16
Aug
17

Community spirit

The Premier League is the most marketable division in the world but more and more English fans are tiring of the money and hype and returning to the community roots of the game…  (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, 16th August, 2017

This past Saturday my hometown team Brighton and Hove Albion contested their first ever match in the Premier League, losing 2-0 at home to Manchester City at the American Express Community Stadium.

The Seagulls’ route to the top tier of the English game was long and dramatic, and they finally achieved promotion as runners-up in the Championship last year after losing in the play-offs in three of the previous four seasons. Looking a little further back they almost dropped out of the four-league professional pyramid entirely 20 years ago, only preserving their status amongst the top 92 teams on goals scored thanks to Robbie Reinelt’s 62nd-minute equaliser against Hereford United on the last day of the 1996-97 season.

While Brighton’s return to the big time – they previously played in the old first division between 1979-1983 – has of course created a real buzz in the city and positive headlines around the nation, a growing number of fans in England are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the corporate and money-driven Premier League and instead re-establishing connections with what is often referred to as ‘proper’ football.

The day after Neymar completed his world record transfer from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain for around £200 million, for example, I visited Lewes FC – a community club in the eighth tier of the English football pyramid which is doing things a very different way.

Just a five-minute train ride through the South Downs from Brighton’s Falmer home, Lewes are steadily building a reputation as a club that exists in order to provide and maintain bonds with the local community.

In the 2007-08 season Lewes edged one step closer the dream of most non-league clubs when they secured promotion to the Conference National (now National League), just one division away from the professional ranks. The following day almost all the coaching and playing staff had their contracts terminated though as the owners, who worked in construction, had lost a huge amount of money in the global financial crash and were no longer able to pay the bills.

There was a real risk of Lewes having to fold after 123 years at its picturesque Dripping Pan home, but half a dozen fans clubbed together and were able to rescue them from extinction, reforming The Rooks as a community club – meaning the fans own and fund it, and that it makes no profit whatsoever.

We currently have around 1,200 active owners paying a minimum of £30 a year,” Kevin Miller, Lewes’ Commercial Manager and one of only three full time members of staff, told me ahead of the team’s pre-season friendly against Burgess Hill.

Interested parties can pledge their support to the club and become owners, and regardless of the amount paid no individual can own more than one share as Lewes strives to remain a community entity.

“Being very open, a mutual benefit society, all of our finances are posted online and our turnover is there,” Miller explains of the structure. “One week’s wages for Neymar would take the entire turnover of the club.”

Football Channel, 16 August 2017

Preserving the culture whereby everyone is working together for the enjoyment of football rather than profit means there are no grand plans to mount another challenge for professional status – although the women’s team, which the club recently announced will be paid the same as the men from this season, a first in professional or semi-professional football, are steadily approaching a place in the Women’s Super League.

“At this level the FA rules state that you can still take alcohol onto the stands,” Miller says of Lewes’ vision for the men’s team.

“If you go up to the Bostik Premier (the next division up) that’s still allowed; if you go one (more) up it’s still allowed but there are restrictions, but any higher than that and you change the complete complexion of the football club – which means you have to have a club bar, no alcohol outside, and that changes the dynamic of the club and I don’t think we want to do that.”

Manager Darren Freeman previously played for Lewes after a professional career that took in spells at Fulham, Brentford, and Brighton, and is another to have bought into the club’s approach.

“We’ve got great facilities and we’ve got a great fan base, who are fantastic and cheer the lads on week in week out,” the 43-year-old told me after his side came from a goal down to beat Burgess Hill 3-1.

“When you get a group of youngsters going out there and trying to do the right things they will make mistakes and we understand that – there’s people that get paid £250,000 that make mistakes. We believe in our youth, and if they can do a job then we utilise that, that’s important to us.”

As well as looking to further entrench the team in the local region by bringing players through the youth set up, which starts at Under-5 for boys and girls, Freeman insists his players socialise with supporters in the bar after games, win or lose. For the former striker such openness is vital to building an authentic community culture.

“I’m always open to fans coming up and speaking to me, not hiding behind a computer having a pop at everyone,” he explains.

