Reds win Levain Cup on penalties

My match report from today’s Levain Cup final between Urawa Reds and Gamba Osaka, for The Japan News…

The Japan News, Saturday 15th October, 2016

SAITAMA — Urawa Reds picked up their first domestic silverware in a decade on Saturday, winning the Levain Cup by defeating Gamba Osaka 5-4 on penalties after a 1-1 draw at Saitama Stadium.

Japan Olympic captain Wataru Endo was the hero for Mihailo Petrovic’s side, slamming home the decisive spot kick to deliver Reds their first trophy since the 2006 J.League title.

Ademilson gave Gamba the lead in the 17th minute after a sensational solo effort, but substitute Tadanari Lee leveled things up with his first touch in the 76th minute. With neither team able to add to the score after that the final went to extra time and then penalties, where Endo delivered Reds’ second League Cup crown.

“Until now as a team, and for me individually as a coach, we have been unable to achieve success in the decisive matches, so we were playing this game under that kind of pressure,” Petrovic said after winning his first top flight title in Japan and bringing Reds’ dry spell to an end, to leave them in with a chance of claiming a clean sweep this season.

“They say that the first title is the most difficult to win, but after their coach [Kenta Hasegawa] won his first many more followed,” he added with regards to Gamba’s treble in 2014. “Hopefully the same will now happen for us.”

The first meaningful action of the game came in the 9th minute when a Takahiro Sekine effort from range was tipped past the post by Gamba goalkeeper Masaaki Higashiguchi.

Gamba’s first half-chance came in the 14th minute as Ademilson tricked his way into the penalty area with some fancy footwork, but Reds managed to scramble the ball to safety after his cut back.

The Brazilian was celebrating three minutes later though, after giving his side the lead with a superb individual goal.

Levain Cup final 2016, Gamba Osaka v. Urawa Reds. Saitama Stadium, Saturday 15th October

Yasuhito Endo won possession midway inside his own half and stabbed the ball forward to Ademilson, who shrugged off Wataru Endo before applying the afterburners. He left Tomoaki Makino and Ryota Moriwaki in his wake and then kept his composure to nudge past the advancing Shusaku Nishikawa from inside the area.

Reds rallied well after falling behind and almost pulled level in the 21st minute as Makino headed narrowly off target from a corner.

The J.League leaders continued to have the better of things in the second half and made a handful of presentable chances, with Sekine missing the best of them after being denied by Higashiguchi in a one-on-one in the 55th minute.

Reds did manage to pull level 20 minutes later, as Lee made an instant impression off the bench.

Toshiyuki Takagi saw an effort tipped past the post by Higashiguchi in what would be his last contribution before being replaced by Lee, who lost his marker with ease from the resultant corner and headed home to make it 1-1.

Neither side was able to find the net again in the remaining 14 minutes or half an hour of extra time — although Hiroto Goya went incredibly close for Gamba in the very last minute, seeing an effort hit the post and then roll agonizingly along the line before being hacked away by Moriwaki.

Goya’s suffering was compounded in the shootout after Nishikawa saved his kick to hand Reds the advantage. Lee then converted to put Reds in front, and although Yasuhito Endo kept Gamba in the contest by scoring his penalty his namesake then did the same for Reds’ to seal the victory.


Japan in need of pick-me-up down under

Japan’s game against Australia tomorrow night provides the sternest test of the final round of World Cup qualifiers so far, and will demonstrate whether this group of players is as tough mentally as coach Vahid Halilhodzic insists… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, Tuesday 11th October, 2016

There was a lot of talk about ‘mental strength’ and ‘courage’ after Japan’s 2-1 win over Iraq on Thursday night, when in truth neither was on display in huge quantities.

Yes, Vahid Halilhodzic’s side did claim the three points on offer with a dramatic late winner, but last gasp wonder strikes can always be looked at in two ways; as a signifier that a team doesn’t give up or, conversely, that it isn’t able to finish opponents off in a more effective manner.

Bearing in mind the defeat against UAE in the Samurai Blue’s previous home match and the fact that this inability to control games at the highest level is becoming a recurring problem, any claims that this team is especially resilient would seem optimistic.

