Halilhodzic shows he’s in charge in Japan debut

I was in Oita for Vahid Halilhodzic’s first game in charge of Japan on Friday, and after the game got some reaction from the players on their latest new boss…

The Japan News, Sunday 29th March, 2015

OITA — Vahid Halilhodzic’s debut as Japan coach didn’t quite live up to the cliche of being a game of two halves, but there were two clear phases in the 2-0 win over Tunisia in Oita on Friday: Samurai Blue’s play with their regular forwards, and without them.

The Bosnian only arrived in Tokyo a fortnight before his first game, but instantly looked to exert his authority on a Japan side still smarting from its meek exit at the quarterfinal stage of January’s Asian Cup.

The starting lineup in Oita contained just two of the players who began in that loss to the UAE in Sydney — defender Maya Yoshida and captain Makoto Hasebe — and the experimental selection was understandably a little disjointed early on.

The introduction of Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa on the hour mark, soon followed in the 72nd minute by Shinji Okazaki, injected life into the side, though, and Honda was full of praise for his new boss.

“The players who came on during the match were able to produce a result,” the AC Milan playmaker said postmatch. “To me, that shows the quality of the coach.”

Honda received from Kagawa before crossing for Okazaki’s headed opener in the 78th minute, then scored himself after Kagawa’s ball across the box was parried into his path by Tunisia goalkeeper Moez Ben Cherifia five minutes later.

There was definitely a sense of Halilhodzic bringing out the big guns with his double substitution, and he left his star players in no doubt as to what was required of them as they replaced the largely ineffective Hiroshi Kiyotake and Kensuke Nagai.

“He expected the two of us to change the game, and we were soon able to do that,” Honda said.

“He wanted me to receive the ball in attacking positions and try to make the rhythm,” Kagawa said about his coach’s instructions.

Fans at Oita Big Eye, Friday 27th March, 2015

The Borussia Dortmund player certainly looked keen to try and create after his introduction — although his end product was occasionally a little rusty — and, like Honda, he is impressed with Halilhodzic’s methods.

“He’s a good fit with us, I think. He demands things intensely, and strength and speed are qualities that Japan has lacked. There are still issues we have to work on, but everyone has an awareness of the kind of soccer the coach wants — precise rotation of the ball, quick buildup, and to switch well between defense and attack.”

Halilhodzic will surely have been pleased with a wonderfully worked second goal, then, which started from a fizzed, low Yoshida ball out from the back in to Honda, who immediately laid off for Takashi Usami.

The Gamba Osaka striker — making his long-awaited debut for Japan — turned possession over to Okazaki, who proceeded to set Kagawa free inside the left of the box. From there he was able, with a little luck, to return the ball to Honda to convert.

Yoshida, who enjoyed a commanding performance at the heart of defense, believes that Halilhodzic’s precise manner of getting his message across will reap rewards.

“He places great importance on his work conveying things to the players,” the Southampton centerback said. “It’s only been a few days, but personally I expect that I will be able to develop a lot by working with him.”

This new start for Japan came just 203 days after the last one, with Halilhodzic’s predecessor Javier Aguirre being removed in February after just 10 games in charge on account of his alleged involvement in a Spanish match-fixing scandal.

Honda, however, brushed off suggestions that the comings and goings had been disruptive.

“Adaptability is one of my strong points,” he said. “The environment can change, the coach can change, many things can change, but one of my strengths is that I am able to cope with that.”

Halilhodzic may implement more changes against Uzbekistan in Tokyo on Tuesday, when he will surely be tempted to use more of his established frontline players from the start.


JFA chief has high hopes for Halilhodzic

Javier Aguirre’s reign as Japan coach was a short-livid and unsuccessful one, and last week I interviewed JFA president Kuniya Daini about the Samurai’s Blue’s second fresh start in six months, as Vahid Halilhodzic takes the reins…

The Japan News, Friday 27th March, 2015

Vahid Halilhodzic’s reign as Japan coach gets under way tonight in Oita against Tunisia, and Japan Football Association president Kuniya Daini is expecting big things of his new recruit.

