "great" because it highlighted the fierce rivalry between the clubs, with Urawa the Manchester United and Kashima the Liverpool of Japan.

Another pointed out that the Japanese did not fully appreciate the impact or the severity of the "F" word, and that it was intended to provoke fun, not hostility.

After the game, Reds manager Gert Engels said he was happy he had not seen the message. "It is offensive. It has nothing to do with the franchise, with the team. It is not classy," he said.

On this point I have to agree with Engels.

I thought it was offensive, provocative, too much. I am all for intense rivalries between teams and fans as a Japanese football culture develops, but you wonder what the next step could be after The Saitama Incident. Hopefully it will just involve banners.

I think, therefore, that Kashima should offer a sincere apology. They should bow deeply to the Reds fans, say they are extremely sorry for offending the Asian Champions League winners and give them all free posters of Z**o. Or Nozawa.

And what would be Reds' reply?

I reckon it might just start with an "F"...


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Chelsea end hopes of 'Zico Derby'

14 Apr 2008(Mon)

April 12, 2008: The so-called "Zico Derby" in Japan is off, but there is still a lot very much on in the Champions Leagues of Asia and Europe.

The Zico Derby?

That was going to be Fenerbahce against Kashima Antlers in the FIFA Club World Cup in December, had the Turks won the UEFA Champions League and Antlers the AFC Champions League.

The chances were always remote, of course, and so it proved when Chelsea recovered from their first-leg defeat to eliminate Zico's team at the quarter-final stage on Wednesday night.

But it was an intriguing possibility all the same, and now Japanese fans will have to settle for one of Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United or Barcelona coming here in December. Not a bad trade at all.

As for Kashima, they are still in the thick of the battle to win the AFC Champions League, as are Gamba Osaka -- and, remember, Urawa Reds, who have not even played yet but are already in the last eight.

I will never understand how the Asian Football Confederation thinks, but giving the defending champions a bye into the quarter-finals seems crazy to me, missing out on all the publicity and marketing opportunities. But that's another story.

With both Antlers and Gamba leading their groups at the halfway stage, there is a good chance Japan could provide three of the eight teams in the quarter-finals -- and then three in the last four, as clubs from the same country cannot be drawn together in the quarter-finals.

The Antlers-Beijing Guoan match on Wednesday was not a pretty sight. Cold, windy, only 6,487 fans trying to motivate the players...it was a struggle for the home team, and therefore a great three points from a 1-0 victory.

They always say it is the sign of a good team when you can win without playing well, and Antlers did that. Sogahata was my man of the match, not just for his penalty save from the left-footed Tiago, but for his concentration right to the end.

Sogahata's save, with his feet, from left winger Martinez at the death could be crucial, as the group winner will be decided by the head-to-head record of the top two teams if they finish equal on points after six matches.

Let's hope the J.League in Asia can follow the English Premier League in Europe, and provide three of the semi-finalists in the Champions League. The J.League was always stronger than its record in Asia suggested, until last season, and now they can prove it beyond doubt.


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Kyoto's 'Katonaccio' stifles Frontale

10 Apr 2008(Thu)

April 8, 2008: For students of the art of defending, Kyoto Sanga FC put on a master class at Todoroki Stadium on Saturday.

Led by the 35-year-old Sidiclei, who had an outstanding game in the Sanga back three, Kyoto rejected everything Kawasaki could throw at them. Frontale huffed and puffed but could not blow the house down, and trudged off disconsolate from a 1-0 defeat.

It was Kyoto's first away win of the season on their return to J1, and much credit must go to manager Hisashi Kato.

His defence was so well-drilled, and his counter-attack so deadly, that a Japanese version of the old Italian "catenaccio" system came to mind. Let's call it Katonaccio.

This is not meant to be a criticism of Kyoto or of Kato in any way, as the catenaccio (meaning 'door bolt' in Italian) perfected by Argentine coach Helenio Herrera with Inter in the 1960s was the epitome of everything negative about the game.

Far from it; it is just to compliment the way they defended as a team against a dangerous opponent possessing pace (Juninho) and power (Chong) up front, width (Mori and Yamagishi), height (Terada) and midfield craft (Nakamura and Ohashi).

The Kyoto defenders stayed on their feet and watched the ball in the tackle; they did not dive in recklessly and take themselves out of the game. They also stayed goal side of the forward, providing a wall to block shots and crosses. It was absorbing to watch, and had a sting in the tail at the other end.

Sidiclei's work against Juninho was a lesson for all defenders, while Masushima on the right and Teshima on the left matched the veteran's discipline and concentration. When Teshima had to leave the field early in the second half, Morioka came off the bench and turned the clock back with a commanding performance in the centre, as Sidiclei moved to the left.

In the centre of midfield, Ataliba stayed deep but Yuto Sato was like a jack-in-a-box, jumping out to surprise the Frontale man in possession before returning to his lair.

And, in true "Katonaccio" style, Kyoto broke and grabbed a winner through Yanagisawa midway through the second half to complete the perfect "catenaccio" victory -- 1-0!


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Stojkovic savours Omiya's English experience

7 Apr 2008(Mon)

April 4, 2008: Dragan Stojkovic certainly enjoyed himself on his first visit to Omiya Ardija on Wednesday night.

He was happy with his Grampus team, who fought back from 1-0 down at half time to win 2-1, and he was happy to be involved in a match at the new-look NACK5 Stadium.

"It's fantastic," he said. "It is a stadium made for football. There is a great atmosphere, and the pitch is so good you could play snooker on it, no problem."

The renovations to the stadium, which already enjoyed a picturesque setting on the edge of Omiya Koen, have given the club one of the best grounds in the J.League. The fans are close to the pitch, and the steep tiers behind the goals have increased the noise volume all round.

"It is English style," added the Grampus boss.

"It is very good for the coach and also for the players because we are really close and we can give instructions easily. Everything was good."

Stojkovic was always interesting and amusing to watch as a player, with his extravagant skills on the ball and his gestures off the ball.

As a manager he is very calm, but still treated the fans to a classic burst of passion during the first half, punching the ball into the ground for his left back, Shohei Abe, to take a throw-in.

What was all that about, I asked him.

He laughed: "I said to him to throw the ball down the line as far as possible, because sometimes they throw it into the middle and they can lose it easily and allow the other team to counter-attack. I was telling them to wake up because we were 1-0 down."

In a thoroughly entertaining match, which passed very quickly, Abe chose a good time to have an impressive game -- in front of national coach Takeshi Okada.

One moment Abe was clearing Leandro's header off the line, perfectly positioned on the far post to safeguard against such events, and the next he was breaking forward to help his attack.

One pass in particular stays in the memory, when he jabbed his left foot under the ball to produce back spin that even Tiger Woods would have been proud of.

Not the tallest of defenders at 1.71 metres, he also won some great defensive headers down the line in the second half, attacking the ball in the air in the same way Komiyama does for Marinos.

"Abe...he is a very interesting player," said Stojkovic, borrowing a favourite Troussier line.

"Even though he is not so tall he has a very good jump and very good timing, which is very important for defenders. He also has attacking blood and always tries to go up and overlap and make a cross."

Okada, I am sure, will have noted that.


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Finally a win -- and fair play, too.

3 Apr 2008(Thu)

April 1, 2008: After a shaky start to the new campaign, this team really needed to get their act together at the weekend.

And they did just that, not only winning for the first time this season but scoring three goals in the process. Their loyal supporters must now feel their season is finally under way and they can start moving up the table.

Yes, that was an impressive performance by...Tokushima Vortis (sorry, did you think I was talking about Urawa Reds?)

With no J1 games on Saturday, Shonan Bellmare-Tokushima Vortis had the makings of a good day out. Indeed it was, especially for the travelling fans in a crowd of 4,474 at Hiratsuka Stadium. There weren't many of them, but they stuck with their team when the going got tough and were able to celebrate a 3-2 victory.

Among their numerous banners was one that read "Share good times and bad times", and this was clearly one of the good, thanks in no small measure to the dynamic play of a certain Seydou Doumbia.

Having failed to make the grade with Kashiwa Reysol, the 20-year-old forward from the Ivory Coast is now the toast of Tokushima after his match-winning display against Bellmare, scoring once and setting up the other two for Jun Tamano and Yutaro Abe.

The best of the bunch was Abe's goal after 76 minutes, which proved to be the winner. As Bellmare pushed forward, Doumbia led a Vortis counter up the right flank. Using all his pace and power, Doumbia left the former S-Pulse stalwart Toshihide Saito in his tracks before sending over an inviting cross. Abe, who had only just managed to keep up with Doumbia's raid, hurled himself at the ball and hit the target with a flying header.

There was still some defending to do, though, before Vortis could celebrate three points, and I would like to take this opportunity to praise the Tokushima captain, Shogo Nishikawa, for a piece of fair play and sportsmanship.

The 90 minutes were almost up and Tokushima were hanging on to their 3-2 lead when a visiting defender went down after an aerial duel with Bellmare captain Jean Witte. At first it looked like the defender would stay down, pretend he was hurt, ask for the trainer to come on and waste some time, but Nishikawa signalled to his teammate to get up and get on with it.

I know it is not much, but nevertheless it was a refreshing sight in the current climate. My fair play award, therefore, goes to Shogo Nishikawa.


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Japan's "nothing" almost got "something"

31 Mar 2008(Mon)

March 29, 2008: One short comment from Bahrain's head coach, Milan Macala, said it all: "Japan had nothing."

Ouch! That hurts, doesn't it, coming from the Gulf veteran who knows Japanese football so well from his previous engagements.

But it was a fair assessment on Wednesday night, when Japan lost 1-0 in Bahrain to put themselves under a bit of pressure for the four-game group finale in June.

Japan looked slow and weary and lacked leadership and experience, particularly in the middle of the park. With Bahrain quick to press the man in possession, Japan could not get hold of the game or find any rhythm.

Even so, the "nothing" as stated by Macala looked like it was going to be good enough to get "something" -- meaning a point from a 0-0 draw -- until the blunder by Kawaguchi 13 minutes from time. Bahrain accepted the gift and no one could argue with the final result.

For all their lack of control and creativity, Japan could still have snatched one at the other end on two occasions in the second half.

Before Bahrain's goal, Okubo failed to connect with a superb Komano cross from the right, and after Bahrain's goal Abe did the same. These were two great heading opportunities that went begging, and it points to a lack of confidence rather than technique.

I wonder if the poor performance and result led to the low turnout (12,718) at National Stadium for the Japan Under 23-Angola friendly the following evening?

Those who did attend at least saw some energy and ambition from the Japan team in the face of a big, strong opponent.

Once again I was particularly impressed with the central midfield pairing of Hosogai and Toshihiro Aoyama, and they must have gone a long way towards securing a place in coach Sorimachi's 18-strong squad for Beijing.

They chase and they scrap, and keep the team ticking over with their ability to win the ball and move it on to the more creative, attacking players around them. In the closing stages, Hosogai played like Tulio in disguise with his swashbuckling efforts in the opposition box.

It is a pity Japan could not hold on for the win, but at least they could leave the field with their heads held high and the supporters feeling some pride.

This was not the case in Bahrain the previous night.


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A point in Bahrain would be fine for Japan

27 Mar 2008(Thu)

March 26, 2008: Japan's World Cup qualifier in Bahrain on Wednesday night will surely be a tough test for Takeshi Okada's team.

Of the six games in this third round of Asian qualifying, this always looked like the hardest assignment for Japan.

Under the circumstances, a draw would be a decent result to add to the three points Japan took at home to Thailand in the Saitama snow.

Even if Japan lose they would still have four matches to clinch one of the two qualifying places to advance to the 10-team, two-group final round. After Bahrain away, those four remaining games all take place in June, starting with Oman at home on the 2nd, Oman away (7th), Thailand away (14th) and Bahrain at home (22nd).

To prepare for this sequence of matches, Japan will have two Kirin Cup games in late May, so Okada will have plenty of opportunity to integrate the players he needs from Europe.

On the subject of which...I am still disappointed Okada did not call up Shunsuke Nakamura for this match.

I have been reading that the player was overlooked because of "club commitments" with Celtic. What, on Wednesday?

Nakamura played for Celtic against Gretna on Sunday, and will be in action in the Old Firm derby against Rangers on Saturday, but that does not rule him out of the Bahrain game.

It is not "club commitments" that is keeping him out; it is because Okada wanted time to prepare his team, and didn't want Nakamura joining the camp a couple of days before the game.

I have already given my reasons why I think Okada should have selected Nakamura, regardless of whether or not that Gretna-Celtic match went ahead, so will not do so again.

Suffice to say that Nakamura will be sitting around in Glasgow on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday with nothing much to do, while Japan are playing a World Cup qualifier not too far away, and other players are flying round the world in an international week to play for their country.

In fact, I am surprised a Japanese TV station or newspaper has not flown Shunsuke to Bahrain to be a celebrity analyst!

A prediction for tonight? I will go for 0-0.

Both teams won their opening game in the group and are regarded as the two most likely to qualify. The priority, therefore, may be not to lose to their main rival so early in the group.


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Frontale's 'Fab Four' struggling for rhythm

24 Mar 2008(Mon)

March 21, 2008: Who would have thought that after three games in league and cup Frontale's Fab Four would not have a goal between them?

Juninho, Chong Tese, Kazuki Ganaha and Hulk have so far drawn a blank, with Frontale's only two goals to date coming from midfielders Mori (against Verdy) and Ohashi (Vissel). Ohashi's goal was a little gem, by the way; just a pity they were 4-0 down at the time.

The latest disappointment came against JEF United at a cold, wet and windy Todoroki Stadium on Thursday afternoon, when the Chiba defence held firm and their counter-attack produced two goals in a classic smash-and-grab raid.

It was interesting to see that Frontale manager Sekizuka had already abandoned his three-pronged strikeforce -- a commitment to all-out attack that suggested a name change may be appropriate: Kamikaze Frontale, perhaps?

Against Chiba, Sekizuka went back to the Frontale roots and played a 3-5-2 formation, with Ganaha and Juninho up front, Chong on the bench and Hulk injured. A close Frontale observer said it was, in fact, Hulk's heart that was injured...no goals, no longer the king like he was at Verdy, no confidence.

Could it be true? Has the Incredible Hulk turned into the Incredible Sulk so quickly?

I must admit I thought Frontale would do well this season, with no AFC Champions League commitments and a variety of explosive options up front to build on the solid base already in place.

They still might have a great season, of course, because there are 96 points to play for in the league and five more Nabisco Cup group games to overhaul Chiba.

Against JEF, though, they did not look like the big, bad bullies of old, battering teams into submission with their speed and power inside their Todoroki torture chamber.

Ganaha was off the pace; his replacement, Chong, was put in his place by a crunching Bosnar tackle on the left wing; and 19-year-old JEF substitute Yonekura was left to dance through the Kengo-free Frontale midfield to orchestrate the second-half counter-attacks.

Interesting player Yonekura. Same shirt number (22) as the departed "Goi Galactico" Hanyu, same high school as Hanyu, same position (attacking midfielder), but a rather different physique.

Whereas Hanyu buzzed around like a one-man ekiden team, Yonekura is more sturdy and robust, enabling him to win some physical battles in crucial areas of the pitch.

On the other hand, Frontale's most dangerous moments were the inswinging corners of Ohashi, who used the swirling gusts of wind to great effect and kept Tateishi on his toes.


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The rise, fall and rise of Gert Engels

20 Mar 2008(Thu)

March 18, 2008: After the unrest of Saturday and the turmoil of Sunday, Monday was just like any normal day at the Ohara training ground of Urawa Reds.

With Holger Osieck now history, ruthlessly fired the previous day, Gert Engels was the man in the spotlight -- again.

In his fluent Japanese, clipboard in hand, Engels was attempting to put the team back on track after the chaotic start to the new campaign.

He didn't have too many players to work with, as the squad was depleted by national team call-ups and injuries, but the foundations of the team for the Nabisco Cup were clearly in place.

The highlight of Monday's session for me was the set-piece expertise of new signing Tsukasa Umesaki. He was whipping over some wicked free kicks from the left flank, struck with pace and swerve and causing havoc for the keeper on each occasion. Has he been studying the technique of David Beckham? It certainly looked like it.

After training, Engels held two informal press conferences, first in Japanese and then in English, and was looking remarkably relaxed after his sudden elevation to manager of Asia's champion club.

There was a human touch, too, in his recollection of the dizzying events of the previous day, as he said his morning promotion and afternoon preparation for the official news conference at 4pm had scuppered his plans for a kickaround with his two children after training!

"I spoke to my kids and told them what had happened," he said.

"The first thing they asked was, 'What about Holger?' That was quite sweet of them, because they knew how I felt when it happened to me. I just said that business is like this."

On a more practical front, it is going to be an enormous help having a Japanese speaker in charge of the training; no need for an interpreter to try and get the message across on the practice ground, in team meetings and on the pitch.

And Engels is going to make sure that the players air their grievances to him rather than to the media, as criticism of Osieck from senior players led to the breakdown in communication.

"They know there is nothing to hide," said Engels.

"They can speak to me directly or to a coach who will then speak to me. I am available 24 hours a day for them."

It is highly unlikely there will be any criticism of Engels, though, as it is time for the club to put its house in order. Besides, the new manager is regarded as a good, all-round guy who has the respect of the players.

He has had setbacks with the closure of the Flugels and being fired by JEF United and Kyoto, but has proved he is a survivor -- all the way to the top of Japanese football.


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Okada is making a mistake in leaving out Shunsuke

17 Mar 2008(Mon)

March 14, 2008: There were a few talking points at JFA House in Tokyo on Friday afternoon when the squad list was handed out for the Bahrain away game on March 26.

Inamoto in -- generally welcomed as Japan need some muscle in central midfield.

Tamada in -- why not now he is fit? Who will ever forget his brilliant strike against Brazil in the World Cup?

Shunsuke not in -- now this prompted mixed feelings, but mostly negative.

Some reasoned that Nakamura would be playing for Celtic on March 15, March 18 and March 23 -- the last game, away to Gretna, just three days before the World Cup qualifier. Why should Okada pick him amidst this hectic schedule and when he will be able to train with Japan for a maximum of two sessions, maybe only one?

The other school of thought was that Okada should have called him up, as Shunsuke is in good nick and playing well, and it's more convenient to travel from Glasgow to the Gulf than it is to Japan.

I certainly feel that Okada should have picked Nakamura for this game, despite the tight schedule.

It is not as though Japan's midfield is in dazzling form, is it? While Inamoto will toughen them up and give them a bit of drive through the middle, surely there was still room for Shunsuke.

This is going to be a tough game, and one moment of magic from Nakamura could be the difference -- a brilliant free kick, a corner right on to Nakazawa's head, a slide-rule pass for Tamada to race on to, round the keeper and slot into an empty net...

In addition to this, the 21-strong squad will not be together from day one, so preparation is going to be patchy.

The bulk of the squad will leave for Dubai on Monday, but the five who play for Gamba and Antlers will not join them until Friday, after AFC Champions League games on Wednesday. Inamoto plays for Eintracht Frankfurt on Thursday, so the squad will be assembling in dribs and drabs over the course of a few days.

