Okubo brace helps Frontale roll

There were goals galore at Todoroki Stadium on Sunday, as Kawasaki Frontale beat Gamba Osaka 5-3 in J1…

The Japan News, Monday 5th October, 2015

KAWASAKI – Kawasaki Frontale kept itself involved in the race for the J.League second stage title on Sunday, with a rollercoaster 5-3 win over Gamba Osaka.

Yoshito Okubo claimed a brace, and Kengo Nakamura, Yoshihiro Nakano, and Elsinho also got their names on the scoresheet, while a Patric double and Shu Kurata volley for Gamba made for a pulsating game at Todoroki Stadium.

“It looked like the players were having fun but that was a tough game to endure from the bench,” Kawasaki coach Yahiro Kazama said with a wry smile postmatch.

Hard work or not, the victory lifted his team to fifth, five points adrift of second stage leader Sanfrecce Hiroshima who Frontale take on next.

“Of course there are teams ahead of us, but we still have to play some of those,” Kazama said. “We will just keep aiming to score goals and win games and see what happens.”

There were suggestions ahead of kickoff that Gamba was feeling the effects of Wednesday’s visit to China – where it lost the first leg of its Asian Champions League semifinal 2-1 to Guangzhou Evergrande – and last year’s treble winner certainly started sluggishly, touching the ball just once before going a goal down.

Nakano drove at and beat Koki Yonekura with some fine wingplay to break into the left-hand side of the penalty area, before rolling the ball across goal for the waiting Okubo to tuck home at the back post with just one minute and 12 seconds on the clock.

The host continued to dominate possession for the bulk of the first half, but conceded against the run of play in the 43rd minute.

Kawasaki Frontale coach Yahiro Kazama ahead of his side's 5-3 win over Gamba Osaka, Sunday 4th October 2015

Yasuhito Endo sent in an inswinger from the left, and Kawasaki ‘keeper Shota Arai lost track of the flight of the ball and could only knock it into the path of former Kawasaki striker Patric, who gleefully slammed home.

Parity wasn’t restored for long, however, and in the third minute of first half stoppage time Nakamura reestablished Kawasaki’s lead with an absolute bullet of a strike from 25 meters that cannoned in off Masaaki Higashiguchi’s right-hand post.

Within 10 minutes of the restart Kawasaki moved two goals ahead.

Nakano once again demonstrated his twinkle toes, dancing inside the Gamba penalty area and beyond Yonekura before dispatching into the bottom corner of Higashiguchi’s net.

That blow appeared to have done for Gamba, but Kenta Hasegawa’s team persevered and was back on level terms by the 71st minute. First of all Patric claimed his second with a thumping header after 66 minutes, before substitute Kurata volleyed home a Yonekura cross.

Yonekura undid his good work shortly afterwards, though, conceding a penalty after a despairing lunge on Shintaro Kurumaya.

Okubo calmly converted the resultant spotkick – moving clear at the top of the J1 scoring charts with 21 goals for the season in the process – to put Kawasaki 4-3 ahead, then turned provider for Elsinho to wrap things up with eight minutes to go.

“I had missed my last penalty, and had also missed one in a training match,” Okubo told reporters after the game.

“There was never any doubt that I would take it though, and I’m delighted it went in.”


J-League Season 2015: Play Offs Approaching

The J.League season is steadily approaching its climax, with five games plus the play-offs to go in J1…

Soccerphile, 2nd October, 2015

I offered a brief summary of the controversial new system and a few thoughts on how things might play out, in a new column for Soccerphile.


Late gift lifts Reds over Antlers

My report from Kashima today, where a Hitoshi Sogahata clanger gifted Urawa Reds a 2-1 win against Kashima Antlers

The Japan News, Saturday 26th September, 2015

KASHIMA – A howler from goalkeeper Hitoshi Sogahata dealt Kashima Antlers a setback in its bid for the J.League second stage title on Saturday, as he gifted Urawa Reds a 2-1 come-from-behind victory at Kashima Stadium.

Antlers had taken the lead in only the third minute through Yasushi Endo, but Toshiyuki Takagi pulled Reds level just three minutes later.

Sogahata then gifted Reds the three points in the 72nd minute, dropping a routine catch at the feet of Shinzo Koroki, who swept home the winner.

“It was a difficult game and I’m pleased that I got a lucky chance to score,” former Antlers striker Koroki said post-match.

“Each year coming to this stadium I feel that I struggle to show my best performance, and there was a sense of that today, too. However, I’m very pleased that we were able to get the win.”

