Timely test for Japan tyros

Japan have the rare chance to play some friendlies against truly top opposition this week, and Vahid Halilhodzic is right to use the occasion to try some untested players at this level… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, 10th October, 2017

Most of the headlines ahead of the upcoming friendlies against Brazil and Belgium focused on Vahid Halilhodzic’s decision to leave out Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda, and Shinji Okazaki, with doubts increasingly swirling as to whether the previously untouchable trio could be shock omissions from the World Cup squad next summer.

While the absence of three of Japan’s biggest names is certainly worthy of note, it is probably best to avoid reading too much into Halilhodzic’s team selection for this pair of games though, with the Bosnian already knowing what Kagawa, Honda, and Okazaki can (and can’t) do – especially in the case of the two Shinjis, both of whom are playing well and regularly at the highest level for their clubs.

There is certainly more of a question mark over Honda, with the 31-year-old having played a much less central role for his country over the past year and still settling into the Mexican Liga MX after only fairly recently completing his, rather surprising, move to CF Pachuca.

Again though, Halilhodzic is fully aware of what Honda does and does not bring to the table, and there seems very little point flying him halfway round the world for these games when fringe players can instead be tested against two of the sides tipped to do well in Russia next year.

The Samurai Blue boss recently claimed that only five or six players are certain of their places in the final 23, but if we assume he is bending the truth a little in order to keep his players on their toes then we can probably guess that around half the squad is already in pen in the 65-year-old’s notebook.

Eiji Kawashima, Hiroki Sakai, Maya Yoshida, Yuto Nagatomo, Makoto Hasebe, and Yuya Osako look like certainties, while Gotoku Sakai, Hotaru Yamaguchi, and Genki Haraguchi are also safe enough bets. If we add Kagawa, Honda, and Okazaki that takes us to 12 names (or 11.5; Honda may well be in thick pencil rather than pen), leaving a full 11 spots up for grabs and a huge pool of players competing to fill them.

The standout inclusion in goal this time is of course Shusaku Nishikawa, who is returning to the national team fold for the first time since he was dropped to the bench for the World Cup qualifiers against UAE and Thailand back in March.

Football Channel, 10th November 2017

The 31-year-old has had a difficult campaign marked with some fairly high profile errors, but Halilhodzic has clearly been impressed with his displays as Urawa Reds have progressed to the Asian Champions League final and he will be keen to show he is still the same goalkeeper who was No.1 for the side that completed the second round of Asian qualifiers without conceding a single goal in eight games (Kawashima and Masaaki Higashiguchi also contributed one clean sheet apiece).

In front of him the defence looks three-quarters set, although it is still far from clear who will partner Maya Yoshida at centre-back, with neither Tomoaki Makino or Gen Shoji having been able to install themselves as a must-pick in the absence of Masato Morishige. We should know a lot more about whether either/both have what it takes after testing themselves against the likes of Neymar and Romelu Lukaku.

The other three new faces in the squad are the players who seem to have been called up in place of Kagawa, Honda, and Okazaki.

Ryota Morioka, Kazuki Nagasawa, and Shinzo Koroki have all been playing well for their clubs of late, and it is far more beneficial to see if they can replicate that form in games against some of the best teams in the world rather than, for instance, calling them up for last month’s disappointing showings against New Zealand and Haiti.

Morioka has seven goals and eight assists in 14 league games as an ever-present for Waasland-Beveren of the Belgian first division, while Nagasawa has shone since being given more starting opportunities at Urawa after Takafumi Hori took over from Mihailo Petrovic – especially in the Champions League, where his experience of playing two years in Germany has been especially evident and he has looked perfectly at home physically and technically.

His Urawa teammate Koroki has also stood out yet again in J1 this year, making it to double figures for the sixth straight season and scoring 20 times in the league for the first time in his career, despite the fact that Reds are hovering around in mid-table and clearly now focusing the bulk of their energy on continental success.

All three are certainly options for Russia next year, but if they can’t hold their own against the likes of Brazil and Belgium then there is very little point giving them seats on the plane, as that is the level Japan will be up against next summer.