Given all this, and the importance of the game, I think Okada is making a mistake not calling up Shunsuke on this occasion. Good enough to play against Barcelona, but not against Bahrain, it seems.


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Omiya's Yellow Peril settles Orange Derby

13 Mar 2008(Thu)

March 12, 2008: It was the Orange Derby at Omiya on Sunday, but the Yellow Peril won it for Ardija.

With his dancing feet and his flashy yellow boots, Pedro Junior proved to be the difference between the two teams, sending Albirex tumbling to a 2-0 defeat.

The 21-year-old Brazilian forward was much too quick and clever for the Albirex defence, scoring the first goal himself and setting up the second for Daigo Kobayashi with another jinking run and shot.

Trailing 2-0 at the break, Albirex battered away at the Omiya defence early in the second half, playing toward their massive following behind the goal, but when they could not break through in that initial onslaught the result looked safe for Omiya.

All in all, then, a perfect start for Ardija at the rebuilt NACK5 Stadium, and their fans must be quietly confident about the season ahead. Not only because they have their own home ground from the start of the season, rather than touring Saitama prefecture for their home games, but because they may have finally sorted out their overseas signings.

Although this is Omiya's fourth season in the top flight, they can hardly be described as an established force in J1, as their finishing positions have been 13th, 12th and 15th.

And anyone who follows the team closely knows the main reason for this is their poor record in the overseas transfer market, which has always been a handicap in J1.

Toshiya Miura used to complain about it when comparing his foreign players with the likes of even Oita's, and so did Robert Verbeek last season. Anyone remember Alison, Enilton, Salles? Enough said...

Leandro, however, was a rock at the back in 2007, and started well again this time, while both Pedro Junior and Denis Marques joined the club last August.

Denis Marques made more of an impression than Pedro Junior in the second half of last season, but was on the bench against Albirex after an impressive pre-season by Pedro Junior.

Starting the season with a bit of stability in the foreign player department should be an enormous help for new manager Yasuhiro Higuchi, who has inherited an experienced squad in general.

In their opening match, Pedro Junior lifted Omiya to a higher level with all that dazzling dribbling in his yellow boots, and Ardija fans will be hoping he has a "knack" for scoring spectacular goals -- especially at NACK5.


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Reds favourites in J1 'Super League'

10 Mar 2008(Mon)

March 7, 2008: It is never easy to predict the champions of the J.League, even on the last day of the season.

So on the eve of a new campaign?

Almost impossible, but "impossible is nothing" as they say these days, and surely the 2008 champions will emerge from the J1 Super League.

I would say the Super League membership stands at four, led by Reds, Gamba and Antlers and with Frontale as the dark horse.

Apart from those four, I cannot see anyone else challenging -- unless Shunsuke Nakamura returns to Marinos in the summer and transforms his old team, Ogasawara-style.

My tip for this season, though, is Urawa, despite the fact they have lost the goals of Washington, the midfield craft of Hasebe and the extravagant skills (usually off the bench) of Ono. In addition to this, the injured Alex and recovering Robson Ponte will be out for a good few weeks yet, so the new-look team needs a good start.

Reds have bought well in the winter, and I am sure Takahara and Edmilson will work well together and share the goals out, rather than it being a one-man Washington show.

Umesaki is another fine signing, a bright and busy attacking midfielder who can operate all across the pitch behind the front line and help link midfield to attack.

I know Hasebe was a firm favourite of the Reds supporters with his surging runs from deep, but I always felt his potential was never quite fulfilled at Urawa. He had the ability to get hold of a game by the scruff of the neck and really dominate it, and his departure will be more than compensated by the combination of Abe and Suzuki in the engine room.

This gives Reds an altogether tougher centre, not only protecting the defence but providing a solid platform for the attack to function.

Reds have two players for every position, and, unlike Gamba and Antlers, have no AFC Champions League group commitments until they enter at the quarter-final stage.

Frontale, disappointing in the league last season, should be strong enough to maintain a serious challenge this time. The explosive Hulk will give them a new dimension, and the addition of Yamagishi will tighten up the left side of midfield. With the stability and continuity from recent seasons, Frontale are a genuine threat this time.

But I'll go for Reds -- a year after tipping Gamba...


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Television's role in controversy

6 Mar 2008(Thu)

March 5, 2008: In near flawless English, Antlers manager Oswaldo Oliveira is a quote machine for the media after every match.

He was in particularly fine form on Saturday after the Xerox Super Cup, or the Xerox Super Mess as one English-language newspaper so fittingly described it the next day.

Amongst Oswaldo's cutting observations was the role of television in such controversies; or, rather, the lack of it -- a subject I have written about before as the approach of the TV stations here differs vastly to England and, presumably, most other countries.

Oswaldo pointed out that controversial incidents were often "passed over" and the coverage simply "jumped" to the next moment. No slow-motion replays. No analysis. No debate. Who was right? Who was wrong?

In Saturday's match, the sports news shows had a feast of fouls to dissect and devour, from the red cards to disallowed goals, from the penalty award to the retaken kicks (on both sides) and, of course, the rare pitch invasion.

Wouldn't it have been entertaining, educational even, to see those moments replayed and replayed from different angles in the weekend football shows; not just to show the referee may have been wrong on occasions (Kubo's penalty), but also to show he or his assistant was right, such as Tashiro's disallowed goal in the first half when clearly the flag was up for offside against Araiba before he crossed the ball. It wasn't Tashiro who was offside.

Many decisions look wrong or harsh on first viewing, but replays often prove the officials to be right. On a few occasions this season, for example, I have heard the colour commentators on the English Premier League apologise to the ref and admit he did, in fact, make a great call.

The controversies came so thick and fast on Saturday that it was difficult to understand what was going on, so a thorough debate and analysis by the TV pundits would have shed some light.

It never came -- and the repeat of the match I saw on the G+ Channel in the early hours of Sunday morning ignored the post-shootout melee to focus on a hero interview with Hisato Sato, completely missing the drama and the theatre unfolding behind them.

Oswaldo was trying to be fair to both sides in his assessment, saying he thought the red card for Sanfrecce was unfair, too, while pointing out that the Sanfrecce keeper had advanced off his line more for the penalty misses of Danilo and Motoyama than Sogahata had in saving from Stoyanov and Saito.

Ideal topics for debate and for conclusions, but they were "passed over" -- as Oswaldo would say -- on everything I saw later on Saturday and Sunday.


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J.League's 'one-stop shop' is a big hit

3 Mar 2008(Mon)

March 1, 2008: One of the highlights of the football season is over before a ball has been kicked.

The J.League's "Kick Off Conference" took place at the Tokyo Prince Park Tower Hotel on Friday afternoon, and featured the manager and a player from all 33 clubs, among them Okubo, Iwamasa, Keita Suzuki, Shimomura, Tamada and Tokunaga.

One J.League executive described it as a "one-stop shop" for the media regarding season preview work, and 700 media took advantage of this lavish public relations exercise.

I can't remember anything like this at all back in England, other than the Player of the Year award in London at the end of the season, organised by the Football Writers' Association.

At those events, players and managers were out in force, but, apart from the official business, it was all "off the record", and a chance to relax and chat over dinner.

The situations in England and Japan, of course, are very different.

English football does not need to provide such an organised pre-season event because the game is part of everyday life and the media attention never wavers. The media will turn up no matter how squalid the facilities, how hostile the reception, or how uncooperative the managers and players on occasions may be.

The J.League, on the other hand, had to woo the media in the early days, and hang on to them in a sporting establishment steeped in the history and tradition of baseball and sumo.

And the J.League has done a fantastic job in this aspect, as evidenced by the massive turnout on Friday and the ocean of information available at the 33 colourful club kiosks.

The main theme of the official part of the programme was the J.League's aim to attract 11 million fans in season 2010.

Last year the figure was 8.8 million, and it will need an increase of 7 per cent each season to achieve that goal. The target this year is 9.5 million for J1, J2, Nabisco Cup and the home games of the three clubs in the AFC Champions League, and this looks well within reach.

Clearly the J.League is firmly established in Japan's sporting world, but I cannot imagine the day when the authoritires here take the media for granted and scrap this glittering "one-stop shop".


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There's Something About JEF

28 Feb 2008(Thu)

February 27, 2008: First impressions can be misleading, especially before the start of a long campaign.

But there was something about JEF United Chiba at Fukuda Denshi Arena on Sunday that suggested this season might not be the struggle predicted by many after losing half their team in the winter.

There was an energy and a vibrancy about their play in the Chiba Bank Cup at home to Reysol, as if the players were out to prove a point.

Rather than the end of an era, it was more like the start of a new team, with opportunities for fresh faces.

After the game, new coach Josip Kuze acknowledged this factor, and reassured JEF fans that there was no danger of his team being at the bottom.

It might take some time, he said, but he had some good young players with a lot of potential and enough experience to build a "serious" team.

And, as anyone who was there could not fail to notice, they also have Eddy Bosnar.

At 1.91 metres and 88 kgs, the shaven-headed Australian central defender is a formidable sight, and packs a ferocious free kick with his left foot.

He endeared himself immediately to the JEF faithful in the crowd of 12,933 with some crunching tackles that seemed to surprise the Reysol players, and it will be interesting to see how referees react to his robust style this season. I hope they can differentiate between a foul and a hard tackle, and base their view on the challenge rather than the reaction of the rival player.

JEF, who have lost Mizumoto at the back and the midfield quartet of Mizuno, Sato, Hanyu and Yamagishi, will need Bosnar to paper over the cracks at the start of the campaign, as well as their experienced players such as Saito, prodigal son Sakamoto, the new leader Shimomura (my JEF MVP last year) and, when he is fit again, Maki.

In Maki's absence on Sunday, Kuze played a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Nakajima playing very deep in front of the back four, and Reinaldo the lone striker. One player Kuze has high hopes for is Kota Aoki, the Yasu High School product who started on the left side of midfield before moving up front.

Aoki, as we know from his days with Yasu and occasional J1 appearances, has a lovely left foot, and Kuze thinks he has the potential, at 20, to be a "great" player.

This is always the silver lining with JEF. Stars leave but their places are filled quickly, although admittedly not at the current rate of five at a time.

However, on the evidence of Sunday, when JEF missed six or seven injured players, the early signs are positive.


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Japan stay cool in Chongqing foul fest

25 Feb 2008(Mon)

February 23, 2008: Japan were winners on two counts against China in the East Asian Championship on Wednesday night.

First the result, a 1-0 victory away from home; second, the way Japan conducted themselves in a provocative, occasionally violent, environment.

The worst incident, of course, was the terrible foul by keeper Zong Lei on Michihiro Yasuda early in the second half. Immediately it happened my thoughts went back to 1982, and the brutal assault by West Germany keeper Schumacher on Frenchman Battiston in that epic World Cup semi-final.

The situation was very similar, as the player raced down the middle and flicked the ball past the onrushing keeper before being flattened.

Schumacher's was much worse, as it involved his whole body crashing into the player, and his reaction did not help as he waited, hands on hips, to take the goal kick, showing no concern for the stricken Battiston.

At least Zong was shown the yellow card, but surely if the referee deemed it a foul it must have been a red card. The Chinese keeper clearly aimed a mid-air kick at Yasuda with his right foot, the ball having already gone past him. It was deliberate and dangerous, and the Japanese camp had every right to be furious.

There were others, too, notably on Narazaki, who showed admirable restraint and sportsmanship to get up and get on with it when he could have reacted angrily or stayed down for several minutes after clumsy challenges by the Chinese.

Again I thought of Schumacher in that 1982 World Cup semi-final, when French winger Didier Six had the audacity to challenge him for a loose ball and felt the wrath of the arrogant German keeper. (On the subject of Harald 'Toni' Schumacher, his autobiography "Anpfiff", or "Starting Whistle", is an entertaining read, and highly recommended to Japanese fans and football historians).

Under the trying circumstances, with the Chinese players losing the match and losing their cool, the Japanese players emerged with credit for continuing to play the game, although they were guilty of the occasional theatrics.

All in all, though, it was a poor advertisement for football in general, and for football in this part of the world in particular.

Fortunately, a few hours later, our faith in the game was restored when switching on TV for the Celtic-Barcelona Champions League game. Now wasn't that a treat after the nonsense of Chongqing.


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An age-old problem in age-group football

21 Feb 2008(Thu)

February 20, 2008: Full marks to the Asian Football Confederation for punishing several national football associations for fielding overage players in an age-group competition.

North Korea, Iraq and Tajikistan have been fined and disqualified from this year's Asian Under-16 Championship following the results of MRI tests during qualifying, while five others who did not qualify -- Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, Kyrgyzstan and Macau -- were fined.

This is a step in the right direction for the football authorities, but they have an impossible task to stamp it out completely due to the systematic abuse of the regulations.

It all reminds me of an incident during the Asian Under-19 Championship in Jakarta in 1994, when Japan lost in the final to Syria.

Behind the scenes, everyone was talking about which teams were "clean" and which ones were not playing by the rules; and it was clear from the physical appearance of several players that their passports did not tell the whole story.

I remember conducting an interview with a Syrian player after they had won their semi-final. We were sitting in the main stand of the vast national stadium, with an interpreter helping us out.

The interview went smoothly back and forth until I came to my last point, a routine check on the player's personal details.

"Can I just get your date of birth," I asked, with absolutely no ulterior motive.

For the first time the interview stalled, and the interpreter became involved in a discussion with the player. Clearly there was some doubt about it, and the pair were beginning to look uncomfortable.

Then I realised why, and I think they could sense my embarrassment. The interview had gone well, they were very friendly and cooperative, so I ended the matter by digging in my bag and finding a team list, complete with the date of birth of all players.

"Here it is," I said. "Is this right?"

They nodded enthusiastically before we shook hands and went our separate ways; crisis averted.

The Japan team, by the way, was captained by the playmaker Suguru Ito, who would go on to join Nagoya Grampus Eight.

Koji Kumagai, whose career with Kashima Antlers would be dogged by injury, was named Best Defender, despite playing in central midfield, and Susumu Oki was up front.

Oh...and there was someone else I remember vaguely on Japan's right wing who looked pretty decent. Now what was his name? Hidetoshi something...


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Yasuda gives Okada new option on left

18 Feb 2008(Mon)

February 16, 2008: These are still early days in the Takeshi Okada reign, and the East Asian Championship in China will give him the chance to learn more about his players and test his ideas in a competitive environment.

One area he will want to address is finding a natural left-footer to bring balance to the team, especially at the back.

So far he has been using Komano at left back, but the player is clearly more comfortable and more effective on the right.

Okada is not short of options on the right side, however, with both Uchida and Zico favourite Kaji available; so Komano finds himself on the left.

I am a big fan of Komano's, admiring his tenacity and his positive approach, and his robust frame makes him an awkward customer for opponents to deal with.

But he still looks like a temporary solution, a compromise, on the left, and the late call-up of 20-year-old Yasuda will give the coach another option.

Yasuda has risen quickly from youth team to Olympic team to national squad, and will surely win his first senior cap in China, where Japan will play three matches in seven days.

In Okada's 4-4-2 formation, the two full backs are expected to provide the width going forward, rather than the midfield players, so it is imperative that the left-sided player can ping over an accurate cross on a consistent basis.

Komano's delivery with his left foot is erratic to say the least, and if Yasuda can supply this it will add another dimension to Japan's attack and make them much more dangerous in the box.

There are other candidates, too, such as Alex when he regains full match fitness at Reds, and Komiyama at Marinos.

Another player with an excellent left foot is Seiji Koga at Vissel Kobe. Now 28, Koga was an inspired signing from Avispa midway through last season by his old boss Matsuda.

Depending on the team performances in China, if Okada is looking for an experienced stop-gap to bring a natural balance on the left flank, he could do worse than check out the former Marinos man Koga when the new season starts.


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Good news for Chiba, Terada

14 Feb 2008(Thu)

February 13, 2008: It was good to see two players in particular in Japan's Olympic squad so early in the season.

The first was Kazuhiko Chiba of Albirex Niigata; the second Shinichi Terada of Gamba Osaka.

Neither player was a key during Japan's tense qualifying campaign, but both are in a position now to force their way into the final 18 over the next few months.

Although Chiba is listed as a defender, he can also play in central midfield and certainly knows the game. This is clear in his every move, and his versatility is a big advantage with places so limited.

I remember last season Chiba having a fine game for Albirex against Reds at Saitama Stadium 2002, man-marking the man mountain Washington and emerging with great credit, despite his team's 1-0 defeat to a late Ponte cracker.

Washington was an expert in winning free kicks and penalties, as well as scoring goals, but Chiba stuck to his task, played with concentration and focus, and refused to be bullied by the burly Brazilian.

In short, Chiba showed some attitude to go with his talent, in the same way Mizumoto did for JEF when marking Juninho at Todoroki last season. This is always good to see in a young Japanese player, especially against an experienced and accomplished Brazilian striker.

As for Terada, I think he is a terrific prospect. He is quick, incisive and adventurous, with two good feet and an eye for goal. Gamba coach Nishino will demand more consistency from Terada this season as he tries to win a starting place in the silky smooth midfield, but his quality is not in doubt.

I feel that both Chiba and Terada have what it takes to jump from fringe member in 2007 to Olympian in 2008.

Regarding the national team for the East Asian Championship in China, it is the four strikers who have everything to play for.

With Okada's top three forwards -- Takahara, Okubo and Maki -- all missing, Bando, Yano, Maeda and Tashiro have the chance to impress.

Personally I hope Bando gets among the goals; he deserves to for wearing a short-sleeved shirt and no gloves when coming off the bench against Thailand in the Saitama snow last week...

Now that's what I call the Samurai spirit!


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Tsuboi offered something different in Japan's defence

11 Feb 2008(Mon)

February 9, 2008: Keisuke Tsuboi's decision to retire from international football was a big suprise.

The 28-year-old defender with 40 caps felt he had no future in the national team under Takeshi Okada so announced on Friday that he was going to concentrate solely on his club, Urawa Reds, from now on.

I watched Tsuboi training with the national squad at Inage in Chiba Prefecture last Saturday and he seemed in high spirits, but was left out of Okada's 18-strong group for the Thailand match on Wednesday.

The coach stuck with the Nakazawa-Abe partnership in the centre of defence, and preferred Mizumoto on the bench to either Tsuboi or Iwamasa.

One problem for Tsuboi is that Okada is playing with a back four, whereas the Reds defender is much more at home on the right side of a back three. In that position he can use his strengths, which are speed and his man-marking ability.

When Reds are on the attack there is no better player than Tsuboi to hold back and keep an eye on the opposing striker waiting to counter. With his pace and his anticipation in one-on-one situations, Tsuboi is very effective at cutting off those counter-attacks when danger threatens.

In this respect he offered something different to the national team -- but the rise and rise of Mizumoto has shunted Tsuboi further back in the queue for a place in Japan's defence.

Another Reds player not going to China for the East Asian Championship is Takahara, who has not been at his best in the Japan blue so far since his return from Germany.

