25
Feb
17

Antlers start reign with own-goal loss

The new J.League season got up and running in characteristically unpredictable fashion today, with last year’s two best sides both losing their first matches. I was in Kashima to see the champions Antlers splutter in their opener against FC Tokyo…

The Japan News, 25th February, 2017

KASHIMA, Ibaraki — FC Tokyo caused an upset on the opening day of the J.League season, winning 1-0 away to reigning champion Kashima Antlers on Saturday.

It took an own goal to separate the sides, with the result ultimately decided by unfortunate Kashima substitute Yuto Misao in the 82nd minute.

Both teams had spells in the ascendancy during a closely contested battle, but FC Tokyo coach Yoshiyuki Shinoda was pleased his team was able to start with such an impressive scalp.

“It was the opening game of the season, so we were still a little rusty in some respects,” the 45-year-old said.

“Antlers are not the kind of opponent you can play for a draw against though, and we knew we had to aim to score goals over the whole 90 minutes if we wanted to take anything from this game.”

The visitors certainly started as the more expansive of the two sides, and their first sighter on goal came in the seventh minute when new signing Yoshito Okubo stung the fingers of Kashima goalkeeper Kwoun Sun Tae with an effort from close range.

Yojiro Takahagi then fired straight at Kwoun from distance in the 37th minute, before an unmarked Kensuke Nagai somehow failed to meet a Sei Muroya cross two minutes later.

Pedro Junior reminded Tokyo of the threat Antlers pose on the break with a swift counter in the 43rd minute, but the impressive Muroya recovered well to shut down the danger.

Fourteen minutes after the break it was Okubo’s turn to contribute a glaring miss to the proceedings.

The three-time J1 top scorer signed from Kawasaki Frontale over the offseason looked odds on to score, but got a little overexcited and lashed wildly over from point-blank range after Nagai had prodded a corner in his direction.

The Japan News, Saturday 25th February, 2017

He was almost punished for that miss less than a minute later, but Tokyo keeper Akihiro Hayashi did well to foil Pedro Junior on another quick break.

“If Hayashi hadn’t made that save at 0-0 things could have been different,” Shinoda observed afterwards.

Instead it was Tokyo who went on to pick up the three points, with the winner coming eight minutes from time.

Substitute Shoya Nakajima had a shot from range more in hope than expectation, and which looked like a routine collection for Kashima keeper Kwoun.

The South Korean fluffed his lines, though, and spilled the ball into the path of fellow league debutant Misao, who couldn’t react in time to avoid inadvertently sending it into his own net.

Elsewhere, there was plenty of drama in the day’s early kick off as last year’s runner-up Urawa Reds also lost, going down 3-2 in a rollercoaster match away to Yokohama F Marinos.

Marinos took the lead through David Babunski in the 13th minute, but Rafael Silva then struck twice in three second-half minutes to put Reds 2-1 up.

Marinos secured a dramatic late win with a quickfire double of their own, as Hugo Vieira equalized in the 86th minute and Naoki Maeda converted the winner in the second minute of injury time.

Meanwhile, the newly promoted sides had muted days.

Cerezo Osaka drew 0-0 with Jubilo Iwata, while Consadole Sapporo and Shimizu S-Pulse both lost 1-0, against Vegalta Sendai and Vissel Kobe, respectively.

25
Feb
17

J.LEAGUE PREVIEW / Marinos move on after Nakamura departure

There were ructions at Yokohama F.Marinos in the off-season as club legend Shunsuke Nakamura departed in acrimonious circumstances, but coach Erick Mombaerts is unruffled heading into a new era for the Nissan Stadium club…

The Japan News, 24th February, 2016

Yokohama F.Marinos manager Erick Mombaerts insists it will be business as usual at Nissan Stadium this year, despite the headline-grabbing departure of captain Shunsuke Nakamura.

The 38-year-old Nakamura left his boyhood club for Jubilo Iwata over the offseason, with rumors swirling of discontent behind the scenes and an uneasy relationship between coach and player.

Former France U-21 coach Mombaerts is unfazed by the upheaval though, and remains firmly focused on the task at hand in his third year at the helm.

“Whether Shunsuke was here or not, the aim would be to improve on last year, to show a better performance than last season,” the 61-year-old said.

“Our style is based upon speedy play with good combinations, and the objective is to fine-tune that. That isn’t dependent upon which players have left or come in, but is always the target.