If they are able to perform, however, then Halilhodzic will have further options up his sleeve – although only he will know for sure if that is instead of or as well as Kagawa, Honda, and Okazaki.


Cerezo beat Frontale to first big title

My report from the 2017 Levain Cup final, where Cerezo Osaka beat Kawasaki Frontale to a first major title…

The Japan News, 5th November, 2017

SAITAMA – Goals at the very beginning and very end of a closely fought Levain Cup final delivered a first major honor for Cerezo Osaka on Saturday, as they beat Kawasaki Frontale 2-0 at Saitama Stadium.

Kenyu Sugimoto got the ball rolling for Cerezo after just 47 seconds – capitalizing on a mistake by Kawasaki defender Eduardo before beating Jung Sung Ryong – and Brazilian Souza added the gloss in stoppage time, rounding Jung and nudging home from close range.

While Kawasaki reacted well to going behind so early and had the bulk of possession over the 90 minutes they struggled to penetrate Cerezo’s well-drilled defense and made few clear chances.

“We managed to win this title without losing a single game, and I want to thank my players for such an outstanding achievement,” manager Yoon Jong Hwan said of Cerezo’s 13-game unbeaten run to the trophy.

“Today we created new history for Cerezo. The players know what they have to do to keep sailing smoothly forwards. If we are able to do that we can become a team to be feared.”

Neither Cerezo or Kawasaki had picked up any silverware as top flight clubs since the J.League began in 1993, but Sugimoto wasted no time drawing first blood for his side in front of 53,452 fans.

Yoichiro Kakitani flicked on a Yusuke Maruhashi throw-in from the left, which it looked like Kawasaki centerback Eduardo would have no problem clearing to safety.

However, the Brazilian got his footwork all wrong, miscuing completely and allowing the ball to bounce through for Sugimoto to coolly convert from inside the area.

The Japan News, Sunday 5th November, 2017

The Japan striker’s goal against his former side meant Cerezo were then under no obligation to force the issue, and while Kawasaki built attacks tidily they found clear chances hard to come by.

Koji Miyoshi was positive on the left wing and kept Cerezo fullback Riku Matsuda on his toes, but all too often found himself crowded out once in or around the penalty area.

Meanwhile, Shogo Taniguchi had a half chance in the 40th minute but headed over from inside the six yard box, and Kengo Nakamura was similarly inaccurate from close range two minutes later as he screwed an effort wide of Kim Jin Hyeon’s right-hand upright.

The flow of the game was largely unchanged after the break with Kawasaki almost constantly in possession but unable to break Cerezo down, although Yu Kobayashi drew some oohs from the crowd in the 56th minute as he acrobatically volleyed an Akihiro Ienaga cross off target.

Substitute Tatsuya Hasegawa curled an effort wide from 25 yards just past the hour mark as Kawasaki began to throw greater caution to the wind, but Hiroyuki Abe sent their final effort high and wide from outside the area in the 87th minute.

Five minutes later Souza wrapped up the win in style for Cerezo, rounding off a quick counter after an unselfish assist from Kota Mizunuma.

For Frontale manager Toru Oniki – a player in the first of Frontale’s three previous League Cup final defeats in 2000 – there was more regret as Kawasaki yet again finished as the bridesmaid.

“In the beginning we conceded after a mistake but after that I feel we controlled the game well,” he said.

“However, we continued to make passing mistakes and so on and never quite solved the problem of how to break through.”


Two horse race

The J.League title race is back on, with Kawasaki Frontale  having the bit between their teeth and looking set to push reigning champions Kashima Antlers  all the way… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, 27th October, 2017

A month ago the J.League title race appeared done and dusted as Kawasaki Frontale stumbled to a 0-0 draw away to Vissel Kobe and Kashima Antlers moved eight points clear at the summit after Naomichi Ueda’s 92nd-minute winner against Gamba Osaka.

Frontale have bounced back in some style though, wiping the floor with fellow high-flyers – and upcoming Levain Cup final opponents Cerezo Osaka – 5-1 the following week, and then completing a sensational comeback with three late goals in the space of five minutes to beat Vegalta Sendai 3-2.