The victory ensured that Reds stay top of the overall season rankings with five games to play, and also lifted them to third in the second stage table, five points adrift of leader Sanfrecce Hiroshima.

Kashima is now 17 points off the top in the combined table and lies three points behind Sanfrecce in the second stage.

The seven-time J.League champion had won seven of its last eight games coming into this match, and tore out of the traps in front of 29,030 raucous fans in Ibaraki.

After just three minutes Caio found himself in space on the left wing, made his way into the penalty area, and cut back for Endo to drill firmly into the top right corner of Shusaku Nishikawa’s goal.

Kashima Antlers 1-2 Urawa Reds, Kashima Saturday 26th September 2015

The host wasn’t ahead for very long, though, and just three minutes later Reds pulled level.

The build-up was similar to that for Antlers’ opener, with some nice interplay setting Tomoya Ugajin free on the left-hand side of the Antlers penalty area. Once in space the 27-year-old squared calmly to gift Takagi the easiest of tap-ins.

For the rest of the half Antlers dominated proceedings, and Masatada Ishii’s side could have gone in ahead at the break if Mu Kanazaki hadn’t been foiled by Nishikawa in a one-on-one at the end of the first half.

Kanazaki, who caused Reds problems throughout the 90 minutes, was ruing his accuracy in front of goal in the 58th minute as well, hammering a header onto the crossbar from close range after a Gaku Shibasaki free-kick.

Substitute Zlatan Ljubijankic fired a warning to show that Reds were still in the game a couple of minutes later, but his snapshot flew wide of Sogahata’s near post.

The veteran keeper wasn’t so lucky 12 minutes later, however, as he fumbled an Ugajin cross into the path of his former teammate Koroki to cost his side the match.

The defeat for Antlers enabled Sanfrecce Hiroshima to extend its lead at the top of the second stage table after a routine 5-1 win over hapless Shimizu S-Pulse.

Douglas and Hiroki Mizumoto both scored in the first half for Hiroshima, and although Chong Tese pulled one back for Shimizu just past the hour, Takuma Asano grabbed goals in the 75th and 80th minutes before Yoshifumi Kashiwa wrapped things up in stoppage time.


Paulinho hoping to change history for JEF

No-one expected JEF United to be hanging around for long in J2 when they were relegated in 2009, but six years down the line they are still scrapping to return to the top flight. Captain Paulinho is convinced that 2015 will be their year… (Also available in English here / 日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, September 26th, 2015

The leaves are changing, the rustic beers are on the shelves, and JEF United are scrapping for a place in the J2 Play-offs – make no mistake about it, it’s autumn in Japan.

Chiba have been relentlessly consistent over their five seasons in the second division, always there or thereabouts in the race for promotion, but always somehow contriving to find a way not to return to J1.

Last year, for instance, Takashi Sekizuka’s side were 7th after 33 games, two points outside of the play-off places with a win, a loss, and a draw from their last three games. This year after 33 games the side are 7th, two points outside of the play-off places with a win, a loss, and a draw from their last three games.

Indeed, despite boasting facilities, staff, and a supporter base worthy of J1 JEF have never dominated the second tier in the manner in which they should, and have always been in the also-ran positions as the season enters its sprint finish.

In 2013 they sat 5th with nine games to go, the year before – the first year the play-offs were introduced – they occupied 4th, while their first two seasons in J2 – when there were no play-offs and the top three earned automatic promotion – they were 5th after 33 matches.

For each of the past three seasons, however, by hook or by crook the club has secured a play-off berth – although the heartbreak suffered in the post-season fixtures – exiting at the hands of the side ultimately promoted on all three occasions, twice in the final – probably means some supporters wish they’d missed out entirely and are petrified of what may happen if they finish 3rd-6th again this year.

Captain Paulinho insists a similar fear is forbidden amongst he and his teammates, though, and is demanding no nervousness this time around.

“It’s not acceptable if there is any sense of that,” he said after Wednesday’s 2-0 win over his former side, Tochigi SC.

“We are here to change that history. From the time I decided to become a JEF player that’s what I’ve been thinking, I’ve had the feeling of changing JEF’s history. I’m sure you know as well, you’ve seen a lot of Japanese football, that JEF is not a club that should be in J2.”

The 26-year-old refused to be drawn on what, if anything, was different about the 2015 vintage to ensure safe passage back to the top flight, but made it clear that self-belief was vital.