“The players who are able to play that style are the ones who will appear in the games. If Shunsuke was still here, that would be the aim, and it doesn’t change because he’s not.”

The ongoing shift to a younger, more dynamic Marinos is epitomized by the team’s new captain, Manabu Saito.

“He’s a very important player at this club and I hope he will take on the extra responsibility this season,” Mombaerts said of his decision to select the livewire forward as Nakamura’s successor.

“He’s a national team player and gives everything he has in every single game, so I’m sure he can lead the team.”

Saito, who will also assume Nakamura’s No. 10 shirt, was chosen ahead of more experienced members of the squad, but knows he has their full backing.

“Many people are supporting me — Bomber [Yuji Nakazawa], Machi [Kosuke Nakamachi], Yuzo [Kurihara] — and so along with their help I will try to add something of myself,” the 26-year-old said.

The Japan News, 24th February, 2017

“It’s not the case of wondering what will happen now that I’m captain, but instead to just work at improving the team. I think for that to happen it is important there are many voices being heard.

“There’s been a turnover of players and of course a legend has left, but Marinos will keep going.”

Cayman Togashi is another player who represents the emerging generation of talent at Marinos, and echoed the sentiments of both his coach and new captain.

“We want to continue with the things we were doing last year while also adding some new elements and trying to get some cohesion between the two,” the 23-year-old striker said.

“Of course, now we don’t have an absolute star player in the same mold as Shunsuke, but I feel that unconsciously the team is in the situation of feeling, ‘right, let’s get things done by ourselves.’

“Manabu has been made captain, but it’s not just up to him, and I think we are now in a position whereby all of us have to take responsibility.”

Nakamura played 338 times during two stints with his boyhood club — punctuated by a successful spell in Europe — but only appeared in just over half of his team’s league games in the two seasons since Mombaerts took charge.

In that time the club finished seventh and 10th in the overall table, and Mombaerts is looking to lift the team up a notch this campaign.

“Coaches all over the world say they want to win the league, that the target is to become champions, but that is easy to say,” he explained.

“What is actually important is to improve the performance of the team from last year to make the team better than before. That comes from working hard every day — not just words, but actually putting it into practice — and the results correspond with that.

“I want to raise the level of the team and have us move up the table and compete with the top sides. It is not words but playing quality that leads to results.”

25
Feb
17

J.LEAGUE PREVIEW / One shot at glory: Reds and Antlers renew rivalry as title favorites as league format reverts to winner takes all

Kashima Antlers emerged victorious from las year’s post-season play-offs to pick up the 2016 J1 crown, but over the regular season Urawa Reds claimed the most points. I spoke to players from both teams to see how they’re shaping up ahead of the new campaign…

The Japan News, 24th February, 2016

The J.League first division returns to a regular 34-game format this season after its two-stage system was drawn to a close in controversial circumstances in 2016.

Kashima Antlers’ shirt will be adorned with the official gold champion’s patch after the Ibaraki club won last year’s postseason “Championship” playoff, but defeated opponent Urawa Reds have every right to feel aggrieved having finished a full 15 points ahead of Antlers over the course of the season.

While that was a bitter pill for Reds to swallow, the players’ belief in their approach has not diminished as they head into the new campaign, which kicks off Saturday.

“We have the feeling of being the champion — we won the overall league with the most points in history, so we have confidence,” Reds striker Tadanari Lee told The Japan News ahead of the new season.

“However, Kashima then went on to play against Real Madrid and put in a great performance, so maybe everyone has forgotten [about our achievement].”

The former Southampton striker admits he was supporting Antlers as they did themselves proud as J.League representative at the Club World Cup — taking Real to extra time in the final before succumbing to two quick-fire Cristiano Ronaldo goals — and insists there is no extra desire to exact revenge.

“That’s not really a motivation,” he said. “We know if we play our football we’ll win the title — we just have to believe in that. Every team has brought in reinforcements, but the most important thing is the strength of the team as a whole.”

Defender Wataru Endo is reading from the same script.

“We know if we do the same thing as last season and get the most points, then we’ll be the champion,” the Japan defender said.

“On top of that, because we lost in the Championship last year, we weren’t able to compete in the Club World Cup, which is a competition I personally and the team as a whole really want to take part in.

“To do that now we have to win the Asian Champions League, so our two big targets this year are to become the champion in the league and the ACL.”