“We often use the word ‘naïve’ but I think the players demonstrated very strong courage – I think it was the first time the players were shouting on the pitch and I think that was rewarded at the very end,” Halilhodzic said after the game. “I don’t think that today was a good victory, but I think it was a courageous victory. Even the strongest teams in the world can’t always win with a beautiful victory.”

That is undoubtedly true, but what the best teams do do is dominate games and adjust the tempo depending on the situation. That is also a way of exhibiting mental strength and courage. Japan scored first against UAE and Iraq but on both occasions failed to drive home their advantage after moving in front and allowed the opposition to pull level.

There is absolutely no margin for error on Tuesday against Australia, and if Japan allow the hosts to dictate the pace of the game in Melbourne then they will be returning empty handed and even further off the pace in Group B.

That fact has not escaped Keisuke Honda, who was as forthright as ever after Thursday’s narrow win.

“We understand the things the coach is asking of us but football is not only about doing what the coach says, all kinds of situations arise outside of that and the players need to have a sense for and be able to respond to those things,” he said, before turning his attention to the Australia game.

“There’s a way of playing away from home, we need to be more intelligent. Things like a player using their body to keep the ball for two or three seconds or where balls are cleared to will change the situation – it’s very precise things. Everyone on the pitch understands that in difficult spells it comes down to each individual decision.

“We’ve all been playing football for maybe 20 years and know what to do so we have no option but to believe in what we have been building. If there isn’t a harmony between the physical and mental sides then it isn’t possible to win away against Australia.”

One particular area of concern is the team’s ongoing inability to deal with set pieces.

Japan v. Iraq, Saitama Stadium, Thursday 6th October, 2016

“I think Australia will try to take advantage of those even more, so we can’t give away too many free kicks, and when we do we have to make sure to mark tighter than today,” Maya Yoshida said after the win over Iraq.

The tendency to resort to route one football as the clock runs down is also not ideal for a team centred upon possession-based and technical football, and that will be even truer against Australian players who are more than used to contesting aerial battles.

“Today we went direct and it worked out ok for us, but I think that will be more difficult against Australia,” Yoshida conceded, although he bristled a little at the suggestion that the approach doesn’t suit Japan’s style after it forced the winner against Iraq.

“Well, we made the chance today didn’t we?” he said in reference to the late push which produced Hotaru Yamaguchi’s wonder strike, before admitting that the long ball approach wasn’t something the team had worked on in training.

“No, we didn’t practice it, we didn’t have time. But I think everyone understands how it works; it’s not so difficult. Anyway, maybe it’s up to you guys to write whether ‘power play’ suits Japan or not.”

Whether the coach or players admit it or not there is certainly a tension in the side at the moment, and qualification for a sixth straight World Cup finals is looking increasingly uncertain.

Of course, in football form can turn in the blink of an eye, and just because Japan is stuttering out of the starting blocks in the final round of qualifying it doesn’t mean they can’t correct their stride for the business end of the campaign. A first ever win away to Australia would certainly provide some solid foundations on which to build that recovery, and Shinji Okazaki sees no reason why that can’t be achieved.

“We believe we can destroy that jinx,” the Leicester City striker – who has learned a thing or two about upsetting the odds in the past year – said on Thursday.

“In all honesty they don’t have as many players doing well in Europe as they used to – of course we have plenty of squad players too – but I don’t think they have too much confidence and it will be a really close battle. We both have our pride, but I don’t think they are especially full of confidence at the moment and we have to try and take advantage of that.

“When it comes down to it I think it will be 50/50. We have to be able to beat that kind of big opponent, and to that end I think this win was very important for us.”

As the cliché goes, in football the next game is always the most important though, and if Japan come out on the wrong end of the result against the Socceroos then they will certainly need a lot of courage to get themselves back on course for Russia.


Reds roll closer to 2nd stage title

Urawa Reds picked up an impressive win over old rivals Gamba Osaka on Saturday, cruising to victory and the top of the table…

The Japan News, Sunday 2nd October, 2016

SAITAMA – Urawa Reds kept themselves in pole position for the J.League second stage title on Saturday, crushing Gamba Osaka 4-0 at Saitama Stadium.

