28
Dec
18

Abe more than able

Hiroki Abe enjoyed a breakout season for Kashima Antlers this season, and looks like he has everything in place to become a truly top player… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, Friday 28th December, 2018

From time to time a player emerges in the J.League who looks like the real deal.

Every year, of course, there are those who show potential, who hit purple patches of form and raise the hopes of their club’s fans, but all too often these players struggle to build on those early flashes, failing to add the tools they require to move to the next level.

On occasion though, a youngster appears with everything already in place – in need of fine-tuning and improving, of course, but the ingredients are there – and Hiroki Abe is one of those players.

When I arrived in Japan a decade ago a 17-year-old Takashi Usami was making waves at Gamba Osaka, in 2014 it was fresh-from-university Yoshinori Muto dominating for FC Tokyo and attracting the attention of Europe’s biggest clubs, and this season Abe has shown similar ability at Kashima Antlers.

The 19-year-old hasn’t possessed the same goalscoring threat as either Usami or Muto, but the way he carries himself out on the pitch shows he is already fully at ease playing for the best team in Asia and more than capable of becoming a player who can decide games.

The esteem in which he is already held at Kashima was demonstrated when he flew back from Indonesia having helped Japan U-19s qualify for next year’s U-20 World Cup and was put straight into the starting line-up for the first leg of the ACL final against Persepolis, not letting his coach down and playing a vital role as the team claimed a crucial 2-0 victory.

Abe didn’t look the least bit intimidated by the occasion and caused his Iranian opponents all manner of problems, looking to carry the ball forward at every opportunity and always trying to make something happen.

Similarly to when both Usami and Muto were breaking out, there is a swell of expectation in the stadium when Abe gets on the ball, and his desire to play proactively drew five fouls in his 69 minutes on the pitch, while he also recorded an 88.2% accuracy rating with his passes in the opponent’s half (87% overall).

“We all knew this wasn’t going to be an easy game, but we had confidence that whether we were put under pressure or however the game went that we could keep our concentration and persevere, and I think we showed that here,” he told the-AFC.com after the game.

“When [Persepolis] brought more of a mental game we made sure we didn’t break, and I think we were able to outdo the opponent in that respect, which also became a factor in the win.”

Football Channel, 28th Dec 2018

As mature and composed off the pitch as he is on it, the Tokyo native added that far from being nervous about the upcoming second leg he was instead relishing the opportunity to play in front of 100,000-plus fans in Tehran.

“As professional sports players it’s unacceptable not to play to the best of our ability in front of supporters,” he said. “As players we have to show strength worthy of that stage, and I’m looking forward to it.”

After seeing the job through in the Azadi, Abe and Kashima booked their place as Asian representatives in this month’s Club World Cup, where the youngster again took no time to make an impression.

While it was his fine goal in the quarter-final against C.D. Guadalajara that earned this year’s J.League Young Player of the Year all the headlines, it was something he did one minute earlier that reinforced the fact that this is a player with a real sense for the game.

With things still delicately poised at 2-1, a Kashima attack in the 83rd minute broke down and Guadalajara midfielder Orbelin Pineda strode forwards with the ball looking to launch a dangerous counter attack. Many young players would have made an honest attempt to try and win back possession in that situation but Abe, wise to the danger, knew the odds were against him and didn’t hesitate to take one for the team, committing a clear foul and picking up a yellow card but ensuring Antlers were still in charge of their destiny – which he himself made sure of 60 seconds later when he arced that perfect strike beyond the despairing dive of Raul Gudino.

Abe had only come on as a substitute against Guadalajara, but after playing a pivotal role in turning that game in Kashima’s favour he was back in the eleven for the semi-final against Real Madrid, and while the team struggled to offer much resistance against Gareth Bale and co – paying the price for some lax defending right before and soon after half time to find themselves 3-0 down – he continued to run at Dani Carvajal at any opportunity, chasing and harrying from the front right until the final whistle.

