Good Korea move

Things didn’t go well for Japan at the recent East Asian Cup, but neighbours South Korea are steadily establishing themselves as a real force again… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, August 13th, 2015

With no wins, some incredibly underwhelming team performances, and certain players surely ruling themselves out of national team contention for the foreseeable future, the East Asian Cup was hugely disappointing for Japan and Vahid Halilhodzic.

The Samurai Blue coach did his best to put on a brave face after the team’s final match against China – pointing out that he’d achieved one of the aims of the tournament by discovering some new players (Wataru Endo certainly showed he has the ability to step up to the full national team, while Yuki Muto also did his chances no harm) – but it was clear that the Bosnian was bitterly disappointed with what he’d seen overall.

Uli Stielike, on the other hand, could barely contain his delight at how well the competition had gone for South Korea.

“I am very satisfied with the whole tournament, and most of all with the manner in which we played football,” he said after their 0-0 draw with North Korea. “We want to dominate, we play high in the field, we have, I think, for the third time now had more ball possession than the opponent.”

Stielike didn’t yet know if that point would be enough to seal the championship (it ultimately was after Japan held China to their 1-1 draw), and insisted that whoever took the title the Taeguk Warriors had demonstrated that they were the best team in Wuhan.

“Even if China wins the game against Japan and the tournament, I don’t want to change my boys with any other boys,” the German said. “We are the only team who go from the tournament without any losses, and we are the only team who came here to win the games with offensive football. So thank you very much to my boys.

“We are also the only team who didn’t change their manner of playing,” the 60-year-old continued. “Japan changed against us and North Korea changed against us. So we are the only team who brought the same mentality on the pitch in all three games.”

Whereas Japan lacked speed, energy, and urgency in their trio of matches, the South Koreans had it in spades. When they didn’t have the ball they hustled constantly to close their opponents down, and when they did have possession they shifted it forwards dynamically.

South Korea coach Uli Stielike after his team's 0-0 draw with North Korea

“We don’t defend the goal, we want to recover the ball,” Stielike explained. “That’s why we are playing very high in the field and that’s why we have a lot of ball possession. That’s also because our defensive work is extraordinary all over the field. When we are speaking about defence we speak about recovering the ball.”

The success in Wuhan follows on from a runners-up finish at January’s Asian Cup, and the signs are that South Korea is on the rise again in Asia.

Their coach is not getting too carried away, though, and suggested that for this generation of players to achieve their full potential they may have to head overseas for their club football.

“This is a very difficult question, because to go forward we need better quality in our K-League,” he said. “We need more competition – our players are not used to playing high in the field, our players are not used to playing against teams who make strong pressing. If we can play a lot of games at this level that would bring them forward, but I am not sure that our players at home in the K-League will have this push to come forward.”

That is something to be addressed in the longer-term, however. For now the team is on fire, and while Halilhodzic may have come back from the East Asian Cup with more questions than answers, Stielike – who also took a mostly second-string squad to China – received confirmation that he and his players are heading in the right direction.

“I won, personally, the conviction that the way we are working with the team, with the group, is the right way,” he concluded after the stalemate with North Korea.

“Not only to give orders to the players – to explain why we do something, what we need from them, looking at the right position for them in the field – and to give them also a lot of liberty in our system, in our needs for the team, but to let them bring in their own ideas. I think the way is correct. We didn’t score today, yes, it’s right, but we also have players in reserve like Son Heung-min, like Koo Ja-cheol, who maybe can help us in the future.”

How Halilhodzic must wish he had the same strength in depth.


Late strikes help young Nadeshiko blossom, avoid last

Nadeshiko Japan salvaged some pride from their final East Asian Cup match, and the victory may prove vital to the next stage of the team’s development…

The Japan News, Monday 10th August, 2015

WUHAN, China — In sport there is often a fine line between winning and losing, and the effect a victory can have on a struggling or inexperienced side should not be underestimated.

Nadeshiko Japan were just 2 minutes away from finishing without a win at the East Asian Cup, when Kumi Yokoyama was sent through on goal and calmly slotted beyond China goalkeeper Wang Fei to give Norio Sasaki’s side a dramatic last-minute win on Saturday night.