JEF 2-0 Tochigi - Wednesday 23rd September, 2015

“I’ve been asked that question on other occasions, but it’s difficult for me to answer,” he said.

“If I were to speak about things at JEF before I came here it would be unfair to the people who were working at the club then. I can’t comment about JEF in the time before I came here, but I can comment about things from now on and this year, so I can say for sure that everyone here has the target of earning promotion to J1 and is working hard to achieve that aim.

“It’s very important to have confidence. In today’s game we were able to get our confidence back and I think that will enable us to fight well from here on in. J2 is a very difficult league and it is vital to have confidence if you want to be successful.

“Until now, too, even when we haven’t produced the results it hasn’t necessarily been because we played badly, but perhaps our confidence has been knocked a little. Today we’ve been able to gain confidence and that will help us going forward.”

They will certainly have their spirit tested in their next game, as they travel to Saitama to take on league-leaders Omiya Ardija – who despite sitting 13 points clear in the automatic promotion places have themselves been through a bit of a sticky patch of late, going four games without a win before Wednesday’s last-gasp 1-0 triumph away to another side hustling for a play-off spot, Tokyo Verdy.

Of course, in the play-offs momentum and spirit can often overcome raw ability, and Paulinho is aware that as well as picking up points from their remaining games JEF need to be doing so in style if they want to ultimately triumph.

“The result and the performance are both important,” he said. “If we can play well and get the win then we will build confidence. We have nine games left, we have to become one and fight together. Whether we make it to the play-offs or not will depend on how well we are able to do that.

And the captain is unwavering when asked if he believes his team has what it takes to make a return to the first division.

“Absolutely. We have a coach with experience and great players. I think we have everything we need in order to earn promotion.”

Of course, that has also been the case for the past half-a-decade. Whether this year’s team has what it takes to succeed where previous squads have failed will become clear over the next two months.

Of course, that has also been the case for the past half-a-decade. Whether this year’s team has what it takes to succeed where previous squads have failed will become clear over the next two months.


Genki feeling genki

Genki Haraguchi brought an element of unpredictability to Japan in the recent World Cup qualifier against Afghanistan, and giving a player that freedom may be just what Vahid Halilhodzic needs to do… (Also available in English here日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, September 19th, 2015

It is hard to read too much into Japan’s recent World Cup qualifier wins over Cambodia and Afghanistan.

Yes, after the shock 0-0 against Singapore back in June it was a relief to see the Samurai Blue remembering where the goal is and picking up a comfortable six points in the process, but overcoming two of Asia’s weakest sides (ranked, for what the FIFA ranking system is worth, 180th and 130th, respectively) is merely a resumption of regular service.

Each qualification process contains its drubbings (last time out, for instance, Tajikistan and Jordan were swatted aside 8-0 and 6-0), but once the finals roll around Japan stutter and stall, unable to adjust to the superior opposition in front of them and the expectations heaped upon them.

Before Tuesday’s jaunt against Afghanistan, the hammering of Tajikistan in Osaka in October 2011 was the last time that Shinji Kagawa scored two goals in a game for his country. Shinji Okazaki, as he just did in Tehran, also found the net twice at Nagai Stadium four years ago. The more things change, the more they stay the same…

Bearing that in mind, proclamations of Kagawa’s return to supremacy may be slightly premature. There are signs that he is beginning to shake off the fug that has enveloped him for the past couple of years, and it is promising that he appears to be re-asserting himself as a key player for Borussia Dortmund, too: when he is happy he is confident; when he is confident he can be a joy to watch.

However, a couple of goals against canon-fodder is not the yard-stick against which Kagawa should be measured, and for him to truly achieve his potential he has to become a game-changer once the chips are down and the world is watching.

Indeed, game-changers have been sorely lacking for Japan for longer than most care to remember: you know, those players capable of sparking excitement with a quick turn of pace or change in direction; of creating a chance when none seemed on; of scoring when a goal wasn’t an option. There are few things more exhilarating than seeing such players in action, and of late Japan fans haven’t exactly been spoiled on that front.

Mu Kanazaki (in his previous incarnation as a head-down-and-run-at-the-fullback winger at Oita Trinita), Takashi Inui, Yoichiro Kakitani, Manabu Saito – there have been a few dribblers given chances with the Samurai Blue, but none of them have been able to establish themselves as must-picks.

The reason for that often seems to be because they don’t fit into the team ethos – that they lack the tactical discipline to play ‘Japan’s style’, to operate as part of the team. And perhaps that is what has been holding the side back. Perhaps giving somebody free-reign is what the team needs.