“I’m here every game and what I say to them is that if they’re not happy then come and speak to me, I’d never not speak to someone. But in general the fans here are fantastic. I’ve wanted to come to this club for many years and manage them, so for me it’s an honour and a privilege to come here and I really feel that we can move Lewes into the right place where they should be.”

For Miller there is a clear idea of just where that is, and while growth on and off the pitch is vital to the club’s continued existence, success in the traditional sense is not being targeted at the expense of Lewes’ welcoming and inclusive atmosphere.

I think long term if we can stay in the National League South, so the sixth tier of English football, mid-table, crowds of 1,500 to 1,800, the odd play-off chase, the odd cup run, that’s perfect – for the men anyway – that’s sustainable,” he says.

“That means we’ve got genuine income and we can attract decent players. That’s a good level, getting good crowds, and would be absolutely perfect for us – and we’re only a couple of years away from that, I think.”

Down the road Brighton will be doing – and spending – all they can to keep their Premier League dream alive, but simpler pleasures and the enjoyment of football for football’s sake provide all the motivation Lewes and its fans need.

To become an owner of Lewes FC for a minimum of £30 (4,300) a year click here.

29
Jul
17

Leandro Domingues adds extra punch to Yokohama FC’s fight

Several J2 sides have made mid-season reinforcements as the battle for promotion heats up, with Leandro Domingues’ arrival at Yokohama FC the standout acquisition… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, 28th July, 2017

The J.League – seemingly unable to stick with all of its formats for more than a couple of years without feeling the need to tweak something – is set to re-jig the promotion system again from the 2018 season, meaning this year marks the last chance for sides to achieve a place in J1 via the current play-off format.

Despite last season’s play-off winners Cerezo Osaka sitting top of J1 just past the half-way point, a further hurdle is set to be introduced next year with the winner of the post-season play-offs then required to play the 16th-placed team in J1 in a promotion/relegation decider to prove they have what it takes to compete in the top flight.

The far from welcome addition to the calendar means a team could finish as third best over 42 J2 games, defeat two of its closest challengers in play-off matches, but then be forced to stay in the second tier if it fails to beat a side which was the third worst in its division over the preceding nine months.

Whether that is fair or not is a debate for another day, but the change does appear to have prompted several of this season’s promotion-hunting sides to boost their chances of being involved in the final regular play-offs – or, of course, going straight up to J1 in one of the two automatic spots – by making mid-season re-enforcements.

Six of the top nine teams have added foreign forwards since the transfer window re-opened, with current leaders Shonan Bellmare recruiting Dragan Mrdja from Omiya Ardija, Yokohama FC bringing Leandro Domingues back to Japan, fellow Brazilian Gabriel Xavier pitching up at Nagoya Grampus, Fagiano Okayama signing Kim Jong-min and Nicolas Orsini, Matsumoto Yamaga turning to the experienced Davi, and Carlos Martinez joining his fellow Spaniard Miguel Angel Lotina at Tokyo Verdy.

The most intriguing of these is Leandro Domingues’ arrival at Mitsuzawa, where Yokohama FC have been quietly building a solid-looking side over the past 18 months, spearheaded by the unstoppable Ibba Laajab.

The Norwegian has scored 16 of his team’s 33 goals so far in J2 in 2017 – adding to the 18 he managed in his debut season last year – and is far and away the most feared striker in the second division. Despite such impressive returns, however, there have been times when the 32-year-old has looked a little isolated in the final third, with opponents often doubling – sometimes even tripling – up on him and teammates occasionally seeming to rely on him to decide games on his own.

The capture of Leandro Domingues, then – a former J1 Player of the Year and winner of every domestic trophy in Japan – is an impressive piece of business and instantly paid dividends in his debut against V-Varen Nagasaki last weekend, with Varen coach Takuya Takagi referencing the “really big presence” the 33-year-old had on the pitch.

Indeed, it only took him six minutes to make an impact, sending a crisp ball forward to Ibba, who in turn laid it straight off for Naoki Nomura to play in Jeong Chung-geun for the opener.