The Bosnian has been drafted in to replace Javier Aguirre, whose contract was terminated in February after a Spanish court accepted a match-fixing case in which he was named as a defendant, and Daini — as well as JFA technical director Masahiro Shimoda and secretary general Hiromi Hara — took voluntary pay cuts to atone for their roles in hiring the Mexican just last August.

Daini is delighted with the new man in charge.

“He has been able to put teams in order in many different places — France, Cote d’Ivoire, Algeria — and I believe the ability to be able to deal with different nationalities and cultures makes an outstanding coach,” the 70-year-old told The Japan News in his Tokyo office last week.

“He has abilities in many areas. He doesn’t force things, but by working on one issue at a time he is able to play winning soccer.

That, for Daini, was the missing ingredient for the Samurai Blue at January’s Asian Cup, where the team was eliminated in the quarterfinals.

“Japanese soccer has a high technical level and we play good soccer with pretty passing. But when it comes to battling to win, having a fixation on that, I felt a little that, not just in the game as a whole but in individual situations, that was lacking a little.”

Halilhodzic’s Algeria side could hardly be accused of lacking fighting spirit at last year’s World Cup, and eventual winner Germany needed extra time to defeat it in the round of 16.

(L-R) Masahiro Shimoda, Kuniya Daini, Vahid Halilhodzic, Gun Hiwatashi, Tokyo, March 13th, 2015

“It wouldn’t have been at all strange if Algeria had won,” Daini said. ”You saw his ability in the strength of the Algerian team and the organization of individual players. He’s really pragmatic and, looking at the current Japanese players and their organization and ability, he will think about the best way to play in order to win.”

Daini — a former national team player — is impressed that so many of his countrymen are increasingly enjoying success in Europe’s top leagues, but said he would like to see more players establishing themselves in the decisive positions.

“The parts of the pitch in which Japanese players are given chances seems set,” he said. “In midfield, showing good technique, devotion, to never give up, to run for defense and attack, to contribute to the team — that enables the good points of Japanese players to be demonstrated and that is recognized around the world.

“But, if you really think about how we have to become stronger, it is in the sense of being the guy at the front scoring the goals, or being in the center of defense dealing with everything.

“Now Japanese players are getting better in that respect, but we have to develop more players who are scoring the goals and hanging on at the back. However we can, we have to produce those players in order to win against the world’s best.”

Halilhodzic appears keen to leave no stone unturned to unearth the best players at his disposal, and named a bumper 31-man squad for his first two games in charge — plus an additional 12 players as backups.

“That was down to him,” Daini explained. “Until now, unfortunately, he hadn’t seen many Japanese players, and so in the limited time he had available, he wanted to call up as many as possible and cast his eye over them in training.”

Tonight’s game and Tuesday’s clash with Uzbekistan in Tokyo will shed some light on which of those managed to make good first impressions on the new coach, before the real business begins with the second round of World Cup qualifiers in June.


Analyse This

Controversy in football sparks debate all around the world. Well, except in the J.League… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel,  March 26th, 2015

Japan is not a country known for having an especially scrupulous media, and in 2014 the NPO Reporters Without Borders ranked the country 59th in the world on its press freedom index.

The prevailing ‘press club’ culture is largely responsible for keeping the majority of news within clearly-defined and firmly-controlled boundaries and, while it is admittedly a far bigger issue than the football themes at hand in this article, the difficulty in covering the ongoing problems at Fukushima Daiichi provides the most clear example of the obstacles reporters in Japan must overcome to report the full truth behind stories.

Censorship – or provoking self-censorship – should clearly not be tolerated in truly open societies, although it is usually clear to see why those enforcing it are doing so.

Not so in the case of the J.League.

Quite why the division feels the need to clamp down on discussion of anything controversial that takes place in its games is something of a head-scratcher, as well as being an increasingly pointless exercise.