Toshiyuki Takagi set Reds on the way to victory in just the sixth minute, before Yuki Muto doubled their lead five minutes after half time. Tomoya Ugajin added a third in the 83rd minute before substitute Zlatan Ljubijankic added the gloss with three minutes to play.

Reds’ fourth consecutive win also leaves them locked in a tight battle with Kawasaki Frontale for the overall title, putting them top of the combined rankings for a few hours at least with Frontale to play away to Vissel Kobe later Saturday night.

Mihailo Petrovic’s side is already guaranteed a place in the postseason playoffs having ensured a top three finish overall, but the team with the most points combined over the two stages progresses directly to the final.

“For us we’re not looking at anything other than being the yearly champion,” Ugajin said postmatch.

“I think most of the players didn’t even realize we’d already earned a ticket for the playoffs. All we’re targeting is to be this year’s champion, and that enabled us to put in this kind of performance.”

Reds certainly started with intent in front of 43,415 fans in Saitama, flying out of the traps and penning Gamba back in their own half before moving in front after a crisp move in the sixth minute.

Yoshiaki Komai carved in from the right and found Yosuke Kashiwagi lurking on the edge of the box, with the Japan midfielder instantly playing a ball into the area for Muto to cross. Shinzo Koroki couldn’t quite make contact at the near post but Takagi was on hand in the center to tap home.

Urawa continued to dominate possession after moving in front, and Gamba – whose chances of winning the second stage or overtaking Kashima Antlers to earn a playoff spot in the overall rankings were all-but extinguished here – were limited to a tame Shu Kurata shot from range in the 23rd minute, which went straight to Reds goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa.


Muto provided a cushion for Reds in the 50th minute when his effort from just outside the area took a slight deflection off Gamba defender Takaharu Nishino before flying past Masaaki Higashiguchi.

Gamba’s afternoon went from bad to worse nine minutes later when forward Ademilson was shown a straight red card for lashing out at Tomoaki Makino, and Ugajin calmly sidefooted a volley into the net to make it 3-0 in the 83rd minute.

Ljubijankic stabbed home the final goal of the game from close range four minutes later, after fellow substitute Tadanari Lee had kept the ball alive in the penalty area.

The comprehensive win ended Reds’ run of four straight defeats to Gamba, and Petrovic was delighted to finally get the better of his club’s bitter rival.

“We could have won any of the recent games against Gamba too, but if you just look at the results they have all been negative,” he said. “We attacked well but made mistakes in those games and were hit on the counter, so preparing this week we knew we had to be more disciplined here.

“Today we played really aggressively. I think we outdid the opponents in terms of movement too, and were attacking from the outset.”

Elsewhere, the battle for first division survival is also heating up, with Nagoya Grampus and Albirex Niigata both picking up vital victories in their bids to avoid relegation.

Grampus claimed their third win in four games and moved out of the relegation zone for the first time since slipping down to 16th on 9 July by cruising past Avispa Fukuoka 5-0. Kensuke Nagai claimed a hat-trick while Ha Dae-sung and Ryusuke Sakai also found the net.

With their loss, Avispa were assured of filling one of the three relegation spots.

Meanwhile, Koichiro Katafuchi got off to a dream start as Albirex manager as Ryohei Yamazaki scored an 89th minute winner to deliver a 2-1 victory away to Jubilo Iwata and lift them to 14th in the table.


Down but not out

Avispa Fukuoka and Shonan Bellmare are on their way back to J2, but just because the clubs are dropping down a division it doesn’t necessarily mean they have to dispense with the services of their coaches… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 29th September, 2016

The fates of Avispa Fukuoka and Shonan Bellmare look sealed for this season, with both sides cut adrift at the foot of the table and all-but out of time to save their top-flight status.

Avispa’s victory when the two came head to head a fortnight ago moved them level on points with Shonan and left both with an outside chance of survival, but the pair failed to win this past weekend – with Avispa losing 4-1 at home to Vissel Kobe and Shonan drawing 0-0 away to Jubilo Iwata – meaning they sit eight and seven points from safety, respectively, with only 12 to play for. Barring a miracle they will be back in J2 next season.