But this will not be a concern for Okada as everyone knows what Takahara is capable of when he is in top condition, and the three matches in China will give the coach a chance to try a few combinations with his five forwards: Maki, Yano, Bando, Okubo and Maeda.


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Thai coach creates talking points

7 Feb 2008(Thu)

February 6, 2008: Now here's an interesting one for Japanese football fans, particularly Yokohama F Marinos supporters.

Who is the better player, Koji Yamase or Shunsuke Nakamura?

Thailand's coach, Chanvit Phalajivin, has no doubt. He thinks Yamase is better, and picked out the Marinos schemer as one of Japan's top players during a pre-training chat with a handful of media at Nishigaoka Stadium on Monday afternoon.

When asked which Japanese players impressed him the most, Chanvit gave the backbone of the team: Nakazawa, Suzuki and Takahara.

"But I also really like the player who scored two goals in their last game," added the Thai coach.

Yamase, pointed out the media.

"Yes, Yamase," said Chanvit. "I think he's better than Nakamura. He's young and has time to develop."

Which Nakamura, Kengo or Shunsuke?

"The one in Scotland," confirmed Chanvit.

Interesting...and quite a confidence-booster for Yamase.

I wonder what Takeshi Okada thinks? We will find out pretty soon as the World Cup qualifying campaign progresses and Nakamura (Shunsuke, not Kengo) returns to full match fitness with Celtic.

Chanvit made another interesting point regarding his own players, saying that many of them dreamed of playing in the J.League.

This would motivate them in the match against Japan, Chanvit said, hoping their talent would be recognised by J.League scouts.

It is a noble thought, and you would like to think there is a chance of a Thai player adding some spice to the J.League, but don't hold your breath.

As much as I would like to see more variety in the transfer policy of the clubs, what can a Thai player do that a Japanese can't?


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Yamase deserves starting place against Thailand

4 Feb 2008(Mon)

February 2, 2008: Coaches can often be led to an improvement in their team due to unforeseen circumstances.

Take the example of the Japan-Bosnia match the other night, when an early injury for Maki led to the introduction of Yamase in the 33rd minute.

Yamase was quick to make his mark, adding some zip and zest to Japan's plodding midfield. Sure enough, in the second half Japan went on to win 3-0, with Yamase setting up the first for Nakazawa and scoring the next two himself.

Surely the Yokohama F Marinos schemer has played himself into the starting line-up to face Thailand on Wednesday, probably at the expense of Kengo Nakamura on the right side of midfield. This would leave Suzuki as the lone "volante", Endo on the left and Okubo at the top of the diamond, behind Maki and Takahara.

I was very happy to see Okubo in the starting line-up against Bosnia, albeit in a deeper role behind the forward line. I wasn't sure if Okubo would be as effective in this position, as his chances against Chile had come by playing as an out-and-out striker.

But Okubo made some very good runs from deep against Bosnia which took him beyond the back line, and he was unlucky not to connect inside the box.

Certainly, with the workhorse Maki charging around after anything that moves -- he set up the clear shooting chance for Takahara against Chile, remember, by doing just that -- and with Takahara looking for space in the box, opposition defenders have plenty to keep them busy even before calculating Okubo's darting runs.

I also thought Yamase lifted the mood of the team and of the fans by being confident and aggressive, and by being prepared to shoot. Okada pointed out after the match that Japan had been too casual in the first half by trying to score the picture-perfect goal. Endo and Uchida were both guilty of declining to shoot when the goal was in front of them, instead opting to pass the ball and with it the responsibility.

This is not a new problem for Japan teams, but is still irritating and frustrating to say the least. Okada can get even tougher on this point by simply substituting a player in the future, or dropping him. Yes, I think it is that important at this level!

Looking ahead to the opening World Cup qualifier, Japan can win comfortably against Thailand if they play in a professional, business-like manner from the start. They must be aggressive. They must shoot. They must take an early chance and not let up.

This is the team I expect Okada to turn out: Kawaguchi; Uchida, Nakazawa, Abe, Komano; Suzuki, Yamase, Endo, Okubo; Maki, Takahara.


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Shunsuke struggles but still shows his class

31 Jan 2008(Thu)

January 30, 2008: One of the biggest decisions facing Takeshi Okada is what to do with Shunsuke Nakamura?

Will Okada make him a key player, as Zico did, or will he phase him out?

Will he be prepared to carry Nakamura for long periods of a match in exchange for one moment of brilliance that can win a game?

It is going to be very interesting how Okada uses Nakamura in the coming months, but first the player must return to full fitness.

Against Falkirk on Sunday, Nakamura looked anything but fully fit -- but then provided the cross that enabled Scott McDonald to head the only goal of the game in first-half injury time.

It was typical Shunsuke. He had been a passenger until this point, hardly touching the ball in his position out on the right of midfield.

Then, in the three minutes of stoppage time, he found space on the right side of the box, shaped to cross with his right foot but, of course, checked back on to his left, and then picked out McDonald's run with a gem of a cross.

"A perfect delivery for an easy finish," purred the commentator. In the second half, Nakamura teased the Falkirk defence with "an enticing free kick", and the commentator then hailed his "telling contribution" on being substituted on 67 minutes.

Still on the comeback trail from his injury lay-off, Nakamura looked rusty in open play and off the pace, but all he needs is one moment of quality to change a game.

This is what Okada must balance, but not for the moment as what the player needs most of all is match fitness. The Kirin Cup at the end of May and the four World Cup qualifiers in June, two home and two away, will give the coach the perfect opportunity to address the situation.

Staying with Celtic, the Mizuno transfer from JEF United has been completed finally -- and the No. 29 shirt with the famous green and white hoops is already available on the official website, at a big discount, too, seeing as we are halfway through the season.

With a three and a half year deal, Mizuno has time to settle and establish himself in Scotland. Who knows, by the time his contract finishes he may be able to work out the Glaswegian accent!


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Okada gets down to business

28 Jan 2008(Mon)

January 26, 2008: If Japan's players can replicate the performance of Takeshi Okada in his press conference on Friday evening, then things are looking good for the national team.

Here was a man who meant business. He was serious and determined, but relaxed enough to share a joke on occasions, and with the confidence to declare that he was very much his own man and would be doing things his way.

Clearly his break from the game has given him a fresh focus, and he looked an altogether tougher character than the former assistant coach who was in the right place at the right time when Shu Kamo was fired in 1997: Oka-chan the friendly salaryman has become Okada-san the company president.

It was clear from the training, too, that Japan will have a go, and be prepared to take the game to the opposition -- another change from the more conservative approach in his previous reign.

Okada has already said that he wants to create a new brand of football, a style that will make an impact at the 2010 World Cup, and to do this he will demand speed, stamina, aggression and, above all, team work from his players.

One player in particular who appears to have caught Okada's eye early is Mizumoto, the Olympic team captain and likely partner for Nakazawa in the centre of defence, should the coach play four at the back.

Mizumoto improved and matured rapidly at JEF United last season, playing so well that Gamba decided it was time to take him on board, and he has the character and personality on the pitch that Okada is looking for.

The same can be said of Okubo, a player with a bit of fire and attitude. Okubo has always been better than his scoring record for Japan misleadingly suggests, and hopefully his goals against Egypt at the end of last season will liberate him and lead to many more from now on.

The relationship between coach and players looks extremely professional, too, built on trust and mutual respect, and it is hard to imagine Okada tolerating any dissent in the ranks; or even confronting any.

Yes, Okada looks like a man in total control; a man who knows what he wants and with the plan to get it. As he said himself on Friday, at least he has some time to work things out before the opening World Cup qualifier against Thailand on February 6. This match, of course, is the first target, and the friendlies against Chile and Bosnia will point him in the right direction.


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Beijing can wait for Honda

24 Jan 2008(Thu)

January 23, 2008: Keisuke Honda is choosing a good time of his career to try his luck abroad.

The left-footed midfielder is still only 21 years old and, having signed a two and a half year contract with VVV-Venlo, has plenty of time to settle and develop in the Dutch league.

If he does well, he can expect to move to a bigger club in Holland, or to a bigger league in Europe.

And if it does not work out he can return home and rebuild his career in Japan, in the same way Umesaki did after his spell with Grenoble.

At 1.82 metres and 72 kgs, Honda has a good physique to cope with the Dutch league. He will find it more physical than in Japan, the tackles and aerial duels more robust and combative.

There is a saying back home that teams have to earn the right to play football -- meaning first they must dominate their opponents by playing harder, running more and being more aggressive. Only then can a team expect to turn on the style and play more attractive football.

This is the first lesson Honda will have to learn, and adapt to this new mentality and discipline, both tactically and technically.

On the technical side, there is no doubt Honda has a fine left foot. Who could forget his incredible free kick against Hong Kong in an Olympic qualifier, when his shot from the right swerved and dipped and flew into the opposite corner, leaving the Hong Kong keeper stranded.

This quality, of course, is a bonus, because there is much more to Honda's game than his set-piece expertise.

He was one of Sef Vergoossen's favourite players at Nagoya with his work on the left flank, and I remember the Dutch coach complaining bitterly after losing a league game last season when Honda was absent on Olympic duty -- and having every right to complain in my opinion.

With the emergence of Yasuda at Gamba, Honda is no longer an automatic choice for the Olympic team. But this should not concern him for the moment. His priority and his goal must be to establish himself at VVV-Venlo and be a success in Europe. Beijing can wait for the next few months.


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Keegan, Gamba, Shearer

21 Jan 2008(Mon)

January 19, 2008: The other day I wrote about JEF United being the "crisis club" of Japan.

The equivalent in England, though for different reasons, was Newcastle United. All that changed, however, with the appointment of Kevin Keegan as manager for the second time -- the "third coming" in total of the so-called "Geordie Messiah".

For Japanese students of English football and culture, a Geordie is a person from Tyneside. Keegan is not a Geordie as he was born nowhere near the River Tyne, and many Newcastle fans are not Geordies, either.

But Keegan is a hero for the Geordie masses, and his return has put a smile back on the faces of Newcastle fans around the world -- including me! The Magpies were a laughing stock at Old Trafford last weekend, losing 6-0. They were a parody of what is expected from a team wearing the famous black and white stripes, but now there is pride and hope again.

I actually remember Newcastle losing 7-2 at Old Trafford in a League Cup tie in the mid-1970s, but at least they were competitive in that particular game and the fans had no reason to feel embarrassed. (The result is still referred to in a Newcastle chant to this day: "We hate Man U, 'cos they beat us 7-2!")

On the subject of Keegan and Japan, I wonder how many Gamba Osaka fans were at the match against Newcastle at Banpaku in the summer of 1996. Keegan was the manager at the time, "Sir Les" Ferdinand scored a wonderful header in a 3-1 defeat, and the manager of Nagoya Grampus Eight, a certain Arsene Wenger, was watching from high in the stands.

I was reporting on the game for The Journal, the morning newspaper in Newcastle, and it came at the end of a three-match tour that started in Bangkok, continued in Singapore and ended at Suita City.

I must admit I was expecting a laidback assignment following the mighty Magpies around the Far East, and arrived at the team hotel in Bangkok to see Keegan rushing through the lobby, chased by fans. I introduced myself, but Keegan had more pressing business. "I'm sorry, I haven't got much time at the moment," he said. "We've just signed Shearer. We'll chat later."

Yes, Newcastle had just broken the world transfer record with a 15 million pound deal for Alan Shearer -- and he would be joining his new teammates in Singapore.

So much for my leisurely summer assignment!


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JEF Disunited Chiba

17 Jan 2008(Thu)

January 16, 2008: When will the torment end for fans of JEF United?

The new season is still over seven weeks away but already JEF "Disunited" are being talked of as relegation candidates after a winter of discontent between the two main backers, Furukawa and JR East.

Mizumoto (Gamba), Mizuno (Celtic), Sato (Kyoto), Yamagishi (Frontale) and Hanyu (FC Tokyo) are either going, going or gone, and the return of the versatile Sakamoto from Albirex is the only bright spot.

JEF are used to losing good players -- Yamaguchi, Chano, Murai, Abe -- but never on this scale, and to describe them as the J1 "crisis club" even in January is hardly an exaggeration.

Well, at least they have a new manager in Josip Kuze, the Croatian coach who led Gamba in 1996 and 1997, but how many players he will have when they report back for training is anyone's guess.

It is truly a sorry state of affairs for JEF, as everything seemed to be going so well with their two Nabisco Cup titles and one of the best stadiums in the league, Fukuda Denshi Arena, near Soga Station.

I remember chatting to one of the club officials outside the ground last season and he told me the number of season ticket-holders had jumped from 1,800 at Rinkai Stadium to 5,000, which was a remarkable feat for the club. And JEF were taking as many fans away as used to attend the home games at distant Goi.

With an attractive team to watch and some exciting players, JEF were on the up and up. But now it has fallen apart, and the departure of Hanyu to FC Tokyo is the latest bitter blow.

Hanyu has been an outstanding player for United, a player who typifies the Japanese qualities so admired by Osim. But his talent and potential were spotted long before that, by a former coach, Jozef Venglos, in 2002. This was Hanyu's first season at United out of Tsukuba University, and while the media buzzed about Abe, Venglos told me he had never seen a player improve day by day, match by match, as quickly as Hanyu. What a shame, Venglos said, Hanyu had been lost to university football for so many years before joining a professional club -- in his opinion six years too late.

Happy memories -- and that's all JEF fans have at the moment.


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Mizuno is hardly the new Nakamura

14 Jan 2008(Mon)

January 11, 2008: So Koki Mizuno is "the new Shunsuke Nakamura" is he?

Must have missed that comparison in the years I have been watching him for JEF, but inevitably this is how the Scottish media have been describing him recently over the Celtic connection.

I can't think of anything the two players have in common, other than that they are Japanese.

There again, I remember receiving a call from a newspaper in England a few years ago asking me if it were true that Akinori Nishizawa was as popular in Japan as Hidetoshi Nakata. The call was from the evening newspaper in Bolton, and they were very disappointed when I informed them that no, Nishizawa was not as popular as Nakata -- Hidetoshi or Koji (the joke was lost, I am afraid).

Mizuno is far from the new Shunsuke, although, admittedly, he is definitely Japanese.

Koki is essentially a right winger; a player blessed with natural speed and who likes to take his man on down the wing and ping over a cross. Sometimes he will go it alone, cut inside and have a shot himself, with left foot or right.

He can also play a more central role, buzzing about behind the front line and running at defenders through the middle.

So no, Mizuno is not at all the new Shunsuke. He is an altogether different player but who still has a lot to offer. In fact, if Celtic boss Gordon Strachan is looking for typical Japanese qualities, then Mizuno is more Japanese than Shunsuke, who is not quick but who, given time and space to operate, is a beautiful passer of the ball, and a set-piece specialist. During his time coaching in Japan, Steve Perryman once told me that "Nakamura could open a can of beans with his left foot" -- and this is probably true (but I would not like to taste them).

Nakamura's passing could work quite well with the pace of Mizuno down the right wing, should the deal go through.

More bad news for the suffering JEF fans, though.


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Gamba strike again with Lucas move

10 Jan 2008(Thu)

January 8, 2008: True to form, Gamba Osaka have been busy in the transfer market for an overseas player – but they have not gone far to sign him.

On this occasion their target – and their catch – was the experienced striker Lucas, all the way from FC Tokyo.

Like other imports before him, Lucas represents no risk for Gamba as he has played in the J.League for four seasons and is a proven, consistent goal scorer.

His haul of 48 in 120 league games is a solid record, and he should work well alongside the powerful Bare next season; Bare, himself, of course, signed from Ventforet Kofu.

Lucas is the replacement for Magno Alves, who left in disappointing circumstances, but Gamba went back to Brazil for the man to fill Sidiclei’s boots at the back, Mineiro from Internacional.

But back to the Gamba policy of signing successful foreign players from other J.League clubs. They monitor their record, they check their character on and off the field – and then they offer them more money and the chance to challenge for titles. Easy really, isn’t it?

I was debating this issue with a Japanese colleague the other day, but he took a very different standpoint.

He thought it was bad for Japanese football that clubs did not go overseas and sign new foreign players to boost interest in the league. He thought it would be more attractive for fans if they were constantly being offered new faces from exotic lands (meaning Brazil, of course, such is the lack of imagination of most clubs).

I found this view hard to understand, as surely it would mean clubs wasting even more money on players (and their agents) they knew nothing about: Premier League wages for non-league players.

In this context, therefore, I find Gamba’s policy quite reassuring and good business – and if other clubs complain they have “stolen” their best foreign players, they should give them two- or three-year contracts at the outset; although that, admittedly, is a massive gamble and expensive risk.

I cannot see how anyone can question Gamba’s policy.



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Total Football, Total Japan

7 Jan 2008(Mon)

January 5, 2008: Takeshi Okada is not exactly holding back in his comments since returning as national coach.

First he told the players his target is to achieve Asia's highest ever finish at a World Cup, meaning third place at South Africa in 2010.

Then, in his interview for New Year's Day, he said he wanted to play a brand of football that would leave its mark on the world game, in the way that the Dutch team of 1974 did with their Total Football.

My reading of those comments is that he is not trying to copy the tactics of master coach Rinus Michels, as this would mean Okada having to unearth a Cruyff, a Neeskens, a Van Hanegem, Haan, Krol, Rep.....the names still roll off the tongue and conjure an orange-hued dream, don't they! Rather, he wants Japan to play a unique style of football, based on speed, movement, passing, fitness and organisation. In other words, to perfect the style started by Osim and which was glimpsed on occasions at the Asian Cup.

This is bold and ambitious talk from Okada, setting the scene for an interesting year ahead during which Japan will face some tough tests on the long road to South Africa (a minimum of 14 matches to qualify, maximum of 18).

Against Thailand, Bahrain and Oman, Japan will have to take the initiative away from home as well as at home and force their football on their opponents. Not only this, they will have to add a sharper edge to their play, and be more ruthless and single-minded when the opposition goal beckons instead of passing the ball to death. This is why I feel Okubo could emerge as a major player this year, and why the news of Takahara's imminent return to the J.League, with Reds, is a massive bonus for Okada and the national team.

After all, why should Takahara -- or any other Japanese player for that matter -- waste their time on the bench in Europe, putting their international career in jeopardy, when they could be playing in front of 50,000 every home game at Saitama, or in packed grounds around the country? I am sure the return of Takahara will add a couple of thousand to every Reds away game, too, and the player will be under the nose of the national coach, his schedule in sync with the commitments of club and country.

It is a sensible move by Takahara, one that will benefit Japanese football as a whole in this critical year ahead...a year of Total Japan.


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Sanfrecce still scrapping

4 Jan 2008(Fri)

January 2, 2008: After the Antlers-Sanfrecce final on New Year's Day, a lot of the talk surrounded a player who wasn't even playing. Such is the stature of one of Japan's most exciting prospects, Yosuke Kashiwagi.

With relegation to J2, should Kashiwagi stay with Sanfrecce or accept a lucrative offer and move on? Kashiwa Reysol want him, and surely others, too.