In just the first three rounds of J1 action there has been at least one incident a week worthy of – some might say necessitating – discussion, only for each to be delicately glossed over and ignored. Move on, people, there’s nothing to see here!

On the first weekend the ball had clearly gone out before Patric opened the scoring for Gamba Osaka against FC Tokyo, a week later Yoshito Okubo equalized for Kawasaki Frontale against Vissel Kobe – although this time the ball hadn’t crossed the line – and then Kazuma Watanabe won Vissel a penalty last weekend against his old side FC Tokyo, even though his former teammate Shuichi Gonda hadn’t made the slightest contact.

Of course, these things happen, mistakes get made, and football sparks controversy. Except in Japan, it doesn’t, and for reasons best know to them, the J.League would like to keep it that way.

The end where Yoshito Okubo's 'goal' went in

“I think it’s better if they do [analyse it],” Yoshito Okubo told me after he benefited from Yoshiro Imamura’s error at Todoroki on March 14th. “You have to have discussion. But they don’t, right? In Japan. They defend the referee. That’s a bad point about Japan, I think. When there’s this kind of scene you have to discuss it to try and stop it happening next time. But I don’t think they will.”

He was right, of course, and although J.League Time did show a freeze-frame of the ball not crossing the line there was no discussion of the incident. As was the case with Patric’s goal and Watanabe’s blatant dive, which were both shown but not debated.

Okubo’s claim that the silence is to protect referees would appear to be the only explanation for the J.League’s blanket ban on open conversation. Far from helping Japanese officials this process of wrapping them in cotton wool may well be hindering their progress, however, leaving them unprepared for the level of scrutiny they will be under when officiating in international competition.

Consider the ludicrous reaction to Yuichi Nishimura’s World Cup cameo, for instance. The 42-year-old was subjected to a barrage of abuse and ridicule for awarding Brazil a soft penalty in their opener against Croatia and, as a result, was not given any more games at the competition. That decision was probably made by FIFA to shelter him from any further controversy, but if he had been more used to having his decisions placed under a spotlight then maybe he wouldn’t have needed to be taken out of the line of fire.

On social media, however, these scenes are increasingly – and repeatedly – being highlighted, shared, and discussed. Indeed, the ease of doing so is being facilitated by the league’s own official broadcasting partner Skapa!, whose excellent on demand service enables fans to watch, re-watch, and share (via Twitter, Instagram, Vine and so on) the controversial incidents whenever they like – usually instantly.

That service is now available overseas as well, and as fans abroad – who are far more used to venting their spleen about controversial incidents – also get in on the act of drawing attention to mistakes and the like it can surely only be a matter of time before the powers that be at the J.League relent and give free-rein – or freer, at least – to the domestic media.


Boo who

The relationships between football clubs and their fans are precarious and constantly evolving. Poor results don’t help matters, but they aren’t everything… (日本語版はこちらです: http://www.footballchannel.jp/2015/03/13/post76754/)

Football Channel,  March 13th, 2015

After Urawa Reds slumped to their third straight defeat to start the 2015 season – an uninspiring 1-0 loss at home to Brisbane Roar in the Asian Champions League – captain Yuki Abe was moved to return to the booing fans behind the home goal and plead for patience.

The negativity around the club which choked so spectacularly at the end of the 2014 season and, despite an influx of some of the best talent in the J.League over the off-season, had suffered something of a false-start to the 2015 term was in stark contrast to the mood at Toyota and Ajinomoto Stadiums on the opening weekend.

First up, 10,000 Matsumoto Yamaga fans travelled down to Aichi for their side’s J1 debut, and were almost rewarded with the perfect result. Despite ultimately being unable to hang on and having to settle for a point in a thrilling 3-3 draw, there was no discontent among the travelling hordes – some of whom had arrived at Toyota Stadium at 3am for a 2pm kick-off to make the most of an historic occasion for a club which only joined the Japan Football League (then the third level of Japanese football) in 2010.