Antlers played the system to perfection last season, but know they will have to redouble their efforts in order to retain the J1 shield.

“This year it isn’t the case that you can win the first stage and know you are guaranteed a playoff place,” centerback Gen Shoji said. “We must aim to win the title outright.”

That task has been made even tougher by an unforgiving schedule.

Antlers’ 2016 campaign didn’t conclude until they defeated Kawasaki Frontale to also lift the Emperor’s Cup on New Year’s Day 2017, and after just a fortnight off, the team was back in preseason training.

Since then the Ibaraki outfit has taken part in warm-up competitions in Thailand and Miyazaki, beaten Reds 3-2 in Saturday’s curtain-raising Super Cup match, and also gotten its ACL campaign underway on Tuesday with a 2-0 win over South Korea’s Ulsan Hyundai.

However, Shoji is determined not to use the fixture congestion as an excuse.

The Japan News, Friday 24th February, 2017

“The only way to think about it is positively,” the 24-year-old said.

“Instead of thinking, ‘Ah, we didn’t have much time off to rest,’ it can be a positive for us if we look at it in the sense that our bodies are still in good shape, and it has been easier to get back into the swing of things.”

Chasing the J.League-ACL double

The strain on the Kashima squad will also be eased by several impressive signings, with goalkeeper Kwoun Sun Tae, defender Yuto Misao, and Brazilian pair Leo Silva and Pedro Junior all arriving.

“The club have brought in a few new players, but it’s not like there will be two different teams for the J.League and ACL,” Leo Silva said. “As a group we are all working together to become champion in the league and in Asia.

“Having the chance to join a team that achieved such good results last year serves as a big motivation. You don’t get so many chances in your career to win titles, so it is great to join a team like Kashima, which is always in the mix to win competitions.”

His compatriot Pedro Junior scored 11 times in the league for Vissel Kobe last season and is hoping he can help his new side build on the success of 2016.

“The aim has to be to achieve even better results than last season, especially when you consider that a club as big as Kashima has never won the Asian Champions League,” he said.

“The coach and his staff have clearly outlined what our targets are for the season, and each of us is playing with them in mind.

“Last year the two-stage-plus-playoffs system worked to Kashima’s advantage, but this year it is back to the team with the most points over the season being declared champion, so we are all concentrating on fighting together to achieve that.”

Reds have also added firepower though, and Endo believes this will make last season’s most consistent side an even tougher proposition.

“The number of players in the squad has risen, which adds an extra sense of competition for places,” he said. “In particular, I feel we now have a lot of options in the forward positions.”

Rafael Silva from Albirex Niigata and Japan U-23 striker Ado Onaiwu are the two out-and-out center forwards to have joined, and Onaiwu has detected a resolution in the squad to make up for last season’s disappointment.

“The atmosphere in the camp is really good, and everyone is very positive,” the former JEF United player said.

“Of course there is some lingering regret after the way last season ended, but everyone has the motivation to put that right this year. There is a desire to change the mind-set, in a good way, and approach this season with a new spirit to make sure we win the title.”

The race to the finish line is sure to be as fierce as ever, but when it comes to deciding the 2017 champion, there will be no ambiguity — this year there can be only one.

24
Feb
17

Points win prizes

Kashima Antlers picked up the J1 trophy last season, but their points totals over the past few seasons suggest they will have to up their game this year if they want to be doing so again in 2017… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 24th February, 2017

The 2017 J.League season started in much the same way as the 2016 one ended, with Kashima Antlers just about edging out Urawa Reds to pick up another piece of silverware.

The manner of Antlers’ 3-2 win in last weekend’s Super Cup was also similar to that in which they snatched the J1 title last year, with Yuma Suzuki capitalising on a late mistake by a Reds defender to decide the game – Wataru Endo his victim this time after Tomoaki Makino was caught snoozing in December.

The reigning J1 champions emerging victorious from the season curtain-raiser is far from a surprise – the last nine have now been claimed by the previous year’s league winner – and while the match is always an enjoyable way to shake off the cobwebs and get the ball rolling on a new season, everyone knows not to read too much into the result.

What comes next is what matters, and while winning one-off games against title rivals is not a bad habit to get into, of equal importance is the ability to deal with the rest of the division as well.

While the temptation is to tip Antlers as favourites to retain their title, then, a closer look at the stats suggests they have plenty of improvement to make if they want to be picking up a ninth J1 shield come December.