Ami Sugita added gloss to the victory by making it 2-0 in injury time, and Sasaki was delighted his team had been able to avoid the indignity of a last-place finish.

“It has been a long time since I’ve been able to conduct a press conference after a win so I’m incredibly happy,” Sasaki said with a grin.

“I think the strong motivation of the players to win the game forced the ball into the goal, and even though they are still lacking in experience, they showed great perseverance and did not give up.”

The 57-year-old opted to take an experimental team to China, as the competition came so soon after the Women’s World Cup, at which his first-choice squad progressed to the final.

His relatively untested players lost their first match 4-2 to eventual champion North Korea and followed that with a 2-1 loss after leading South Korea, so they were desperate to take all three points against the host in their final outing.

“We’d lost two games and, for us as a team, that left a feeling of disappointment,” Sugita said. “We came into this game with a sense of togetherness and a determination to win. The fact we were able to do that is great.

“Winning is the most important thing. There were many good and bad things in the two games we lost, but there was a nagging feeling of something not being right as we’d not been able to produce results.

EAFF East Asian Cup, August 1st-9th, 2015

“If we hadn’t been able to get even one win in these three games, there would have been a feeling of disappointment, so the fact we were able to win feels like a step forward.”

For Yokoyama, who was brought on as a substitute just five minutes before opening the scoring, there was a particular desire to erase the memory of the previous two losses.

“Less so than what kind of play was required of me, the coach just asked me to go on and get a goal,” she said. “Also, in the previous game [against South Korea] the second goal we conceded was after I made a mistake and they countered, so I entered the pitch wanting to make amends for that.

“The ball from Emi [Nakajima] was really nice, and I felt that all I had to do was convert the chance.”

The fact that she was able to do that changed the complexion of the tournament as a whole for the Nadeshiko, and the win can now be used as a springboard as the team looks ahead to the Olympic qualifiers, which take place in Japan at the start of 2016.

“For us, I think the opportunity to be able to play in these games has been very beneficial, especially as there weren’t many of the regular players here,” Yokoyama said.

“I feel that even the games we lost have given the young players very good experience.”

Her coach was in full agreement, but made it clear that the players now have to make the most of it.

“I think it has been good experience for them, and the fact that in the end we were able to get a victory was a relief and means we can go back to Japan with a little bit of confidence looking ahead to the future,” Sasaki said.

“The most important thing now is that these players take advantage of the three games they’ve played here.”


Stalemate with S. Korea leaves Japan on outside

Japan’s defence of the East Asian Cup was brought to an end on Wednesday, as they drew 1-1 with South Korea…

The Japan News, Thursday 6th August, 2015

WUHAN, China – Japan’s chances of winning the East Asian Cup were extinguished after its 1-1 draw with South Korea on Wednesday, and Vahid Halilhodzic and his players were forced to defend themselves against claims that the team had played negatively against the Taeguk Warriors.

The Samurai Blue needed a win to keep alive its hopes of defending the title it won in Seoul in 2013, but barely threatened on a balmy night in Wuhan and had to settle for a draw, earned after Hotaru Yamaguchi’s fine drive cancelled out Jang Hyun Soo’s opener from the penalty spot.

“It’s a big step forward for Korea, because it means a lot of respect to our team if a team is waiting for us, and this is what Japan did today,” South Korea coach Uli Stielike said after the match.

“Japan was watching us, was analyzing us, and the defensive compartment of Japan was totally different to their last game [against North Korea],” he added.

Halilhodzic insisted the aim had always been to take the three points, however, and rather than entering into a war of words with his opposite number opted to instead praise the opposition.

“Of course I didn’t give the instructions to not go forward,” the Bosnian said. “Our job today was to first block Korea and then counterattack but Korea broke up our attacks very well.

“In this match we were defensively solid and physically better than in the last match. Offensively we still lack some power and that’s why we struggled to create chances, although I’m not surprised because we played against the best team in this tournament and so should be happy with the draw.”

Tomoaki Makino was also keen to stress the quality of the opposition.