In the meantime Kashima had offered a little encouragement with a 1-0 defeat to Sagan Tosu, and after Kawasaki cruised 3-0 past Sanfrecce Hiroshima this past weekend Antlers went down 3-2 away to Yokohama F.Marinos to blow the race back open with just four games to play.

The Kashima players were still talking a good game after that loss, despite the fact the gap is now down to just two points and they can’t afford any more slip-ups.

“I think we have the advantage; everything is dependent upon our results,” Kento Misao said.

“All the league games are down to us and I just want to focus on winning and not pay too much attention to that. If Kawasaki win every game and we win every game we will be champions so we don’t need to worry about it too much.”

That determination to win every match could be said to have been their undoing at Nissan Stadium, and if they had opted to sit a little tighter after coming from two goals down to make it 2-2 they could well have left with a share of the spoils instead of being caught on the counter late on and leaving empty handed.

Shoma Doi, however, insisted that was never an option.

“No, no, no; we weren’t looking at anything other than three points,” the team’s tricky forward said.

“The (fact we knew the) Kawasaki result didn’t have anything to do with that. If we don’t keep collecting wins then we can’t win the league. With hindsight of course you can say that 2-2 would be better, but it wouldn’t have been a surprise if we’d won 3-2 either.”

Be that as it may, two defeats in three games means the destination of the championship is far less clear now than it was a few rounds ago, and Doi thinks conceding first was the key cause of each loss.

“Both defeats were away, and letting in the first goal away from home is not good; it’s a big risk.”

Football Channel, Friday 27th October 2017

Misao agreed, and thinks Antlers need to start taking control of games themselves if they want to claim a ninth J.League shield.

“We have conceded quite a lot at the start of games, and have to overcome that together,” the 21-year-old, who has been an ever-present when available since Go Oiwa took over from Masatada Ishii in June, said.

“I think we’re the kind of team who play well with a cushion after opening the scoring, so it’s important we try to get the first goal and avoid conceding first in order to be able to continue well in games.

“We have a lot of players with experience (of winning the league), so at this time especially we need to all come together with them playing a key role.”

Daigo Nishi also feels Antlers’ title-winning pedigree gives the reigning champions the edge.

“I think it will definitely play a part,” he said. “We are in the race for titles every year and have developed within that pressure. I don’t know if you’d call that a gap (between us and Kawasaki), but we have confidence.”

The win for Marinos, meanwhile, moved them up into third place and while that still leaves them nine points adrift of Antlers David Babunski insists they too are intent on picking up all 12 points in the run in, and don’t want to let the chance of an ACL spot get away from them.

“I think we have a wonderful opportunity to win every match that’s remaining until the end of the season and stay in that third position,” the Macedonia international said.

“The good thing is that we depend on ourselves and it would be bad if we missed this opportunity.”

The Barcelona youth product was unable to pick a favourite for the title, but conceded that Kashima and Kawasaki are essentially now set for a two horse race – although he couldn’t resist a wry warning for the pair.

“Both have a lot of quality, they have fantastic players and styles of playing, and I think it will be very interesting and tight until the last match of the J.League – for them, and we are there behind them. They shouldn’t relax because we will be biting…”

A Marinos triumph would certainly represent one of the biggest shocks in the J.League’s 25-year history, but even without that it looks like once again the battle to become J1 champions will be going right to the wire.


Kobe coasting again

All eyes were on Vissel Kobe after a strong start to 2017 and the signing of Lucas Podolski, but as always they have flattered to deceive and ended up coasting through mid-table…

Football Channel, 20th October, 2017

The J.League is often praised for being an open and engaging competition in which almost any team from the top flight can become champions or, alternatively, suffer relegation.

Nine different clubs have won the title in the first 24 seasons of professional football in Japan, while of the 10 founding members only two have never been relegated (Yokohama F.Marinos and Kashima Antlers – who are far and away the most successful side, with eight league titles (possibly soon-to-be nine) to their name).

