No penalty

Sanfrecce Hiroshima recently lodged a complaint with the AFC over a couple of suspect decisions in their Champions League game with FC Seoul. They are still waiting for answers… (日本語版はこちらです: http://www.footballchannel.jp/2014/04/15/post36185/)

Football Channel,  April 15th, 2014

I find people – whether it be fans, coaches and players, or journalists – blaming referees incredibly boring.

Officials do make mistakes, and while other aspects of their performance – whether faults of their own (poor administration of the rules, lack of clear communication, an over-eagerness to assert their personality on games) or lack of proper support (video replays) – do often raise valid questions about improving the standard of officiating, apportioning defeats to the man or woman in the middle – or their assistants – is tiresome and unfair.

It was with some trepidation, then, that I watched the footage of Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s AFC Champions League game against FC Seoul on April 1st. The two late penalties awarded against Sanfrecce had sparked outrage on Twitter, but seeing as an incorrect apostrophe can do that I hadn’t paid too much attention.

After playing the incidents back a couple of times though I began to wonder if referee Fahad Jaber Al-Marri had been playing some kind of April Fool’s on the reigning J1 champions – or perhaps something worse.

The first penalty, given for the slightest of shirt tugs by Hiroki Mizumoto on Kim Hyun-sung at a corner in the 87th minute, was questionable enough, while the second – deep into injury time, after Takuto Hayashi had saved Osmar’s effort five minutes earlier – as a result of Kazuhiko Chiba’s innocuous coming together with the same Seoul player was little short of outrageous. Both incidents occur every single time a cross is sent into the box, why decide to punish these two instances in particular?

Rafael dispatched the second kick, which turned out to be the last of the game, securing a 2-2 draw for the home side. That wasn’t the only result though, and the final whistle sparked Hajime Moriyasu into a furious rage, with Sanfrecce’s ordinarily composed, polite, and affable coach having to be physically restrained from confronting the official. There are several coaches in the J.League who are no strangers to venting their spleen at referees but Moriyasu is not one of them.

That prompted me to forward the video on to a former top level referee I know. I didn’t provide any background information, just asked if he could tell me what he thought of the two incidents in the clip. His response was as follows:

  • No penalty (on either occasion)
  • Normal contact within a penalty area, no action required
  • Red card should be rescinded
  • Yellow card should be rescinded
  • Referee should be suspended
  • An investigation should be set up to look at possible match fixing/illegal betting

The fact that someone with experience officiating at the highest level had arrived at such conclusions piqued my interest and I was pleased to see that Sanfrecce were following up with the AFC, posting this press release to their website the day after the game.

“We have submitted a written protest to the AFC about decisions which look like they were intentionally made to affect the outcome of the game. Bearing in mind this is a competition to decide the champion of Asia this standard of decision-making cannot be accepted.”

With that in mind I thought it would be best to find out a bit about Mr. Al-Marri and what experience he had at this level.

The Qatari qualified as an international referee in 2012 and the Seoul-Sanfrecce match was just the second ACL game he had officiated in the 2014 season. His first was another draw, a 1-1 in Group H between Ulsan Hyundai and Guizhou Renhe on March 19th. In that game too a penalty was awarded to the home side, when Guizhou defender Sun Jihai was adjudged to have illegally impeded Ulsan striker Rafinha in the box. The former Gamba Osaka and Thespa Kusatsu forward wasn’t overly harmed by the minimal contact with the ex-Manchester City man though, and recovered to give the South Koreans a 1-0 lead. Guizhou equalized late on courtesy of a Yang Hao header.

Of course, deliberately affecting the outcome of a game is a serious matter – as is accusing somebody of having done so – but unfortunately at the time of writing I was yet to receive any response from the AFC with regards to how Sanfrecce’s complaint was being processed.

“This situation is a perfect setting for match fixing: award a penalty for something in a crowded penalty area which leaves the decision debatable but not conclusively inaccurate,” my referee contact – who asked to remain anonymous – said. “What [the referee] could not have known was that the penalty would be saved. Therefore the second penalty opportunity arises and bang, he takes it, scores and there’s a 2-2 scoreline – an unlikely outcome which I would suggest may well have got good odds.”