Last year, as received much coverage, Masatada Ishii’s side finished 15 points adrift of overall league leaders Urawa before sealing the league in dramatic fashion on away goals in the Championship final. This year the one-stage format is back though, meaning there are no shortcuts to glory available and all that matters is who is standing tallest after 34 rounds of games.

That should provide plenty of encouragement for Reds and the other sides targeting the title, with Antlers not only having struggled on that front last season but having done so for the past few years.

The Ibaraki side’s league form in 2016 read 18 wins, five draws, and 11 defeats, leaving them with 59 points. In 2015 they also picked up 18 wins, five draws, and 11 defeats. The year before that they managed 18 wins, six draws, and 10 defeats, while, incredibly, 2013 also produced a record of 18-5-11.

While such numbers display scarcely believable consistency, these are not the kind of figures usually associated with winning the league. Indeed, 60 points is the lowest total accrued by a champion since J1 expanded to 18 teams, and that was in the famous 2005 season when five teams were in with a chance of winning the title on the final day of the season.

Football Channel, Friday 24th February, 2017 (Getty)

With that in mind, the Antlers players know they need to deliver a steadier pace over the course of the 2017 campaign.

“The coach hasn’t really given any new instructions, but we all know we have to maintain a high level for the whole season,” Daigo Nishi said after the Super Cup.

“For that we will need the strength of more players then before, and we have a very good group. It is up to the coach and the senior players to make sure we are able to achieve and maintain that feeling.”

Suzuki, perhaps mindful of having won last weekend’s match after coming off the bench, agreed that standards have to improve throughout the entire squad.

“We have a heavy schedule and so need the strength of every player,” the 20-year-old observed.

“I think it’s impossible with just 11 players; we need to have everyone on board. My job is to keep scoring the goals and I want to score lots,” he added, declining to provide any specific target and merely reiterating, “Lots”.

Reds, meanwhile, picked up a league-record 74 points last year after winning 23 games, drawing five, and losing six. That followed an impressive 21 wins, nine draws and just four defeats in 2015, which was preceded by a tally of 18-8-8 in 2014, and while the Saitama giant does still need to shake of its nearly-men tag, the team is clearly improving each season.

However, while the players have undoubtedly grown in confidence as a result of their table-topping exploits last year they still don’t have any league medals to show for their efforts, and Yuki Muto is determined to put that right this time out.

“We want to show that we are the best team and we have the same motivation as always,” he said.

“Of course, there is still a lingering sense of regret that we were pulled back in despite having 15 points more [than Kashima in 2016], but this year the team at the top of the table becomes champion and so we have to pick up points over the whole season to make sure that come the end of the year it is Reds that are smiling.”

There is a lot of football to be played, but if Mihailo Petrovic’s side can match their recent figures then it will take an impressive effort for somebody else to beat them to the finish line in 2017.

18
Feb
17

J.Liga

J2 has seen plenty of managerial changes over the offseason, with three coaches from Spain the standout new arrivals… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 27th January, 2017

There hasn’t been a great deal of movement in the dugouts of J1 over the off-season, with only four top-flight teams experiencing a change of manager.

Of the newcomers it can only really be said that Tatsuma Yoshida at Ventforet Kofu and Fumitake Miura at Albirex Niigata were moves instigated by the clubs themselves, with Yoon Jong-hwan’s long-awaited arrival at Cerezo Osaka finally relieving Kiyoshi Okuma of the job he always seemed desperate to escape, and Tooru Oniki being bumped up to the hot seat at Kawasaki Frontale after Yahiro Kazama decided he wanted a change of scenery after five years at Todoroki.

Kazama is now tasked with guiding Nagoya Grampus straight back up to the first division as they face a maiden campaign in J2, and the 55-year-old has plenty of fellow newbies to keep him company in the second tier, with Grampus one of 10 clubs to have changed their man in charge ahead of the 2017 campaign.

Some of these appointments are familiar faces on the J.League circuit, with a couple of former Jubilo Iwata coaches, Hitoshi Morishita and Masaaki Yanagishita, pitching up at Thespakusatsu Gunma and Zweigen Kanazawa, respectively, Takeshi Kiyama moving to Montedio Yamagata from Ehime FC, and ex-Shimizu S-Pulse and Kyoto Sanga manager Takeshi Oki taking the reins at FC Gifu.