Within that open field, however, Vissel Kobe have quite impressively marked themselves out as the epitome of mediocre.

Since first gaining promotion to the top flight in 1997 the Kansai club have managed to finish in the top half of J1 just twice – coming ninth in 2011 and seventh overall in 2016 – and last year was the first time since 2008 they managed to end a campaign with a positive goal difference.

Their 20 years as a J.League outfit have produced two relegations, but on both occasions they bounced immediately back up and settled straight back into their unexceptional stride, finishing 10th and 11th on their returns to the first division.

An impressive end to last season – during which they put together a run of eight wins and only one defeat in their last 10 games – saw them finish just six points behind Urawa Reds as runners-up in the second stage, though, and it looked like this year they might finally be ready to mount the serious title challenge their spending over the years has demanded.

Rumours about the signing of Lucas Podolski (who ultimately joined mid-season from Galatasaray) added to the expectations on Nelsinho’s side heading into the 2017 campaign, and they seemed fully justified as they won their first four matches.

Defeat at home to Urawa on April Fools’ Day brought that bright start to an end though, and after that 3-1 reverse Vissel won just five of their next 17 matches – losing 10 of them, including the 1-0 away to FC Tokyo on 13 August that preceded Nelsinho’s sacking.

Results have picked up a little since then, and the side have lost just once in their seven games under the Brazilian’s replacement Takayuki Yoshida. Last weekend’s draw away to Urawa leaves them unbeaten in five league games, during which the starting eleven has been unchanged except for Kentaro Omori coming in for Junya Tanaka on a couple of occasions, including last Saturday.

Football Channel, Friday 20th October 2017

Even so, the end result looks like being the same as ever. After 29 games last season Vissel were ninth in the overall table on 43 points, having won 12, lost 10, scored 45, and conceded 39. This year after 29 games they are eighth on 41 points, have won 12, lost 12, scored 33 and conceded 33. Mid-table again with win/loss and goal differences of zero: averageness personified.

The recent 1-1 against Reds was typically unexceptional, and while they had slightly more possession (54%) and made more passes (638 to 562) they rarely posed any real threat to an opponent going through the motions ahead of their AFC Champions League semi-final second leg against Shanghai SIPG, mustering just seven shots to Reds’ 15, only four of which were on target.

Indeed, finding the net has been a big problem for the team this campaign, and they scored as many times in their 17 second stage games last year as they have in their 29 games so far this.

All that is despite the acquisition of Podolski, who announced himself with a brace on his debut against Omiya Ardija on 29 July but has found the net just twice since and frequently cut a frustrated figure.

The Germany legend has unsurprisingly been tasked with the role of key creator, and almost half of Kobe’s attacks were built down the right flank where he spent most of the game in Saitama.

However, despite the 32-year-old putting in a similar shift to that of Urawa’s main forward Shinzo Koroki – running 10.38km to Koroki’s 10.4 – and outdoing him with almost four times as many passes (63 to 17), the former Arsenal man was unable to make a telling contribution and it often seemed as though his teammates were struggling to find the same wavelength as the World Cup winner.

“I think we can do better; we can beat Urawa and other teams,” he said after the game.

“But don’t forget, it is now six or seven matches we didn’t lose (including the Emperor’s Cup), so I think we are the (form) team at the moment in the J.League. So it’s not everything bad like everyone thinks.”

That is fair enough, but ‘can do’ has been a constant refrain from Vissel over the years. With owners Rakuten really starting to flex their muscles in the global sporting arena the team need to turn the talk into titles soon; although this season will have to be written off as another one coasting through no-man’s land.


As it stands…

There are just a handful of games to go in both J1 and J2 and almost a full league of teams split across the two divisions scrapping to confirm which tier they will be competing in next year.

Soccerphile, 20th October, 2017

I looked at the lie of the land at the bottom of the first division and top of the second for Soccerphile.