In amongst the J.League’s many attempts to foster community engagement with its ever-growing number of clubs – whether they be well-intentioned-but-ultimately-meaningless ‘derbies’, an array of cute/confusing/terrifying mascots, or sending godawful ‘tarento’ groups to perform at the stadium – Matsumoto stands out as something of an anomaly: a club which holds sway with its fan base because it genuinely represents them.

Yamaga does well to embrace its role as a symbol of the area, but its popularity is more organic than that. The fan-base essentially existed before Yamaga came into being, and locals who are exceptionally proud of their hometown – for a variety of historical reasons too complex to discuss here – became able to express those feelings through supporting the club. That stands in contrast to several newer teams in the J.League pyramid, who are attempting to create regional pride by giving areas clubs to be get behind.

The day after Yamaga nearly grabbed three points on their top-flight debut, Tokyo Verdy – once, in a previous guise, the giant of the Japanese game – demonstrated another way it is possible to earn respect and patience from those paying to watch you play, as the side which very nearly dropped down to J3 in 2014 almost beat Cerezo Osaka on the opening day of J2.

Three of those starting the game against Paolo Autuori’s expensively-assembled squad came through the Verdy academy – including 18-year-old Kento Misao, who had an excellent professional debut in central midfield up against Japan internationals Hotaru Yamaguchi and Takahiro Ogihara, and, of course, Diego Forlan.

Matsumoto Yamaga banner, Toyota Stadium, Saturday 7th March, 2015

The decision to channel the graduates into the first team so quickly is obviously a result of the club’s limited budget, but it is good to see Verdy finally realising that the glory years are behind them, and that signing ageing and ineffective former stars is not the path to follow if they want to get back into J1.

Koichi Togashi is the perfect man to have in charge of the team having developed so many of the players in their younger years, and some of the football the side played against Cerezo was incredibly easy on the eye and clearly a result of the understanding between those on the pitch. That is something that will not only keep people coming to the stadium and getting behind the team – 12,217 did so on the opening weekend – but will also ultimately coax lapsed fans back and bring new supporters through the turnstiles as well.

Which brings us back to Saitama.

The attendance at Reds’ aforementioned game against Brisbane (13,527) was not much higher than that at Verdy-Cerezo, and, despite the opening day win over Shonan Bellmare, there is a definite sense of a growing divide between the club and the people of Urawa who traditionally, rather like Matsumoto fans, are fiercely proud of their hometown and the bonds between the area and its football club.

The failure to secure titles when they have been within reach is obviously a factor in this – as is the fallout from the ‘Japanese Only’ furore last year, when the club banned several key supporter’s groups – but does not explain it fully – after all, Reds have not been anywhere near as successful as a club with its budget, reputation, and fanbase should have been.

The lack of a coherent plan to fine-tune a team which has come so close would appear to be the main bugbear of those in the stands, though, so too the tactical inflexibility of head coach Mihailo Petrovic – who, although not willing to budge on his philosophy, did at least come out and put himself in the line of fire to defend his players.

“I’m the one who has to take responsibility for the team,” he said after the Brisbane defeat. “If anyone should be getting booed then it is me.”

There was some debate about whether supporters booing their own team could be justified, and Yosuke Kashiwagi expressed shock at the response to Reds’ lethargic display. “It seemed like we weren’t fighting together,” the midfielder complained.

He may have a point in that respect, and it does seem counter-productive to heckle your own players. However, as Yamaga and Verdy show, it is key to foster a connection between those on the pitch and those in the stands, and at the moment that is certainly lacking in Saitama.

Were the fans right to boo? Probably not. Do I understand why they did? Absolutely.