I sincerely hope that this is all entirely innocent and nothing to be concerned about. Just one of those things that happens in football. Until that is proved though Sanfrecce, the J.League, and the JFA must do all they can to press the AFC for answers. No penalty was the correct decision in the game, but if foul play is proven off of it then one is a necessity.


Japanese Only

The J.League is aiming for a higher international profile,  but the headlines created by Urawa Reds’ fans recent misdemeanour weren’t exactly what they were after… (日本語版はこちらです:http://www.footballchannel.jp/2014/03/29/post33132/)

Football Channel,  March 28th, 2014

There was something quite eerie about the whole spectacle – as Afshin Ghotbi said post-match, it was as if the game “didn’t have a soul”.

I’ve seen enough Tokyo Verdy games at Ajinomoto Stadium to not be too phased by swathes of empty seats, but an uninhabited Saitama Stadium for an Urawa Reds fixture was truly bizarre. I’d half-expected there to at least be some fans congregated at Urawa-Misono station but to a man, woman, and child they had heeded the request of the club and stayed well away.

The media, too, had been issued with guidelines by Reds, and having dutifully arrived more than two hours before kick-off we filed in, received our “Sports For Peace” folders, stickers, and Urawa Reds English-language media guides, before listening to Yuki Abe deliver a speech denouncing discrimination of all forms (unlike his namesake running the country there weren’t any fears that the Reds captain was going to suggest any revisions to previous apologies).

The game was then played out to a backdrop of nothing but the voices of the players and coaching staff, and while those involved in the match claimed not to have had any less concentration than usual – “When I play you hear the fans but you just block it out,” S-Pulse’s Calvin Jong-a-pin said afterwards. “You just focus on the game so it was just like every other game for me.” – for those watching in the stadium, and I’m sure on TV too, it felt just like a training game.

Was the punishment deserved? No. Was it the right thing to do? Yes.

20 or so fans scrawling “Japanese Only” does not warrant 40,000 people being barred entry to the stadium – the punishment does not fit the crime. As on the pitch though, multiple offences produce a caution and Reds supporters have plenty of previous – particularly against Shimizu. Last year they refused to let the S-Pulse fans leave after their 1-0 win at Saitama Stadium (in 2013 they weren’t allowed out, this year they weren’t allowed in, what lies in store in 2015?), while some idiots hurled fire-crackers at the S-Pulse bus after the away game. Taken in isolation both of those incidents are actually far worse than a graffitied bedsheet.

My first reaction when I saw the now infamous ‘Japanese Only’ banner was actually to laugh. Was it clumsy use of English trying to express pride at a team of all Japanese players? An attempt at being ‘hardcore’? Actual racism? I felt I could afford myself a grin at whichever one of these it turned out to be.

Reds captain Yuki Abe (right) leads out his team, Saitama Stadium, March 23rd, 2014

Racism, of course, isn’t funny, but I personally feel that the best way to deal with people who hold such views is to treat them with as little seriousness as possible. I perhaps wouldn’t quite put it in such flower-powery terms as Afshin Ghotbi – who suggested that, “If there are a few people that are ignorant in this country let’s love them, let’s teach them,” – but I share the sentiment. People who actually discriminate against someone because of their nationality, race, skin colour, or any other difference are obviously a few players short of a matchday squad.

That approach was obviously not an option for the league though, and when considering that overseas media was also latching onto the story and that the J.League is desperately trying to entice fans from outside the country to boost the dwindling numbers of domestic supporters, something big had to be done to show they meant business.

“It has received a lot of coverage in the media so many people will have been aware of this game,” Tadanari Lee said after the match. “Sports For Peace; we wore the t-shirts and we hoped to play today’s game in that way. We have to keep going that way from now on too.

“From just one banner it has developed into this big problem and hurt many people’s feelings. We grasp that this is a big problem and I think the fans do too. I really don’t want this kind of thing to happen a second time.”