Once that is confirmed it will be interesting to see what happens to their coaches. Avispa’s Masami Ihara and Shonan’s Cho Kwi-jae have both experienced difficult seasons but are two talented young managers and – assuming that both want to stay on, they may well have offers elsewhere – it would be a shame if their clubs were to dispense of their services.

Ihara is in his first job as head coach but spent five years earning his stripes on the coaching staff at Kashiwa Reysol, helping them to back to back J1 and J2 titles in 2010 and 2011 while working under Nelsinho, and has showed potential in his nearly two years as the main man at Avispa.

Despite starting his maiden season in J2 with three straight defeats, the former Japan captain guided Avispa to an end of season surge that saw them unbeaten in 12 games and winning their last eight matches before dramatically sealing promotion to J1 with an 87th minute goal in the play off final against Cerezo Osaka.

Things, predictably, have been less straightforward in the top flight, with Avispa picking up just four wins all season courtesy of doubles over Shonan and FC Tokyo. The table may not make for pretty reading, but performances on the pitch haven’t been as bad as the stats suggest, and despite losing 19 times 11 of them have come by just a single goal.

Although this past weekend saw them well beaten by Vissel, on the whole Avispa have been well organised and difficult to break down, and the overriding issue has been a lack of top quality at each end of the pitch.

“Of course there are many different factors, but I think being able to control games – how you ensure you win games that you should win – is key,” Ihara said after the Shonan match, when discussing what separates the teams that get relegated from those that avoid the drop.

Football Channel, Thursday 29th September, 2016

“We have had many games where we have played well but dropped points. There was a succession of games where we were caught off guard within a second and lost, preventing us from picking up points. Really strong teams don’t allow any of those chances, every single player knows exactly what is needed to win games and control them for the full 90 minutes.”

Whereas Avispa’s season has been defined by dogged organisation and a refusal to go down without a fight, Shonan have continued to play with the gunslinging abandon that saw them finish in a lofty 8th place in the overall table on their return to J1 last year.

The side have picked up rousing draws with big boys Kawasaki Frontale (4-4), Gamba Osaka (3-3), and Sanfrecce Hiroshima (2-2) with their positive attacking approach this year, but having lost a trio of players capable of deciding games in their favour in the form of Yota Akimoto, Wataru Endo, and Ryota Nagaki ahead of this campaign they have struggled to come out on top in enough matches to avoid another plunge back down to J2.

Despite the results not arriving, however, Cho doesn’t think a team’s position in the table should affect their style. “I’ve only worked as a coach for five years and managed to avoid relegation once so I don’t know if I can give an informed answer or not, but personally I think that pursuing what you believe in as the club’s philosophy and carrying it out until the end is the key ingredient for a team to look ahead and avoid relegation,” he said after the loss to Avispa.

“Of course you can tweak the system, but you have to stick to what you have, to take care of the original DNA – which for us is to run more than the opponent, to play attacking football, and to aim for the goal. Today again we weren’t able to get the three points, but I firmly believe that teams who can do this without giving up until the end – this year, next year, in three years, 10 years – achieve improvement. I’m somebody who demands results and development, and I want to do so even in this kind of situation.”

Whether Cho or Ihara will get the chance to stick around at their current clubs for another year – or three, or 10 – remains to be seen, but based on their efforts this season it would be a shame if they weren’t given a little longer to bring their respective projects closer to fruition.


Per Angusta Ad Augusta

Reports suggest that the J.League will be doing away with it’s much-derided two stage format after this season.

Soccerphile, 15th September, 2016

With that in mind, I took at look at the lie of the land in J1 as the 2016 campaign nears its climax.



The Kagawa Conundrum

Shinji Kagawa is a vastly different player for club and country, and perhaps it’s best for all concerned if he is given a bit of a break from national team duty… (日本語版はこちらです: http://www.footballchannel.jp/2016/09/13/post174348/)

Football Channel, 13th September, 2016

It is quite clear – and has been for a while – that all is not well for Shinji Kagawa when he plays for Japan.

In the recent World Cup qualifiers the Borussia Dortmund playmaker was again a peripheral figure for the Samurai Blue, floating around the fringes of the games and all-too often favouring sideways or backwards passes instead of attempting anything more proactive, and snatching at the half-chances that came his way rather than dispatching them in the clinical fashion we have so often seen for his club.