“From studying their first match [against China] it was clear that they are a very slick team, and so we came into the game knowing that first of all we had to start defensively and then work on showing our ability while cancelling out their strong points,” the Urawa Reds defender said of the South Koreans, who can seal the title if they defeat North Korea on Sunday.

East Asian Cup, Wuhan 2015

“Calling [our way of playing] ‘defensive’ is maybe a bit of an odd way of putting it,” the 28-year-old continued.

“We took care today to make three ‘blocks’ while the opponent had the ball, with the intention of keeping compact and barring their way to goal – especially because they had one player with height up front.”

Takashi Usami started on the bench before being brought on for Shinzo Koroki in the 78th minute, but even the introduction of the J.League’s leading scorer couldn’t tilt the game in Japan’s favor.

“I don’t think you could say that we controlled the game, but at the same time you couldn’t say that they did either,” the Gamba Osaka striker said postmatch.

“There were times during the opening exchanges when the opposition was pushing forward and putting us under pressure, and watching from the side there weren’t many occasions where we could work ourselves into shooting positions, but we didn’t head into the game with the aim of playing defensively.”

For Makino, who is seemingly gaining the trust of Halilhodzic having started each of the last four games under the 63-year-old, the overriding feeling was of a job well done after a hard-fought battle.

“We have to acknowledge the quality of the opponent,” he said.

“When they had the ball we fitted into the style of soaking up the pressure and then trying to make short counters. They got their goal from a penalty kick and we scored ours from open play and I think it was a really good game. It didn’t feel to me like it was always them attacking us.”

Japan’s last game in the four team round-robin competition comes on Sunday night as it takes on host China, while South Korea faces neighbor North Korea.


Shinji Okazaki begins new adventure at Leicester

Thoughts from Leicester on Shinji Okazaki’s arrival at The Foxes…

Football Channel,  August 7th, 2015

The new Premier League season gets underway on August 8th, and 2015/16 will see another Japanese international aiming for success in England, with Shinji Okazaki having finally made the switch to Leicester City from Mainz.

In the last few years a handful of players have tried and failed to make a telling impact in the division, and while Maya Yoshida has done well to establish himself as a semi-regular at Southampton, the likes of Tadanari Lee, Shinji Kagawa, and Ryo Miyaichi have all struggled to demonstrate their true ability in the English top flight.

Okazaki differs slightly from that trio in that he is already 29, has five years of Bundesliga experience behind him, and has long been established as Japan’s first-choice striker. Leicester were chasing his signature for some time and hopes are high in Japan that the former Shimizu S-Pulse man can hit the ground running at the King Power Stadium.

Rob Tanner, who covers the Foxes for the Leicester Mercury newspaper, suggests that expectations are a little more muted in the city itself, although he thinks from what he has seen of Okazaki in the Bundesliga that he is suited to the style of play in England.

“I knew that City had been chasing him for a year because Nigel Pearson told us,” he said. “His goalscoring record isn’t sensational but he fits the mould of a Pearson striker as he is very hard working and mobile.”

Of course Pearson is no longer coaching the side, with former Chelsea boss Claudio Ranieri having been appointed to replace him on July 13th. Quite how that affects Okazaki remains to be seen, but Tanner doesn’t think the change should cause too many concerns.

“I think everyone has a clean slate and he will have to impress Ranieri in training and pre-season like the rest of them. Obviously, the fact that Pearson had pursued him for a year at least meant he was highly rated and it is uncertain how Ranieri rates him.”

Leicester fan Mayur Bhanji actually thinks the arrival of ‘The Tinkerman’ may benefit Okazaki.

“Even though Okazaki is a Pearson signing, I actually think he’ll get more of a chance with Ranieri – a foreign manager who faced difficulties of his own when he came to English football,” he said. “He may turn out to be a father figure for him and help him settle down and concentrate on his football.”

Even so, Bhanji admits that he is a little unsure as to where Japan’s No.9 will fit in.

Football Channel, July 27th, 2015

“I think like most Leicester fans the reaction was ‘do we really need him?’ Leicester signed [Andrej] Kramarić in January and he’s taking time adjusting to the Premier League, but you can see he’s a very talented player. The Foxes have the likes of [Leonardo] Ulloa, [David] Nugent, [Jamie] Vardy already there too. And of course Okazaki will take time finding his feet in English conditions.”