Instead of having to merge, chameleon-style, into the team’s rigid, possession-based approach, including a maverick to roam as he pleases – with a license to try the unexpected to put the opponent on the back foot and bring a new dimension to Japan’s attacks – could be just what the doctor ordered.

Genki Haraguchi’s performance against Afghanistan certainly demonstrated the merits of such an approach.

The 24-year-old is another who has been given opportunities in the past but flattered to deceive. That couldn’t be said of his performance against Afghanistan, though, when he looked sharp, decisive, and determined to make the most of his rare start.

He made his mark after just 10 minutes, jinking inside from the left wing when nothing seemed on, catching the Afghanistan defensive line out and creating the space and shooting opportunity from which Kagawa opened the scoring with a fine drive. That early contribution provided a boost of confidence which didn’t leave him over the next 80 minutes, and each time Haraguchi was in possession he was direct, aggressive, and not afraid to take risks.

Of course, he wasn’t entirely devoid of responsibility to the structure of the team, and whether he is capable of reprising or expanding upon the role against tougher opponents remains to be seen. His coach was certainly pleased with what he saw of the former Urawa Reds forward, though, and despite Yoshinori Muto and Takashi Usami both coming on in the second half, Haraguchi wasn’t asked to make way and completed the game.

Halilhodzic appears to be a coach who encourages trying something different – he spent much of the build-up to these qualifiers urging his players to shoot on sight – and may just be tempted to introduce a wild-card to the set-up more regularly.

Whether that is Haraguchi will ultimately depend on the form and fitness of the Hertha Berlin player. His vewire performance will certainly have given Halilhodzic some food for thought, however, and the Bosnian could do far worse than trust in a spot of tactical indiscipline.


Samurai Blue left wanting after win

Japan cruised past Cambodia in their recent World Cup qualifier, although the result and performance still left a lot to be desired…

The Japan News, Friday 4th September, 2015

SAITAMA – After something of a lean spell, Japan got back to winning ways on Thursday night, although there was a slightly underwhelming feel to the 3-0 victory over Cambodia at Saitama Stadium.

The Samurai Blue came into the World Cup qualifier without a win in four games, and the expectation was that Vahid Halilhodzic’s players would emerge from their funk with a scoreline more befitting of baseball than soccer against the team ranked 180th in the world.

While the result was ultimately an upgrade on the 0-0 stalemate with Singapore at the same venue in the side’s last qualifier back in June, Keisuke Honda conceded that he and his teammates still have plenty of room for improvement.

The AC Milan star opened the scoring with a snapshot from 20 meters in the 28th minute, before Maya Yoshida and Shinji Kagawa both found the net in the second half.

Honda’s opener seemed to have been struck more in frustration than expectation, with Japan bossing possession but not creating any clear sights on goal in the opening exchanges – as had been the case at the recent East Asian Cup, which produced two draws and a defeat.

“Honestly, I didn’t think it would go in but thought maybe it could cause something from the second ball,” Honda told reporters after the game.

“We have to increase the number of attempts we make, and that is something that has been an issue for the Japan national team for a long time.”

Shots from long-distance were one of Halilhodzic’s demands ahead of the game, and while he was pleased that both Honda and Yoshida’s goals were struck from range he still wants more from his side.

Indeed, the coach’s histrionics in his technical area were often more exuberant than the fare on the pitch, with the Bosnian regularly expressing irritation at his players’ hesitancy to try their luck from outside the penalty box.

Japan v. Cambodia, Thursday September 3rd, 2015

“I also wanted the two defensive midfielders to shoot more often,” he explained. “I want progress in various areas from this team.”

One scene which provoked particular disbelief from the coach and the 54,716 fans in attendance was an open goal that Kagawa somehow failed to convert in the 42nd minute.

“We need more calmness in front of goal – even Kagawa wasn’t calm today when he needed to be,” Halilhodzic observed. “But this will also improve, I am optimistic.”

Kagawa – who has been in fine form of late for his club Borussia Dortmund, claiming four goals and three assists in five games – held his hands up after the match and conceded that he should have done better.

I was too cautious and stiff,” he said. “That kind of miss isn’t acceptable.”

Thankfully he was able to make up for his lapse by coolly slotting home when another opportunity came his way in the 61st minute.

“I missed a chance that I absolutely should have scored in the first half so I was relieved to score,” he added of his first goal for the national team since he struck in the 2-0 win over Jordan at the Asian Cup on Jan. 20.