“Before I received the ball I knew Ibba was in front of me and as soon as I got it I was looking to move possession on,” the former Kashiwa Reysol and Nagoya Grampus man said after the 2-1 win that moved Yokohama up to fifth in the table. “I hope we can continue to combine in that way in the upcoming games too to get more and more goals.”

Football Channel_getty_29th July 2017

Ibba warmly welcomed the addition of such a talented and attack-minded player to share the decisive workload.

“Before he came in the other team was always on me – I had two or three players – but now it’s one against one I can start to take down the ball and play a little bit because they are scared of him now too, so it makes my job more easy,” he said.

“You can see already today that him, Kensuke (Sato), Zato (Takahiro Nakazato), and Nomu (Nomura) have a good relationship and that makes a lot of space for me. I haven’t trained a lot with him – I only trained two weeks with him so we don’t know each other that well yet – but I think as long as we keep training with each other we’re just going to get better and better every day and he’s going to help us a lot, for sure.”

While acknowledging that Leandro Domingues appears to adhere to the quality-not-quantity approach often preferred by Brazilian players when it comes to training, Kazuyoshi Miura is also impressed by his new teammate.

“We had a training game recently in which he made three or four scoring opportunities, and today too he also made chances, especially in the first half; I think that’s the kind of player he is, and he certainly worked harder at defending in the game than he does in training, which was a relief for me!” the 50-year-old, who made the latest extension to his oldest-J.League-appearance record as a second half substitute against Nagasaki, joked after the game.

“He’s Brazilian, so I know his style of play and the fact that when it comes to real games he is able to move up a gear or two or three, and he did that today, I think.”

Ibba is hoping that things continue in such a positive vein, and if they do he sees no reason why Yokohama can’t make a concerted push for a long-awaited return to the first division.

“In J2 you never know – that’s the fun of J2, if we keep fighting like we did today we can take first or maybe second, because they are losing too,” he said on a weekend when all of the top three and four of the top five lost.

End of season runs have led to promotion for sides in each of the last two years, with Shimizu S-Pulse winning 15 of their last 18 games last season – losing just twice in that time and winning all of their last nine games – while in 2015 Avispa Fukuoka won 14 of their last 18, losing just once and winning each of their last eight.

Yokohama themselves recently had a poor run of form with just one win in eight games and four consecutive defeats, but the victory over Nagasaki was their second in a row and Ibba is hoping they can mount a similarly strong finish with 18 games to play.

“That’s how we think – that we are done with the bad time now and that we can just attack the last 15 games or so,” he said. “But you never know in J2, it’s fighting football and you never know what happens so we just have to keep fighting and we will see after the season.”

Leandro Domingues certainly adds to their arsenal, and having him in their corner undoubtedly increases Yokohama’s chances of still being involved when the last punches are being thrown.

18
Jul
17

J-League 2017: Cerezo Osaka Lead The Pack

We’re just over halfway through the 2017 J1 season, and newly-promoted Cerezo Osaka are the surprise pacesetters after 18 rounds of games.

Soccerphile, 18th July, 2017

There have been plenty of other talking points over the first four months in the top flight too, and I provided a brief recap of them for Soccerphile.

12
Jul
17

Sanfrecce start again

Hajime Moriyasu standing down marks the end of an era for Sanfrecce Hiroshima, but perhaps the timing was right for a change in the Big Arch dugout… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 12th July, 2017

They say a change is as good as a rest, and as J1 heads into a three-week break Sanfrecce Hiroshima will be doing both as they look to right their course in what has been a torrid season so far.

The Purple Archers – champions as recently as 2015, when they stormed to their third title in four years – have been in woeful form in the first half of the 2017 campaign, and ahead of the mid-season interval head coach Hajime Moriyasu decided enough was enough and fell on his own sword after the 4-3 defeat away to Urawa Reds on 1 July.

Having taken the decision to step down Moriyasu insisted the buck stopped with him for the run of results that has left Sanfrecce mired in the relegation zone, while the players in turn claimed the bulk of responsibility as theirs. Striker Anderson Lopes, for instance, said after the first game of the post-Moriyasu era away to Yokohama F.Marinos on 8 July that 90% of the culpability rested with those out on the pitch.