One player he could look to for advice in that respect is Yuki Abe, who spent a couple of seasons at Leicester when they were in The Championship between 2010 and 2012. Abe, like Okazaki, is more of a steady than spectacular player, although that served him well in England where players who give their all for the team are always appreciated by supporters and teammates alike. Bhanji, for one, was a big fan of the current Urawa Reds captain.

“He was one of my favourite players at Leicester. Sven [Göran Eriksson] used to like to play two holding midfielders when he was manager and Abe did a lot of the ‘dirty’ work in front of the defence. His distribution was excellent and he settled into the city well. He was almost a [Dietmar] Hamann type player – never flash but an important player in the team.”

Tanner also has fond memories of Abe’s spell in the midlands.

“Yuki was quite popular with the fans and had his own song,” he recalled. “He was an industrious player and also incredibly polite to everyone. I think he just struggled to settle in England and was allowed to leave pretty soon after Pearson returned to the club.”

In order for Okazaki to avoid his four-year deal being cut short it is vital that he sets out of the traps quickly and takes any opportunities that come his way.

“Give his all and play his heart out,” is Tanner’s advice to get the supporters onside. “English fans will always back a trier who gives 100 percent, but a few goals early on in his career won’t go amiss.”

Bhanji agrees.

“Quite simply he’ll have to score goals and be up to pace with the league. The fans will give him a chance but he’ll have to work hard, show for the ball and of course score goals for himself.”

Okazaki has done that throughout his career, but doing it in the Premier League will undoubtedly be his toughest challenge yet.


Talent search on at East Asian Cup

Ahead of the East Asian Cup, I wrote a brief preview for The Japan News…

The Japan News, Friday 31st July, 2015

The East Asian Cup may not be the most prestigious of tournaments, but it provides a rare opportunity to test the mettle of fringe players in competitive action, and both Vahid Halilhodzic and Norio Sasaki have their red pens at the ready.

The four-team competition, which gets underway on Aug. 1 in Wuhan, China, falls outside of official FIFA international game dates, and so clubs are under no obligation to release their players.

That means that both the male and female Japan teams travelling to China are made up of solely domestic players, and their coaches are looking forward to seeing how those usually on the periphery cope in the heat of battle.

“First of all I want to discover players,” Samurai Blue coach Halilhodzic said when announcing his 23-man squad on Jul. 23. “I’m thinking that around half of the ‘A’ national team will be those who play domestically. I want to see who can play effectively looking ahead to the next training camp for the full national team.”

Sasaki – whose first choice squad finished as runners-up at the recent Women’s World Cup in Canada – is aiming to use the round robin tournament to audition the next generation of Nadeshiko players.

“I want them to challenge themselves at this competition showing a strong desire to be on the pitch for Nadeshiko Japan at the Rio Olympics,” he said at the squad announcement on Jul. 21. “If they can produce results and gain confidence here then they will be able to be involved in the qualification process for Rio.”

“Playing in China this time there will be a bit of a special environment,” Halilhodzic added. “They are away games and so it is vital to show a strong mentality.

“I want to use [the difficulty of the environment] and work on mental training. The three teams we play will all be desperate to beat us. I want to find players who are capable of matching that.”

The Bosnian is confident that he has made the best selections on that front.

Wuhan Sports Center Stadium

“The players have incredibly high motivation. I spoke directly with [Kosuke] Ota and Gaku [Shibasaki] on the phone and they both said, ‘even though I’m carrying an injury I want to go and play for Japan.’ Having players with that spirit is important.”

Sasaki is also keen to gauge the mental strength of those less accustomed to competitive international soccer, and hopes they can apply pressure to the regular members of the squad not selected.

“It will be a very difficult environment – it will be hot, and it will be a great experience for this age group to show their individual strengths and team strength, as well as their teamwork,” the 57-year-old said.

“It is good if [their omission] acts as a stimulus to the players not chosen, but if the talented players in this generation don’t seize this opportunity and say, ‘I’m going to the Rio Olympics,’ then it won’t become a stimulus to those not involved.”