In order to prevent something similar happening again this judgment had to be passed down, and the amount of attention the incident has received can only help towards that aim.

“I think this is an important chance to talk about what happened,” Ghotbi said in his post-match press conference. “I’ve experienced discrimination in various parts of the world. Racism and discrimination doesn’t have a passport, it doesn’t have a nationality. It’s a disease of our society. It’s passed on generation to generation, from parents to children.”

To stop that cycle a stand had to be made, even if, as Ghotbi pointed out, it was to the detriment of one J1 match.

“To be honest I didn’t enjoy the game,” the 50-year-old said. “I didn’t enjoy it because it didn’t have fans. It didn’t have a voice. It didn’t have the beautiful colours of orange and red fighting each other. The content at times was good and at times was poor. Probably because it lacked the power and the energy of its fans. So I hope it’s the last time we play in an empty stadium.”

On that I think everybody is agreed.


Picking up from Piksi

Following Dragan Stojkovic as manager of Nagoya Grampus is no easy task, but Akira Nishino is far from intimidated… (日本語版はこちらです:http://www.footballchannel.jp/2014/03/13/post30471/)

Football Channel,  March 14th, 2014

Last weekend I was at NACK5 Stadium to see two sides under new head coaches do battle. While Omiya Ardija having a new boss is far from unusual – they’ve had six men in the dugout since I arrived in Japan five years ago – Dragan Stojkovic not being on the bench for Nagoya Grampus will take some getting used to.

In Akira Nishino the club have chosen an experienced and successful man to take the reigns though. Grampus looked far from their best in the 2-1 win over Ardija, but the fact they were able to bring on the likes of Taishi Taguchi, Kensuke Nagai, and Naoshi Nakamura demonstrates the quality and potential of the squad, and Nishino is undoubtedly in the process of building his own team, as opposed to merely inheriting Piksi’s.

“Things are a lot different,” Josh Kennedy told me after Saturday’s match. “Our training structure is obviously a lot different to what it was under Piksi. I think we’re still trying to find where all the players fit in with [Nishino] and vice versa. I think a few more weeks and we might find our best formation and the way we want to play.”

Another difference the Australian noted is the intricate way in which Nishino organizes things – as well as the amount of time the players spend working on them.

“I think the whole approach to everything is maybe a little more professional – things are a little more structured,” the 31-year-old said. “We’ve got our specific fitness coach now, we’ve got our goalkeeper coach, and we’ve got a little bit more structure in place. Not that we didn’t approach things professionally before.

“Most days are two hours, apart from maybe Friday. But most of them are pushing two hours – I’m clocking in a few overtime hours! So that’s a big change. With Piksi we trained maybe an hour, hour-and-fifteen minutes, max. Piksi, the way he played he was a bit free and open and didn’t really get bothered by too much, so I think his approach was obviously a lot different to a normal Japanese coach.”

Kennedy is enjoying working under Nishino though, and thinks his new manager is aware that patience is needed to properly mould the team in his image.

“The transition’s been good. [He knows] the team’s had a lot of years under Piksi and that it’s not going to be easy to turn that around in four or five weeks.”

Nagoya Grampus fans ahead of their Round 2 match against Omiya Ardija. March 8th, 2014

Nishino agrees but is not intimidated by stepping into Stojkovic’s shoes.

“If you say that then I have to be aware of it,” he said when I asked him last month at the J.League’s Kick Off Conference if he felt any pressure at taking over from the Serbian. “But I’ve come in along with 11 new players, so that’s a third of the squad has changed. I don’t really feel a level of difficulty in taking over from Piksi but everyone around is saying it.”

While not letting the success of his predecessor daunt him – let’s not forget that Nishino won every domestic title and the ACL with Gamba Osaka – he knows that he can’t try to implement a new culture at the club overnight though.

“Things that are normal now weren’t before,” he explained. “Of course the previous coach was here for six years and, to a degree, things are ingrained so in many ways it’s difficult to change things and I have to have that in mind as I go. You can’t force things that are difficult to change.”