Although Kashima again finished on the wrong side of the result in their next game against River Plate, the 4-0 scoreline flattered the Argentinians – Antlers hit the bar three times and conceded the third and fourth goals in the 89th and 93rd minutes – and Abe was again a constant threat with the ball at his feet, reinforcing the fact that his aim is not just to appear on the biggest stages but to make an impact on them.

If he continues to develop as he has done this season then those days are sure to come sooner rather than later.

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12
Dec
18

Oliveira brings Midas touch to Urawa

Urawa Reds won the Emperor’s Cup this past weekend, and as well as booking their place in next year’s ACL the triumph also added another medal to the impressive collection of the man with the Midas touch, Oswaldo de Oliveira… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, Wednesday 12th December, 2018

When it comes to winning titles in Japan there are few, if any, who have exhibited quite as ruthless a streak as Oswaldo de Oliveira.

The Brazilian ended all five of his years in Kashima with his hands on a trophy, claiming three J.Leagues (2007, 2008, 2009), two Emperor’s Cups (2007, 2010), and a J.League Cup (2011), and after just eight months in Saitama he has kept up his record of ending every season here with a piece of silverware by leading Urawa Reds to their first Emperor’s Cup since 2006.

Speaking with his latest medal hanging proudly around his neck in the Saitama Stadium press conference room after Urawa’s 1-0 win over Vegalta Sendai on Sunday Oliveira didn’t look anything approaching his 68 years, and the glint in his eye suggested his appetite for glory has been fuelled rather than satiated by this year’s triumph.

“This emotion is something I tasted before and now I’m renewing (that feeling),” he said with a satisfied grin. “This makes me very happy.”

He was also optimistic when asked if he felt lifting the Emperor’s Cup could energise Urawa in the same way the league and Emperor’s Cup double in his first season in Ibaraki set the wheels in motion for Kashima’s golden patch under his charge a decade ago.

“I hope so. That’s why I work very, very hard to try and repeat at least some of that. I breathe when I win. I work to win, this makes me more young!”

With Reds sitting ninth in J1 when he took over after nine games of this season the league title was always going to be a tall order in 2018, but Oliveira insisted that he had been driving home the importance of the Emperor’s Cup to his players since the start of the tournament.

“All the time since the first match in the Emperor’s Cup I showed them the way – “We have to win this competition, because this is the passport for the next season’s ACL”,” he explained of his approach.

“This is something I’m working for. I played (in the ACL) four times before and I never hit the final, and I will try my best next season, really.”

To achieve that aim the former Corinthians boss wants to add more depth to the squad, although he feels he has a strong core to work with and has been impressed with the effort of the players since his arrival.

Oliveira Urawa, 12th December 2018

“They are very disciplined, very obedient, they try to do their best. They come early for training, so they do everything I ask and that’s why we could win today.”

Yuki Abe was singled out for special praise, and after shining in the back three in the absence of the injured Mauricio the 37-year-old was full of admiration for his manager as well.

“He reinforced the fact that we have to do all the things required of us, that it is unacceptable not to do so,” Abe said of Oliveira’s arrival in Saitama.

“He picked up on all the things that weren’t working so well in the team, and is the kind of coach who makes sure that his ideas soak in for everyone. He came in during the season and I’m sure there were some difficult things, but it’s great that now we’ve ended the season in this way by winning.”

Despite his enviable record of collecting titles Oliveira was coy when asked if he possesses a particular ‘winner’s’ characteristic – merely chuckling and saying, “I do my best” – but he did stress that players need to have the right attitude if they want to join him in picking up trophies.

“Mentality is the base. Many times I worked with players with fantastic ability, technique, individuality, but if he is not strong in the mind, if he doesn’t have enough confidence, he is like zero. So it is something we have to work on with the players. If he is good he (gets) better, if he has confidence (then) what can he do.”

In order to help motivate the team and inspire that confidence the coach took the unusual step of inviting Urawa’s fans to attend training the day before the semi-final and final of the Emperor’s Cup, engendering a sense of togetherness between them and the players.

“Our supporters are fantastic, the number and the quality,” he explained of the idea. “We have to bring these people closer to us. Because surely if they act like they have done, if they are near the players the players will get this enthusiasm. That’s why I tried to bring them closer and closer to pass to the players this enthusiasm, this confidence – to show the players how they love the team.”