Yamaga denied dream start in J1

The 2015 J1 season got underway yesterday, and newcomers Matsumoto Yamaga almost arrived on the big stage with a bang. I was in Toyota to see their game against Nagoya Grampus…

The Japan News, Sunday 8th March, 2015

TOYOTA, AICHI – Matsumoto Yamaga was denied a dream start to life in J1 on Saturday, conceding twice in as many minutes late on to draw 3-3 with Nagoya Grampus in a breathless encounter at Toyota Stadium.

The debutant twice took the lead against the 2010 J.League champion and was at one point two goals ahead thanks to strikes from Obina, Tomoki Ikemoto, and Kohei Kiyama. Grampus persevered, though, and could have snatched all three points had Tulio not missed a last-minute penalty to add to his earlier goal and those of Tomoya Koyamatsu and Milivoje Novakovic.

“Tomorrow is my birthday,” Matsumoto coach Yasuharu Sorimachi said after the game. “I think after that my life expectancy may have dropped. We really wanted to win, but this is J1.

“If you looked at the team sheet before the game, pretty much everyone had zero J1 experience and, to be honest, I thought we’d be more nervous and that it would take time to get used to this level. In the beginning, maybe we were a little, but I thought the content of our play was good.”

The visitors certainly didn’t look like a team which had only joined J2 in 2012, although it was Grampus who dominated possession and made the clearest chances in the opening half hour.

Despite that, it was Matsumoto which drew first blood in the 32nd minute. Yuzo Iwakami sent in a corner from the left and Seigo Narazaki failed to command the situation under pressure from Obina. The Nagoya keeper got to the ball first, but could only pat it down onto the Brazilian’s head, from which it bounced into the net.

“In preseason we were bad at defending set-plays as well,” Grampus coach Akira Nishino lamented post-match. “That continued today.”

Yamaga weren’t able to bask in the glory of their first top-flight goal for long, however, and within a minute Nagoya was level.

Akira Takeuchi sent an arrowed pass forward from just inside his own half and Kensuke Nagai did very well to cushion it into Koyamatsu’s path with his right foot. The 19-year-old made no mistake on his first start, and slid clinically into the bottom right-hand corner of the net as Matsumoto keeper Tomohiko Murayama advanced.

Matsumoto Yamaga make their J1 bow, Toyota Stadium, Saturday 7th March, 2015

Yamaga looked a little more assured going forward in the second half, and Iwakami almost reestablished their lead in the 62nd minute. The lively midfielder, who was excellent throughout, played a nice one-two with Ikemoto and bent a curling effort towards the far corner with his left foot, but his aim was slightly off and it arced just wide.

Grampus should have paid heed to that warning, and just seconds later Matsumoto were back in front. Narazaki was again indecisive when dealing with an Iwakami corner, and Ikemoto could scarcely believe his luck as the ball dropped to him in the six-yard box, stabbing gleefully home in the 63rd minute.

The joy of the traveling masses of fans – who made up a healthy proportion of the 33,558 attendance – increased shortly afterwards, as Kiyama drilled home from close-range after a smart assist from Obina in the 76th minute, but again Yamaga failed to seize control, conceding within two minutes.

This time Tulio found the net for the hosts, heading just beyond Murayama after Asahi Yada’s wedged ball into the box in the 78th minute, and then in the 80th, Novakovic broke Matsumoto hearts.

The Slovenian international turned sharply after substitute Kengo Kawamata had nodded the ball across the box, and made no mistake, firing sharply home.

It was backs to the wall for Matsumoto for the last 10 minutes, and Tulio could have struck the killer blow, only to see his penalty repelled by Iwamura.

“To not win at home is disappointing,” Nishino said. “But to come from two goals behind and take a point has to be seen as a positive.”

Elsewhere, 2014 champion Gamba Osaka continued their slow start to the season and also had to settle for a share of the spoils after conceding late on, drawing 2-2 with FC Tokyo.

Last year’s treble winner came into the game on the back of two defeats in the Asian Champions League, but goals from Patric and Takashi Usami gave it a commanding two-goal lead at Banpaku Stadium. Yoshinori Muto struck twice in reply for Tokyo, though, with his equalizer coming in second half stoppage time.