While Honda is hopeful he and his teammates can gradually add more to their armory, he was keen to sound a note of caution about attempting to change too much at once.

“Soccer isn’t always about trying new things, and there is a danger that if we start to work at something new then we will lose the ability to do what we are good at,” the 29-year-old said.

“We have to try and keep doing what the players we have now are capable of, while also trying to take more shots from range and so on in order to increase the amount of fear teams feel when they play us.”

The next step in that process comes on Sep. 8, when Japan take on Afghanistan in Iran.


Asia’s Arsenal

J.League clubs are routinely praised for their play-style, organisation, and philosophies – but they don’t actually win anything. Are they Asia’s answer to Arsenal? (Also available in English here / 日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, August 29th, 2015

There was a point towards the end of Sir Alex Ferguson’s all-conquering reign at Manchester United when the fiery Scot’s stance towards Arsene Wenger and his Arsenal team changed drastically. Praise for the way the Gunners played and ability of their coach and players replaced the sniping and accusations that had underlined the period between 1997 and 2003, when the two had constantly been at loggerheads as they dominated the Premier League.

For many in England this was not a sign of Ferguson mellowing as he neared retirement, but purely a signifier that he no longer saw the side from north London as a threat. Indeed, since the famous ‘Invincibles’ season in 2003-04 Arsenal have not won the league, while United managed to endure the challenges of newly-rich Chelsea then Manchester City to claim a further five titles before Ferguson opted to step down in 2013.

For the best part of the last decade J.League teams have fulfilled the ‘Arsenal’ role when it comes to Asian football – with Japanese sides constantly earning praise for the way they play, but failing to win the ACL since 2008, when Gamba succeeded Urawa Reds as the continental champions.

This point was highlighted on Tuesday night at Hitachi Stadium, as China’s Guangzhou Evergrande cruised past a lacklustre Kashiwa Reysol to all but confirm their place in the semi-finals with 90 minutes still to play.

There were suggestions in some quarters that Reysol were unlucky to lose 3-1, with attention being drawn to the fact that all three of Evergrande’s goals came from set-pieces – one of which was an utterly unstoppable effort from a player who a little over a year ago was playing for Brazil at the World Cup.

Kashiwa’s defeat was far more comprehensive than that, though, and from the hour-mark on – by which point the visitors were 3-0 up – Guangzhou were coasting in second gear. Yes, their goals had perhaps been a little fortuitous and they didn’t look quite as sharp a unit as Marcelo Lippi’s team which swept to the title in 2013, but the fact of the matter is they didn’t need to be.

Ahead of Kashiwa Reysol 1-3 Guangzhou Evergrande, Tuesday 25th August, 2015

Although the sides were evenly matched in terms of possession (Reysol with 49% to Guangzhou’s 51%) Kashiwa were outclassed from the first minute to the last, and the difference in quality, concentration, and, most importantly, intensity, was evident from the kick-off.

The home side kept the ball well but never looked like they were going to make a breakthrough, while Luiz Felipe Scolari’s four-time defending CSL champions were far more proactive and incisive when on the attack. If, as had been the case when Reysol took the lead in the infamous 4-1 home defeat to Guangzhou in the 2013 semi-final, the visitors had really needed to score more goals they always gave the impression of being willing and able to go for them.

Then, post-match, Scolari delivered the by-now customary praise for the Japanese opposition which had just ushered his team one step closer towards the final.

“I think they are the strongest opponents I have faced in my 12 games in charge of Guangzhou,” the Brazilian said. “The Kashiwa head coach managed the team very well, they applied a lot of pressure and the team played good football.

“When I was in charge of Bunyodkor we played Pohang Steelers and at that time South Korean teams were probably the strongest in Asia,” he continued. “I feel that the progress of Japanese football has been great in these four or five years. Gamba Osaka are also in the quarter finals and I feel that the progress is great – the national team has also made it to five consecutive World Cups. My job in China is to produce results like Japan have achieved over the past 10 years.”

That’s all very nice, and the development of Japanese football has been – and continues to be – impressive. While the foundations for Guangzhou’s success have been built on cash, Chinese football as a whole is getting itself into shape to compete on a far wider scale, however, and a coach as experienced and demanding as Scolari also knows that the most important thing is who wins, and that his job is not just to help Chinese football develop but to deliver trophies.

Of late Japanese teams aren’t a threat on that front, and if J.League teams don’t learn how to add the grit and killer instinct necessary to overcome increasingly competitive opposition then they won’t be for some time yet.

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