In actuality, the proportioning of blame is probably not necessary in this case, with it fairer to say that things between Moriyasu and Sanfrecce had instead just naturally run their course.

The 48-year-old had worked wonders in his five-and-a-half years at the helm since replacing Mihailo Petrovic, but with key players leaving every season and the spine of the team that did remain getting older each year the club seemed to be stuck in something of a repetitive cycle that neither coach nor players were able to snap.

In such cases, while perhaps not an easy decision, a change at the top is probably for the best. A fresh face in the dugout, new ideas, new training methods, chances for fringe players to stake a claim, and pressure on regulars to convince the new man in charge they deserve to keep their places in the side could all serve to reinvigorate the team once the league resumes at the end of the month.

Indeed, Sanfrecce’s next seven fixtures don’t look especially taxing on paper, with five teams in the bottom half of the table – Sagan Tosu, Vegalta Sendai, Ventforet Kofu, Omiya Ardija, and Albirex Niigata – plus Gamba Osaka, who Sanfrecce beat 1-0 in Suita on 7 April, and Jubilo Iwata, who they drew 0-0 with on 27 May.

If new coach Jan Jonsson can lift the team’s spirits and pick up a first home win of the season against Tosu on 30 July then they could well go on to build considerably on their current haul of just 11 points in the following half-a-dozen games.

Performances haven’t actually been as bad as results suggest, with the side still causing opponents plenty of problems going forwards, as Zlatan Ljubijankic noted after his Urawa Reds side battled back from 3-2 down to win 4-3 at Saitama Stadium in what proved to be Moriyasu’s final game.

“I don’t understand how Hiroshima is in this kind of situation because they are still a good team, they showed that today,” the 33-year-old, who made it 3-3 with his first touch after coming on as a 84th minute substitute, said.

Football Channel, Wednesday 12th July 2017

“It is difficult to play against them. But this comes; you don’t know the reason. If you knew it then you’d change and everything would be easier.”

In the end Moriyasu decided his departure could be that magic fix, but as Ljubijankic forecasted it didn’t bring about an immediate upturn in fortunes with Sanfrecce only able to draw their next match against Marinos under interim boss Akinobu Yokouchi.

“A game is 90 minutes plus injury time,” Kazu Morisaki said after the last-gasp defeat away to Urawa, in which Sanfrecce conceded twice just before half time before coming back to take the lead themselves with 18 minutes to go.

“Getting the first goal is vital, I think from now on we have to be looking to score first. We’ve always been conceding the first goal and having to battle back and that is tiring both mentally and physically.”

It was the same story against Marinos last weekend, with Sanfrecce unable to take their chances and then conceding themselves with just nine minutes to play. They battled back well though, and Hiroki Mizumoto feels the fact they were able to snatch a draw courtesy of Anderson Lopes’ 90th-minute equaliser provides a decent first step on the road to recovery.

“When you think about how things have gone so far this season getting a point at 1-0 down looked difficult but not one of us threw in the towel,” he said after that game at Nissan Stadium.

“We were able to come back and went and tried to get a second goal even though we were away. But when you look at the overall performance it is disappointing that we didn’t get all three points.

“The second half of the season is going to be a really tough battle. We had quite a lot of shots today but we need to make sure we are getting them on target and tighten up at the back.”

Scoring goals has certainly been something of an issue this season, in particular, as Morisaki pointed out, drawing first blood. Sanfrecce have only managed to get on the score-sheet first in four league games, with the win over Gamba the only one they have gone on to take maximum points from.

Even so, the 1-1 draw with Marinos ended their losing streak at four matches and offered a bit of respite heading into the break, with the further boost of new signings Daiki Niwa and Patric also likely to add some extra character to the side.

If Jonsson can come in and instil a bit of belief in his charges right from the off then all is certainly not lost for Sanfrecce, but confidence is dangerously low at the moment and needs to be retrieved as soon as possible.