Halilhodzic envisions plenty of his players having the opportunity to show what they are capable of owing to the quick turnaround between matches.

“We have to adapt to the conditions, and because we play three games in such a short space of time I will have to use as many players as possible,” he said.

“Modern soccer is becoming incredibly fast. Duels are becoming incredibly aggressive. Teams are becoming incredibly organized and the team that concentrates and adapts wins.

“Teams that win have a certain something, and individual players can also make the difference – particularly when it comes to scoring goals. We have to find players capable of making the difference too.”

The men get their campaign underway against North Korea on Aug. 2, before taking on South Korea on Aug. 5, and concluding against host China on Aug. 9. For the women, North Korea are first on Aug. 1, South Korea next on Aug. 4, and China last up on Aug. 8.


Frontale stay on track to end bridesmaid brand

Kawasaki Frontale is always the bridesmaid, but Renato & Elsinho are hoping for a big day in 2015…

Football Channel,  July 14th, 2015

KAWASAKI — Kawasaki Frontale, having come second in J1 on three occasions and with a trio of runners-up finishes in the Nabisco Cup also to its name, is the perennial bridesmaid of the J.League.

While there is still a long way to go this season, the Kanagawa side is the form team in the top flight right now, and a 2-0 triumph over rival FC Tokyo at the start of the second stage on Saturday night made it four consecutive league wins for Yahiro Kazama’s men.

Renato, whose peach of a free-kick made sure of victory in the Tamagawa Classico, is hoping the team can finally shake off its unwanted moniker this year.

“It’s a shame we have that history,” he said after the match. “The team has been in a very good position many times and come very close, but just lacked that final something to win a title.

“If the team is able to win something in one way or another it will create new history, make the club bigger, and help it to grow. All we can do is fight until the very end, and try to claim that title this season.”

In the off-period between the first and second stages, Frontale were humbled 6-0 by German powerhouse Borussia Dortmund, but Renato believes that thrashing became constructive for him and his teammates at the resumption of league play.

“Everyone knows we played a friendly against a big club and, of course, the result was very disappointing,” the Brazilian said.

“Within that game, however, we learned many positive things. We have to make quicker decisions and there are lots of things we still have to do. That game helped us realize that. It was perfect preparation and gave us strength for today, I think.”

Having players capable of game-changing interventions is key for any side aiming for glory, and, like Renato, his compatriot Elsinho is steadily establishing himself as someone able to do just that.


Kawasaki Frontale v. Borussia Dortmund, Tuesday 7th July, 2015

The 25-year-old cited a target of eight league goals ahead of his debut season, and his delightful opener on Saturday took him to five so far, with one in each of the last four games.

“It is not especially important to aim for personal goals,” he said post-game. “It’s just a target for myself, and if that can combine with victories for the team then that’s good.”

For Elsinho, that doesn’t just mean winning the second stage, but emerging as the champion after the postseason playoff — which will involve three to five clubs.

“When you say ‘title’ the real meaning is to be the overall champion for the season,” he said. “Any way we can, we have to battle right to the end. I think we are capable of going all the way and winning the final game.”

In order for Kawasaki to have its big day, somebody will have to stop Urawa Reds. The Saitama side cruised to the first stage championship without tasting defeat, then picked up right where they left off at the start of the second stage, beating Matsumoto Yamaga 2-1.

Yuki Muto — who was a revelation in the first stage and picked up the June MVP award — opened the scoring early on, before Shinzo Koroki added another in the second half. Ryusuke Sakai pulled one back for Matsumoto, but Reds hung on and extended their record unbeaten run to 18 matches.

The other two sides to finish above Frontale in the first stage — along with Reds and the vanquished FC Tokyo — also made it clear they are still up for the fight, with Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Gamba Osaka both victorious, against Vegalta Sendai and Ventforet Kofu, respectively.

Hisato Sato grabbed a brace in Sanfrecce’s 4-3 win — moving him to within just three goals of Masashi Nakayama’s J1 scoring record of 157 – while the dynamic duo of Patric and Takashi Usami registered in Gamba’s 2-1 come-from-behind triumph, the latter stroking home the winner from the penalty spot in the last minute.