It certainly worked this time, and few would bet against the fans also developing plenty of affection for the man with the Midas touch in the coming years as well.

28
Nov
18

Play to win

Higher-ranked clubs are offered plenty of advantages in the J2 play-offs, but Omiya Ardija have become the latest side to learn that the incentives don’t always work in a team’s favour… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, Wednesday 28th November, 2018

The format is far from straightforward, the teams taking part are often still recovering from having missed out on automatic promotion, and those given advantages frequently fail to seize them, but the J.League play-offs never fail to provide wonderful drama to round off the season.

Forty-two games’ worth of J2 football are boiled down to anxious, live-or-die 90 minute contests, and the first instalment of this year’s series – extended to an even longer-winded system to include the 16th-placed team in J1 – provided yet another addition to a growing catalogue of match-ups that will live long in the memory.

Despite finishing higher in the table and thus having the benefit of only needing a draw to progress, Omiya Ardija became the latest side to slip-up in the post-season knockings as they went down 1-0 at home to 10-man Tokyo Verdy on Sunday.

“We needed a draw but we couldn’t do it – it’s frustrating,” Omiya striker Robin Simovic said after the loss. “We didn’t play good at all. Tokyo destroyed us today, so I think they deserved to go through.”

The Swede, sent on as an 81st-minute substitute as Masatada Ishii’s side searched for an equaliser, continued by bemoaning the hosts’ lack of intent.

“We didn’t really know what to do – it felt like they controlled the game totally and we were passive, and it’s dangerous to be passive. We can’t play like we only need a draw, we have to go for the 1-0 and then we can come back (and play more defensively). But we didn’t do this, and that’s why it became like this and now we are angry, everybody.”

Omiya started the season as one of the teams expected to challenge for promotion to the top flight having been relegated from J1 in 2017, but started slowly back in the second tier and only won one of their first five games and two of their first nine.

Thanks largely to the goals of Genki Omae – who finished as the division’s top scorer with 24 strikes – they kept themselves in the hunt though, and with five games to play they were just three points behind second-placed Oita Trinita. A three-game winless run then put paid to any chance of automatic promotion, however, and they only booked their place in the play-offs on the final day of the season when they edged Fagiano Okayama 1-0 and Avispa Fukuoka slipped to a 0-0 draw away to FC Gifu.

Rather than being reinvigorated by that last-gasp recovery the team started incredibly reactively against Verdy, seemingly happy to let the visitors boss possession and wait for chances to break on the counter. This was a risky strategy to adopt despite knowing a draw would see them progress – although it wasn’t hugely different to the safety-first approach they had used for most of the season, and they were clearly banking on Omae and his fellow forwards to come up with the goods with the team having only failed to score in one of their previous 27 league games.

Football Channel, 28th November 2018

Verdy, meanwhile, gleefully seized upon Omiya’s hesitancy and assumed control of the contest from the very first whistle, pressing eagerly from the front and clearly boosted by the confidence that came with having the second best defence in J2 this year, which conceded just 41 times.

“They applied far less pressure than I was expecting and were kind of loose, which made it quite easy to play,” Verdy midfielder Kota Watanabe said of Omiya’s hesitant stance. “In training this week we had been working on dealing with their pressure from the front, so the way they played wasn’t what we’d expected.”

Ri Yong-jik also felt Omiya were affected by the fact they didn’t need to win the game to progress to next week’s clash against Yokohama FC.

“Maybe that was difficult for them, in terms of whether they should try and attack or not,” he said. “That ultimately led to them dropping back, which made it easier for us to keep the ball.”

Brazilian forward Mateus was adamant Omiya’s aim wasn’t to play for a draw, but conceded the team’s submissive stance ultimately cost them.

“None of the players individually or the team as a whole came into the game aiming for a draw, and the plan was to try and win the same as always,” the 24-year-old said. “We wanted to press more from the front and deny the opponent freedom on the ball, but we were unable to click into gear in that respect and it’s really disappointing that we surrendered the initiative.