Would his chances of progress in the Olympic team and national team in 2008 be damaged if he played in J2?

Naturally, the Three Arrows are hoping he will stay, as Kashiwagi is not only important on the field but off it with his marketability.

After the final, which Sanfrecce lost 2-0 without the suspended Kashiwagi, I had a chat with the club's managing director, Toyoharu Takata.

His view was that Kashiwagi should stay and play a full season in J2 -- 42 matches next season in the expanded 15-team division -- so that his game becomes more consistent.

"He is still very young so naturally his performance can be up and down," Takata said of the left-footed midfield wizard, who turned 20 on December 15.

"If he stayed with Sanfrecce I am sure he could close that gap over the course of next season so that his performance level is more constant."

There is logic and pragmatism in Takata's stance, and evidence that a season in J2 is not necessarily a backward step.

Just ask Gert Engels, the former Kyoto manager and now No. 2 at Reds, how much Park Ji-Sung improved during his season in J2 with Purple Sanga. The heavy schedule exposed the young Korean to competitive match situations on a Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday basis almost every week, Engels says, and gave him an edge that training could never do. PSV Eindhoven and Manchester United would agree.

The situation for another Hiroshima hot property, wing-back Yuichi Komano, is different to Kashiwagi's, as he is already established in the national team. Vissel Kobe are keen to take him.

Takata, however, insists that national team coach Takeshi Okada has made it clear he would still pick Komano, and others, if they were playing in J2.

It's been a long fight for Sanfrecce in 2007 -- and they are still scrapping to keep their top players for J2. How many of these contests can they win?

A 1-1 draw looks a good bet.


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Umesaki is a good start for Reds

31 Dec 2007(Mon)

December 29, 2007: The signing of spark-plug Tsukasa Umesaki by Urawa Reds from Oita Trinita had been on the cards for several weeks, and it became official on Wednesday.

Still only 20, Umesaki certainly stands out with his quick and clever playing style. He can also play in a number of attacking positions, increasing the options for the coach in the same way Yuki Abe did at the back and in central midfield after his move from JEF United a year ago.

Although Reds have a policy of not revealing the transfer fee they paid, the figure I read for Umesaki was around 200 million yen. This is a decent price for Oita, who should be able to bolster their squad in all departments for next season and stay out of relegation trouble.

So expect a good deal of transfer activity at Oita in the coming weeks, and also at Urawa, who are surely far from finished in the market.

At a recent Emperor's Cup match between Gamba and Trinita at Chiba I was chatting with a prominent Japanese agent who said Reds had money to burn this winter following their success in the Asian Champions League and huge crowds in the J.League. He believed their top three targets were Umesaki, Konno of FC Tokyo and Kashiwagi of Sanfrecce, as Reds were preparing for the departure of Hasebe and possibly Suzuki to Europe either during the January transfer window or next summer.

Other names linked with Reds are Komano from Sanfrecce and Edmilson from Albirex to replace Washington, so clearly there is a lot more business pending at Saitama.

Umesaki is a good start, though, and can add some zip and creative flair to the Reds attack. He has a similar build to Okubo, and makes things happen as he roams across the pitch, behind the forward line, looking for an opening. The injury to J.League MVP Robson Ponte gives Umesaki a chance to win a place in the starting line-up for next season, but he accepts it will be a challenge to make his mark at such a big club.

And don't rule him out of the Olympic squad yet, either, as I feel Sorimachi's team will continue to evolve in the run-up to Beijing.


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Sanfrecce keep going, despite relegation

27 Dec 2007(Thu)

December 25, 2007: One of the biggest surprises of the 2007 J.League season was the relegation of Sanfrecce Hiroshima.

Looking through their list of players, they had enough youth and experience to stay up, but lost in the play-off to Kyoto Sanga.

So full credit, then, to the Three Arrows for finding a second wind and winning their way through to the Emperor’s Cup semi-finals.

Whatever happens from here, at least they have regained some of their pride and given their supporters something to cheer after the bitter disappointment of relegation.

I must admit I did not expect Sanfrecce to be involved in the relegation dogfight, let alone go down to J2, due to the amount of quality players throughout the squad.

A team backbone of Stoyanov at libero, Toda and Aoyama in the centre of midfield, and Ueslei and Sato up front, was fleshed out with Kashiwagi behind the front two and Komano and Hattori on the flanks. Add to this the experience and craft of the Morisaki twins, national youth team captain Makino at the back and Shimoda in goal, and it is hard to work out where Sanfrecce went wrong.

Overall, they were probably one good defender short of being a mid-table team – and their relegation is further evidence of the rise of the J.League.

Two other examples of this in recent months was the success of the under-22s in qualifying for Beijing, and the almighty struggle Reds had in trying to close out the league championship.

Sorimachi’s Japan lacked the individual stars of yesteryear, but played well as a team toughened up by regular J.League football. The JEF United duo of Mizumoto and Mizuno spring to mind immediately.

As for Reds, they looked home and dry at one stage, but failed to win any of their last five matches: drawing three on the trot before losing the last two, at home to Antlers and away to Yokohama FC. Again this proved the depth in the top flight, with Grampus, Frontale and S-Pulse all taking a point off Urawa on the home stretch.

Sanfrecce have paid a big price, too, but can still end the campaign with a trophy.


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Official memories of the unofficial Flamengo-Liverpool match

24 Dec 2007(Mon)

December 21, 2007: Official or not, nobody can take away the achievement of Zico and the brilliant Flamengo team that crushed Liverpool 3-0 in the 1981 Toyota Cup. Not even FIFA.

However, that is what the world governing body is trying to do by refusing to officially recognise all previous winners of the forerunners to their own FIFA Club World Cup.

Zico is not happy about the decision, saying that “people sitting in an office” are taking away the history of the game from the players, fans and media; although I am sure Liverpool will be happy to find out that the match never took place officially as far as FIFA is concerned.

I remember very clearly watching the match at home in England. Although Zico did not score, he was named Man of the Match as Flamengo inflicted a rare, heavy beating on a powerful Liverpool team.

I even remember a surly post-match interview with the Liverpool and England central defender, Phil Thompson, who refused to give any credit to the Brazilians. Liverpool had not been outplayed at all, he insisted.

It also stirred an interest in Japan, as I remember the incessant drone of the supporters’ horns, the winter sunshine of Tokyo and the big crowd packing the National Stadium. It was a great and exotic spectacle from so far away.

However, during the recent Club World Cup in Japan, FIFA said they would recognise only the four events organised by themselves, and that the other editions, played over two legs and then just as one game for the Toyota Cup, were not official competitions.

So be it, but the memories cannot be removed, and Flamengo will surely still count the 1981 Toyota Cup among their official achievements, with or without FIFA backing.

The match also gave a taste of things to come at the 1982 World Cup in Spain, where Zico was among the legendary four golden men in Brazil’s midfield, with Falcao, Socrates and Toninho Cerezo.

I have to say a great midfield, but not a great team, as they could not defend when they really needed to against Italy (losing 3-2 to a Rossi hat trick) and had a bungling centre forward in Serginho. I once interviewed Toninho Cerezo about this during his time at Kashima, and he shook his head and conceded Brazil 1982 could not be considered a great team. After all, they did not even reach the semi-finals.

Zico, though, should not be too concerned about the FIFA ruling, because anyone who values tradition and history knows only too well the impact and significance of that Flamengo-Liverpool match in 1981.


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Oswaldo still in dream land

20 Dec 2007(Thu)

December 19, 2007: At times on Monday night at the J.League Awards, it was hard to remember that Kashima Antlers had actually won the championship this season.

Five Reds players in the Best XI; three from Nabisco Cup winners Gamba; Robson Ponte the Player of the Year; a special award to Reds for winning the AFC Champions League and finishing third in the FIFA Club World Cup...

But then all you had to do was look at the face of Oswaldo Oliveira and his beam told its own story: Antlers were the champions and he was still in a state of shock.

It was over two weeks since Antlers had beaten S-Pulse 3-0 and Reds had lost 1-0 away to Yokohama FC to enable Kashima to leapfrog Urawa and claim a fifth league title and 10th major trophy overall.

Despite this incredible achievement, including a run of nine straight wins to end the season, I was surprised to hear that Oswaldo was not signed up for next season.

"In the next two weeks it should be sorted out," he said.

Antlers fans will be keeping their fingers crossed that there are no late hitches, as Oswaldo did a fine job in his first season without the playing resources or the money available to previous championship-winning Antlers managers. Every player he brought in did his job, and the coach moulded a strong team spirit after a shaky start.

Regarding the subject of the Best XI, Oswaldo thought Kashima may have had two or three more players in there, notably Sogahata, the goalkeeper, and Uchida, the young right back, but was not overly concerned.

My choice for MVP, a player who typifies the heart and soul of the championship-winning team, had been Iwamasa, and he was the only Antlers player in the Best XI. When I asked Oswaldo for his choice of MVP he said Juninho, the Frontale striker, but thought he had not been picked because he had won the top scorer award with 22 goals.

And the Antlers player Oswaldo could not speak highly enough of in terms of natural talent and potential? Well, it was Nozawa, scorer of that beautiful, and critical, goal at Saitama Stadium which beat Reds in the penultimate round of games.

An Antlers league and cup double, of course, is still very much on the cards, as they play Honda FC in the Emperor's Cup quarter-finals on Saturday. Before looking ahead to next season, Oswaldo's Antlers are not quite finished in this one yet.


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Reds fans out of order in booing legend Maldini

17 Dec 2007(Mon)

December 15, 2007: Attention, Reds fans! A couple of things to discuss.

Yes, you have made a big impact in the Asian Champions League and in the FIFA Club World Cup, supporting your team in large numbers around the continent.

You have even managed to bring some atmosphere to the Club World Cup/Toyota Cup, which usually resembles a training match when the calls of the players can be heard over a silent, theatre-like audience.

But booing a legend like Paolo Maldini!

What's that all about?

Really, Maldini is a role model in his attitude, loyalty and professionalism; a gentleman and a brilliant footballer.

So when a player of his stature comes on for the last 10 minutes against your own team, he should be treated with the respect his career has earned. Maldini is class. Booing him, just because it is expected, is not -- and Reds fans should try to differentiate between the two.

Booing Tsuchiya because of his foul on Tatsuya Tanaka, or booing the former Olympic coach Yamamoto when he went to Saitama Stadium with Jubilo, is one thing; and Reds fans will feel their actions on these specific occasions were justified. As a football fan, I do not have a problem with that. It is part of the game, and the targets must learn to live with it.

But Maldini?

Wouldn't it have been wonderful for the game if Maldini had been greeted by thunderous applause around the ground, rather than just from the many Japanese fans of Milan at Yokohama. Even the Inter fans don't boo Maldini.

Maybe Reds fans can learn some humility from FC Tokyo fans over at Ajinomoto Stadium. I remember once being very impressed with the Tokyo fans when Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi returned as goalkeeper for Jubilo Iwata.

On a smaller scale, Yoshi is a legend, too, a gentleman, a great ambassador for the game, and the Tokyo "ultras" behind the goal gave him a standing ovation as he ran towards them.

Having been brought up in the hooligan years in England, I half-expected the cheers and the applause to turn to catcalls and "V-signs" when the keeper acknowledged the reception...but no, the Tokyo fans showed their class.

Booing Maldini? Come on Reds fans, you can do better than that.


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Terada shines for Gamba

13 Dec 2007(Thu)

December 12, 2007: The hardy souls who made it to Fukuda Denshi Arena on Saturday were treated to an entertaining game and another eye-catching individual performance from a player who is rapidly becoming a major force in a major team.

The match was Gamba Osaka against Oita Trinita in the Emperor's Cup fifth round, and the player was Gamba's Shinichi Terada.

I have written about Terada before this season, and expect to do much more in the future.

He is still only 22, a lively and intelligent attacking midfield player, and a product of the club's admirable youth set-up.

Not only did he score two fine goals in Gamba's 3-1 win, the first with his left foot and the second with his right, he produced a 90-minute display of confidence and creativity with his well-timed runs from midfield.

His first goal was a left-foot snap shot from the edge of the box, taking everyone by surprise with its venom and accuracy, and his second was a right-foot curler into the far corner -- the kind of goal Shinji Ono scores in his sleep. It was clear what Terada was going to do when he received the ball in such an inviting position, as he made room for himself and opened up the angle to caress the ball inside the far post. A match reporter would describe it as "an exquisite finish" or "a sumptuous finish", both words doing justice to this "Ono-esque" piece of skill.

The disappointing crowd of 3,285 was hardly surprising, and highlighted once again the dwindling interest in the Emperor's Cup.

Gamba Osaka v Oita Trinita at Soga, Chiba Prefecture, anyone? Makes no sense in this day and age: Not to the two teams at the end of a long season, the fans of the two teams, or even to the Chiba public, who would prefer to watch their own team, JEF United, thank you very much.

Clearly the JFA must make drastic changes in the timing and the format of the competition, which is now in its 87th edition and struggling to retain the glamour and serve the noble principles of a bygone era.

But more of that subject later...


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Pim gets the nod over Troussier for Aussie job

10 Dec 2007(Mon)

December 8, 2007: It must have been a tough call for the Australian Football Federation in their choice for a new national coach.

The two final candidates were well known to Japanese fans: Philippe Troussier and Pim Verbeek.

In the end, Verbeek got the job, his target to take Australia into the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Troussier, meanwhile, must wait to try and rebuild his career, because not a lot has gone right for him since he left Japan in 2002 after a successful and entertaining four years.

I must admit a few years ago I contacted the Scottish Football Association when Troussier was said to be on a shortlist of two, the other being Berti Vogts. Of course the SFA would not admit it was down to Troussier or Vogts, but I said that Troussier would do a great job in rebuilding the Scottish national team -- identifying talented young players and fitting them into a system from age group football through to the senior national team; just like he had done in Japan. And he would be pretty funny along the way...

But back to Pim. He is truly one of the game's nice guys, as anyone who has had dealings with him in recent years will testify.

He led Omiya in J2 in 1999 and Kyoto in J1 in 2003, and worked with Hiddink in the build-up to the 2002 World Cup and with Advocaat for the 2006 World Cup.

He popped over to Japan on a regular basis during his time in Korea to check on the Koreans playing here, and it was always refreshing to catch up with him for a coffee and a chat.

He knows the game inside out in this part of the world, and his knowledge of the Japanese and Koreans in particular will come in handy on the long road to South Africa (a minimum of 14 qualifying matches for Japan, a maximum of 18 if they finish third in the final round and must face two play-offs).

Although most of Australia's top players are in the English Premier League -- very convenient from Holland -- Pim says he will be based in Australia and assemble a squad of A-League players. This makes total sense, of course, because it is easy to follow the form and the condition of the players in Europe, but not so in Australia.

He will be going there at an exciting time, too, with the game enjoying a high profile; and the fact that he will be able to communicate in English after so many years in Japan and Korea must also be a huge barrier removed.

I am sure everyone in Japan wishes Pim the best -- once Japan have qualified, of course!


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Now who for J.League MVP?

6 Dec 2007(Thu)

December 5, 2007: The shock defeat of Urawa Reds and incredible championship success of Kashima Antlers threw everything into confusion regarding the J.League MVP for 2007.

Even though there are some outstanding individual players around the league, I believe the MVP should always come from the championship-winning team.

Had Reds hung on, then Robson Ponte would have been a strong contender, as would Keita Suzuki and Yuki Abe. Who knows, come the official awards night on December 17, one of these players may well win it.

But my choice would come from Kashima, and again I have narrowed it down to three candidates.

The first would be Marquinhos, a J.League journeyman who has had a fantastic season in his own right and in his work for the team by leading a frequently young and inexperienced forward line. He has quick feet to take him past defenders and has scored some spectacular goals.

The second candidate would be Mitsuo Ogasawara. Yes, I know he played only half a season after returning to the club from Italy, but would Antlers have won the championship without him? Would they have matured and developed so much as a team and won nine straight games without the contribution and the influence of Ogasawara?

The answer to both questions would surely be "no", but this does not mean I would choose Ogasawara as MVP for the season.

Which brings us round to the third candidate, and the player who would get my vote. It is Daiki Iwamasa.

The big centre half is my type of player -- a tough competitor who leads by example and plays with all his heart. In other words he is a natural successor to Antlers legend Akita -- who has announced his retirement at Kyoto this season but whose spirit lives on at Kashima in the form of Iwamasa.

There is no bigger compliment to Iwamasa than that, and I think he has typified the fighting qualities of Antlers this season and their determination to keep going in difficult times.

Both Nakazawa and Tulio have won the award in recent seasons, proving that defenders are rightly recognised, too. Iwamasa would be my choice this time.


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Okada – a safe and logical choice by JFA

3 Dec 2007(Mon)

November 30, 2007: Safe and logical are two buzzwords in the coaching philosophy of the ever pragmatic Takeshi Okada.

And that was my reaction to the news that Okada – barring any late snag – will succeed Ivica Osim as coach of the national team. It is a very safe and logical appointment by the JFA.

Okada, of course, has been there, done that and got the World Cup T-shirt, from France 1998. He has had a long break from top-level coaching so should be refreshed and ready for battle when Japan start their campaign in February to qualify for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

In 1997, Okada was assistant coach to Shu Kamo – and was promoted when Kamo was fired during a two-game swing in Central Asia. He revived the team, recorded a crucial win in Korea, and then steered Japan past Iran in the play-off on that unforgettable night in Johor Bahru.

This time he is also taking on a job that was half-finished, but in much more traumatic circumstances than before after the stroke that felled Osim.

Osim was well on his way to rebuilding the team and creating a new style of play when tragedy struck, and Okada’s job will be to maintain that creative momentum while adding his own touches in terms of team structure and personnel.

And Okada, of course, knows everything there is to know about the J.League players and those overseas from his days of plotting campaigns with Yokohama F. Marinos.

Yes, he is a logical and safe choice, and there was absolutely no need for the JFA to look outside of Japan when there were a couple of other candidates who would also have been sound appointments: Nishino and Osieck, the latter supported by his Japanese-speaking assistant coach Engels, thereby doing away with the need for an interpreter on the training pitch and in the meeting room.

Under the tragic circumstances, though, Okada fits the bill at a time when the JFA was thrown into shock like the rest of the football world.


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Yokohama FC have nothing to lose

29 Nov 2007(Thu)

November 27, 2007: Who would have thought that the J.League championship would still be on the line on the last day of the season?

It looked as though Reds would wrap it up early and be able to take a breather before the FIFA Club World Cup in the second week of December.

But here we are, in the final week of the season, and Reds still have to win one more game to guarantee a second straight championship.

On paper, of course Reds should beat Yokohama FC at Nissan Stadium on Saturday, but we have seen in the J.League that anything can happen on the last day of the season -- especially at that ground. Just ask Tatsuhiko Kubo!

Look at the match from the perspective of Yokohama FC. It is a wonderful opportunity for them to end a miserable season on a high note, and give their fans something to celebrate over the winter months before they return to J2.