In addition there are a couple of inexperienced coaches attempting to work their way up the ladder – former Kashiwa Reysol coach Takanori Nunobe getting his first manager’s job leading Tulio et. al at Kyoto Sanga, while Shuichi Mase is continuing his transformation from Ivica Osim’s translator to the main man by stepping up from J3 side Blaublitz Akita into Kiyama’s shoes at Ehime.

Perhaps the most interesting arrivals, however, come in the form of three Spain-reared bosses taking their first roles in Japan.

JEF United, Tokyo Verdy, and Tokushima Vortis are all sides with J1 experience, but each of them finished some way short of earning returns to the first division under Japanese coaches last season. JEF wound up in 11th after replacing Takeshi Sekizuki with Shigetoshi Hasebe, Verdy stalled down in 18th under Koichi Togashi, while Hiroaki Nagashima could only take Tokushima as far as 9th.

In an attempt to improve on those showings this year JEF have hired former Getafe boss Juan Esnaider, Verdy have drafted in ex-Villareal manager Miguel Angel Lotina, and Tokushima have placed Ricardo Rodriguez in charge at the Pocari Sweat Stadium, after spells with the Saudi Arabia national team and Bangkok Glass in Thailand.

Argentinian Esnaider played as a striker for several big European clubs – including Real Madrid and Juventus – and was coached by the likes of Marcello Lippi, Carlo Ancelotti, and Marcelo Bielsa during his playing career, but his time as a coach has thus far been fairly muted, with less than successful spells with Getafe and Cordoba.

He is taking over from Hasebe, who replaced Sekizuka with 17 games to go last year. He did reasonably well and has been kept on as part of Esnaider’s coaching staff, but always seemed more concerned with keeping the team organised defensively than letting its creative players show what they could do going forwards.

Esnaider will have been tasked with improving the team in that respect, and it looks as though he’ll prefer a 3-4-2-1 formation, with a focus on pressing high up the pitch and looking to attack from wide.

Football Channel / Getty

Last year JEF made the third most passes (21,522) and crosses (719) in J2, as well as taking the third most touches of the ball (28,608), but they had the worst shot-on-target ratio (32.7% of 456 efforts) and Esnaider will hope the signing of his compatriot Joaquin Larrivey from Baniyas in the UAE can help them improve on that front.

Finishing chances was an issue for Verdy in 2016 too, with just 10.4% of their 415 attempts finding the net, and Lotina will be expected to add some killer instinct to a hard-working but far from ruthless team.

The Spaniard is an experienced coach who has been in charge of a handful of La Liga sides, and he is used to working on a limited budget – which should put him in good stead at Ajinomoto.

The 59-year-old also has a reputation for picking up short term results and making his sides difficult to beat, and the early signs from pre-season are that he will set Verdy up in a 3-4-3.

His predecessor Togashi always looked a little unsure of his best formation, often changing mid-game and seeming to confuse his players, and some consistency on this front should help the side find some rhythm and also shake off their reputation as slow starters – only three of their 43 league goals last year came in the opening 15 minutes of games.

There hasn’t been much activity up front in the off-season, with the only attacking arrival the returning Ryota Kajikawa, although Douglas Vieira, whose debut campaign was blighted by injury, has been in decent form in pre-season.

Tokushima, meanwhile, were fairly middling all over the pitch last year, and a realistic challenge for a play-off place was always kept out of reach by their lack of concentration and/or physical endurance late on in games – 20 of the 42 goals they conceded went in in the last 30 minutes of matches.

Rodriguez, who started coaching at the age of just 24 after an injury ended his playing career at youth level, will want to iron out those creases.

He has a UEFA Pro License and had a few jobs in Spain before taking up a role with Saudi Arabia in 2011, before getting his first job as a manager in 2014 at Thai side Ratchaburi. From there he moved on to Bangkok Glass and then Suphanburi – although he left his role there after just three months.

Rodriguez would appear to be a flexible coach with a focus on the mentality and motivation of his players – utilising a method he terms ‘Tactic Specificity’, whereby he gives individual players precise instructions for their particular roles – and a glance at his blog suggests he spent the latter half of last season scouting J.League games, so he should be acquainted with the style of football here and his detailed approach should be well suited to the local players.

Tokushima will hope that enables Rodriguez to improve on the rather conservative football of his predecessor Nagashima, who always seemed more concerned with making sure his team didn’t lose rather than aiming for wins.