“We came into the game with the advantage of being at home and only needing a draw, but I think the fact we started by sitting too deep unfortunately became a factor in the defeat.”

The stipulation that entitles higher-ranked teams to play at home and only need a draw is criticised yearly by players, and while Simovic insisted it wasn’t the cause of Omiya’s elimination he was the latest to question the rule’s validity.

“I don’t think (it made the game) difficult, but it’s a very strange rule,” he said. “It’s not supposed to be like that. It should be a winning game, you can’t draw and go through; that’s a crazy rule.”

On the other hand, the Verdy players were largely in agreement that the system had worked to their advantage rather than Omiya’s – and were hopeful it would continue to do so in the next two games as well.

“For us it’s simple,” Ri said. “We don’t have to think about a draw being enough, and know that we just have to win. In that sense we can just play in the same way as we always do for regular league games.”

Watanabe agreed and was already looking ahead to facing Yokohama under the same regulation.

“We don’t have any pressure at all,” he said. “If we play like we did today then I have confidence we can win.”

16
Nov
18

Antlers ascend to Asian throne in the Azadi

Kashima Antlers were crowned kings of Asia in style last weekend, braving the famed Azadi Stadium atmosphere to seal their maiden continental crown…  (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, Friday 16th November, 2018

Buttocks.” The middle-aged nurse turned around and grabbed his cheeks to make sure I’d understood correctly.

It had come to this, then. After covering 14 games in this year’s ACL, enduring an anxious wait for an Iranian visa, and travelling over 5,000 miles, if I wanted to make the final I would need an injection in my behind on the morning of the match to calm an inopportune bout of food poisoning. Two, in fact.

It was a no-brainer. I rolled over on the bed and did what needed to be done.

And, my word, was it worth it. 

Anyone who has ever seen a game at the Azadi Stadium will tell you it is something you have to do if you get the chance, and I am now emphatically one of their ranks.

Built in the 1970s the Azadi is not an especially attractive venue, and the huge dusty bowl planted within a complex of various sporting facilities in the north-west of Tehran could certainly do with a lick of paint. Of course, the best sporting venues are rarely great in and of themselves though, and what makes them so is the fans inside and the atmosphere they create. In that respect the Azadi is far and away the best I have ever experienced.

There were signs I was in for something special when I paid a trip to the ground the day before Kashima Antlers took on Persepolis, with supporters already gathering outside the imposing entranceway to the compound. These fans had driven from all around Iran to be here for the game, and they would spend the rest of the day and overnight singing, dancing, honking their car horns and eating industrial amounts of pistachios as they waited for the gates to open.

At midday the next day, I was told – six-and-a-half hours before kick off – they would start pouring into the ground and ramping up their efforts to intimidate the opposition and will their team over the line.

Before leaving for Iran I spoke with former Shimizu S-Pulse manager Afshin Ghotbi, who led Persepolis to league glory in 2008 – his team sealing the title with a 96th-minute winner on the final day of the season at the Azadi – and he described the venue as, “the Colosseum of football pitches in Asia”, before explaining just how passionate a following Persepolis possess.

“Persepolis is one of the most popular, maybe the most popular, clubs in Asia because they have 30 million followers,” he said. “If you are a player or a coach with Persepolis and you travel anywhere in the world you will meet an Iranian person somewhere in some street that will recognise you and run to you and talk about how you won or lost or how you performed in a particular match. That’s the kind of passion that fans of Persepolis have.

Football Channel, Friday 16th Nov 2018

“Obviously it means a lot to Japanese football, and obviously it means a lot to Kashima fans, but multiply that maybe by 10, or even more, and that’s what it means to Iranian fans because football has a different place in the hearts of Iranian people, and Persepolis has a very special place for Iranian fans. Persepolis fans are born and die as Persepolis fans, that’s how they are.”

That was driven home when I arrived at the stadium on match-day and, sure enough, there they were as promised. My walk down the imposing tunnel that leads to the pitch was sound-tracked by tens of thousands of horns being blown incessantly as the fans ramped up their efforts, and after emerging at the end I was greeted by a mass of red, the stadium almost full four hours before kick off. The noise was indescribable and I started to wonder how the Kashima players, used to the more docile environs of the J.League, would manage to keep their composure amidst such hostility.