One thing which is already markedly different, however, is Grampus’s starting line-up – in particular the defence, with only Tulio remaining from last season’s back four and now responsible for leading Ryota Tanabe, Shun Obu, and Yuki Honda.

“Many young players have come in to the squad and lots of the regular class from last year have been released so we have to deal with that switchover,” Nishino told me. “While I also expect results I have to think about developing those players at the same time.”

Kennedy is also aware that results may take a while to come consistently as the new players bed in, and admitted that hopes of battling at the top of the table as they did a few years back may not be on the agenda just yet.

“I think that’s a big ask,” he said. “Everyone would love to say we’re going to be up there and challenge for the title but realistically there’s three guys at the back who’ve come in; Ryota [Tanabe] is not normally a right back, he’s normally an attacker, and the other two guys are pretty much fresh – one’s out of University and one’s played five or six games.

“So it’s a big ask for them to step in. We lost four good players, I thought – starting players – so time will tell. Like I said, it will be a big ask to be up there in the end.”

That may be the case but given Nishino’s track record and the players at his disposal it would take a brave man to bet against them challenging for silverware again soon.


Japan wins battle after losing its fight

Some thoughts on the calibre of Japan’s opposition as the World Cup approaches from Keisuke Honda, Alberto Zaccheroni and more. For The Japan News…

The Japan News, Friday 7th March, 2014

A two-goal victory is usually cause for celebration, but Keisuke Honda was far from content with Japan’s triumph over New Zealand this week.

Speaking to The Japan News after the 4-2 win the AC Milan star was, as ever, keen to analyze the negatives of an unusual last match for the Samurai Blue at the current National Stadium.

“We played well first half but after four goals slowed down a little bit,” he said of Wednesday’s game in which Japan raced into a four-goal lead inside 17 minutes, before letting up considerably to concede twice. “We need to improve many things so we are not satisfied.”

The midfielder believes the team relaxed too much having established such a commanding early lead.

“That is the problem so we lost two goals. We have to be smart after we score four goals.”

His coach Alberto Zaccheroni was — outwardly at least — a little more philosophical.

“Of course this sort of thing can happen in a game. You get four early goals and I felt the team’s pace did drop off a bit. But that’s also meaningful for me. When the pace of the team does drop off it’s very good for me to be able to see how the individual players cope with that situation.”

The Italian was, however, very pleased with the manner in which his side burst out of the traps.

“What was especially good about the first 20 minutes was that we were able to play so skillfully at such high speed,” the 60-year-old said. “Because you have to have the skill plus the speed to compete at international level, and I think we were fully at the international level in the first 20 minutes.”

Eyebrows have been raised by the caliber of Japan’s final opponents on home soil ahead of the World Cup finals in June — this match will be followed by a game against lowly Cyprus on May 27th — but Shinji Okazaki isn’t overly concerned.

Japan v. New Zealand, March 5th, 2014

“What we have to do doesn’t change whoever we play against, and I want to go to the World Cup having made the base first,” the Mainz striker, who scored twice against New Zealand, said. “In terms of checking those aspects, playing against Cyprus will be the same as anyone we play against.”

Masato Morishige, who along with Shinji Kagawa also got on the scoresheet Wednesday, is of a similar mind.

“We were playing today’s game as we would against a strong opponent,” the FC Tokyo captain told The Japan News. “I think it’s important to play each game while always being aware of a higher level.”

Maya Yoshida was less enthusiastic about the fixtures.

“That’s how it has been decided so we have no option but to do it,” the Southampton centerback said. “But of course, if we can play against stronger opposition in the US (in a pre-tournament camp) then it’s better, I think.”

Honda isn’t convinced that such mediocre opposition can prepare the team to face Colombia, Cote d’Ivoire, or 2004 European champions Greece at the finals either.

“I don’t think so. I can’t imagine how we’ll play against Greece,” he said. “I think [New Zealand are] similar to Greece [and] we conceded two goals. The third goal [would go in] in the World Cup.”

The 27-year-old suggested that more capable opposition would benefit Japan as it makes its final tweaks ahead of the finals in the summer.

“We can play better against the strong teams because we have space,” he explained.