Whether he can deliver on that front remains to be seen, but the J2 field looks as wide open as ever this season and the new men in charge will be cautiously optimistic as they take their places on the starting line.

27
Jan
17

Podolski no magic bullet

Lukas Podolski’s protracted transfer to Vissel Kobe is edging closer to completion, but his arrival is no guarantee of success for J1’s perennial underachievers… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 27th January, 2017

Despite the injection of DAZN cash heightening the expectations of fans around Japan, most of the transfer activity this off-season has been the typical J.League fare, with the usual merry-go-round of Japanese players and same old Brazilian faces moving on to pastures new.

Shunsuke Nakamura’s bitter departure from Yokohama F.Marinos to Jubilo Iwata and Yoshito Okubo’s decision to cross the Tama river and join FC Tokyo from Kawasaki Frontale have been two of the most noteworthy transfers so far – or at least the ones afforded the most attention – while Masato Kudo’s arrival at Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Akihiro Ienaga’s move to Frontale, and Omiya Ardija’s capture of Genki Omae from Shimizu S-Pulse are also interesting deals.

The Brazilian carousel, meanwhile, has spun as smoothly as ever, with Wilson and Ramon Lopes leaving Vegalta Sendai for Ventforet Kofu and Kashiwa Reysol, respectively, Urawa Reds returning to their old favourite prep-school Albirex Niigata for Rafael Silva, from where Kashima Antlers have also made an acquisition in the form of the excellent Leo Silva. The reigning champions signed another Brazilian, too, providing Pedro Junior with his sixth J.League home after spells at Omiya, Niigata, Gamba Osaka, Tokyo, and most recently Vissel Kobe.

The player who looks set to replace him at Vissel, however, is the most eye-catching piece of business, with former Germany international Lukas Podolski on the verge of joining Hyogo’s permanently sleeping giant.

The Rakuten-backed side has as yet been unable to realise the potential provided by its sizeable budget and top class facilities, but the capture of the 2014 World Cup winner – who scored 48 goals in 129 games for the Mannschaft – could help turn Kobe into an authentic challenger in 2017.

As when Diego Forlan arrived at Cerezo Osaka in 2014 there will be pressure on the 31-year-old to deliver instant results in the J.League, but as Forlan’s ill-fated spell in Japan also demonstrated it is vital that he is received and used in the correct way.

The expectation then was that the Uruguay star would catapult Cerezo directly to the J1 title, but the subsequent slacking off of his teammates – who seemingly also thought Forlan would be able to decide games on his own – and then bizarre decision of his coach Yuji Okuma to drop him on account of his inability to contribute to the side defensively saw the club sensationally relegated to the second tier.

Football Channel (Getty Images), 27th January, 2017

The former Manchester United and Inter Milan striker was frozen out and didn’t start any of Cerezo’s last 12 games as they slid towards the trapdoor, although he did still finish the campaign as their top scorer with seven goals. He then stuck around to see out the rest of his contract in J2, again finishing as the club’s best finisher with 10 goals in 16 games before leaving in the summer of 2015.

Just because things didn’t ultimately work out in that instance doesn’t mean similar transfers shouldn’t be attempted though, and the early signs regarding Podolski are positive.

Kobe have made it clear that he won’t be afforded any special treatment – the news that he would have to share a room with a teammate if he’d been signed in time for their pre-season camp made headlines, for instance – and manager Nelsinho is a wise old hand who will know exactly how to get the best out of his new player and incorporate him as a part of the team.

And it is the team that must take precedence.

Last year, despite the fact that the two-stage system may have afforded them their best chance of achieving success, Vissel blew as hot and cold as ever, and were unable to maintain the consistency required to qualify for the Championship play-offs.

They ultimately finished the second stage as runners-up after ending the season with eight wins and just one defeat in their last 10 games – a spell which took in wins over all four ACL qualifiers Kashima, Urawa, Kawasaki, and Gamba – but a run of seven games between 14 May and 25 June epitomised their Jekyll and Hyde status and meant they had to settle for their regular mid-table finish, seventh overall.

The move for Podolski is certainly a show of intent and he would be an impressive replacement for the outgoing Pedro Junior, who scored 11 times last year, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that the side are already reasonably well-stocked with goal-getters and finished as fourth highest scorers in 2016.