“We have a small chance, but I hope they can do it,” the doctor I had seen that morning, who had seemed more interested in the fact I was in Tehran to watch his beloved Persepolis than my ailment, had said. “It will make people happy, and right now in Iran people need something to make them happy.”

Kashima, of course, were there to prevent that from happening, but as kick off approached I had serious doubts that the team would be able to withstand the force that was building in the stadium. Go Oiwa’s side had a 2-0 lead from the first leg and knew an away goal here would require Persepolis to score four, but if the hosts managed to strike first in this atmosphere it was hard to see how Kashima would be able to hold them off.

Despite there being a couple of nervy moments early on, however, as Persepolis looked to attack directly and get the strikers Godwin Mensha and Ali Alipour running in behind, with Kwoun Sun-tae – in the process of becoming the first player to win the ACL three times – an unshakeable last line of defence in those moments the team settled, and from the second half on never really looked like losing their grip of the tie and their maiden continental trophy.

The fact they were ultimately able to do that is a credit to the coach and his players, and while the match was ultimately far from a gripping spectacle for the neutral to behold, it was exactly what Kashima needed.

The Iranian fans also impressed after the game, staying behind in their droves to applaud their fallen heroes off as well as allowing the Kashima players to revel in their triumph with the couple of hundred supporters who had made the long journey from Japan for this historic moment.

It had been far from easy – for me or the players – but the memories of that night in the Azadi Stadium will never fade.

02
Nov
18

Kashima aim for crowning glory

Despite dominating the domestic scene, Kashima Antlers have never managed to triumph in continental competition. That could all change this month, as they contest their first ever Asian Champions League final against Persepolis of Iran… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, Thursday 1st November, 2018

Kashima Antlers are rightfully proud of their status as Japan’s most successful club.

The story – being informed it was 99.999% impossible to join the J.League, signing Zico and doing so anyway, becoming the first professional side to complete a Japanese treble, winning every domestic title more times than any other team, becoming the first Asian side to progress to the Club World Cup final (and nearly beating Real Madrid once there) – has been told many times, and is a history any team would revel in.

There is, however, one piece of silverware that has eluded the team from Ibaraki. One trophy they have failed to get their hands on. Despite their dominance at home, Kashima have never been able to declare themselves champions of Asia.

Ahead of this season they had taken part in the Champions League seven times, and the best they had managed was a quarter-final berth in 2008. Four times they were eliminated in the Round of 16, including last year when the absence of the Asian trophy from their impressive trophy cabinet will have nagged even more as bitter rivals Urawa Reds surged to their second triumph in the competition.

In a couple of weeks, however, that could all change and the missing piece could finally be added as they contest their first final in the tournament against Persepolis of Iran.

Antlers’ road to the final has been a rather strange and, until the semi-final against Suwon Bluewings, reasonably stress-free affair, with Go Oiwa’s side never really clicking into top gear but at the same time rarely staring elimination in the face.

They won just two of their group stage games – both away from home – but lost only once, 1-0 against Suwon when they knew they were already guaranteed of progression from Group H.

That loss did allow Suwon to leapfrog them to the top of the table and meant an intimidating Round of 16 clash against Shanghai SIPG, although that was negotiated with relative ease after a 3-1 home win was followed by a 2-1 defeat on the road – a result that looks closer than it was thanks to a late Hulk penalty.

Chinese opposition was disposed of with the minimum of fuss in the quarter-final as well, with Tianjin Quanjian looking a shell of their group stage selves after the departure of Axel Witsel and without wantaway striker Anthony Modeste and being swatted aside 5-0 on aggregate.

That set up a rematch against Suwon, which looked favourable on paper but descended into chaos after just six minutes of the first leg as the Koreans established a 2-0 lead in Kashima.

A Jang Ho-ik own goal offered Antlers some encouragement midway through the first half, however, before a pair of late goals from Serginho and, in the 93rd minute, Atsuto Uchida, completed a sensational comeback.