07
Jul
17

Resurgent Reysol in the race

Kashiwa Reysol have been very impressive in the first half of the 2017 J1 season, and this year’s vintage share several similarities with the great Sun Kings side that swept all before them at the start of the decade…  (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Tribe, 8th July 2017

After four defeats in their first six J1 games it looked like 2017 was going to be a long season for Kashiwa Reysol, but a 2-1 win away to Vissel Kobe on 16 April sparked an eight-game winning streak and 10-game unbeaten run that was only halted last weekend when Kashima Antlers won a tub-thumping encounter 3-2 at Hitachi Dai.

Takahiro Shimotaira’s side gave as good as they got in that game, and had it not been for a couple of rare Kosuke Nakamura howlers it could easily have been them celebrating another three points and sitting pretty at the top of the table at the season’s mid-point. Instead, Cerezo initially leapfrogged them and then Antlers went top themselves following a 1-0 win over Gamba on Wednesday, leaving Reysol third.

Of course, whereas the two-stage system meant there was a benefit to being first after 17 games in the past two seasons the return to a regular format this year means it is irrelevant – all that matters is having the most points five months from now.

”Last year they were champions so we were the challengers here, but we can’t just be content with having put in a good performance,” right back Ryuta Koike said after the defeat to Kashima.

“In the end we lost the game and that is tied up with the difference in quality between the teams. After we equalised it was them who went on to get the winner. We had chances but couldn’t make them count and if we can’t improve our ability to decide and protect games – players at the front and the back – then I think the title looks quite a long way off.”

Koike knows what it takes to achieve success, having played in progressively higher divisions in each of his seasons as a professional since making his debut as for Renofa Yamaguchi in the Japan Football League (JFL) in 2014. Back-to-back promotions with Renofa were followed by a transfer to Reysol ahead of this season, and the 22-year-old is willing to take things one step at a time towards the next aim of becoming a J1 champion.

“We came into these two games against Kashima and Cerezo (this coming Saturday) with an awareness of how important they were, and as players we’d set the target of getting 70 points this season. This defeat is painful, but we are halfway through the season and still have the title within our sight. The next result will also have an effect on how things pan out for us and if we can still see a way of making it to our goal one way or another.”

Football Tribe, Friday 7th July, 2017

The side currently have 34 points – two adrift of Antlers and just one behind Cerezo – and there is certainly plenty to be positive about with this year’s vintage having more than a few echoes of the Nelsinho-led side that won every domestic trophy between 2010-13.

Nakamura was at fault for Antlers’ first two goals last weekend but has otherwise been a solid presence between the posts and a more than adequate replacement for the departed Takenori Sugeno, while Koike and Junya Ito’s combinations out wide have often been reminiscent of the surges forward made by Hiroki Sakai down the right flank six years ago.

While their styles are very different Cristiano offers the current side’s answer to Leandro Domingues, with both Brazilians top-grade forwards capable of deciding games on their own with a moment of individual skill.

Meanwhile, there remains a home-grown spine to the team with 32-year-old captain Hidekazu Otani still marshalling the midfield and partnered by another youth team product, Kohei Tezuka, who is 11 years Otani’s junior. There are a couple more Reysol-reared youngsters behind them, too, with Shinnosuke Nakatani (21) and Yuta Nakayama (20) occupying the two centre-back slots to good effect.

All of this has combined to produce a fantastic atmosphere at Hitachi Dai, and there are few better places to watch football than Reysol’s rickety old ground when it is full to the rafters and rocking to the local’s unique brand of support – as was the case for the win over Urawa Reds on 4 June and even the recent loss to Antlers.

“I didn’t really feel a big difference in quality, perhaps just with the final ball Kashima were a little better than us,” Ito said after that game. “Next we’ve got Cerezo and making sure we don’t lose two in a row is very important.”

Cristiano agreed on that front and likewise wasn’t overly concerned by Reysol’s first defeat in 11 games.

”I think it was a good game and what decided it was Kashima’s ability to finish their chances,” the 30-year-old said. “Kashima are a great team and now we just have to look ahead to the next match.