They have nothing to lose, whereas Reds have everything to lose in terms of the championship and indeed their pride. After all, the fact that they won the Asian Champions League has made them an attractive target for all rivals, and this is additional pressure the Reds players will have to learn to live with.

It could have been even worse for Reds if Washington had been sent off against Antlers on Saturday. After being booked for a late challenge on Araiba in the first half, Washington went flying over Sogahata in the second half as they chased a loose ball.

It was touch and go whether he would be booked for simulation – sorry, for diving – and I would not have been surprised at all if the referee had shown him the yellow card, followed by red. There is no doubt Washington tumbled theatrically, twisting in the air, but what saved him probably was that he did not appeal for a penalty. I think he came to his senses as he hit the deck and decided to get up and carry on, realizing that if he pushed his luck a little too far it might backfire on him.

Anyway, it was good to see the angry reaction of the Antlers players. I must admit I love it when players are furious with rivals who dive and try and win penalties or free kicks. I don’t think there is enough of this in Japan (angry reactions I mean; there is plenty of the other).

If a player feels an opponent is trying to con the referee and trying to get someone booked or sent off, give him a piece of your mind! Tell him he’s a cheat. Let everyone in the ground know he’s a cheat. Embarrass him. Humiliate him. Then maybe he won't do it again -- well, at least until the next game.

About the Reds-Antlers match in general: a thoroughly professional performance by Antlers, just like the good old days. Lovely goal by Nozawa. Good spot by the referee for Tulio’s handball. Looked harsh at first, but the decision was spot on.

But why, oh why didn’t Soma shoot on his favored left foot in the second half instead of trying to pass to Washington inside the Antlers box?


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Toshihiro Aoyama – the unsung hero

26 Nov 2007(Mon)

November 23, 2007: It is usually quite easy to identify the stars of a successful team.

But in the case of Japan’s under-22s, where do you start?

As Philippe Troussier would have said proudly, “the team is the star” -- because that is so true of this generation of players, whose qualification for Beijing must be regarded as a major triumph.

While there may not have been any stars – is this a bad thing? -- there are certainly several unsung heroes who deserve praise.

One player in particular I would like to mention is the Sanfrecce midfielder Toshihiro Aoyama.

I thought he made a major contribution to Japan’s 1-0 victory at home to Qatar a few weeks ago when he came on as a substitute. He shows great awareness and anticipation, breaking up opposition attacks with a well-timed tackle or an interception. Nothing flashy; just good concentration and tactical discipline.

On Wednesday night, of course, he saved the day with that marvellous goal line clearance when the Saudis seemed certain to score. Had that gone in so early, then the match would have been very different.

I would have expected it to degenerate into a farce, with more gamesmanship and play-acting than anyone could tolerate as the Saudis held on to their lead. The stretcher would have been on every five minutes, and the goalkeeper would have stayed down after every corner and free kick sent into the Saudi box.

This is why it was so crucial for Japan not to concede the first goal – and why Aoyama’s contribution not only saved Japan but also saved the match from descending into chaos.

I also thought Hosogai had a fine game alongside Aoyama in the midfield engine room, giving Japan a bit of steel, experience and dynamism. He came into the game with confidence surging through him due to Reds’ successful season – and didn’t it show!

While their qualification for Beijing is a big success, this team is far from complete, and no one knows this more than Sorimachi.

But the coach has the basis of a well-organised, hard-working team, and a team that matured and toughened up considerably as the campaign went on.

This is enough reason to celebrate, without the need for individual stars.


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is so close – but still so far

22 Nov 2007(Thu)

November 20, 2007: The Olympic Games in Beijing are just one win – or one draw – away for Japan, ahead of their match against Saudi Arabia at Kokuritsu on Wednesday night.

Yes, it is tantalizingly close, but far from a formality as the Saudis know they will qualify with a victory.

This all makes Wednesday’s match a tense, fascinating contest, all these months of qualifying reduced to what amounts to a cup final – winner takes all, or a draw taking all in the case of Japan.

After their defeat in Qatar, Japan got it exactly right in Vietnam and won handsomely with a performance full of authority, experience and goals.

Coach Sorimachi was rewarded for his attacking line-up with four goals, two for Reysol’s lively Lee, one for Honda from the penalty spot and the last for Hosogai with a superb header.

Sorimachi took a risk by playing only one defensive midfielder in Aoyama of Sanfrecce, and pairing him with the attack-minded Kashiwagi, his teammate at Hiroshima.

With Mizuno on the right and Honda on the left giving the midfield balance and width, Lee and the strong-running Okazaki led the attack.

While the first goal was dreadful defending at a set-piece, the second was thanks to Honda’s industry and wonderful cross, met firmly by Lee for his second goal of the night.

On an off the pitch, Lee has character and personality, and is learning his trade well under the guidance of Franca, one of my favourite players in the J.League.

Japan, of course, hold the advantage going into Wednesday’s “final”, but it would be suicidal for them to defend and play for the draw. I am sure they won’t – as the first goal will be absolutely crucial.

Japan must play very cleverly and maturely, striking a balance between controlling the game but not pushing too much to win it and, in the process, leaving themselves open to the counter.


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Reds-Rossoneri: Finally (hopefully) a meaningful match

19 Nov 2007(Mon)

November 16, 2007: Everything went to plan at Saitama Stadium 2002 on Wednesday night when Urawa Reds finished the job and became Asian champions.

And if everything goes to plan at the FIFA Club World Cup next month, then Japan will stage one of the most attractive games in the history of football in this country.

On Thursday, December 13, Reds could be facing Milan at Nissan Stadium, Yokohama, in the semi-finals of FIFA’s revamped club world championship – and wouldn’t that be a treat for the nation!

A proper match involving a Japanese club against a top world team; a match that means something from a competitive standpoint instead of another dreary tour/training game; a match that will be watched around the world; a match that will put Japanese football in the spotlight.

The Reds-Rossoneri fixture is not fixed yet, of course, because Urawa must first beat the winners of the play-off between Waitakere United of New Zealand and Sepahan of Iran. Anyone remember them?

Even before the AFC Champions League final took place, the Iranians were already guaranteed a return trip to Japan for the Club World Cup. Win the Champions League and they would qualify as Asian champions; lose, which they did, and they would enter the play-off as the “host” team – due to the FIFA rule forbidding two clubs from the same football association taking part.

Sepahan will surely defeat the Kiwis, who won the Oceania title by beating Ba of Fiji on the away goals rule after a 2-2 draw.

But just because Reds beat Sepahan in the Asian final does not mean they are certain to do it again. The carrot of playing Milan in the semi-finals would be a huge incentive for any club team, so Reds will have to do it all again when they play Sepahan or Waitakere at Toyota Stadium on Monday, December 10.

I am sure the Reds fans will travel in their thousands to Nagoya – and I am sure also that the Reds “brand”, following their ACL success, will have started spreading around the country; meaning strong support from that region, too.

It may be mid-November, but there is a long way to go yet before this football year is out.


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Consadole hanging on in J2 marathon

15 Nov 2007(Thu)

November 13, 2007: With all these mega matches around these days, it is difficult to know where to start this column.

So let's start at the top -- the top of J2, that is.

Under the former Omiya Ardija manager Toshiya Miura, Consadole Sapporo are approaching the finishing line of the long, long race for promotion.

After 46 of the 48 matches, Consadole have 87 points, two more than Verdy in second place. Kyoto Sanga FC are third with 81 points from 45 games, followed by Vegalta Sendai (80 from 45) and Cerezo Osaka (78 from 45).

The top two go up, the third-placed team plays the 16th-placed J1 team in the playoff, and at Sapporo Dome on Sunday, No. 1 meets No. 3...Consadole against Kyoto.

I caught up recently with "young Toshi" at Consadole's picturesque training ground at Miyanosawa. With Tudor House and the pink chocolate factory of (troubled) sponsor Ishiya on one side, mountains and even a windmill in the distance, it really is a lovely setting, especially in the bright sunshine of an early Hokkaido winter.

No wonder the manager was looking relaxed, despite the fact that his team resembles a marathon runner who has hit the front early, opened a huge gap and is now hanging on for dear life as the chasing pack breathes down his neck.

"I like living up here, you don't feel the stress," he told me, after the training session had finished and before he went on his daily 8-10 kilometre run round the pitch.

"Okada-san liked it as well," he added, referring, of course, to Takeshi Okada, who sought sanctuary in Sapporo after the madness of 1998.

Before the season started, I must admit I didn't think Consadole would be among the promotion candidates, with the likes of Verdy, Kyoto, Sendai, Cerezo, Bellmare and Avispa around.

"Me, too, I am surprised," said Toshi. "I thought maybe third or fourth would be good in the first season, and then next season we would be in a position to challenge. But we have been at the top since May and the players have handled it so well. They work hard every day."

They will need to keep working hard for a little bit longer. After Sunday's game against Kyoto, Consadole have a break until the last day of the season, December 1, when they are at home again, to bottom club Mito Hollyhock.


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Another smart move by Gamba

12 Nov 2007(Mon)

November 9, 2007: Gamba Osaka know when they are on to a good thing.

They have proved this with their foreign signings, taking tried and trusted players who have made their mark at a previous club in Japan – Sidiclei, Magno Alves and Bare. No risk there.

Now comes the news that they have agreed a two-year contract extension with their manager, Akira Nishino, taking him through to the end of the 2009 season.

This is a smart move by the club, a two-year deal rather than one; not least because if the JFA comes calling for Nishino then at least Gamba will be able to negotiate a decent settlement to release him.

This is, of course, if the wheels fall off Osim’s Japan. I am not saying they will, because I think Japan are on the right track under Osim, but you never know what will happen in this game, as Jose Mourinho would tell you. Nishino, I am sure, would be at the top of the JFA list next time around.

The club is very settled and established at the top now, having won the league championship in 2005 and now the Nabisco Cup.

There is a strong youth policy and they do not waste money on players who cannot add something to the squad. The rumours flying around at the moment, of course, have FC Tokyo talisman Konno lined up for a winter move to Suita City – which would not go down well with the Tokyo faithful but would be an excellent signing for Gamba.

Konno is very much in the Myojin mould: solid, dependable, giving everything he has got for the team and constantly driving them forward.

Philippe Troussier once paid the ultimate compliment to the former Reysol star by saying that his perfect team would include eight Myojins and three others who could add something a bit extra. Myojin would give you a merit mark of seven out of 10 every game, never six, the Frenchman said, and I think Konno does the same -- and frequently more. In fact on some occasions I have given Konno 10.5.

At the start of the season I tipped Gamba to win the league. With four games to go their chances are remote, but this is more down to the resolve and depth of Urawa than a failing on Gamba’s part. Gamba acknowledge this, too, hence the new deal for Nishino.


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Yasuda -- a new hero for Gamba

8 Nov 2007(Thu)

November 6, 2007: What a weekend for Michihiro Yasuda!

What a season, actually, as the 19-year-old left back/wing back has really emerged for club and country, at least at the age-group level.

Surely it will be only a matter of time before Ivica Osim promotes him to the senior ranks, as the national team needs a natural left-footer in there. At the moment Osim has two solid right-backs, Kaji and Komano, but the latter has been forced to play on the left due to the lack of an outstanding candidate.

I still like Komiyama at Marinos, and think he would be worth looking at, but Yasuda has come through the ranks at Gamba and through the national teams, playing for the under-20s in Canada this year and now in the under-22 squad pushing for Beijing.

Yasuda plays at a high tempo and likes to push forward, like many left backs. Roberto Carlos and Ashley Cole spring to mind, but the player he most reminds me of is the former England left back Graeme Le Saux -- there is the same "buzz" about him as he forages up and down the left flank.

Going back to the Japan-Qatar Olympic qualifier in Tokyo a few weeks ago, I thought the match was set up perfectly for Yasuda to come on in the second half -- not to replace Inoha at left back but to help him out further forward; bringing some balance to the team and forcing the Qatari right flank to retreat, as they were swarming all over Inoha. (Japan won 1-0 with 10 men, so Sorimachi was proved right in the end with his own selections.)

With three points now needed in Hanoi, maybe Sorimachi will put the in-form Yasuda in his starting line-up. After all, his confidence must be sky-high after being named New Hero of the J.League Nabisco Cup, and then MVP after his match-winning goal in the final.

He had a solid game on the left flank, going head to head with Frontale fruitcake Mori, who can be extremely dangerous when he is in the mood -- and dangerous to his own teammates when he is not.

For the goal, Yasuda, now pushing forward, was in the right place at the right time, just in front of Mori, to slide in and meet Bare's low cross from the right.


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J1 – a table of two halves

5 Nov 2007(Mon)

November 1, 2007: At this late stage of the season, many teams have nothing to play for in terms of winning a championship, winning promotion or avoiding relegation.

One such club is Vissel Kobe, but manager Hiroshi Matsuda still has a target he wants to achieve.

“Our aim is to finish in the top nine,” he said, after a 3-1 victory at Kashiwa had helped his cause considerably.

“There are two halves in J1 – the top nine and the bottom nine -- and our target at the start of the season was to be in the top half. This is what we are aiming for now, and we are close to it.”

Indeed they are, as they stand 10th with 41 points from 30 games, only two points adrift of ninth-placed Yokohama F Marinos with four games remaining.

Vissel are always busy in the transfer market, and a couple of mid-season recruits were on view at Kashiwa: the left-sided midfielder Seiji Koga and defensive midfielder Jun Marques Davidson.

As I touched on in an earlier column, Koga looks a fine acquisition, not only because he brings balance to the left flank but also because it allows captain Okubo to play up front. Okubo never looked right on the left side of midfield, did he, because he is first and foremost a goal-getter, a single-minded striker who is much more effective running at the heart of the defence and shooting.

Matsuda told me that Koga had been one of his favourite players at Avispa, and that he had tried to sign him and centre half Chiyotanda at the start of the season.

“He is a natural left footer, the first at the club,” Matsuda said of Koga.

As for Davidson, he did well for Omiya before falling out of favour with previous manager Toshiya Miura towards the end of last season, but his transfer to Albirex did not work out at all and he never got a kick.

Davidson came on for the second half at Kashiwa to anchor the midfield – anchor being the appropriate word in the watery conditions. His long-term future is still up in the air, but at least now he is getting some playing time.


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A splashing afternoon at Kashiwa

1 Nov 2007(Thu)

October 30, 2007: Who said a penalty shootout was a lottery?

Well, you weren't at Kashiwa Hitachi Stadium on Saturday afternoon for Reysol's home game against Vissel Kobe.

Now that's what I call a lottery!

It wasn't football as we know it, that's for sure; more like waterball on a pitch that was unplayable.

I arrived at 12.30pm, 90 minutes before kick-off, and the hardy Yellow Monkeys were already in place behind the goal, sheltering beneath makeshift blue covers. Very resourceful. The heavy rollers were fighting a losing battle trying to clear the deluge, and the floodlights were on for kick-off under heavy skies and heavy rain -- and getting heavier.

Even though the match would have been postponed in many other countries, my thought was...well, why not play? The conditions were the same for both teams, there were almost 9,000 fans in the ground, the TV feed was organised, and the logistics of a postponement for a mid-table game did not bear thinking about.

In fact it was quite interesting watching the game unravel. A good pass became a bad one, and a bad pass became a good one. The players had to think, adapt to the conditions and revise their technique -- the only danger they faced was drowning.

In the end, Vissel -- maybe they should be renamed Vessel Kobe for the way they mastered the water -- adjusted better, particularly Leandro. The Brazilian forward quickly worked out that you could actually pass to yourself, chasing down a ball that would stop in a puddle before the defender could react.

Leandro's first goal was a neat header to an excellent cross from Seiji Koga -- what a good signing he is by Kobe manager Hiroshi Matsuda, as it brings balance on the left flank and allows Okubo to play through the middle -- and his second was a wonderful finish under the circumstances, chipping the ball beyond Minami without breaking stride.

You had to feel sorry, though, for Reysol's Brazilian forward Franca -- an artist trying to paint another masterpiece on a soggy canvas that had been left out in a typhoon.


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The significance of the Saitama semi-final

29 Oct 2007(Mon)

Tokyo, October 26, 2007: How significant was Urawa Reds’ win over Seongnam in their AFC Champions League semi-final on Wednesday night?

According to industry sources, it was one of the most important results in the last 15 years in terms of Asian football development.

There is no doubt that Japan drives Asian football, off the pitch in terms of sponsorship, marketing and television, and on the pitch with the J.League and the various national teams.

However, one thing has been missing since the Asian Football Confederation merged the old Asian Club Championship, Asian Cup Winners’ Cup and Asian Super Cup (which was contested by the winners of the first two competitions) into the AFC Champions League in 2002. That, of course, was a successful Japanese club.

All that has changed now Reds have booked a place in the Champions League final against Sepahan of Iran, and the marketing men feel that this has raised the profile of the competition to a new level overnight.

“Japan’s Asian Cup triumph in 1992…the launch of the J.League in 1993…Japan’s victory over Iran in 1997 to qualify for the France World Cup…and now Urawa Reds reaching the final of the Champions League. That’s how significant this result is,” said Nick Mould, Hong Kong-based president of World Sport Group’s North Asia operations.

This conversation took place in Tokyo the evening after events at Saitama Stadium 2002 on Wednesday night, when the formal proceedings finally ended at 10 minutes past 10.

The match had everything, didn’t it, and was played in a terrific spirit, despite the intense rivalry between the two countries and what was at stake.

When the match kicked off the atmosphere resembled a national team game, and my thoughts drifted back to 1997 and the World Cup qualifier between Japan and South Korea at National Stadium. At one point it looked like the result would be the same, too, as the Japanese squandered a one-goal lead and trailed 2-1.

On this occasion, though, Hasebe rescued Reds and the Japanese (and Brazilians, coached by Germans) came through in a penalty shootout.

Germans…a semi-final penalty shoot-out…how could Reds lose that one?


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Lessons to be learned from Yokohama FC

25 Oct 2007(Thu)

October 23, 2007: No matter how inevitable relegation may be, it still hurts when the time finally comes.

That time came early for Yokohama FC, a 3-0 defeat at Kobe on Saturday condemning them to a swift return to J2 with five J1 matches still remaining.

Statistics don't lie, and they show that last season's J2 champions have been completely out of their depth in the top flight, winning only three times in 29 outings, scoring only 17 goals to date, and being stuck on a meagre 11 points since August 18.

Reysol, who came up behind them in second place last season, and Vissel, who won a play-off against Avispa to clinch promotion, have both fared much better than Yokohama FC, thanks to bigger budgets, a stronger balance of Japanese players and better foreign imports.

In J2, an ageing, wily Yokohama FC made few mistakes and played with control and consistency to cross the finish line first in the marathon season. But teams need a bit more than that in J1, and Yokohama simply did not have the pace or the depth in quality to make an impact. In short, they had come as far as possible, and there was nowhere else to go except down.

Not even a change of manager, Julio Leal for Takuya Takagi, could turn things round, or give them fresh impetus for a while, and relegation was confirmed as early as October 20.

At the start of the season it looked so promising for Yokohama FC, didn't it?