That wasn’t to be the end of the semi-final drama though, not by a long chalk.

After stressing the importance of starting the second leg better than the first, Antlers assumed control of the early proceedings at Suwon World Cup Stadium and claimed an away goal of their own in the 25th minute when Shuto Yamamoto headed home a Serginho free-kick. That left them 4-2 ahead in the tie and as good as in the final until Suwon mounted a comeback of their own after the break.

Football Channel, 2nd November 2018

Im Sang-hyeob struck the first jab for the hosts by tucking home a rebound in the 52nd minute, and with Antlers suddenly shaken Jo Sung-jin made it 2-1 within a minute, powering home a bullet of a header from a corner. Kashima were now on the ropes and looked like conceding every time Suwon attacked, something they sure enough did again on the hour mark when Dejan Damjanovic snuck in behind and put Suwon 5-4 ahead on aggregate.

Antlers were punch-drunk by this point and Elvis Saric had the chance to land the killer blow in the 62nd minute, yet again breaching a porous defence but sending his effort narrowly wide.

The Bosnian would come to rue that miss two minutes later, as Kashima snatched a goal back through Daigo Nishi – a strike which left the tie all square at 5-5, with both teams having a pair of away goals to their name. That state of affairs enabled Kashima to regain the composure they had shown in the opening 45 minutes, and it wasn’t especially surprising when Serginho pounced on a loose ball in the area in the 82nd minute to finally decide the contest in their favour.

As exciting as the semi-final was it did highlight the current fragility in the Kashima defence, which absolutely must be overcome if they are to stand a chance of defeating Persepolis.

Far from being a one-off, a susceptibility at the back has been prevalent all throughout October as Antlers have conceded at least twice in five of their six games in all competitions. With their schedule set to become even harsher – including the two legs of the final they will play four games in 11 days between 31 October and 10 November – tiredness and the resultant individual errors could even increase as the club head into the biggest games in their history.

Injuries have certainly played a part, and a big decision to be made ahead of the final is whether to stick with Gen Shoji at centre back. The 25-year-old is a top class defender but has looked understandably rusty in his two games since returning from an extended spell on the sidelines, and while he has another week to get up to speed and show he is ready if he isn’t at 100 percent then Oiwa may need to consider going with Tomoya Inukai instead.

Going forward, things look far more promising. Yuma Suzuki and Serginho are combining very well, with the latter now having scored in all four of his ACL games since joining the club in August and the former a handful for even the best defenders. Shoma Doi poses a constant threat as well, and with the full-backs also given free license to push into the final third Kashima always have a goal in them – the aforementioned loss to Suwon is the only game in the competition in which they have failed to find the net.

They should maintain that attacking stance heading into the final, and even bearing in mind their defensive concerns – or perhaps because of them – a positive, no fear approach will give Kashima the best chance of reaching the promised land and succeeding Urawa as kings of the continent.

19
Oct
18

Japan’s feisty forwards bringing the fun

Japan made it three wins from three under Hajime Moriyasu with an all-guns-blazing 4-3 win over Uruguay on Tuesday night, and with the forwards in scintillating form it looks like the fun could just be getting underway… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, Thursday 17th October, 2018

Well, that was fun.

Kirin Cup games are usually fairly uninspiring contests, unfolding uniformly to the drone of supporter chants as new players are tested out, multiple substitutions are made, and genuine entertainment is in short supply.

On Tuesday, however, Hajime Moriyasu’s side ensured the 57,239 fans left Saitama Stadium with smiles on their faces and plenty to talk about after a scarcely believable 4-3 win over Uruguay.

Yes, this was a ‘friendly mode’ Uruguay who had just fallen to a 2-1 defeat to South Korea, made six substitutions, and were without Luis Suarez. Question marks could also be raised about their preparedness and motivation for the game – one Japan player joked afterwards that the opponent might have been out in Roppongi the night before – but teams of Uruguay’s quality don’t take kindly to being beaten, and rarely do they do so by conceding four goals.