“The interesting thing about football is that games play out like that. Sometimes games you think you should have won you don’t, and other times games you don’t think you should have won you do. What is important now is just looking forward.”

A victory on Saturday over Cerezo would certainly serve as a welcome boost ahead of J1’s brief break, and if Reysol can pick up a head of steam again then there is no reason why they shouldn’t remain in the chasing back as the season picks up pace.

23
Jun
17

Marinos Sailing Smoothly

Yokohama F.Marinos have been doing it quietly, but the City Football Group-backed club are edging towards the top of J1… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 23rd June, 2017

Yokohama F.Marinos are J1’s form side and head into Sunday’s match against Vissel Kobe on a run of five games unbeaten, four of which, including their last three, have produced victories.

The club has climbed to fifth in the table as a result, five points behind leaders Kashiwa Reysol – who themselves are unbeaten in nine – and only three adrift of second placed Cerezo Osaka, who likewise haven’t lost in five.

Marinos’ most recent win was the late 1-0 away to FC Tokyo last weekend, which followed on from an impressive three points against Kawasaki Frontale – another side widely expected to be challenging at the top of the table again.

“1-0 is also enough, and I think we are learning a lot,” Quenten Martinus said after Jun Amano’s 88th minute strike decided the game at Ajinomoto Stadium. Even so, the Curacao forward knows the team can’t bask in the glory of a few good games and that they need to maintain a high level of performance.

“We need to be more consistent with our results and especially with [the way we are] playing. We need to grow – we cannot go down like this,” he plunged his hand down as if descending on a roller-coaster, “and then one time here,” he placed his hand at an invisible peak. “If you play not so good then play a six (out of ten) and then only better (than six). We need to do that more.”

That stance followed on from comments Martinus made earlier in the season, after the 1-1 draw with Albirex Niigata at Nissan Stadium in Round 4.

“If you want to be at the top of the league you cannot make these silly mistakes,” the 26-year-old said after Marinos had gifted Albirex an equaliser in a game the home side were dominating.

“They don’t make chances, they did nothing, and we created a lot of chances but we didn’t score them. Then you need to look at yourself and think for yourself. I think we need to speak about this, but we also need to keep on going because we also did a lot of good things.”

His teammate Milos Degenek was in full agreement on that front.

“I think that’s the big difference between top, top clubs and clubs who are all on the same level – if you use your chances,” the Australian said after that match on 18 March.

Football Channel, Friday 23rd June, 2017

“A big team needs only one or two chances in a game, and I think we kind of missed out on that today. I think this was a game we had to win because we did everything well and pretty much just didn’t score.”

David Babunski was similarly disappointed with Marinos’ failure to make their supremacy count against Albirex, but detected positive signs in the team’s beginning to the 2017 campaign and was optimistic they would only get better as the season wore on.

I think we had a fantastic start and then we faced a very strong team, Kashima where we also played quite good,” the Macedonia international said of the narrow 1-0 loss away to the reigning champions in Round 3. “I think we proved to ourselves that we could win, that we are ready to compete with any team, that we can be one of the top teams in the J.League.”

Ten games down the line and Marinos have certainly built on that promise, thanks in no small part to the influence of the overseas players brought in by City Football Group. Martinus, Degenek, Babunski, and Hugo Vieira have all made crucial contributions to the cause, but the team’s array of domestic talent has also caught the eye.

“I think we have a very, very, very talented team,” Martinus said after the recent win over Tokyo. “Some players are out now which is difficult for us, maybe we have to have a little bit of a bigger squad to cover that, but I think we have quality players and also young players who are very good.

“For example, Jun (Amano) – for me he can play easily in Europe, easily. He doesn’t play so much but he has a lot of qualities. I don’t know, maybe a lot of people don’t see it, but I train every day with him and he’s really, really good.

“His first touch, and he can turn with a man at his back so easily and not many people can do that. His left foot is also very dangerous; you saw in the last game how he gave the ball to me (with a cross that led to Hugo Vieira’s opener against Frontale), it was perfect. And he can do this a lot, with his free kicks also. If he just keeps on training then for me he can easily play in Europe, easily. In Holland for sure.”