New recruit Kubo scored an early candidate for goal of the season with his blockbuster in a 2-1 defeat at Saitama Stadium on the opening day, and then came that incredible match at Mitsuzawa Stadium when the minnows beat the Marinos 1-0. There was a real derby feel to that game, and the contrast in the mood of the two sets of fans snaking their way down the hill from the ground to Yokohama station after the game was a true football moment.

That seems like a different year now, though, and it will be interesting to see how Yokohama FC react to the reality of relegation in their next match -- a massive one for the visitors to Mitsuzawa on Saturday, Omiya Ardija.


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Okubo provides another piece of the Osim jigsaw

22 Oct 2007(Mon)

October 19, 2007: It is a time for belated celebration, a time for quiet optimism, and a time for Yoshito Okubo to finally start making an impact at the highest level.

His two fine goals in the 4-1 defeat of Egypt on Wednesday were long overdue, coming in his 21st appearance for the national team since making his debut on May 31, 2003.

Admittedly, several of those appearances were restricted to only a few minutes as a substitute, but the pressure was building on him to deliver with each cap he received.

And now -- just like the public bus service in England -- you wait a long time, and then two come at once.

So good news for Okubo, who has improved overnight from no goals in 20 games to two in 21 -- an altogether healthier strike rate!

They say that one goal in three games is a decent return for a striker at this level, and Okubo is good enough to climb to that mark next year. Hopefully these goals will liberate him and he will continue to be aggressive and single-minded in his search for more.

It was Zico, of course, who gave Okubo his first chance, and talked him up a lot in 2003. But the goals did not come and he fell out of favour, missing his chance to make the 2006 World Cup squad.

Osim, too, was well aware of his qualities, but has made Okubo work and wait for his chances in the new set-up. Okubo started to repay that faith on Wednesday night and has put himself in the frame for a permanent place in the squad, but there is still tough competition in this department with the likes of Tatsuya Tanaka, Hisato Sato and Ryuji Bando.

Okubo fans, however, will feel that this is another part of the Osim jigsaw completed, another piece that fits the style and personality of the team. Apart from the result, then, this was a bonus at the end of the international year for Japan.


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Pixie -- a Grampus gamble worth taking

18 Oct 2007(Thu)

October 16, 2007: As soon as news broke that Dragan Stojkovic had resigned as president of Red Star Belgrade, his next destination seemed obvious.

Surely it would be Nagoya, due to his strong ties with the club and the fact that he is still regarded as a hero by the long-suffering Grampus fans.

Shortly after, it was out: Grampus had indeed approached "Pixie" about succeeding Dutch manager Sef Vergoossen, who had indicated he would be stepping down at the end of the season.

In football, one and one does not always equal two, but on this occasion the instant reaction to the Pixie story has, in fact, a lot of substance.

Hopefully the deal will be done and Stojkovic will return to Japan, as he is an extremely interesting and entertaining character, respected worldwide.

On the pitch I often thought he got a raw deal from referees, who would over-react to his explosive nature and show him a yellow card for next to nothing. His reputation went before him, and he could not let off a bit of steam without getting into trouble. And then more!

I wonder how he will be on the touchline? Calm and controlled, mature and responsible, or maybe like Buchwald and inclined to throw his suit jacket to the turf in frustration, disgust, anger, or all three?

One thing is for sure: the Grampus fans will adore him and regard him as the saviour, and the players will respect him and be inspired by him. All in all it makes sense for Grampus, who, let's face it, are desperate to be a force in the J.League year in, year out.

On a few occasions Vergoossen looked like he was on the right track, only for the team to take two steps backwards. He has had rotten luck with injuires, of course, especially to his defenders, but the season has fallen away badly after such a bright start.

In fairness to Vergoossen, he always said a top five finish would be good for this team, but they are unlikely to climb that high, while being well away from the danger zone.

Can Pixie turn it round? The club thinks it is a gamble worth taking -- and one guaranteed to boost the profile of the club on and off the pitch.

He would be a welcome return to the J.League, not just to Nagoya.


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Frontale were only trying to win the Champions League

15 Oct 2007(Mon)

Tokyo, October 12, 2007: The Kawasaki Frontale debate has been – and still is – an interesting one.

Were they right to rest most of their first-choice players for a league match at Kashiwa in between the two legs of their Asian Champions League quarter-final?

Or should they have fielded their strongest side against Reysol as a duty to their fans and to the rest of the J1 teams?

To me the answer is obvious.

Frontale were absolutely within their rights to do what they did, and no one should be telling them who to pick for any match.

In a way it is an insult to the Frontale players who did play to suggest they were not up to the required standard, as they are on the list of professional players and, therefore, available for selection.

In fact, looking through the Frontale team at Kashiwa on September 23, it is still a strong side, and would probably be good enough to stay in J1 if they played every week: Kawashima; Sahara, Kawamura, Ito; Igawa, Yabu, Taniguchi, Francismar, Ohashi; Ganaha, Kurotsu.

This is a good team, even though they lost 4-0 in a second-half collapse. If they had won, or drawn, would anyone have been complaining?

For me it showed how seriously Frontale were taking the Asian Champions League, something some other J.League clubs have not done in the past, contributing to Japan’s poor record.

And it is not as though Reysol were at the top of the table challenging for the title, or at the bottom fighting against relegation. In those circumstances, rival clubs may have had the right to complain. But, still, that is not Frontale’s problem.

They were doing what they thought was best for the club, and trying to win the Asian Champions League, so they should not be put in the dock for this.


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Terada shows true Gamba grit

11 Oct 2007(Thu)

Tokyo, October 9, 2007: Anyone doubting the resolve of Gamba Osaka to keep the pressure on Urawa Reds should have been at Hitachi Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

With the injured Bare off at half-time, and a goal down just six minutes into the second period, things looked bleak for Gamba.

But they managed to regroup, fight back in style and win 2-1 to collect another three points in their pursuit of the defending champions. After Reds won on Sunday, the gap between first and second remains at six points, but with six games remaining the title can still be won and lost.

Two of the three goals at Kashiwa on Saturday were top quality; first as Franca fired Reysol into the lead with a sumptuous, first-time right-foot shot which curled inside the post. Great work, too, from Tadanari Lee, cutting inside from the right flank before laying the ball off for Franca to strike home. These two work well together, and Lee could not have a better teacher in the art of the deep-lying centre forward.

Gamba’s equalizer was also a beauty, as Bando rose to meet Kaji’s pinpoint right-wing cross and send a powerful header past Minami.

As for Gamba’s winner? Well, it looked a harsh penalty call for me as Terada swept into the box and tumbled under challenge, and an unnecessary yellow card for Ryo Kobayashi, the right back.

Endo allowed the rumpus to die down before scoring another of his trademark penalties. He makes it look so easy when, of course, it is not, but it needs nerve, self-confidence and a sound technique to succeed with such a nonchalant approach.

The Gamba player who really impressed me on this particular afternoon, though, was the aforementioned Terada. Yet another product of the club’s youth system, the 22-year-old attacking midfielder stepped up a gear in the second half and popped up all over the place, be it crossing, dribbling or shooting. I thought he was the driving force of the Gamba comeback, and his more established teammates responded to his adventurous play.


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Chiba stands out for Niigata

8 Oct 2007(Mon)

Tokyo, October 5, 2007: A few weeks ago I bumped into Washington in Omiya one evening and had a quick chat.

I asked him who were the most difficult Japanese defenders he had come across, and he said Nakazawa first and Iwamasa second.

Now, there is a good chance he would add Kazuhiko Chiba of Albirex Niigata to the list.

Chiba had a fine game for Albirex against Reds at Saitama Stadium 2002 recently. Still only 22, he was asked to man-mark Washington in his own back yard – not the most pleasant of tasks on a Sunday afternoon.

And Chiba did just that in a performance that really caught the eye.

As we know, Washington did not score because he came up against an opponent who showed a lot of character and fight, as well as concentration in treacherous playing conditions.

Like Mizumoto, Chiba has a lot of personality as a player, and is not prepared to be intimidated by a high-profile Brazilian striker.

Like Inoha, Chiba plays with a maturity and composure beyond his years and inspires the players around him with his cool authority.

Like Abe, Chiba looks good at the back or in central midfield, where I saw him earlier in the season against Omiya at Komaba.

In short, Chiba is a natural football player, already with experience in Holland but still establishing himself in the J.League following his debut for Albirex in May 2006.

At 1.83 metres and 74 kgs he has a good physique, two good feet, a good footballing brain and a bit of attitude to go with it. One minute he was displaying his skills by bringing the ball out of defence; the next he was denying Washington with a fearless, perfectly timed block.

In these Osim days of versatility and adaptability, do not rule out Chiba from forcing his way into the national coach’s plans.


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Sakuma sets tough target for Ardija

4 Oct 2007(Thu)

October 1, 2007: Recent victories over Reds at Saitama Stadium and now Marinos at Nissan Stadium suggests a team challenging for the championship.

But no; we are talking about Omiya Ardija, who, despite these two eye-catching results, occupy the second automatic relegation place of 17th with just 24 points from 27 games.

When asked what his target was to guarantee safety, manager Satoru Sakuma said 40 points -- meaning five wins and a draw from the last seven games.

This is a big ask of his players, but Ardija's opponents include fellow strugglers Sanfrecce at home, Yokohama FC away, Oita at home and Kofu away.

What's more, they will finally have their own home stadium at Omiya Koen back on line for the November 11 clash with Trinita, following redevelopment.

One thing is for sure, Sakuma will be glad to leave the Komaba cow field behind, and play on greener pastures.

"Many of my players are small and technical. This is why we can win at Saitama against Reds and at Nissan Stadium against Marinos, on good pitches. At Komaba you cannot play football because of the pitch. It is just a physical battle," he said.

After the previous week's 1-0 debacle at home to JEF, Omiya lifted their game and their motivation several notches to score two excellent goals and win 2-0 against Marinos.

J.League journeyman Takashi Hirano -- one of the original Nagoya Grampus Three bad boys -- was roundly jeered by the Marinos fans before kick-off, and he provided the best answer with a flying header at the far post. It was Hirano's second appearance for Ardija, whom he joined on May 21 but suffered a knee injury on his first day of training and was out for two months.

"Good personality, experienced professional, gives 100 per cent in training every day. I believe in him," was Sakuma's assessment of the former Marinos man.

Yoshihara scored the second, cracking a right-foot shot on the run past a startled Enomoto -- and continuing his run all the way to the Omiya fans behind the goal. At the vast Nissan Stadium, that is approximately two kilometres, so full credit here to the referee, Joji Kashihara. He allowed Yoshihara his moment of glory, all the time looking at his watch but not showing the yellow card. Commonsense refereeing this.

Funnily enough, in the four minutes of stoppage time, Yoshihara got himself booked anyway for pulling back Nakazawa!

Well, you can't win 'em all...

For Sakuma, five out of seven will do nicely.

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In defence of Frontale forward Jong/Chong

1 Oct 2007(Mon)

September 28, 2007: Hopes of an all-Japan final in the Asian Champions League have been dashed with the elimination of Kawasaki Frontale at Todoroki on Wednesday night.

I must admit I feared the worst before the penalty shoot-out, as everything pointed to a Sepahan win. Frontale had dominated the match but failed to capitalise on several clear-cut chances, while the Iranians would have settled for a shoot-out even before the second leg kicked off.

Under such circumstances, Sepahan had nothing to lose, while Frontale were now under more pressure to finish a job they had started in Iran but could not quite manage at home.

So full credit to Sepahan. They had ridden their luck, and survived due to a combination of fine goalkeeping from Abbas Mohammadi and some wasteful finishing from Frontale, notably Juninho. Against the big, strong, occasionally violent and frequently cynical Irainian defenders, Juninho looked much smaller and lightweight than usual, but his speed and eye for an opening still got him into some decent scoring positions as Frontale poured forward.

With the swashbuckling Jong Tae Se (or Chong Tese if you prefer) alongside Juninho up front, it is not hard to see why Ganaha cannot get a look-in at the moment, and must settle for a few minutes off the bench.

A few words in defence of Jong/Chong.

In extra time, several Iranian players accused him of using his elbow in an aerial duel with centre half Hadi Aghily. He didn't. It was his head. He was a little bit late into a challenge, but it was not malicious, it was just...well, Korean.

From the theatrical reaction of Aghily's teammates, the blood must have been flowing freely, and they urgently beckoned the doctor/physio/stretcher bearers to come on.

This is when the referee is in a difficult position. Is the player really hurt, or is he faking like many of his teammates before? On this occasion he was hurt, but who could blame the ref for waiting a while because the Sepahan team had cried wolf so many times?

The Iranians accused Jong of using his elbow, and were trying to stir up trouble, but he didn't -- and, in his own defence, he pointed to his head when confronted by an irate Sepahan defender on the resumption of play.

So, in the absence of Frontale, good luck Reds!

In terms of fan base, Reds have an incredible success story to tell Asia and the world, and hopefully they can do it in the Champions League to qualify for the FIFA Club World Cup, regardless of where they finish in the J.League.

Even Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson was impressed with the sheer volume of Reds fans, commenting that, outside the top 10 teams in the Premier League, Reds had as good a following as anyone in England.

Top 10? So many?


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Bad game, good game at Komaba, Ajista

27 Sep 2007(Thu)

Tokyo, September 25, 2007: Two strange games at the weekend.

On Saturday I headed for Urawa Komaba Stadium and the Ardija-JEF United match. Played on a poor surface, the game was a terrible advert for Japanese football.

It was hard to believe that Omiya were fighting for their J1 lives, as the match resembled a pre-season kickabout or an end-of-season affair with nothing at stake for either team.

JEF won 1-0 with a goal from Saito, but their failure to add a second against 10 men in the second half was a major concern for manager Amar Osim. In the end JEF had libero Nakajima to thank for the clean sheet, first with a timely interception in his own goal mouth, and then with a fine tackle just outside the box.

But overall it was a poor spectacle, with too many passes going astray and few moments of inspiration or coordination.

Sunday at Ajista was much, much better, FC Tokyo against S-Pulse.

There was only one team in it for a while – and it wasn’t the home team.

S-Pulse, one of the biggest Japanese teams I have seen, started really well, looking bright, confident and well-organised.

Then suddenly they were 2-0 down.

The first Tokyo goal was an own goal, scored by the unlucky Kazumichi Takagi as he met Ishikawa’s cross from the right with a diving header into the far corner. All credit to Ishikawa, though, as his cross, clipped in early and on the half-volley, was a beauty.

As was the finish shortly after by Akamine, who drilled a left-foot half-volley inside the near post after an incisive run into the box from Fukunishi.

From being in control of the game, S-Pulse were now in trouble and staring defeat in the face. It was incredible how quickly the game had changed, and Tokyo never looked likely to let them back into it thanks to the driving force of Konno.

Konno, happily back in central midfield after his stint alongside Fujiyama in the centre of defence, is always my MVP – and that is before the game even kicks off. It is up to someone else to play better than Konno to win my vote, and it is rare that anyone does.


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Two good results – but quarter-finals are far from settled

24 Sep 2007(Mon)

Tokyo, September 21, 2007: Both Japanese clubs achieved satisfactory results in the first leg of their Asian Champions League quarter-finals on Wednesday night.

Reds won 2-1 at home to Jeonbuk, Motors, while Frontale came back from Iran with a 0-0 draw against Sepahan.

Reds were the better team for long periods against the Koreans, who looked uncharacteristically sluggish and distinctly second best in all aspects of the game.

Until, that is, Robson Ponte went off with 10 minutes to go. This is when I thought Reds lost the initiative and the momentum, and Jeonbuk were able to raise their game and snatch one at the end against a Reds team that had started to panic.

Still, as manager Osieck said, Reds won the match – and he insisted they would be aggressive in the second leg. Even though a 1-0 victory for the Koreans would be enough to get them through to the semi-finals on the away goals rule, Reds surely have enough firepower to score again.

As for Frontale, they still have a lot of work to do against Sepahan at Todoroki.

A goalless draw away from home in the first leg was a good result for Frontale – but it must be remembered that it was not a bad result for Sepahan, either.

In the first leg, the home team did not concede a goal, and this could prove crucial in the return.

While Frontale will start as favourites, the Iranians remain extremely dangerous because if they score once, then Frontale will need two. The first goal at Todoroki will be vital, and Frontale must be careful they do not get caught on the counter if they try and kill the game too quickly.

It will be interesting to see Frontale’s tactics; whether they go for broke from the start and risk conceding a goal, or whether they play patiently and conservatively in trying to unlock the Sepahan defence. As I said before, a 0-0 draw at home for Sepahan in the first leg is far from a bad result, as the pressure will be on the home team in the second leg to force the pace.

On the face of it, the first-leg results looked good for Japan – but a lot can still happen in the second 90 minutes.


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Trinita Tales: late substitution brings Oita downfall

20 Sep 2007(Thu)

September 18, 2007: The match is deep into injury time; the visitors are winning 2-1 and have made only two substitutions.

Guess what happens next?

That's right. There is movement on the visitors' bench, the board goes up and they want to replace the No. 11, a left winger, with No. 2, a central defender.

The No. 11 walks off as slowly as possible, eating up a few more precious seconds, and the No. 2 runs towards his own goal, where his team is defending a corner.

The ball comes over, the heads go up, the net bulges and the home team has grabbed a dramatic equaliser for 2-2. The away team kicks off and the full-time whistle blows.

Was the away team just unlucky, trying to bolster their defence for the corner?

Or did they get their just deserts for blatantly running down the clock and trying to spoil the rhythm of the match by making a meaningless substitution?

However you may view this "tactic", I feel that the move by Oita Trinita manager Chamusca backfired on him big-time against Kawasaki Frontale at Todoroki on Saturday evening.

The match was 1-1 as we entered three minutes of additional time, but Oita substitute Teppei Nishiyama quickly changed that by shooting home left-footed into the bottom corner for 2-1. Cue mayhem from the Oita fans behind the goal, the players and bench, who celebrated as if they had won the World Cup.

Frontale, naturally, pushed for a second equaliser, and forced a corner on the right. At this point, Chamusca tried to change Shingo Suzuki (11) for Takashi Miki (2), but the referee waved play on.

Oita defended the corner, but in doing so conceded another, this time on the left flank. Now Oita made the change. Ohashi, a Frontale substitute, swung over the kick, and Igawa, another Frontale sub, headed home with the Oita defence all at sea; 2-2. Restart. Final whistle. Cue Oita players dropping to the Todoroki turf Doha-style.

I can't help thinking that Chamusca shot himself in the foot with that late move. His team were focused, they were defending what was surely Frontale's last chance, and they were ready to attack the corner and clear their lines.

Then everything stopped for a few seconds as the change was made. Did they lower their guard and lose concentration, handing the initiative to Frontale?

I think this played a part in the equaliser, so the change actually worked in Frontale's favour rather than Trinita's.

Looking back, I am sure Chamusca must wish he had just kept playing and trusted his team's ability to hold on.


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Sorimachi’s team continues to improve

18 Sep 2007(Tue)

Tokyo, September 14, 2007: That was a vital win for Japan against Qatar in their Olympic qualifier on Wednesday.