Urawa increasingly at home in the ACL

Urawa Reds are 90 minutes away from a first ACL final in 10 years, and they demonstrated in the semi-final first leg against Shanghai SIPG how they are becoming increasingly at home amongst Asia’s best sides…  (日本語版はこちら)

Football Tribe, 18th October 2017

Urawa Reds showed in their 1-1 first leg draw away to Shanghai SIPG three weeks ago how they have grown in Asian competition over the past six months.

Last time Reds were in Shanghai for a 3-2 defeat in the group stage back in March they looked intimidated by Hulk and co., only really clicking into gear once they were 3-0 down and the hosts had switched onto auto-pilot.

This time, however, Takafumi Hori’s side looked up for the challenge from the off, and despite conceding in just the 15th minute to another bolt from the blue from Hulk they didn’t lose heart and stuck doggedly to their task.

They made sure not to give SIPG’s key creative talents any time to settle on the ball, applying pressure straight away and conceding a lot of fouls in and around the middle third of the pitch. Tomoaki Makino alone brought down Hulk four times – in truth the 30-year-old was rather lucky to finish the game without getting booked – while further efforts from range by the former Porto man were blocked before they could trouble Shusaku Nishikawa.

Yes, the Brazilian battering ram did manage to barge his way through on more than one occasion – leaving Makino for dead a couple of times, and Takuya Aoki dazed and confused for the goal – but that is to be expected. The likes of Hulk and Oscar demonstrated once again here that they are at a different level to any other players in Asia. Their strength, awareness, and mastery of the ball are unlike that usually encountered in the J.League or any other division in the continent, and you have to concede that there will be times when they will be close to unplayable.

However, that’s not to say you just give up and succumb to your fate, and Reds picked themselves up each time in order to make sure SIPG didn’t have as easy a ride as last time out.

The mental boost provided by first having beaten Shanghai 1-0 in the return group stage fixture and then the sensational comeback wins against Jeju United and Kawasaki Frontale in the Round of 16 and quarter-finals has undoubtedly played a part in that improvement.

Credit should also be given to Hori for the way he has tweaked the team’s system to make them tougher to break down and less susceptible to quick counters.

Football Tribe, Wednesday 18th October 2017

The switch from 3-4-2-1 to 4-1-4-1 has laid the foundations for that development, but it is not as simple as merely changing the set-up of the team – you need to change the way they approach games too.

The clearest way that was demonstrated in the first leg of the semi-final was the manner in which Reds used the ball when they had it. They made almost exactly the same number of passes in both games (421 in March, 431 at the end of September), but made sure to do so further away from their own goal in the most recent match.

In the group stage game the majority of Reds’ passing combinations were amongst players in their own half, as they looked to dominate the ball without any real penetration. They recorded 65.1% of possession in that match but left themselves vulnerable to quick breaks from SIPG when they lost it, whereas in the semi-final first leg they had just 53.1% of the ball but in far more advanced areas, with the front five players rather than the back five moving the ball amongst themselves.

They didn’t manage to create a terrific number of scoring chances, but what it did mean was that when Reds lost possession SIPG had a lot further to travel before they were able to make attempts at goal.

Indeed, 10 of the home side’s 21 attempts were made from outside the area, and while a few of them caused slight scares – not least Oscar’s 69th-minute free-kick that thudded off the post – you stand far more of a chance when the opponent is shooting from 25 yards rather than five.

What is key now is to maintain that confidence and take it into tonight’s second leg. Shanghai are vulnerable defensively and have kept just one clean sheet away from home in this year’s competition – and that was the 1-0 win over FC Seoul in their first group stage game back in February. In addition to that, Reds have been outstanding at Saitama Stadium this campaign, winning all five of their ACL games in front of their own fans.

The best way to keep that run going and guarantee a spot in the final is by playing without fear again in the second leg.


Same old issues haunt Halil Japan

Coventry City striker Duckens Nazon thinks Japan can do well at next year’s World Cup, but picked up on a couple of weaknesses as his two goals helped Haiti to a 3-3 draw against the Samurai Blue  in their recent friendly in Yokohama… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Tribe, 13th October 2017

After the high of qualifying for Russia 2018 with a game to spare at the end of August Japan have come back to earth with something of a bump after a 1-0 defeat away to Saudi Arabia followed by the recent narrow 2-1 victory over New Zealand and disappointing 3-3 draw with Haiti.