As a result of these latest less-than-impressive showings Kagawa again came in for criticism, with many wondering why the 27-year-old is still a sure-fire pick for the side despite not having delivered consistently for a very long time, if ever, in national team colours.

While questions should certainly be asked of Vahid Halilhodzic and his refusal to drop a player who has been little more than a passenger for the past couple of years, it isn’t really fair to suggest that Kagawa is lacking in effort – if anything he is trying too hard.

At his club Kagawa is surrounded by some of the best talents in the game, players who share the burden of deciding games, leaving him to play freely as one of several cogs in Dortmund’s attacking machine. For Japan he is not afforded that same luxury, and he clearly struggles with the expectation to be the main man when it comes to unlocking opposition defences – defences that are focusing the majority of their energy and manpower on keeping him quiet.

This is a common theme in international football, and there are countless instances of star players of less successful nations struggling to carry the burden of responsibility when it comes to playing for their country. Just look at Wayne Rooney, for instance.

The Manchester United and England captain is the Three Lions’ all-time top scorer and most capped outfielder, and for many – including, thankfully for him, England’s past five managers – still the first name on the teamsheet. For just as many people, however, Rooney is longer an effective player for the side and shouldn’t be guaranteed a place in the XI.

Current boss Sam Allardyce has dismissed those suggestions, and despite the fact that Rooney has not delivered consistent results or performances for quite some time offered a rather strange comment after England’s 1-0 win over Slovakia last week.

“This is the most decorated outfield player in England,” he said. “He’s won everything at Manchester United, at Champions League and domestic level. I think he holds a lot more experience at international football than I do as an international manager. So, when he is using his experience and playing as a team member, it’s not for me to say where he’s going to play.”

Football Channel, September 14th, 2016

The suggestion that Allardyce – the manager of the team, no less – has no say over where his players play was a bizarre remark, and implied that some members of the squad are un-droppable.

Whereas Big Sam is hesitant to offer Rooney any instructions Halilhodzic was certainly not shy about dishing them out to Kagawa in the recent Thailand game, frequently grabbing his No.10 and giving him a piece of his mind.

With Kagawa it doesn’t seem like that is the answer though. Instead of giving him more instructions, more advice, more things to think about, perhaps he should be given less: either by being given a totally free role, or perhaps by being left out of the squad altogether.

Andres Iniesta recently gave a fascinating interview to the Guardian’s Sid Lowe, in which he talked about his style of play and the way in which Barcelona and Spain managed to achieve so much success. One comment in particular stood out with Kagawa’s current troubles in mind.

“Most things come from inside, they’re intuitive; that’s the way I am,” Iniesta said. “There’s tactics, strategy but I understand football as something unpredictable, because you have to decide in a thousandth of a second. If the ball is coming and there’s someone behind you, I’m not thinking: ‘I’m going left or should it be right?’ I just go and it comes off … well, sometimes it doesn’t.”

Unfortunately for Kagawa those ‘sometimes it doesn’t’ instances are occurring far more often than the times when things go well at the moment, almost certainly because he is not playing instinctively, as Iniesta does, but instead to pre-prepared routes in his head.

Persevering with him when he is not in form just opens him up to more criticism, which in turn adds more pressure and then causes him to retreat further into his shell.

“There are moments when your mind is very vulnerable,” Iniesta said elsewhere in his interview when discussing a difficult period in his life that impacted on his form. “You feel a lot of doubts. Every person is different, every case. What I’m trying to explain is that you can go from being in good shape to being in a bad way very quickly.

“People see footballers as different beings, as if we’re untouchable, as if nothing ever happens to us, but we’re people. Of course we’re privileged but in the tangibles we’re the same.”

That shouldn’t be forgotten when it comes to Kagawa, who certainly doesn’t look especially happy when playing for Japan. Perhaps it would be better for him and the national team as a whole if he was allowed a little time out of the limelight to get his head together and start enjoying his football again.