Japan came into the game off the back of successive 3-0 wins to start the ‘Moriyasu Japan’ era though, and with the supporting cast of Shoya Nakajima, Takumi Minamino, and Ritsu Doan reinstated behind Yuya Osako, and Hiroki Sakai, Maya Yoshida, and Yuto Nagatomo making their first starts under Moriyasu in the defence the hosts started the brighter of the two sides.

The Samurai Blue bossed possession in the opening 15 minutes, during which time they crucially also managed to open the scoring. All too often Japan teams have kept the ball but struggled to create chances – or, more often, failed to convert them when they do – and Minamino’s superb turn and finish after a crisp Nakajima pass in the 10th minute ensured that wouldn’t be the case here.

The importance of that goal was made clear during the middle third of the first half, when Japan lost their rhythm a little and Uruguay assumed control of proceedings, culminating in their equaliser in the 28th minute when Gaston Pereiro found himself unmarked in the six yard box to tap home after a Giorgian De Arrascaeta free kick was headed back across goal by Sebastian Coates.

Here, too, Japan reacted impressively, however, refusing to retreat into their shells and instead coming out fighting. Osako sent two shots off target inside two minutes as the team clicked back into gear, and the Werder Bremen man made no mistake with his next effort as he evaded the offside trap and tucked home after a Nakajima shot from the edge of the area was palmed into his path by Fernando Muslera in the 36th minute.

Football Channel 19th October 2018

A horrendous Genta Miura error then gifted Uruguay with another equaliser 12 minutes into the second half, the 23-year-old sending a pass back to his Gamba Osaka teammate Masaaki Higashiguchi without realising that Edinson Cavani was still between the pair having hung around to berate the assistant referee after not being given a penalty kick. The Paris Saint Germain star unsurprisingly didn’t pass up the opportunity to make it 2-2.

Again Japan reacted boldly to this setback, and Ritsu Doan notched the first of what will surely be many goals for his country after a sensational piece of combination play with Sakai in the 59th minute, before Minamino added his second of the night to make it 4-2 seven minutes later after another Doan attempt was parried by Muslera.

Gaku Shibasaki, whose well-balanced partnership with Wataru Endo in the centre of the park enabled Japan’s attacking quartet to pour forward freely, was impressed with the way the team refused to be shaken by the concession of the goals in this game, sensing a newfound resilience to their play.

“I think this result will really give us confidence,” the 26-year-old said. “Even though the opponent pulled level we managed to score again afterwards and then move further ahead, which is maybe a little different to the way things have been with the national team before.”

Yuto Nagatomo was also encouraged by the team’s positivity, and looked genuinely thrilled by the attacking threat posed by the youngsters Nakajima, Minamino, and Doan.

“It’s really exciting,” the oldest starting outfielder and most experienced member of the squad beamed. “I think it’s at the level whereby even if I wasn’t called up for the national team I’d want to come and watch the games. There’s such energy and real quality and speed. I think the national team is going to become really interesting.”

‘Exciting’ was undoubtedly the right word to describe this match, and the unpredictability and lethality of the forwards is breeding increasing optimism about the next step in the team’s evolution. Nakajima (4), Minamino (3) and Doan (2) took nine shots at goal over the course of the 90 minutes, landing all of them on target, and Nakajima made it clear that he is not feeling any pressure as the spotlight grows.

“In Portugal I play against the likes of Porto, Sporting, and Benfica so I don’t really think about it too much, just go out there and aim to enjoy playing football,” the 24-year-old said. “The opponent or stage I’m playing on doesn’t really matter, football is fun and so I’m always trying to enjoy it one hundred percent.”

Plenty of issues remain with regards to the balance between defence and attack and, especially, Japan’s ongoing vulnerability to set pieces, but with attacking players in this form and seemingly growing in confidence with every game, the fun doesn’t look like stopping any time soon.

28
Sep
18

Vissel on choppy waters

Vissel Kobe – they of Andres Iniesta and Lukas Podolski – are floundering dangerously close to the J1 relegation zone, showing once again that signing big names is never enough to guarantee success on its own… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, Wednesday 26th September, 2018

The last time Urawa Reds sold out Saitama Stadium they were winning the AFC Champions League, and on Sunday they put in a performance worthy of the reigning kings of Asia as they swept Vissel Kobe aside 4-0.