Space is also limited on the plane to Brazil, and while this was the last match before Zaccheroni is expected to announce his squad in early May he insisted there is still time for players to book their seats.

“I want to repeat that I have not decided which 23 players to pick,” he said. “I want players both in Japan and abroad to keep showing me their ability and power.”


Ex-star Ramos gives Gifu rare glitz

This year some key arrivals have moved FC Gifu – more used to struggling at the foot of J2 – into the limelight…

The Japan News, Saturday 1st March, 2014

FC Gifu is not a club accustomed to success on the pitch or media attention, but fans are expecting big things this year and at last week’s J.League ‘Kick Off Conference’ its booth was the most crowded of all the J2 sides.

Former Japan star Ruy Ramos is the principal cause of all the excitement, and the charismatic 57-year-old has gotten straight down to work after being appointed as coach for the 2014 season.

“That’s thanks to me, of course,” he joked upon being told that his new team’s opening game of the season is expected to be a sell-out. “If I wasn’t here [Yoshikatsu] Kawaguchi and the rest wouldn’t come.”

His tongue was placed firmly in his cheek upon delivering that line, but he is not wrong. There is an element of Jose Mourinho-lite to Ramos, and his self-confidence ensures everyone in the room is hanging onto every word when he speaks.

“Everyone in the media has all sorts of ideas about the image of Gifu and I want to change that,” he told assembled reporters at the league’s pre-season meet-and-greet. “In order to do that it has to change from the players. That’s why I signed Kawaguchi and [Alessandro] Santos.

“I don’t know how professional the players have been until now,” he said of the side who finished 21st last season, conceding a league-worst 80 goals in the process. “I won’t allow players to smile when we lose. We have to take more pride in playing for Gifu.”

Veteran Kawaguchi — who along with fellow former national teamer Santos arrived at the club soon after Ramos, adding to the interest around Gifu — has quickly bought into his coach’s enthusiasm.

“We have confidence,” he told The Japan News at last week’s event. “He’s interesting and knows everything about Japanese football. He gives us great advice so my teammates have confidence and are getting better.”

New coach brings glamour to Gifu

The fixture list has also been kind to Gifu and they start with a pair of home games against J.League debutants Kamatamare Sanuki and perennial strugglers Kataller Toyama.

“We have to win the first and second games,” the 38-year-old, who has travelled to four World Cups, including the most recent in South Africa in 2010, said. “We have to win our home games.

“If possible, if the players’ condition is good, then we can make the play-offs. That is our target.”

Ramos was hesitant to make any similarly bold on-field targets, instead focusing on raising the stock of a side which has never finished higher than 12th in its six years in J2.

“My aim is for the local people to be able to expect things of this team,” he said. “If possible I want to go higher up the table.

“I want to build it a bit at a time. I want to compete next year. First of all this year I want to take things one game at a time. I want to increase the number of supporters too.”

The former Verdy Kawasaki star is doing his best to try and keep expectations under control, but after six years out of the professional game he couldn’t completely contain his natural enthusiasm.

“For us to go up is difficult,” he began. “But if you talk about Jubilo, Kyoto, or JEF, who have to battle for the title, that’s difficult too.

“Nothing is impossible. There’s no option but to go for it. There’s nothing to be scared of. It’s difficult for every team; for Real Madrid and Oita, too. For us as well. But nothing is impossible.”


J1 team by team info

Here’s my at-a-glance guide to the teams in J1 this season, for The Japan News.

The Japan News, Saturday 1st March, 2014

Sanfrecce Hiroshima

2013: 19-6-9

Key addition: Yoshifumi Kashiwa (from Ventforet Kofu)

Three league titles in row not beyond the realms of possibility.

Yokohama F.Marinos

2013: 18-8-8

Key addition: Jungo Fujimoto (from Nagoya Grampus)

May not have enough quality up front to improve on last season.

Kawasaki Frontale

2013: 18-6-10

Key addition: Paulinho (loan from Tochigi SC)

AFC Champions League commitments may hamper serious title challenge.