On the up

The contest at the top of J2 is looking a lot less open than usual this season, and with a dozen games still to play it looks like we already know the six teams in the mix for promotion to the top flight…  (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 30th August, 2016

Despite the fact there are still seven games to play in J1, things are looking all but set at both ends of the overall table. Kawasaki Frontale, Urawa Reds, and Kashima Antlers look odds-on to be in the Championship, while Avispa Fukuoka, Shonan Bellmare, and Nagoya Grampus need miracles (or maybe just Tulio?) to avoid relegation.

Unusually the picture is similarly clear at the top of J2. Since the play-offs were introduced in 2012 the second division has maintained a healthy level of competition as seasons have neared their climaxes, with nigh-on half the teams involved in with a shout of making the post-season competition for promotion to J1.

This year things look a little different though, and with 12 games left to play there is already a seven-point gap between Kyoto Sanga in the last play-off spot in sixth and seventh-placed Renofa Yamaguchi. At the top, meanwhile, Consadole Sapporo are nine points clear of second-placed Matsumoto Yamaga and 12 above third-placed Cerezo Osaka and looking clear favourites for the title – or at the very least automatic promotion.

With that in mind thoughts are already turning to the pressure of the play-offs, and after Shimizu S-Pulse’s recent 2-0 win over Yokohama FC – which moved Shimizu up to fifth and left Yokohama in 10th, 11 points outside the play-off places – Chong Tese made it clear that Shinji Kobayashi’s side don’t expect anything less than a spot in the end of season shootout.

“We’re not really paying any attention to what’s happening below us, we’re not thinking about dropping down to seventh,” he said. “We have the game against Matsumoto to come too [on 25 September]. So far we have lost important games like that – against the likes of Sapporo and Cerezo– but if we can beat them then we’ll be able to move up.”

There are two rounds of games before that clash, but assuming no slip-ups in the meantime a Shimizu win over Yamaga could mean just three points separating the teams in second and sixth – a mini-league contesting the last automatic promotion spot, with the nerve-shredding play-offs the consolation for the unlucky four who miss out.

“Of course we are aiming for second but in reality third looks more achievable as it’s not only dependent upon us but how the teams above us do too,” Tese added. “All the teams above us are also aiming for second, and it’s our responsibility to do the same. Initially though we have to make sure we are up in third and then we can think about second.”On the up, August 30th 2016

S-Pulse have more than matched the rest of the chasing pack, of late, picking up 10 points from their last five games, with three wins, one draw, and a solitary defeat, away to Sapporo. That is the same return as Fagiano Okayama in fourth, while Kyoto have claimed nine points and Matsumoto and Cerezo have each gathered seven.

The Shizuoka side are also the division’s leading scorers with 57 goals, and after an unsteady start to life in the second tier with blanks fired in each of their first four home games Shimizu have been free-flowing in front of goal and only failed to find the target in three games since.

“The team is doing very well in terms of attacking at the moment,” Tese, top scorer in the league with 17 goals, said after the win over Yokohama – the first time in six games that he hadn’t found the net after eight goals in the previous five games. “I’m not worried that I didn’t score today though. I want to become the kind of player who can score for the team in difficult situations, and while I wanted to get a goal at 0-0 here I feel that we are combining well in attack.”

Those difficult situations are sure to arise, and Tese is hoping the team will cope with the pressure as it begins to mount.

“You could see in the recent Sapporo game [in which Shimizu came back from 2-0 down to 2-2, only to then concede again right at the death] a bit of a mental weakness, and we have to get stronger in that respect.”

The former Kawasaki Frontale star believes there is more than enough experience and ability in the Shimizu squad to ultimately see them over the line though, and is hopeful they can come good when it matters the most.

“With our quality we can only improve. We have the feeling that we can win going into every game. In almost all our games we have scored first and when that happens the opponent begins to pour more players forward and maybe we haven’t been able to deal with it so well. Most of our games have been there for us to win and most of the times we haven’t have been because of us letting them slip.”

Indeed, S-Pulse have opened the scoring in 18 of their matches, being pegged back to draw four times and losing once – a total of 11 points squandered after taking the lead.

They can’t let many more opportunities pass them by between now and the end of the season, but with Tese in form, Genki Omae due back from injury soon, and a coach who has plenty of experience navigating the road from J2 to J1 they still have every chance of an instant return to the top flight.

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