Meanwhile, Montedio Yamagata’s return to J1 was not a happy one, as it lost 2-0 to Vegalta Sendai in the Michinoku Derby – Wilson bagging both goals.


J.LEAGUE PREVIEW: Split decision

My main preview for the 2015 J.League season, for which the division has gone back to its roots with a 2-stage format – albeit one with a unique, and puzzling, twist…

The Japan News, Friday 5th March, 2015

This year, the top flight of the J.League will return to a split-season format for the first time since 2004, and opinion on the rejig is as divided as the system itself.

When the idea to reintroduce two stages was first brought up back in 2013, large numbers of supporters voiced their opposition, but the division opted to proceeded regardless. Consequently, the J1 champion this year will be decided after a postseason playoff involving up to five clubs — those with the first, second, and third most points over the two stages combined, plus the two winners of each stage.

Kenta Hasegawa, coach of last year’s champion Gamba Osaka, isn’t a fan of the new format, but knows that complaining about it isn’t going to help his team defend its crown.

“Personally, I think that one stage is better, but that’s the regulation and so we can only compete following what has been decided,” the 49-year-old told The Japan News ahead of the new campaign.

“The team that wins at the end is the champion. Last year we were the champion over the course of the whole year. That was good, but this year we have these rules and so we have to try and compete within these regulations to become the champion.”

Yuki Abe, captain of 2014 runner-up Urawa Reds, however, doesn’t see what all the fuss is about.

“Frankly speaking, I don’t know why everyone is saying so many negative things,” the midfielder, who competed in split seasons with JEF United between 1998 and 2004, said. “We have to go this way, it’s the route the J.League has taken.

“I have the experience of playing a two-stage season and rather than thinking of it as something new, I only really have the feeling of returning to how it was before.

“The final stage [playoff] is a new thing, and I’m kind of excited to see how that turns out. I think we have to be excited to play. People are saying many different things, but the final target is to win. That hasn’t changed.”

An attitude of keep-calm-and-carry-on also appeals to Kashima Antlers boss Toninho Cerezo.

“Of course the approach of other teams, and how we play depending on other teams, might change, but fundamentally I think the things we have to do will be exactly the same as these past two years,” said the Brazilian, whose side finished third in 2014.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s Toshihiro Aoyama, who won consecutive J1 titles in 2012 and 2013, agrees.

“For us, the players haven’t changed all that much, so I think we have a chance [to become champion],” the midfielder said.

“If we can get off to a quick start, then we have a big chance in the first stage. I haven’t thought at all about the second stage yet.”

While a playoff berth can be assured with success in just one-half of the season, the team with the highest aggregate points will progress directly to the two-leg final.

It remains to be seen whether bypassing the potential quarterfinal and semifinal fixtures, which await the stage champions and overall second- and third-placed teams, is enough of a motivation to keep teams going at full throttle over both halves.

Split decision

Of course, for some sides the sole focus will be gathering enough points throughout the season to preserve their top-flight status — with the three teams with the lowest points totals relegated.

“For us, it seems more likely than not that we will have to be thinking about our aggregate points,” said Yasuharu Sorimachi, coach of J1 debutant Matsumoto Yamaga.

“[The target] is survival, but saying ‘survival’ is pretty depressing so I prefer to phrase it as the ‘top 15,’” the Japan coach at the 2008 Beijing Olympics explained.

For plenty of other clubs not accustomed to picking up silverware, the incentive of being involved in the end-of-season bunfight is a tempting one.

“The possibilities have widened,” new Vissel Kobe coach Nelsinho said. “With one season, if you stumble at some point then you may not be able to achieve success at the end. With this system, if you don’t do so well in the first stage, you still have an opportunity in the second stage to become the champion.”

His captain, Jung Woo Young, is trying not to get too bogged down with the ins and outs of the format.

“The way of approaching games is exactly the same, if it’s one stage or two stages,” the South Korean midfielder said.