An impressive one, too, considering they had a man sent off after 68 minutes and were up against a fast, strong and determined opponent.

Although I was not confident of Japan qualifying for Beijing in the early stages of the campaign, there is no doubt they are improving and looking more dynamic, more united and more business-like.

Now, with seven points from three games, they are in a good position to win the group, even with two away games coming up next.

Once again Sorimachi is going to have to make changes, because Takuya Honda is suspended for the next game and Kajiyama is injured. That rules out the coach’s first-choice pairing in the midfield engine room, so what is he going to do?

The first move is simple: He brings in Toshihiro Aoyama to replace Honda as the midfield anchor. I thought Aoyama made a big contribution to Japan’s 1-0 victory on Wednesday after coming on for Kajiyama in the 56th minute, particularly with his interceptions and tackles as Qatar surged forward.

I wonder, then, if Sorimachi might move Inoha into the center of midfield, giving Japan a very solid base for the two away games. After all, Keisuke Honda will be available again after missing the Qatar game through suspension, and he could easily slot into the left side of the new-look four-man defence.

Inoha found himself in the eye of the storm in the second half against Qatar, and was hanging on for grim life in his unaccustomed role of left back. I thought Sorimachi might bring on Yasuda and play him in front of Inoha to bolster Japan’s left flank, as the more attack-minded Ienaga was drifting and offering little protection.

Instead, the coach took off Mizuno and switched Ienaga to the right flank, where he played exceptionally well in the closing stages by keeping the ball and leading the counter-attack. This was the best passage of play I have seen from Ienaga, as he cut out the crowd-pleasing flicks and the show-boating and played solid, percentage football when the team really needed him to.

Another substitute, Kobayashi, was sent on to strengthen the midfield, although I have no idea why he preferred to roll around on the ground holding his face in the closing stages when he should have jumped up immediately and helped his team defend their slender lead. Did he expect the game to stop just for him? It didn’t, and Kobayashi had no option but to get up and run back, rather sheepishly.

This is a really bad trend at the moment, and something coaches should stamp out among their own players -- especially when they are already down to 10 men.


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Two points lost for Saudis, not Japan

13 Sep 2007(Thu)

Tokyo, September 11, 2007: One point gained or two points lost?

That is the question being asked after Japan’s 0-0 draw away to Saudi Arabia in their Olympic qualifier on Saturday.

Before the game, a goalless draw would have been regarded as a good result, but when the Saudis were reduced to 10 men on 63 minutes, the tide turned in Japan’s favour. Unexpectedly, Japan now had a good chance to take all three points.

They could not manage it, but this does not mean the 0-0 result should be taken as two points lost.

I still regard it as a satisfactory result away from home, and sets Japan up nicely for a crack at Qatar on Wednesday night.

Teams having a man sent off can often lift their game. They feel hard done by, they run more for each other, they move up a gear in motivation as they will be regarded as heroes if they can hold on to what they’ve got, or do even better.

I thought the Saudis did this, and played well with 10 men, but they will still view the match as two points lost, not one point gained at home.

Sorimachi’s selection was interesting, not just for dropping Hirayama but also for bringing in Uchida on the right flank and moving Mizuno further forward, alongside Ienaga and behind the lone striker Morishima.

Uchida played well, as he has done all his career at Kashima, but Mizuno was less effective in this more central role. I must admit I prefer to see Mizuno bombing up the right flank, taking defenders on his with pace or cutting inside and letting fly from distance.

It was reassuring to see Inoha back from injury at libero, although Sorimachi retained Mizumoto as his captain. The back three of Aoyama, Inoha and Mizumoto must be as good as it gets in this final stage of Olympic qualifying, and the problems for Japan lie further forward; not in scoring goals but in controlling the midfield.

Sorimachi must now decide whether to restore Mizuno to the right flank at the expense of Uchida, and bring in a second striker alongside Morishima for the home game against Qatar.

Japan are still on course for Beijing with four points from two games, but they need all three against Qatar at Kokuritsu with their next two matches away from home.


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Tough target for women's team at World Cup

10 Sep 2007(Mon)

September 7, 2007: There can't be many Japan teams who have gone into a World Cup fresh from a 2-1 victory over Brazil.

But that is the case of the women's team, "Nadeshiko Japan", who open their FIFA Women's World Cup campaign against England in Shanghai on Tuesday, September 11.

Thanks to the generous support of Kirin, Japan were able to play two warm-up matches in recent days, against Canada at Kokuritsu and against Brazil at the home of JEF United, Fukuda Denshi Arena.

I attended them both -- but, sadly, the crowds were sparse -- less than 2,000 at National Stadium on a Thursday evening and just over 4,000 at Fukuare on a lovely Sunday afternoon.

The fans who did turn up, though, were really into it, and there is a very positive vibe around the women's team in general.

It's also a good time to be a member of the women's football scene in Japan, as the JFA is clearly sparing no expense in the development of this area of the game.

In his programme notes for the games against Canada and Brazil, JFA president Saburo Kawabuchi says: "Of all Japan's national squads, only Nadeshiko Japan can be considered close to achieving world-class status. Make no mistake -- Nadeshiko Japan's breakthrough will have a significant and lasting impact on other Japanese national teams."

Strong words indeed from the Captain, who states the target for the 2007 World Cup and 2008 Olympics is the semi-finals, and long-term to be in the world's top five by 2015. (They are 10th at the moment).

This is a big ask by Kawabuchi and the JFA, especially for this World Cup and next year's Olympics, and I hope it will not be regarded as a failure if they don't make it.

Several people have been asking me about the strength of Japan's first opponents in the Women's World Cup, England. I have to admit I haven't got a clue.

I like women's football but I don't go out of my way to see what's happening in England. I couldn't even name you one big girl who plays in the England team -- apart from Emile Heskey.

As luck would have it, I stumbled across a dusty copy of the pocket-sized football bible "Playfair Football Annual 2004-2005" the other day. Under the category of "Other Football" there was a whole chapter on "Women's Football". Well, not a whole chapter actually, but the bottom half of Page 329, under news on the English FA Academy Under 17 League.

Arsenal had won the women's league in 2004, one point clear of Charlton Athletic, and Arsenal won the cup, too, beating Charlton 3-0 in the final at Loftus Road, home of QPR. The crowd was over 12,000, and Fleeting scored all three for the Lady Gunners -- a headline writer's dream if ever there was one.

The women's game is growing around the world, and Japan is determined not to be left behind, so good luck to them in China next week.

I am looking forward to their matches against England, Argentina and Germany in Group A, and I hope many others are too.


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Cho keeps S-Pulse racing forward

6 Sep 2007(Thu)

Tokyo, September 4, 2007: What a difference a goal makes, especially when it comes in the fourth minute of injury time in a local derby.

The clock was almost on 94 minutes when Cho Jae Jin stooped to meet the expertly taken free kick of Jungo Fujimoto and head the only goal of the Shizuoka derby at Ecopa on Saturday.

The goal sparked wild scenes of celebration, as Cho removed his shirt and threw it into the S-Pulse fans behind the goal. That was a great sight to see – and the tattoos were pretty impressive, too.

The repercussions were severe. Jubilo’s manager and former defensive anchor, Adilson, resigned in the wake of the 1-0 defeat, and the club must once again try to recapture the glory of yesteryear under a new manager, Atsushi Uchiyama, an in-house promotion. But not this season, as Jubilo are in J1 no-man’s land, ninth place with 34 points.

As for S-Pulse, they just won’t go away will they?

Kenta Hasegawa is doing a fantastic job with limited resources, and his team is packed with exciting young talent in all areas of the field. In central midfield, Ito – rated the best midfield player in Japan by Steve Perryman all those years ago -- holds it all together; there is Brazilian flair in the extravagant skills of Fernandinho, plus the strength and quality of Cho up front.

Although S-Pulse lie fourth with 44 points, eight behind Reds, they cannot be regarded as title challengers just yet. Not even dark horses, as that tag must surely belong to Kashima Antlers, who were simply irresistible in crushing Frontale.

But with another season of experience behind them, S-Pulse should be ready in 2008 to have a crack at the championship.

Their regional rivals Jubilo, meanwhile, must start again – again.

As I said, what a difference a goal makes.

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Passion, emotion and quite a bit more at Todoroki

3 Sep 2007(Mon)

Tokyo, August 31, 2007: FIFA president Sepp Blatter is always talking about football being a game of passion and emotion.

Sef Vergoossen, the forthright Dutch manager of Nagoya Grampus Eight, showed plenty of this the other night at Todoroki – and was promptly dismissed from the dug-out.

Personally, I felt Vergoossen was hard done by, not once but twice.

First, his left-winger Honda was extremely unlucky to be shown a yellow card for a perfectly legitimate attempt to get to a loose ball in the Frontale box. I thought Honda had every right to challenge for the ball, and even a free kick for a foul would have been debatable.

But a yellow card?

And it was Honda’s second of the night, so out came the red and he was off after 68 minutes.

Vergoossen, with his team leading 1-0 and looking good, was furious with the decision – and let everyone know. I am not sure which language he was using, but it didn’t really matter. It could have been Swahili and the message would have got through.

So Honda is off, the match is back on, and we could all sit back and watch Frontale try and equalize and watch Grampus invent even more ways to waste time.


One of the linesmen thought it necessary to draw the attention of the referee to Vergoossen’s colourful language, and the referee responded loyally by sending off the coach. This only exacerbated the problem, and prompted a fresh round of abuse and another delay when everything seemed to have settled down.

Fair enough, Vergoossen laid it on as thick as his moustache – more passion and emotion than Blatter could shake a stick at.

But surely a more appropriate course of action for the linesman would have been just to ignore it, let the game go on and maybe feel a bit of sympathy for the coach considering he had just lost one of his best players in dubious circumstances. It would have all died down, at least until the final whistle, but now it all flared up again.

I know the match officials have to endure way too much abuse in football, but there are occasions when they can cut someone some slack in the heat of the moment.

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Arrows pointing upwards for Sanfrecce

30 Aug 2007(Thu)

Tokyo, August 28, 2007: Even without suspended goal machine Ueslei, Sanfrecce Hiroshima were a good match for Yokohama F Marinos in a 2-2 draw at Nissan Stadium on Sunday evening.

I particularly liked their midfield four of Komano on the right, Toda and Aoyama in the middle and Hattori on the left.

Komano and Hattori not only provide natural width going forward, they also cover the flanks for the three-man defence, which was anchored by the former JEF favourite Stoyanov.

With Toda, in his 2002 World Cup position of central midfield, and current Olympic team player Aoyama alongside in the engine room, the team looked compact, balanced and flexible in their 3-4-2-1 formation.

The “1” was Hisato Sato, whose running into the channels behind the Marinos back four caused problems all night for the home defence. Sato really is a bright and inventive player, a natural finisher in the box but much more than that around the pitch.

Thanks to the four players strung across the middle, Kashiwagi and Koji Morisaki could feel free to support Sato in attack – and both of them scored a goal by doing exactly that.

Kashiwagi is making his mark in Japan this season, graduating from the youth team to the Olympic team and establishing himself in the top flight. He is still only 19, though, and cannot be expected to turn it on match after match, even though fans look forward to his next goal celebration.

I wrote recently about his left-footed masterpiece in open play from the edge of the box against Vissel Kobe, as that goal marked him out as a player with special talent. Let’s hope he keeps working hard, keeps growing and keeps a smile on his face, as he is a breath of fresh air in Japanese football.

Even though Sanfrecce are only five points clear of the play-off place of 16th, I cannot see the Three Arrows being dragged into the relegation dogfight on the evidence of Sunday night.


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Japan bounce back with encouraging victory

27 Aug 2007(Mon)

August 24, 2007: Japan coach Ivica Osim and fans of the national team could not have asked for much more from the first game since the Asian Cup.

A home win against a good team, a couple of excellent goals, and no signs of any post-traumatic stress disorder on the return from Vietnam.

Perhaps it was significant that both goals in the 2-0 victory against Cameroon were scored by players who were not in the Asian Cup squad: Tulio because he was injured and Koji Yamase because he was not selected.

Tulio was sorely missed in the Asian Cup, and showed exactly why with his clever first-half header. The big central defender makes things happen, rather than waits for them to happen.

Too often in Hanoi I thought Japan were too passive -- with the emphasis on "pass" -- and did not force the pace, especially in the opening game against Qatar. This is why Tulio's return was so noticable, and I would still like to see Osim appoint him captain because of these leadership qualities and his ideal position on the pitch to influence the team.

As for Yamase, he has been on fire this season for Marinos, and his return to the squad was widely predicted. His goal was a gem, and brought a big smile to the face of Osim. Not only did he have the confidence and the will to shoot first time from the edge of the box, he also had the technique to pull it off. The result was a spectacular strike that drew gasps of admiration from the fans watching the match on the big screen at the National Stadium in Tokyo, before the Japan-Vietnam Olympic qualifier.

Without the Europe-based players, and with a few fresh faces around, it definitely looked like the start of stage three of Osim's rebuilding programme. There was more pace, solidity and energy about the team, as the likes of Okubo, Maeda and Tanaka tried to make their mark. Yamase certainly did, with his wonderful goal.

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Olympic team must keep it simple

23 Aug 2007(Thu)

August 21, 2007: The final qualifying round for the Beijing Olympics is about to start, and for me there is only one option for Japan – keep it simple.

Japan’s strength is out on the wings, with Mizuno on the right and Honda on the left, and the aerial power of Hirayama at center forward.

Readers know that I still have great reservations about Hirayama in general, and whether he is good enough to make the grade even in J1, but there is no doubt he is good in the air at the age-group level.

So while a direct style of play may go against what Osim is trying to achieve with the national team, I believe it represents Japan’s best chance of topping a group that is completed by Vietnam, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The priority must be to get the ball out to the wings, and get crosses into the box for Hirayama to wreak havoc. Primitive may be; predictable may be; but also pragmatic.

What I don’t want to see is Japan trying to pass the ball too much and either losing it in dangerous areas or squandering chances to shoot, which this Olympic team has been guilty of in previous games, despite their successful record.

This does not suit Hirayama’s style, and clearly coach Sorimachi has decided the Athens Olympian is going to be his main man in attack, hence the omission of the more refined, mobile and technically superior Bobby Cullen.

I think Japan’s defence is good enough, but where the team struggles is in the center of midfield. I do not think they have the quality to dominate a game in this area, but they can stretch opponents on the wings and provide a supply line to Hirayama in the middle. Then it is up to the second striker and the attacking midfielders to get up in support of Hirayama and be first to the knock-downs and the scraps in the box.

Like I said, not particularly pretty, but I think it’s Japan’s best chance. There is not much point trying to involve Hirayama in intricate passing moves across the line. Better to just keep him in the middle, tell him to watch for offside, and let the wingers or full backs, depending on the formation, just knock it into him.

I still think Japan can win this group, but only if they play to their strengths, persistently and unashamedly.


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Amusing sideshow to Beckham saga

20 Aug 2007(Mon)

August 17, 2007: When he's playing he's big news.

When he's injured he's big news.

When he's scoring free kicks he's even bigger news.

There is no end to the David Beckham story -- and no end to the amusing list of headlines which have followed him to the Los Angeles Galaxy.

They are all, naturally, based on the hit movie "Bend it like Beckham" and have included the following:

On the subject of Beckham missing another match because of his ankle injury: Bench it like Beckham.

On the amount of Beckham merchandise being sold in Los Angeles and beyond: Vend it like Beckham.

On Beckham's recovery from the ankle injury: Mend it like Beckham.

The headlines are an interesting sideshow to the events on and off the field, and you have to wonder how long the editors can sustain their output.

Here's a few more to be going on with:

David wins an award for his gardening skills at his Beverley Hills mansion: Tend it like Beckham.

David joins another club on loan/rental: Lend it like Beckham.

David finishes his England career by scoring a hat trick of free kicks: End it like Beckham.

David changes position from right wing to right back: Defend it like Beckham.

So you see, Japanese readers, there are many opportunities out there to expand your vocabulary through football, especially with corny Beckham headlines.

See if you can come up with any more...

On the subject of Beckham and England, I cannot understand why Steve McClaren is talking about bringing him back to England to play a friendly against Germany when he knows he is far from fully fit.

Don't you think the Osim approach would have been better? Leave him alone, let him recover fully, select only 12 players including two goalkeepers...

Funny isn't it, how McClaren now needs Beckham for a friendly when he wouldn't have touched him with a barge pole a few months ago for European Championship qualifiers.


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Finish it like Juninho

16 Aug 2007(Thu)

August 15, 2007: When Jean Carlo Witte was at his peak with FC Tokyo, I used to think he was the ideal defender for Japanese youngsters to study.

Jean offered a 90-minute lesson in how to defend. Combative and aggressive in the air and on the ground, he knew when to clear the ball, when to pass the ball and when to break forward to help his attack.

Turning to the forwards, another Brazilian provided a coaching master class on Saturday, this time in the art of scoring goals.

Juninho's hat trick in Frontale's 3-1 defeat of JEF United at Fukuare was outstanding in its simplicity and execution. No long, mazy runs through the JEF defence, no thunderbolts into the top corner from 30 metres; just three precisely-taken and very different goals.

The first, from close range after Tateishi could only parry the ball, was about anticipation and positioning. He was in the right place at the right time, and was ready for such a moment. The goal looked easy -- but only if you were in position to score it in the first place.

The second was about confidence and improvisation. It was a toe poke, with the minimum of back lift, and reminded me of Romario or Ronaldo. It happened in the blink of an eye. One moment he was in the box with a couple of defenders on him, the next the ball was in the corner of the net. Ronaldo against Turkey in the 2002 World Cup semi-final at Saitama?

The third was my favourite, as he took a pass in his stride in the inside right channel. Instantly he swept it low into the opposite corner, giving Tateishi no chance again.

This was goal-scoring of the highest calibre, and a lesson for players of all ages, including fellow professionals.

Not so much "Bend it like Beckham" but "Finish it like Juninho."


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Ogasawara’s return paints new J1 picture

13 Aug 2007(Mon)

August 11, 2007: Watch out for Kashima Antlers!

This must be going through the minds of Gamba Osaka and Urawa Reds as J1 prepares to resume after the lengthy break.

Even though Antlers are 11 points behind Gamba, the return of Ogasawara from Messina should make them a different team.

And with Yanagisawa back from injury, they certainly look good enough in all departments to mount a title challenge over the last 16 games of the season.

They can’t afford to lose more than a couple of those games, though, as they have already lost four times compared to just once for Gamba and Reds – and draws won’t be much good either if they are to close the gap.

No, Oswaldo Oliveira knows there is only one way to make up this lost ground, and that is to attack and win. All of which should make for some exciting but also tense matches involving Antlers from now on.

The presence and influence of Ogasawara will make the players around him better, and there is plenty of depth in the squad, too.

One of my favourites at Kashima is Iwamasa, the successor to Akita as the defensive rock. I was chatting with Reds forward Washington recently and asked him which Japanese defenders were the most difficult to play against.