Cerezo Osaka

2013: 16-11-7

Key addition: Diego Forlan (from Internacional (Brazil))

Addition of Forlan to talented young squad makes Cerezo the favorite.

Kashima Antlers

2013: 18-5-11

Key addition: Luis Alberto (from SC Braga (Portugal))

Could struggle after failing to adequately replace key outgoing players.

Urawa Reds

2013: 17-7-10

Key addition: Shusaku Nishikawa (from Sanfrecce Hiroshima)

Expectations to finally deliver glory are high, but  may fall short again.

Albirex Niigata

2013: 17-4-13

Key addition: Yuki Kobayashi (from Jubilo Iwata)

Overachieved last year, but have potential to compete again.

FC Tokyo

2013: 16-6-12

Key addition: Edu (from Liaoning Whowin (China))

Hard to see them climbing any higher than usual mid-table place.

Shimizu S-Pulse

2013: 15-5-14

Key addition: Milivoje Novakovic (from FC Koln (Germany))

Could be surprise package, if key players stay injury free and don’t transfer in summer.

Team by teams 2014

Kashiwa Reysol

2013: 13-9-12

Key addition: Leandro (from Al Sadd (Qatar))

Experienced coach and talented squad makes Reysol dark horse for  title.

Nagoya Grampus

2013: 13-8-13

Key addition: Ryunosuke Noda (from Sagan Tosu)

Season will be determined by how quickly they get out of blocks.

Sagan Tosu

2013: 13-7-14

Key addition: Michihiro Yasuda (from Jubilo Iwata)

Overly dependent on Yohei Toyoda’s goals. May get drawn into relegation battle.

Vegalta Sendai

2013: 11-12-11

Key addition: Michael McGlinchey (loan from Central Coast Mariners (Australia))

Year of transition and no experienced keeper, so mid-table safety would suffice.

Omiya Ardija

2013: 14-3-17

Key addition: Akihiro Ienaga (from RCD Mallorca (Spain))

Will likely be involved in relegation scrap despite arrival of some good individuals.

Ventforet Kofu

2013: 8-13-13

Key addition: Irfan Bachdim (from Chonburi FC (Thailand))

Survived relegation last year, but may not have enough to do so this season.

Gamba Osaka

2013: 25-12-5 (1st in J2)

Key addition: Masaaki Higashiguchi (from Albirex Niigata)

Title challenge not overly likely, but capable of causing many teams problems.

Vissel Kobe

2013: 25-8-9 (2nd in J2)

Key addition: Marquinhos (from Yokohama F.Marinos)

As always, made plenty of eye-catching signings, but may take time to gel.

Tokushima Vortis

2013: 20-7-15 (J2 Play Off champion)

Key addition: Kleiton Domingues (from Ituano (Brazil))

Division’s whipping boys on paper. Avoiding relegation would be outstanding success.


Hampering Hiroshima’s hat-trick hopes

The arrival of Diego Forlan has seen Cerezo Osaka installed as the favourites for the 2014 J1 title, but plenty of other sides – including two-time defending champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima – also have their sights set on the championship…

The Japan News, Saturday 1st March, 2014

Sanfrecce Hiroshima is heading into the 2014 J.League season looking for a third consecutive division one title, but coach Hajime Moriyasu knows his side must improve on last year’s showing if it is to taste victory again.

The Purple Archers successfully defended their crown on the final day of last season, but the triumph was as much down to Yokohama F Marinos’ late collapse as it was Hiroshima’s own efforts.

Sanfrecce lost nine games in the league in 2013 — the most of any champion since Gamba Osaka lost 10 times in 2005 — and Moriyasu is keen to arrest a worrying trend.

“In 2012 we lost eight games and last year it was nine. We were able to seize the title but the number of defeats has to decrease,” the 45-year-old said at last week’s ‘Kick Off Conference’.

“On the other hand, the battle for the title in the J.league is not like the top leagues overseas where only a limited number of teams fight for the top and the rest are divided into the middle and the bottom,” he added.

