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.

28
Dec
16

Unneccesary underestimation

Kashima Antlers demonstrated at the recent Club World Cup that Japanese teams and players are more than capable of holding their own on the world stage, so maybe we should stop underestimating them… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 25th December, 2016

Kashima Antlers’ outstanding achievement of making it to the Club World Cup final – and then giving Real Madrid a proper match once there – rightly attracted plaudits from across the globe.

Domestically, too, their efforts earned plenty of praise, and it it would be great if their impressive showing helped reverse the tendency of many fans and media in Japan to underestimate football in the country.

Kohzo Tashima has been repeating the mantra of ‘international standard’ since becoming JFA president in March, insisting that the domestic game needs to aim for the highest quality at every level.

He is right to do that, and one area which can still be improved upon is self-confidence. There is often far too much self-effacement in the coverage of Japanese teams, and while it is usually expected that Asian rivals will be overcome, the default position against opponents from further afield is still that Japanese teams are intrinsically weaker.

In several respects, of course, this is true. The very highest level of teams and players in Europe – such as Madrid – are a cut above and all-but beyond reach. That is unlikely to change as long as there is such financial disparity, though, and the world’s elite are also in a different league to the opposition in their respective domestic and continental competitions.

Still, six-and-a-half years on from the Samurai Blue proving at the South Africa World Cup that they are very much involved in the third bracket of international teams – they are not going to win the trophy, unlikely to progress to the latter stages of the competition, but have a realistic chance of making it beyond the group stage – an unnecessary meekness remains.

‘What do you think about our development?’ ‘How can we improve?’ These are good questions to have in certain situations, but sometimes it isn’t necessary to automatically adopt a subordinate position.

The responses of Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane and his players ahead of and after last Sunday’s final in Yokohama were instructive of this fact. When asked for his thoughts on the development of Japanese football, Zidane looked a little confused.

“I think it improved a very long time ago, it didn’t happen in the last several years,” the France legend said. “There are Japanese footballers playing in Europe, in big clubs – Japanese managers and coaches helped them to get to that level.”

His players were similarly nonplussed when pressed for reactions on Kashima’s impressive display in the final.

 

Club World Cup final, 18th December, 2016

“It’s an impossible question,” Casemiro said when asked why Real had struggled to control the match. “It’s a game of football, just one game. Kashima play good football, and we knew that in a one-off game we would have to try until the end. Antlers are a good side, that’s the reason they made it to the final.”

Of course, very few people had expected Masatada Ishii’s side to run Madrid quite so close and their performance is one that will go down in Japanese football history, but a runners-up finish wasn’t exactly a bolt from the blue.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima came third last year – only losing 1-0 to River Plate in the semi-final – and, as Zidane pointed out, Japanese players are increasingly demonstrating that they can hold their own in Europe’s strongest leagues.

The Japanese fascination with placing foreign teams on a pedestal was nicely countered by the approach of Club America coach Ricardo La Volpe.

The Mexican team provided the perfect example for Kashima, playing with confidence and poise against Real in their semi-final and demonstrating that there was nothing to fear when facing one of the most famous teams in the game.

“I always tell my players not to think about the uniform or which country the team they are playing is from as that is irrelevant,” La Volpe said. “What we have to think about is the team’s play style, not the uniform they are wearing or the individual players.”

Kashima did just that in the final, illustrating that while there is still ultimately a gap in class, it is not as vast as many seem to imagine.

“I think us having made it to the final means something,” Ishii said after the game. “I think it means Japanese football has improved to a world-class level in a short space of time.”

Even so, the Kashima coach still referred more than once to the disparity in the respective teams’ histories. “For other clubs participating in this tournament they have a longer history than the J.League,” he said. “Some clubs have 100-year histories.”

That shouldn’t be used as an excuse. Europe and South America will always have more history, and when J.League teams have clocked up 100 years’ worth their rivals overseas will be approaching their second centuries of existence.

Japanese football still has room for growth, but it is not as inferior as many seem to think. Kashima’s bold and disciplined display at the Club World Cup was just the latest example of that fact.

21
Dec
16

Kashima give Real a run for their money

Kashima Antlers put in a sensational effort at the recent Club World Cup in Japan, taking Real Madrid all the way to extra time as the pair tussled for the world title.