It should be kept in mind that none of those games carried any meaning for Vahid Halilhodzic’s side and that a lot of fringe players were given chances to show what they could do, but the looseness out on the pitch does raise concerns about a lack of strength in depth ahead of next summer’s finals.

The loss in Jeddah can perhaps be excused as Saudi Arabia needed a win to book their own place at the finals and an almost-full-strength Japan put in a decent showing, but the recent Kirin Cup outings highlighted issues in both defence and attack that will need addressing if the Samurai Blue want to make any kind of mark at their sixth consecutive World Cup.

“Playing games like this you know why teams like [Japan] play in the World Cup,” Haiti striker Duckens Nazon told me after his young side very nearly stunned an experimental Japan XI in Yokohama on 10 October.

“The level is very high. They can move the ball quick – every time they move, they move, they move; they never stop – so I am very proud of the result.

“We have played a lot of big teams before and I think they have really got a chance because they can move the ball. They play a lot of passes; they can move the ball quick and every time they move. This is the most important; it’s really difficult as a team to play against them.”

However, after a slow start from the visitors and some slick, direct, and effective attacking play from Japan had seen them establish a 2-0 lead the flow of the game started to change, with Haiti gaining more of a foothold and beginning to threaten themselves.

“We scored the second goal quite early and so we had an unusual amount of breathing space,” Masaaki Higashiguchi, given a rare start between the posts in place of Eiji Kawashima, said.

“Maybe we lost our level of tension a little, which led to their first goal. Then we weren’t able to get it back and became a little sluggish – I think that was everything.”

Nazon agreed on that front and felt that Kevin Lafrance’s close-range strike – prodded under Higashiguchi after he had managed to evade Yuki Kobayashi and Gen Shoji in the 28th minute – offered the Haitians all the encouragement they needed to complete their second half comeback.

Football Tribe, Friday 13th October, 2017

“I think the thing that saved us was the goal we scored in the first half,” the Coventry City striker said. “I think – I don’t know, because you never know in football – but if we didn’t score this goal it was going to be very difficult in the second half.”

As it was that goal knocked Japan’s confidence and they were pegged back to 2-2 just eight minutes after the break, Nazon converting a Carlens Arcus cross from just inside the area after a quick free-kick out wide had caught the hosts on their heels.

Despite the introduction of Yosuke Ideguchi and Shinji Kagawa before the hour mark Japan struggled to regain control of the game, and the next goal also went the way of Haiti as Nazon sent home a beauty from 25 yards after being allowed to cut inside and set his sights without any defenders making a challenge.

“I tried to do this kind of shot a lot of times in my club as well – you don’t have to think, just [take a] touch and I know where I want the ball to go.”

The lack of any pressure being applied in such a dangerous area is certainly a cause for concern, with the 23-year-old revealing it was an area he had identified as a weakness in Japan’s defence.

“I wasn’t really surprised because in the first half every time I tried to play forwards but I said in my head during half time ‘I’m going to drop in and try a couple of times, maybe I can have this type of shot’, and I succeeded.

“I watched just before and on the pitch is very quick, so when you think something you have to do it quick. You don’t have to think one minute, two minutes – quick. And I did it and it was great.”

That kind of spontaneity is what Nazon feels Japan lacked on the night.

“They try to do the same thing every time, but sometimes you don’t have to think – you just have the ball and make something and that can be good. But it looked like they have a tactic – I don’t know how to say it; they have to do like this, like this, like this – they cannot change, you know? I think they need a guy who is a little bit crazy in the head and can do something, you know? It’s like this. Football is like this.”

Although Japan ultimately had their blushes spared by Shinji Kagawa’s rather fortunate late equaliser, they certainly need to add a little ‘crazy’ in attack – and eliminate it in defence – ahead of the World Cup, and before that in next month’s friendlies against Brazil and Belgium.

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