As impressive as Oswaldo Oliveira’s side were, however, they weren’t presented with much of a challenge by a disheveled and disorganised Vissel, who crumpled defensively and offered next to nothing going forwards.

Indeed, the visiting players looked just as concerned that Andres Iniesta wasn’t playing as the thousands of fans who’d bought their tickets to see the No.8 up close, and his absence was unsurprisingly a key talking point among fans and media alike.

For all the on- and off-the-pitch positives that come with the acquisition of global stars – the 34-year-old’s first couple of goals, for instance, and the undoubted boon it has had with regards to exposure for the J.League – Kobe’s recent travails show that there are also issues to overcome when signing such players.

Chief among these problems is the manner in which teams fall into a sense of over-reliance on the star name, rather than incorporating the new player as a high-quality component to fine-tune the side. Iniesta is certainly capable of creating moments of class to win games almost single-handedly, but not as often as the marketing around him suggests, and certainly not all of the time.

Football is not an individual sport but a team game, and when your teammates are defending as poorly as Kobe did against Reds then the presence of one of the game’s greats further forward doesn’t make much difference.

Even if Iniesta had been on the pitch, he wouldn’t have been able to do anything to prevent Shinzo Koroki doubling Reds’ lead after evading Hirofumi Watanabe with such ease in the 42nd minute, nor would he have been able to save Shunki Takahashi’s blushes after the 28-year-old gifted possession to Yuki Muto for the hosts’ third.

If you have the chance to sign Andres Iniesta you obviously snatch it with both hands, but it is always disappointing that J.League teams don’t also try to acquire defensive midfielders or centre-backs when it comes to picking up big names, rather than always opting for attacking players.

Those who make and score the goals are of course far sexier acquisitions, but the ones who stop them going in at the other end are just as important if the ultimate aim really is to win titles and not just improve interaction rates on social media.

Another difficulty with bringing in players of truly top pedigree is that it can be hard to know how to manage them, and just four months after signing Iniesta Kobe have made a change in the dugout, replacing Takayuki Yoshida with Juan Manuel Lillo.

Football Channel, Friday 28th September 2018

The hope must be that the new man can introduce a more solid, coherent structure to get the best out of Iniesta and Lukas Podolski, who did manage 90 minutes in Saitama but struggled to make an impact on the game.

In fairness he didn’t have much to work with, and with Iniesta unavailable the German was lumbered with the ‘make-something-happen’ role, often forced to drop incredibly deep to collect the ball and try to create – a tall order for a player whose career in Europe was always more about finishing chances off than making them.

Only time will tell if Lillo can bring about longer-term improvements, but while the Spaniard has been tasked with overseeing a late push for the ACL he will first have to make sure he can steer his new team away from the relegation scrap.

Vissel are eight points adrift of FC Tokyo in the final ACL spot and only six above Kashiwa Reysol in 16th, and recent form would suggest they’d be better off concentrating on the teams below them rather than those jostling for position above them.

Podolski is of a similar mind.

“If you make mistakes you’ll concede goals, and this result came about because we made lots more mistakes than the opponent,” he said after the humbling by Reds.

“The most important thing is that we accept this result. Until now we have been talking about aiming for the ACL but we are also getting closer to the relegation battle. The gap is tight above and below us. We have to fully take in where we are in the table and work to improve our position.”

Kobe have now lost their last four games and the schedule doesn’t get any easier in the coming weeks.

This Saturday they host Kashima Antlers – who themselves are honing in on third place as well as making a decent fist of succeeding Reds as continental champions – before welcoming bottom-placed-but-winning V-Varen Nagasaki to the Noevir on 6 October. They then travel to Kawasaki Frontale the week after the international break, with the reigning champions embroiled in a two-horse race with Sanfrecce Hiroshima for this year’s title.

If points aren’t picked up by that stage then Kobe will be very much involved in the scrap for survival – not something many foresaw when the club picked up Podolski last summer, and certainly not what Iniesta thought he was signing up for when he joined in May.




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