Soccerphile, 22nd December, 2016

I looked back at Antlers’ achievement of becoming the first Asian side to make the final of the competition for Soccerphile.

19
Dec
16

Antlers show spirit of Zico and do Japan proud

Kashima Antlers took Real Madrid all the way in the final of the Club World Cup last night, ultimately going down 4-2  in extra time.

Japan Forward, December 19th 2016

Here’s my report from a remarkable match for Japan Forward.

18
Dec
16

Antlers lock horns with Madrid for World title

Kashima Antlers’ outstanding season continues in improbable fashion tonight as they take on Real Madrid in the Club World Cup final.

japan-forward-18th-december-2016

Here’s my preview of the match for Japan Forward.

16
Dec
16

Bigger not always better

The Club World Cup could soon be getting a revamp, but a new souped-up format may not be the answer for the admittedly unloved competition (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, Friday 16th December, 2016

Last month FIFA president Gianni Infantino spoke to media in Europe about his wish to restructure the Club World Cup.

The competition, which began under its current guise in 2000 and is taking place for the 13th time this year, is an odd tournament that is a good idea on paper but hard to execute in reality.

A key issue is that it’s difficult to find a window in the increasingly packed international football calendar to suit all the participating clubs. Kashima Antlers, for instance, only secured their place five days before the opening game of this year’s edition, while Real Madrid were forced to endure a long haul flight immediately after their La Liga match against Deportivo La Coruna in order to take part.

Infantino complained to Italy’s Gazzetta dello Sport that the competition, “has a complicated formula, [is] held at a difficult time, [and] attract[s] little enthusiasm,” and while he has a point his proposed solution – to hold it in the second half of June, with 32 clubs – looks likely to create far more problems than it solves.

“Football nowadays isn’t just Europe and South America,” he told Catalan newspaper Mundo Deportivo.

“The world has changed, so we have to find a Club World Cup which will be more interesting for the teams, as well as the fans around the world.

“That’s what we’re trying to do, by creating a tournament that is much more attractive, with more quality among participants, and more clubs. That will attract more sponsors and television companies from around the world.”

Despite the claim to be striving for a truly global tournament, the suggestion that it be held in June primarily suits European teams, with plenty of leagues elsewhere in the world – including, of course, Japan – still in play at that time of year.

The reference to sponsors and television rights acts as a further warning sign, and it is inevitable that the majority of participants in Infantino’s desired format would be invited not solely for their achievements on the pitch, but equally on account of their ability to secure lucrative contracts.

That would imply the aim is to create a ‘European Champions League Plus’ style competition, with all the regular heavyweights from England, Spain, Germany and so on supplemented by a few token slots reserved for the rest of the world. China, you’d imagine, would be granted a berth or two, with Alibaba E-Auto installed as Club World Cup title sponsor until 2022 and the country pouring vast sums of cash into the game.

The Club World Cup's rather awkward format

The proposal to hold the tournament in June may also be a ploy to divert some of the money from the increasingly lucrative European off-season period into FIFA’s coffers. Teams traverse the globe anyway at that time of year to play money-spinning friendly matches, and FIFA would much prefer the world’s biggest brands were doing so under their flag rather than in showpieces like the International Champions Cup.

Instead of watering the competition down and making it just another opportunity for the same old European teams to play each other again – albeit in front of excitable crowds keen to part with their cash for a glimpse of their favourite video-game and YouTube stars – why not pare it back and have it a simple six-team contest?

“There is something extraordinary whenever you can gather the champions from all six confederations,” Infantino writes in his welcome notes for this year’s competition. “These continental tournaments are just as rich and diverse in human stories as they are equal in significance and in the emotions they arouse.”

That is certainly true, and the opportunity to have the reigning champions from each of the six continents do battle is a unique, and in many ways old-fashioned, format.

Despite Kashima’s impressive efforts to make it to Sunday’s final, the reservation of a slot for a host representative is a slightly jarring aspect of the competition and one which should probably be done away with – although admittedly that would likely make it less appealing to local fans, broadcasters, and sponsors.

However, why not simply invite each of the continental champions and place them unseeded into two groups of three? The winners of each group then play each other in the final, while the respective second- and third-placed teams also square off against each other to determine the final rankings.