One side which does look to be a cut above this year, however, is Sanfrecce’s opponent in today’s season-opener, Cerezo Osaka.

As well as managing to keep hold of young stars like Yoichiro Kakitani, Hotaru Yamaguchi, and Takahiro Ogihara Cerezo have signed Uruguayan star Diego Forlan, and Moriyasu is relishing the mouth-watering start to the season.

“I’m delighted that we will be playing in amongst all the attention generated by the arrival of such a top drawer player as Forlan,” he said.

“Cerezo also have a lot of very talented young players and are a good team, and with all that in mind I’m really looking forward to the game.”

The team is also what new Cerezo boss Ranko Popovic is focusing on.

“Diego is amazing but if we’re waiting for everything from Diego it’s wrong because we have other players,” he said at the season launch. “Football is a team sport and [about] teamwork and we have to work like a team.

“He’s come here to do his best and I saw in his eyes the fire for playing, the fire to [achieve] something and for competition, and this is what we need because without Forlan we are a really young team.”

Indeed, 24-year-old Kakitani is a full decade younger than his new strike partner and he knows he and his teammates must gear themselves towards getting the best out of their new prized asset.

“As well as me making a good combination with him the key point is how the team can make the best use of Diego Forlan as a player,” the Japan star said.

Rival players are also excited at the arrival of the former Manchester United, Atletico Madrid, and Interacional striker.

“For me to fight on the same pitch as him I can gain many things,” Kashiwa Reysol’s Masato Kudo told The Japan News. “His hassling and shooting ability will be great study for me.”

The Japan News, Saturday 1st March, 2014

2011 champion Reysol finished a disappointing 10th in 2013 but could be a dark horse this year, with Kudo aiming for the title and to challenge Forlan in the scoring charts.

“Every year my tally has gone up so this year I want more than 20 [goals]. If I score then the league title will come closer so I’ll do my best.”

Another team looking to get closer to the title is Marinos.

The Kanagawa side needed just one win from its final two games to be crowned champion last year but lost both, and coach Yasuhiro Higuchi hopes his players can bounce back, buoyed by a consolation victory over Sanfrecce in the Emperor’s Cup final on New Year’s Day.

“That disappointment will serve as this year’s motivation,” he told The Japan News. “Thee Emperor’s Cup triumph is one thing to give us confidence, but the disappointment of coming second in the league will be the spring for us.”

The aim of winning the league is not just a symbolic one for Higuchi, and he has a concrete target in mind to secure the J1 shield.

“I think 68 points,” the 52-year-old said. “Two-thirds of the points available. We have to go into every league game with an awareness of that fact.”

Gamba Osaka coach Kenta Hasegawa isn’t leaving anything to chance though and has set a slightly higher barometer of 70 points for his side.

Gamba is returning to the top flight after a year in J2, but the former Shimizu S-Pulse boss has no plans to wait around for success. He certainly needs his team to hit the ground running as they, too, have a huge opening match today, at home to old rivals Urawa Reds.

“It’s the ‘Japan Derby’, I think. I want to create proper history worthy of that name,” he told The Japan News. “There’s a lot of history to the fixture and I want to create new history from now on.”

His opposite number, Mihailo Petrovic, agreed with that assessment and similarly has points on the brain.

“Hiroshima got 64 points in 2012 and 63 in 2013 so we know roughly what the line is to get the title,” he said.

Urawa’s coach feels that Forlan’s arrival has installed Cerezo as the clear favorite for the championship.

“Cerezo are separated from the other teams going for the title. They’ve spent big money to capture a really big player, and recently J.League clubs haven’t done that.”

Popovic, however, dismissed the suggestion that the rest of the division is only playing for second place.

“This is not so. We have to demonstrate [why we are favorite]. This is what we have to do first. To relieve this pressure and concentrate on our game.”

Even so, he believes a first championship for Cerezo is a realistic possibility.

“If we don’t think so why are we playing? Why?” he said. “We have to look for our chance, like everybody [else]. We want to fight for the top.”

If Sakka Nihon isn’t enough then you can follow my every move (sort of) here.

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what day is it?

April 2014
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