He said Nakazawa first, followed by Iwamasa, as he was big and strong and played like a defender should do – rugged and uncompromising. If Washington rates him that highly, his opinion must be respected.

Apart from Antlers, I also think Kawasaki Frontale cannot be ruled out just yet.

They went off the boil in the league after qualifying for the Asian Champions League quarter-finals, but anyone who saw their incredible Nabisco Cup victory over Kofu at Kokuritsu will know that the hunger and spirit is back.

Frontale have 28 points, 13 behind Gamba, and, like Antlers, must go for broke and hope the top two slip up.

As a Newcastle United fan, teams have been known to throw away big leads…


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And one more thing on Osim...

9 Aug 2007(Thu)

August 7, 2007: JFA president Saburo Kawabuchi does have a good point in the Osim debate; that he thinks the coach should watch the penalty shoot-out and not waddle off down the tunnel.

I have to say I agree with the Captain on this one -- Kawabuchi, I mean, not Kawaguchi.

Even though it was always on the cards that he would head for the dressing room before the shoot-out with the Socceroos, given his track record with JEF United, I was still surprised he refused to watch the Korea climax.

After the Aussie game he said he didn't want to die of a heart attack on duty with Japan, so the only thing I can think of for the Korea game was that he didn't want to die of boredom.

If ever there was a time for Osim to change course and stay to watch the shoot-out, this was it. After all, it couldn't get any worse, unless Shunsuke had tripped over his boot laces on his run-up, fallen head first and headed the ball into the arms of the Korean keeper; or Endo had actually crossed it from the penalty spot.

With Japan having lost the shoot-out, Osim now has no excuse that he is a jinx for his own team -- so next time (in South Africa 2010 of course), please stick it out with the boys.

Apart from watching Osim disappear down the tunnel, another amusing sight was seeing him join in the team huddle. As big as two Hanyus, possibly three, he didn't exactly look comfortable performing this rather namby-pamby bonding exercise.

Whatever happened to the old, stiff-upper-lip style of Alf Ramsey, with his Churchillian address before extra time in the England-West Germany World Cup final of 1966.

"You've beaten them once, chaps. Now go and do it again," Ramsey told his players (although I am not sure he actually said "chaps" -- but he should have done.)

By the way, did anyone try counting all the Japanese players and staff in the team huddle? There were hundreds of them! Who were they all? Agents? Hairdressers? Manicurists?

No wonder the JFA needs all these friendlies.


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may need 18 games to get to South Africa

6 Aug 2007(Mon)

August 4, 2007: If you are having problems fitting in all this football, spare a thought for the J.League fixture-makers.

The Asian Football Confederation announced the dates and qualifying process for the 2010 World Cup on Friday, and Japan may have to play as many as 18 games to get to South Africa.

And with the next Asian Cup scheduled to take place in Qatar in January 2011, Japan will have to qualify for that, too, after finishing only fourth in the last one.

It all adds up to more football than anyone knows what to do with, so good luck to the fixture planners in their efforts to keep everyone happy.

As everyone knows by now, Japan were seeded fourth of the 43 teams in the Asian qualifying competition for the 2010 World Cup, behind Australia, South Korea and Saudi Arabia, and ahead of Iran.

These top five teams all received a bye into the third qualifying round, where they will be joined by 15 qualifiers in five four-team groups. The top two in each group advance to the fourth round, meaning six matches for Japan between February 6, 2008, and September 10, 2008.

The remaining 10 teams for the fourth round will be split into two groups of five, giving Japan (presuming they are still around) another eight games between October 15, 2008, and September 9, 2009.

The top two in each group qualify for South Africa. The two third-placed teams play off home and away, and the winner then faces the Oceania champions over two legs for the last spot in South Africa.

If Japan finish third in their fourth-round group they will need 18 games to qualify, the last four of these taking place between October 10 and November 21 – just when the 2009 J.League championship is reaching its climax.

In those circumstances, how on earth the qualifying games for the 2011 Asian Cup would be fitted in, too, is anyone’s guess – as is the likely physical and mental condition of the Europe-based players Japan will need to get to South Africa.

For any Japanese player with the chance of moving to a club in Europe, this must be a big consideration for the next couple of seasons.


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Woeful end to Japan’s Asian Cup

2 Aug 2007(Thu)

July 31,2007: The less said about the Japan-Korea match the better.

But here’s a few words before it is consigned to the history books – and I am sure the JFA would strike it from all records if possible.

I thought the match was a shambles and, at times, an embarrassment for Japanese football. The harder they tried, the worse they got – and the referee put everyone out of their misery by blowing his whistle to end extra time.

Neither side wanted to be there, but unfortunately there were two important reasons why the match was worth winning.

First, it was Japan against Korea.

Second, the winner would book a place in the 2011 Asian Cup in Qatar – one of six automatic qualifiers, note – and therefore do away with the hassle of qualifying during World Cup year in 2010.

Despite this, I am still surprised Osim made only one change to the team, a midfielder, Yamagishi, for a forward, Maki, leaving Takahara on his own again up front.

This formation did not work against Qatar, and it did not work against Korea as it left Japan short on numbers in a crucial area. No wonder they rarely looked like scoring.

I thought Osim should have made wholesale changes to freshen up the team and give the regulars a rest before returning to their clubs. Had Japan lost in those circumstances it would have been more palatable, but to lose, albeit on penalties, with his top team undid a lot of the good work that had gone before.

I was feeling quite positive after the group stage, after the win against Australia and even after the defeat against the Saudis.

But Saturday’s game was one too many. As the match progressed, everything pointed to a Korea win. The point-blank block by Lee from Nakazawa; the red card for Kang, giving the Koreans every excuse to retreat; Hanyu’s shot striking the defender, who wasn’t even looking; the smooth penalty-taking of the Koreans…

So it was left to Hanyu to join the long list of grief-stricken players who have missed in a penalty shootout.

He should forget about it as quickly as possible, while the rest of Japan should try and forget that this play-off ever took place.


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Gunes: Skill and strength are not enough

30 Jul 2007(Mon)

July 28, 2007: The FC Tokyo-FC Seoul "pre-season match" at Kokuritsu on Thursday evening was well worth the visit.

Not for the football, which was grim and goalless, but for the chance to get a few words with Senol Gunes.

A former goalkeeper and captain of Turkey, Gunes is the man who steered the Turks to their third-place finish at the 2002 World Cup, beating Japan and Korea in the process.

UEFA's Coach of the Year 2002 has been in charge of FC Seoul for six months, and had some interesting things to say on football in this part of the world.

Basically, he said, the Japanese had better technical skills and the Koreans were stronger physically, but both sets of players needed more than this to be a success at the highest level. In short, they needed to think more and think quicker.

"For the World Cup, the mentality must improve because the players cannot arrange the game, cannot manage the game easily," he said, through an interpreter.

"Technique and physique are not enough in football, so they have to get some good mentality so they can arrange the game, can manage the game in all conditions.

"The two countries' players should decide more quickly. That is the problem. When the ball comes to them, before they kick the ball they have to decide everything; they have to decide the next step."

One Japanese player who did this, of course, was Hidetoshi Nakata. You could always see him planning his next move before the ball had reached him. Add to this his skill level and robust frame -- the two qualities talked of by Gunes -- and it is clear why Nakata stood out among his Asian peers.

How Osim needed a player of Nakata's stature to lift his tired team against the Saudis, who were well worth their 3-2 win on Wednesday night. Japan came back twice but could not do it a third time, as the explosive Malek proved too hot to handle in the air and on the ground for Abe, Nakazawa and Kawaguchi.

Credit to the Saudis. After all, they have qualified for the last four World Cups. The result was not a surprise. A disappointment, but not a surprise.


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Osim lays foundations of New Japan

26 Jul 2007(Thu)

July 24, 2007: There were many positive aspects of Japan's victory over Australia, but there were some negatives, too, which Ivica Osim will be eager to rectify.

The positives included the calm, assured way in which New Japan controlled the game; how they came back to equalise quickly with a great goal from Takahara; and how they kept their concentration and discipline right to the finish.

These are all signs of a team that is mentally and physically strong, one that believes in itself and its coach.

However, the performance was not without its more frustrating moments, some of which I noted after the opening 1-1 draw with Qatar.

I still think Japan are not shooting enough when the goal is in range. One example was Nakazawa in the first half. He collected the ball deep in his own half and broke forward, and when no one came towards him he continued to break forward.

He was looking confident and determined and I was hoping he would let fly from 25-30 metres out with absolutely nothing to lose, but he seemed to doubt himself and, instead of shooting, attempted to find Takahara on the left edge of the box. The move broke down, and Nakazawa had to race back.

This was just one example, and an aspect of Japan's play that Shunsuke Nakamura has pointed out on several occasions in Hanoi. At one point in extra time, against 10 men, I thought Japan's tactics were to pass the ball so much that the Aussies would fall asleep, and then someone might actually think about scoring.

One of Maki's strengths is his ability in the air, especially at the far post (I am sure JEF fans, and the Gamba defence, will remember his prodigious leap to set up a goal for Arai at Fukuare this season). But against Australia, Japan seemed reluctant to cross the ball into the middle, and dithered too often around the box.

When Shunsuke knocked one deep, Maki did his job at the back post, Milligan did not do his in the middle, and Taka switched from right foot to left and scored another fine goal.

I think Japan need to find a balance between when to keep the ball and when to step it up and find that explosive, unpredictable element. (I am still pushing Yoshito Okubo for this role!)

But the style and identity of New Japan is set -- and Osim is well on course in his mission.


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MUFC -- a class act

23 Jul 2007(Mon)

July 20, 2007: Manchester United were magnificent ambassadors for...well, Manchester United, when they came to Tokyo at the beginning of this week.

Press conferences, charity work, training, playing, signing autographs; they were busier than the Vietnamese keeper against Japan.

On Tuesday evening, the Red Devils played the Red Diamonds, English champions against Japanese champions, and over 58,000 turned out to watch on a dank evening. In fact it was so wet, miserable and slightly chilly out there in the Saitama countryside that it reminded me of driving over the Pennines to Old Trafford (a different one) to watch cricket, only to be denied again by a Mancunian summer.

United's tour, of course, had come under fierce criticism from both the Asian Football Confederation and from FIFA. The general feeling was that big European clubs like United came to the Far East just to take, take, take and not give anything in return; and were showing disrespect by touring when the Asian Cup was being held in Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand (have I missed any?).

This was absolute nonsense all along, and Sir Alex Ferguson gave the perfect reply when asked about it.

He said it was unfortunate that the tour clashed with the Asian Cup, but they had to take the window of opportunity when it was open, as players were committed to the European Championship and World Cup every second year. Fergie spoke of the charity work and the soccer schools, and insisted United were not trying to "steal" fans from other clubs.

"It is not about us taking. We also give," he said.

The match ended 2-2, and United's charity included a goal for Hideki Uchidate, who embarrassed Edwin Van der Sar with a Cristiano Ronaldo-style strike that swerved and dipped on its way into the net. Reds' second was a touch of genius from Shinji Ono, proving again that you can lose some of your physical fitness but you can't lose class.

After the game, Fergie picked out Yamada and Ono for special praise.

"I think number six (Yamada) did very, very well. I like him. I think he's a clever footballer and very mobile," said Sir Alex.

"And the number eight (Ono) in the second half, took his goal very well. A clever goal."

Rio Ferdinand also spoke of Ono -- this time by name -- and said he "always thought he was a very talented footballer -- and he showed that again tonight. I liked him at Feyenoord."

Oh, Shinji! What might have been...


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Defender Komiyama catches the eye as goals flow

19 Jul 2007(Thu)

July 17, 2007: The Asian Cup is not the only cup in town for Japanese players and fans at the moment, as there was a domestic treat during the storm-lashed weekend.

The four Nabisco Cup quarter-final second-leg ties yielded a total of 23 goals, with seven at Gamba Osaka-Urawa Reds (5-2), six each at FC Tokyo-Yokohama F Marinos (2-4) and Kawasaki Frontale-Ventforet Kofu (4-2), and four at Kashima Antlers-Sanfrecce Hiroshima (3-1).

On Saturday I took in Tokyo-Marinos at Ajista, and on Sunday Frontale-Ventforet at Kokuritsu, and both games were crackers.

Although Marinos won through only 4-3 on aggregate, they were 4-0 up in the second leg thanks to a dynamic performance by captain Koji Yamase. He was on fire in the soggy conditions, scoring the first goal with a lovely right-foot finish into the top corner and then chasing down a loose ball and crossing perfectly for Oshima to head the second.

I wondered if Yamase had a personal grudge against FC Tokyo, as he was on a one-man crusade to sink them. Plagued by injury during his career, he is still only 25 and has never looked sharper or more effective.

Another player who is impressing for Marinos is the 22-year-old left back Komiyama. He is bright, busy and plays at an intensity that appeals to national coach Osim. He has two good feet and does not hold back in the air, launching himself at anything that comes his way and winning some thundering headers.

On Sunday, Kofu striker Sudo was the unluckiest player around, scoring all five of his team's goals over two legs but still finishing on the losing side, against Frontale.

This was a fantastic match for the 10,000 fans who had defied the typhoon warning to trail to the capital. It was a true cup-tie played at beakneck speed with goals galore, one team in control then suddenly the other, and packed with incident such as the heated exchanges between Kofu teammates Akimoto and Inoue, and the wrestling match between Kofu defender Ikehata and Frontale striker Chong Tese.

Overall, Komiyama took my vote as Nabisco Cup New Hero for players aged 23 and below.


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Komano sets the right example

16 Jul 2007(Mon)

July 14, 2007: Now that was a whole lot better, wasn't it?

Not only did Japan beat UAE 3-1, they played with a much more professional and business-like attitude.

They added some steel and bite to their game, especially in the last third of the field, and had the victory wrapped up by half-time thanks to the extremely generous penalty award.

Still, it was worrying that UAE managed to pull one back with only 10 men, and there are clearly communication problems through the middle with the Kawaguchi-Abe-Nakazawa combination.

So Japanese fans must not get carried away, as the team only has four points and faces a last group game against the host nation. This will be a unique experience for the Japanese players in an incredible atmosphere, and they will have to tame the home team quickly in order to take control and avoid an embarrassing upset.

With their superior skills, experience and height advantage, though, Japan should be able to come through, but they will have to scrap furiously against Vietnam in the opening exchanges.

Against UAE, the presence of Maki opened up more space for Takahara, who produced two expert finishes to underline Japan's superiority.

But the player I was most pleased with was Komano. Very early in the game he cut in from the left wing and shot for goal, and soon after Endo ran through the middle and tried to score alone. This was great to see from Japan, players taking responsibility, and set the tone for the evening.

I hope they retain this positive attitude for the rest of the tournament instead of passing the ball to death on the edge of the box and refusing to shoot when they are in a good position.

Osim must encourage them to shoot, and encourage them when they miss the target, just like Komano did shortly after.

Taka's two goals put Japan well in control with less than a third of the match completed, and the penalty ended the game as a contest.

I must admit I could not believe it when the ref penalised the keeper for catching Endo, who had lofted the ball to the far post. But this is not Japan's concern, and Shunsuke brushed aside the controversey and scored convincingly from the spot.

Late in the game, Osim sent on his JEF United ekiden team of Hanyu and Mizuno to join Maki and old boy Abe -- further evidence that "JFA" stands for JEF Football Association -- in order to maintain an attacking tempo, and resting key players for the battle ahead.

Monday will be mayhem, and Japan's job is far from finished -- but this was much better.


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Japan must be more aggressive in attack

12 Jul 2007(Thu)

July 10, 2007: No wonder Ivica Osim was furious after Japan's 1-1 draw with Qatar.

I was angry, too, as I am sure many Japanese fans were around the country.

Japan, of course, should have won this game comfortably. They dominated possession and were in a different class to their opponents in terms of individual quality and big-match experience.

But without that second goal there was always a chance Qatar would come back and draw level, which is exactly what happened to ruin the night.

I was not so much annoyed with Abe for the foul that led to the goal, or for the failure to put away one of the clearcut chances that came Japan's way.

Abe was clearly waiting for Kawaguchi to come out and clear the ball, and when the keeper was not there he panicked and gave away the free kick. Abe's body language after his mistake told its own story -- that the equaliser was on its way.

As for the chances, the two that most spring to mind were Yamagishi's left-foot half-volley over the bar from Takahara's lovely header, and Hanyu's late effort that curled round the far post.

No, these were frustrating moments, but not the chief source of my anger.

I was annoyed because Japan would not shoot when the goal was in sight, notably Endo, who looked like he was aiming for the Assist King award. Japan were trying to walk the ball into the net with a series of intricate passes instead of letting fly from distance. I think they needed -- and need -- to be much more direct in their approach and play with more dynamism and aggression in the last third of the pitch.

For this reason, once again, I would play Maki alongside Takahara and sacrifice one of the midfielders -- but not Keita Suzuki, who was my man of the match.

The presence of Maki and Takahara would open up more options on the ground and in the air. If Maki is not scoring he is doing something, working hard for the team and being a constant menace to the defenders.

The result against Qatar could have been worse, but Japan will be in real trouble if they do not beat UAE on Friday the 13th.


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Japan are good enough to win the Asian Cup, but...

9 Jul 2007(Mon)

July 7, 2007: During the second half of Japan's goalless draw against Colombia on June 5, I felt convinced that Japan were good enough to win the Asian Cup.

After surviving a shaky first half, Japan had come back into it in the second period and were playing some good stuff against the Colombians.

You could sense the unity, the purpose and the goal of the players under Ivica Osim, and they were playing a brand of football that could brush aside Asian opposition.

One month on, the Asian Cup is about to start, and I think Japan will play well.

I am not saying they are going to win it, but I think they will show enough to suggest they are on the right track to qualifying for South Africa 2010 and putting on a good show in the next World Cup; something they did not do in 2006.

Osim, of course, is in a no-win situation in Vietnam, as his two predecessors, Troussier in 2000 and Zico in 2004, both steered Japan to the continental crown.

If Japan do not win for the third time in a row and fourth in all, I hope fans don't start saying Osim is not as good as Troussier or Zico, because this is clearly not the case.

Osim is giving out mixed signals about his targets. On the one hand he says that World Cup qualification is the priority ahead of winning the Asian Cup, but his selection contradicts that theory.

If he had been thinking of the future and not the present, he would have picked more Olympic players in his final 23, such as Honda for the left flank, Ienaga for attacking midfield and Inoha for central midfield/libero. Inoha has since been called up, of course, due to Bando's injury, and he can offer more options for Osim.

Even without Tulio and Mizumoto, a back three of Tsuboi, Abe and Nakazawa is good enough to win the Asian Cup, as is a back four of Kaji, Nakazawa, Abe and Komano. I really liked the Abe-Nakazawa partnership against Colombia, and Inoha is the perfect understudy for Abe at libero or in central midfield and a player who can only benefit from his time with the seniors.

To sum up, I think Japan can win the Asian Cup -- but it will not be the end of the world if they don't, provided there are signs that the Osim method is taking root.


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