That would take no more time than the current format, provide a more even playing field than the present lopsided arrangement – which sees the Oceania champion spend around 10 days in town for one match, yet the European representative nip in and out to pick up the trophy after two games in a week – and also guarantee each participant three games against opposition they have never played before, and may never play again.

Of course, that would require some allowances on the part of the European participant – who can barely be bothered with the current format, so would take some convincing to fit another game in – and, more importantly, FIFA, who would make far less money from a simple sporting competition than the super league alternative they are pitching.

29
Nov
16

Antlers on the charge

Kashima Antlers finished well off the pace in the regular J1 season, but are now just two games away from being crowned champions – at the expense of bitter rivals and overall table-toppers Urawa Reds… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, Monday 28th November, 2016

Here we go, then. Urawa Reds versus Kashima Antlers to decide who will be crowned 2016 J.League champions. On paper this is the ideal way to see off the ill-fated two-stage system: the biggest club in Japanese football against the most successful club in Japanese football.

However, while a mouthwatering fixture, a glance at the overall table suggests the scales aren’t evenly balanced ahead of this heavyweight showdown.

Antlers ended up 15 points behind table-topping Reds after 34 games, as well as being worse off by 14 goals, and appeared to be on holiday during the second stage – finishing 11th in the rankings for the second term with only 20 points, less than half the 41 amassed by Reds over the same period.

The Ibaraki side won just six games in the second half of the season, losing nine times including their last four matches. They failed to even score in their final two league games, as they suffered back-to-back 1-0 defeats at home to Kawasaki Frontale and Vissel Kobe.

Ultimately, having already booked their place in the play offs by winning the first stage, their last 17 games of the season didn’t matter though. That’s not to say they weren’t trying, but when there are no consequences for defeat it is understandably harder to motivate yourself to give everything for victory. Reds themselves cruised to the first stage title unbeaten last year, for instance, but went on to finish nine points behind second stage champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima.

“We want to get into the Championship however we can,” Daigo Nishi told me back in June, after Kashima had beaten Reds 2-0 in Saitama to move six points clear of Urawa in second with two first stage games to play. “Antlers are good at knockout football so we want to make sure of our place.”

That victory set them on their way, and Kashima moved top the following weekend before finishing the job off and claiming the first stage crown a fortnight later. Rounds 16 and 17 of the first stage were the only two weeks Masatada Ishii’s side spent in first place all season. Kawasaki, who they beat 1-0 in the Championship semi final last Wednesday, conversely spent 21 rounds at the summit.

Antlers on the march

Frontale once again finished the campaign empty handed, however, while Antlers are just two games away from adding an eighth first division title. After cruising through the past few months they now have the bit between their teeth, nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

Antlers have played the system almost to perfection and conserved their energy, both physical and mental, for the final push – just as they did at the end of the first stage when they executed their smash and grab with six wins on the bounce to pip Reds and Frontale to the post.

“I told you, right, during the first stage? If we make it into the Championship we will be strong,” Nishi reminded me after Wednesday’s win over Frontale. “We are the challenger.

“We were a little bit stiff [at the start of the semi final], but I don’t think it was too different to usual. There’ll be less of that in the final – we’re confident. I think winning today will give us a boost.”

Captain Mitsuo Ogasawara dismissed the idea that the respective finalist’s league records will have an influence on the game, as well as brushing aside any suggestion that Antlers have the extra motivation of denying their biggest rivals a first league crown for a decade.

“I don’t care who the opponent is,” he said in typically forthright fashion. “Looking at it from a different perspective of course we wanted to do well in [the second stage] too, but that is that and this is this.”

Kento Misao, who was sent on to firm things up as Kawasaki looked for an equaliser in the semi final, is of a similar mind and thinks Reds will be feeling a greater sense of expectation on their shoulders.

“It’s different games, the league and Championship, and it doesn’t matter that we were 15 points behind them,” he said.

“We have to win and play aggressively. I think they have more pressure than us. It will be difficult but if we play our football we can win.”

For all the talk of it being a different competition, though, it isn’t. Whoever emerges as the victor from the next two games will go down in history as the 2016 champions.

Antlers have shown time and again that they can up their game when the heat is on, and the temperature is sure to be searing come the second leg in Saitama on 3rd December. Can Reds avoid being burned?




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