Life’s a beach

Ahead of the World Cup finals in Portugal I interviewed the head coach and captain of Japan’s beach soccer team about their hoped for the competition and the sport at large…

Football Channel,  July 9th, 2015

Hot on the heels of the Nadeshiko’s second consecutive World Cup final appearance another national team kick-off their World Cup campaign on Thursday night (Japan time), as Japan’s beach soccer representatives take on hosts Portugal in Espinho.

Head coach Marcelo Mendes is hopeful that his team can capitalize on the positivity that the nation’s female players have created around the traditionally less popular variations of the beautiful game, and feels that beach soccer has the potential to build a more substantial following.

“You don’t need socks or shoes and you play on the beach so there’s a very nice atmosphere,” he told me before the squad left Tokyo. “You can train, you can play, the kids can enjoy after swimming, and to watch beach soccer you will see many spectacular skills during the game so it’s completely different.

“The game always must have a winner, so if the three periods finish tied you have extra time and then penalty kicks, so it’s a very exciting game, different to futsal and football.”

The Brazilian has coached all over the world – including national teams in Europe (Portugal), South America (Uruguay), North America (USA), Africa (South Africa), and Asia (UAE) – and brings vast experience to a set-up that the JFA is taking very seriously.

While Mendes is delighted with the backing from his association, he is targeting more interest from the media, which thus far has not paid much attention to the niche sport.

“We have good support from the JFA but we don’t have huge support from the media,” he said. “For example, for me it’s a shame to have a qualifier – the team is playing to qualify for the World Cup – and we didn’t have one game [broadcast] live in Japan, so how will people know what we are doing?”

One way to remedy that – as the Nadeshiko’s rise to prominence has so clearly demonstrated – is by being successful on the pitch. Japan lost narrowly to Brazil in the quarter-finals at the last World Cup in Taihiti in 2013, and this time around Mendes is aiming to better that achievement.

“I think we are at a level now where we can expect to go to the quarter-finals, and I think that we can do something more but I don’t like to plan too far ahead because I don’t want to pass this message to the players,” he said.

Despite his best efforts to shield his team from any pressure, those taking to the field know the potential they have.

Brighton, December 2014

“I’m very happy that we have expectations on us, and I also have a lot of confidence,” star player Ozu Moreira said.

“Our technical level is high. We’re very strong at playing when close together. When we’re further apart we sometimes struggle a little, but the occasions when two or three of us are close together we are very good and create many goals that way.

“First of all we are focused on the first game against Portugal, and if we can win that then you never know what it could lead to.”

Portugal and Brazil (where Ozu was born) both courted the 29-year-old for their national teams, but the Japanophile knew there was only ever one country he wished to represent.

“For me, I’m Japanese,” he said. “If, on the other hand, I were to go to Brazil and wear the uniform it wouldn’t have any meaning for me. I wanted to become Japanese, I wanted to represent Japan and play at the World Cup.”

Now he has the chance to do that for the second time, and he, like his coach, is looking to make headlines in the opening game against the Portuguese.

“Portugal will have a lot of expectation on them in the first match and there will be many supporters in the stadium,” he said. “For me that is actually a good thing. Of course there is the pressure of being the away team, but if we are able to beat Portugal then all of a sudden it will become big news. That is something we are all conscious of and we want to create that big news.”

Marcelo agrees.

“[Portugal] will be under huge pressure – huge pressure. Stadium packed, media and family around, so I think this can be good for us. If we know how to convert this atmosphere for us we can have some advantage.”

However, while he has confidence in his players, the 45-year-old knows that sometimes their focus can waver.

“Some players have to concentrate more, [especially] when we are winning games,” he said when asked to identify an area for improvement. “Sometimes we play a brilliant first half and then we decrease the performance and after we play better again. Against Brazil if you do that they will kill you. Against Russia they will kill you. You have to have consistency of performance.”

Indeed, consistency – both on and off the pitch – has been key for the Nadeshiko, and if their beach soccer compatriots can achieve anywhere near that level of success then they, too, may soon be riding a wave of popularity.

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