Leandro finished joint top scorer in J1 with Sanfrecce’s Peter Utaka on 19 goals, while captain Kazuma Watanabe also made it to double figures with 12. Defensively, however, they conceded 43 times – 15 times more than table-topping Urawa – and it is in that respect that improvements also need to be made.

Nelsinho is shrewd enough to know that Podolski isn’t going to be a magic bullet that fires Vissel to glory, and it is vital that everyone else associated with the club is on the same page if the deal is to produce a happy ending.

12
Jan
17

Keeping things safe

Riku Hirosue’s performance between the posts for Aomori Yamada on Monday earned his side a maiden High School title, and the future looks bright for the new FC Tokyo keeper…

Football Channel, 12th January, 2017

If you only saw the final score you would think Aomori Yamada’s victory over Maebashi Ikuei in the High School football final was an easy win, but the eventual 5-0 scoreline was largely made possible by the performance of Aomori’s man at the back, Riku Hirosue.

The Japan U-19 goalkeeper nearly had a nightmare start to the final when Maebashi striker Daichi Hitomi chased the ball down and blocked an early clearance in the opening seconds of the match at Saitama Stadium, but Hirosue grew into the game and ultimately laid the foundations for his team to cruise to their first ever High School title.

The 18-year-old shot-stopper kept Go Kuroda’s side in the contest in the 16th minute, denying Hayate Takazawa in a one-on-one after his defence had switched off. That save came in the midst of a dominant spell for Maebashi, and if they had taken the lead there it could instead have been them taking the trophy back to Gunma.

Hirosue’s stop kept things level though, and enabled Issei Takahashi to give Aomori the lead just seven minutes later. Aomori’s crucial second goal – converted coolly just before half-time by Riku Saga – was also preceded by some Hirosue heroics, and instead of going in 1-1 at the break he and his teammates found themselves 2-0 up.

Such contributions all too often go unnoticed, with the majority of focus in the modern game being directed at the players putting the ball in the back of the net rather than those working to prevent it getting that far.

Game-changing interventions like Hirosue’s are equivalent to goals scored, however – something that Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho recently noted after David De Gea kept his side in the game against West Ham United on 3 January.

“When they play phenomenally people forget, when they make a mistake, everyone remembers,” the Portuguese said after his keeper denied West Ham’s Michail Antonio with the score tied at 0-0 in a game United went on to win 2-0. “That’s why I hugged David at the end of the game, because no save, Antonio goal, no three points.

“Of course I would love goalkeepers to be recognised, to win the golden ball, to be player of season in the Premier League, because goalkeepers are lonely guys with a different shirt to everybody else.”

Riku Hirosue, Getty Images/Football Channel

Such accolades usually only arrive when it is perceived that a team has failed to perform at its best, however, with Mourinho adding that he hopes De Gea doesn’t pick up United’s Player of the Season award for the fourth straight year, opining that, “Season after season, if the goalkeeper is player of the season it means that something is wrong.”

Of course, that is not always the case, and on 7 January Leicester City shot stopper Kasper Schmeichel was rewarded for his part in the Foxes historic Premier League triumph, ending Christian Eriksen’s dominance of the Danish Player of the Year award and becoming the first goalkeeper to pick up the trophy since his dad Peter claimed his third such title back in 1999.

Hirosue was equally vital to Aomori’s success, and as well as helping to keep things tight at the back to ensure a clean sheet in Monday’s final he also started the moves for Aomori’s third and fourth goals with raking passes out from the back.

The High School title is just the latest medal for Hirosue’s collection, and he was also involved for Japan U-19’s when they won their maiden Asian title last year. He only made one appearance at the AFC Championship in Bahrain, but his contribution in the 3-0 semi-final win over Vietnam preserved the young Samurai’s impressive run without conceding a goal – one which was extended to an outstanding 840 minutes by first choice Ryosuke Kojima of Waseda University in the final.

All of which suggests the signs are positive for the future of Japanese goalkeeping at large. Shusaku Nishikawa of Urawa Reds looks settled as No.1 for the Samurai Blue for the time being, but Kashiwa Reysol’s Kosuke Nakamura is steadily establishing himself as a clear contender and, while only 21, is widely expected to break into the full national team squad very soon.

A promotion that far may be some way down the tracks for Kojima or Hirosue, but the latter will be making the step up to the professional game at FC Tokyo this season – returning to the club where he played at U-15 level before being released – and if he can continue to build upon his clear ability then there is no reason why he can’t make even more of a name for himself in the coming years.




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