For the time being Marinos will be content for him to keep his concentration on J.League duties though, and if Amano and co. can pick up another three points against Vissel this weekend it will certainly lay down a marker that the team is one to be reckoned with.

17
Jun
17

Honda central to Japan’s World Cup chances

Keisuke Honda was again used out wide in Japan’s recent World Cup qualifier against Iraq, but he needs to be moved to a more central role if the team is to get the best of him… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Tribe, 17th May 2017

If Japan want to qualify for the World Cup in Russia next year then Vahid Halilhodzic needs to make Keisuke Honda his main man in the centre of the park – either at No.10 or as one of the deeper lying midfielders.

The 31-year-old became something of a forgotten man during his wasted last season with Milan, but as he demonstrated with an excellent free kick in his farewell game at San Siro he is still more than capable of making important contributions at the business end of the pitch.

And against Australia at the end of August Japan will be in desperate need of someone to spark the team into life in the final third, needing all three points to book their ticket to Russia after a sluggish 1-1 draw away to Iraq.

The heat on Tuesday undoubtedly had an impact on the Samurai Blue – most of whom have just finished long seasons in Europe, where temperatures are nowhere near the 37 degrees in Tehran – but after 90 minutes mostly devoid of ideas it is vital that the team bounces back and comes out positively against the Socceroos in two months’ time.

Japan are already guaranteed of at least a place in the play-off and could still secure one of the automatic spots even if they draw or lose to Australia, but that would almost certainly require them to win their final Group B game away to Saudi Arabia, who, as per Dave Phillips (@lovefutebol) on Twitter, have suffered defeat at home in World Cup qualifiers just twice in the past 32 years.

The best way to ensure smooth passage to a sixth consecutive World Cup, then, is by harnessing what is sure to be an electric atmosphere in Saitama and taking the game to Australia, and there is no-one better equipped to drive this Japan team forward than Honda.

It would appear that his teammates know that too, and even though he was again stationed wide on the right against Iraq the majority of Japan’s attacks were built through him down that flank, further highlighting the strangeness of Halilhodzic’s refusal to arrange his three support strikers in their best positions.

Getty / Football Tribe

Yuya Kubo, for instance, demonstrated in the last pair of qualifiers against UAE and Thailand what a threat he can be driving inside from the right flank or running onto balls nudged in behind the defence, but he looked less comfortable trying to do the same on the opposite side, where surely Genki Haraguchi – who himself produced some excellent results from the left wing in last year’s qualifiers, scoring in four in a row – would have been more effective.

The Hertha Berlin forward was instead selected in an unfamiliar No.10 role against Iraq though, and he struggled to adapt to his more claustrophobic surroundings and was replaced with 20 minutes to go.

Surely, with Shinji Kagawa injured and Hiroshi Kiyotake left out of the squad Honda was the ideal candidate to play in behind Yuya Osako and try and pick holes in the Iraqi backline for others to capitalise on.

The stats bear that out too, with Honda making more passes (51) than Kubo (19) and Haraguchi (30) combined, and also receiving possession from a teammate more than any of Japan’s other attackers.

With Ange Postecoglou having introduced a new 3-2-4-1 formation Australia are looking decidedly unsteady at the back right now – only just squeezing past Saudi Arabia 3-2 in their last qualifier before being torn apart in a 4-0 friendly defeat to Brazil in their final game ahead of the Confederations Cup – and direct, powerful, and positive attacks right at the heart of that nervous back line could be the key to success against the reigning Asian champions.

Honda struck the decisive blow to send Japan to the last World Cup with a penalty in the 1-1 against Australia at Saitama in 2013, and Japan’s No.4 should be given the opportunity to dictate the game from a more central position against the same opponent in almost identical circumstances this year too.

History rarely repeats itself in football, and new heroes often appear from unlikely places – just ask Tadanari Lee, who slammed home the winner in the 2011 Asian Cup final (Australia the victim again) having only previously played a little over an hour’s football at the competition – but Honda has been Japan’s man for the big occasion for almost a decade now, and he still presents the best option to get the job done.




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