“The way of arranging the competition is not something that I came up with, and I think it’s best not to think too much about the structure of the season.”

Hitoshi Morishita, who has taken over the reins at Sagan Tosu — another club which could benefit from the new structure — thinks that teams will ultimately struggle to achieve success by focusing energy on just one stage.

“If you do that, it is likely that the playoffs will become very difficult,” the 42-year-old explained. “The team’s growth will stop, so you have to aim for consistency. You always have to be aiming for progress and evolution within the team.

“It’s important to concentrate on the team’s style. The teams that play consistently will remain.”

There is a high probability that the five available playoff spots will be filled by some of the same clubs — there are eight different permutations overall — and Morishita admitted he is still unsure of how the allocations will be decided if a team finishes in the top three overall and wins either or both stages.

“It’s absolutely difficult to understand. Even now I can’t fully comprehend [how it will work],” he said, before adding that he, like Jung, is trying to avoid getting too analytical.

“If we just try to win one game at a time, that’s the simplest way. Instead of thinking about the specifics too much, simple is best.”

Whether the J.League itself should also have followed that advice will become clear over the next nine months.


J.LEAGUE PREVIEW: Shibasaki’s star continues rapid rise

Gaku Shibasaki is now fully established in the Kashima Antlers starting eleven, and is aiming for even more progress this year. Ahead of the season I spoke to the Japan international about his goals for 2015…

The Japan News, Friday 5th March, 2015

Last year was a landmark season for Gaku Shibasaki, with the Kashima Antlers midfielder an ever-present force for his club and making his long-awaited national team debut.

The 22-year-old was labeled world class by Javier Aguirre during his brief tenure as Samurai Blue coach — praise which followed a glowing tribute from his former boss Jorginho, who once described Shibasaki as the best young player he had ever coached or played with.

But the Aomori native is not resting on his laurels and is targeting more success in 2015.

“It is always nice when people hold you in high regard, but personally I think I have to improve even more,” he told The Japan News ahead of the season.

“Of course, it’s important if other people rate you, but I have to keep evaluating myself. I have to have a proper awareness of where I stand in order to be able to become a player who can play at a higher level.”

He demonstrated such potential at the Asian Cup, coming off the bench in the quarterfinal against the UAE, changing the dynamic of the game and equalizing to send the match into extra time. It was one of the few bright spots for Japan in a disappointing campaign.

That wasn’t his only contribution, however. In just over an hour, he took five shots, created five chances and completed 93 percent of his passes — as well as scoring his penalty in the shootout that Japan would go on to lose.

Gaku Shibasaki

“I absolutely grew [as a result of the Asian Cup],” the 2012 J.League young player of the year said. “I became aware of the things that I am lacking by just playing in Japan, which I guess you could say is a fairly limited country. Having the chance to play against international opposition is not an opportunity I’ve had often, so that was one of those things.”

He’ll have more chances to test himself against foreign teams this season, with Kashima having returned to the Asian Champions League for the first time since 2011.

“They have a higher level of intensity than Japanese teams, as well as good quality and physical strength,” he said of Antlers’ continental opponents.

When accepting his young player award in 2012, Shibasaki referenced the difference he sensed in his level and that of the top players in the world. He believes that divide has narrowed but still exists.

“I think that with regards to that gap, I have been able to improve. Now I think I am closer to the world level than I was before, but I am not satisfied with where I am and have to keep aiming to reach a higher level.

“I don’t know when I will achieve success in that respect, but I will keep striving to improve until I do.”

He ultimately has his sights set on Europe, and is also confident he can become a national team regular.

“I want to be standing there on the pitch as one of the starting 11,” he said.

“I personally believe I am the type of player who can do that, so have to work properly to achieve it.”

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

Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.

Receive an email each time I post something new and/or interesting by...

Join 35 other followers

Back Catalogue

what day is it?

March 2015
« Feb    


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 35 other followers