14
May
16

Okubo brace puts Kawasaki on top

Yoshito Okubo was the main man again for Kawasaki Frontale this weekend, finding the net twice to send his side top of J1…

The Japan News, Sunday 15th May, 2016

KAWASAKI – Kawasaki Frontale moved to the top of the J.League first stage table on Saturday afternoon, coming from a goal down to beat 10-man Vissel Kobe 3-1 on the back of a brace from Yoshito Okubo.

Kazuma Watanabe had put Vissel ahead in first-half stoppage time, but a second-half brace from Okubo and late Elsinho strike enabled Yahiro Kazama’s side to leapfrog Urawa Reds, who could only manage a 0-0 draw at home to Albirex Niigata.

Okubo’s double against his former club also lifted him to joint top of the scoring charts with Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s Peter Utaka on nine goals, as the 33-year-old targets an unprecedented fourth consecutive season as the most prolific player in J1.

“We moved the ball well in the first half and had chances but were caught out right at the end at a set-piece, which we weren’t happy about,” Kawasaki coach Kazama said.

“At half time we spoke about moving up a gear, and knew that if we pressed a bit higher we’d have opportunities to score. In the end that was how things went and I think it was a good win.”

Kawasaki dominated from the start of the game, and had its first sight on goal in just the 4th minute. Ryota Oshima played a neat one-two with Yu Kobayashi on the edge of the area before advancing and cutting back again for Kobayashi, but the Japan striker sent his effort narrowly wide of the far post.

Oshima almost worked a scoring chance for himself 20 minutes later, but couldn’t quite control after a quick exchange of passes with Eduardo Neto set him free through the middle of the pitch, and Takahito Soma was able to scramble the ball away to safety.

Kobayashi missed an absolute sitter six minutes before the break, controlling an Elsinho cross from the right wing and moving the ball out of his feet well, but then skewing his effort high and wide from eight yards out.

Vissel then opened the scoring against the run of play in the third minute of time added on at the end of the first half.

Kawasaki Frontale 3-1 Vissel Kobe, Saturday 14th May, 2016

Kawasaki defender Tatsuki Nara was stretchered off after fouling Asahi Masuyama 25 yards from goal, and Kobe took the lead in fortuitous fashion from the resultant free kick.

Watanabe sent his effort into the defensive wall, but the ball deflected off Kengo Nakamura’s head and wrong-footed goalkeeper Jung Sung-ryong before squirting into the far side of the goal.

Frontale only needed 12 minutes after the restart to draw level, though.

Masatoshi Mihara fouled Kobayashi inside the area and referee Masaaki Iemoto had no hesitation in pointing to the spot, with Okubo showing equal conviction from 12 yards to make it 1-1.

That was his 164th J1 goal and he didn’t have to wait long for his 165th, poking home in the 63rd minute after a chipped ball into the area from Kyohei Noborizato.

Okubo almost had a hat-trick three minutes later as Kobe’s defense struggled to cope with Kawasaki’s onslaught, but goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu was able to palm his drive from range behind.

Vissel’s job was made even more difficult in the 70th minute as Mihara’s miserable afternoon was compounded with a second yellow card for another foul on Kobayashi, and Kawasaki never looked like losing control of the game from that point on.

Kobayashi had a couple more chances as the clock ran down, before Elsinho added the gloss in the 90th minute, keeping his calm to loft home after Yusuke Tasaka’s ball into the area from the right wing.

“I’m not sure if the players are playing with enjoyment or not,” Kazama said of his team’s impressive display. “But if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing then you can’t build confidence within the team and win games.”

Meanwhile, Akihiro Ienaga’s strike earned Omiya Ardija a 1-0 win away to Vegalta Sendai and saw them jump into fourth, while Hisashi Jogo scored the only goal of the game to deliver Avispa Fukuoka just their second win of the season at home to fellow struggler Shonan Bellmare.

14
May
16

Leicester’s Love for Okazaki

Ahead of the Premier League season I spoke to a Leicester fan about Shinji Okazaki’s signing, and his hopes for the season. This week we revisited some of those thoughts off the back of the club’s historic title triumph… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, Friday 13th May, 2016

Back in August last year I wrote a piece looking ahead to the 2015/16 Premier League season, wondering how Shinji Okazaki would get on at his new club Leicester City. With very few Japanese players having enjoyed much success in England, my focus at the time was on whether Japan’s No.9 would get many minutes playing for a side expected to be battling against relegation.

In the end, things worked out a little bit better than anticipated for both the player and his club.

And so, in the midst of the excitement swirling around Leicester’s outrageous title triumph, I checked back in with Foxes fan Mayur Bhanji, who I’d spoken to to get some initial reactions on Okazaki’s signing ahead of the season.

The first of those thoughts we had to revisit was the admission that the general feeling amongst Leicester fans when the former Shimizu S-Pulse striker joined was, “do we really need him?”

Bhanji’s wholly justifiable reasoning at the time was that the club already had Leonardo Ulloa (top scorer the previous year as the club dramatically avoided relegation), Andrej Kramarić (signed in January 2015 and highly rated), the experienced David Nugent, and Jamie Vardy (who at that time wasn’t the goal-machine of this season, but a decent player who’d scored as many goals (5) as he’d got yellow cards in 2014/15). It wasn’t entirely clear where a fifth striker would fit into the squad, then, although fit in Okazaki would go on to do with remarkable smoothness.

“Well, it turned out we needed him quite a lot,” Bhanji said. “Alongside the defence he was one of the unsung heroes of the season. His work-rate is second to none, and his ability to chase down lost causes and just keep running was one of the factors behind Leicester’s success.”

As well as needing to put in a shift, goals were another thing Bhanji predicted Okazaki would have to offer in order to win the fans round and earn a regular spot in the team; so, did he deliver on that front?

Reflection on Leicester City 2016

“Shinji certainly had the ability to score vital goals at key times for Leicester, and the biggest of them all has to be the goal against Newcastle a month or so ago. An overhead kick Cristiano Ronaldo would be proud of. In a game where the team only won 1-0, and spent a lot of time defending, it was another key contribution to a season not a single person at the club will forget.

“I think the fans love him. Again I go back to his work-rate, more off the ball than on it. In English football fans love players who try – who give 100% – and Shinji certainly does that and reaped the rewards this season. To win the biggest prize in England, to play Champions League football next season, is an amazing achievement.”

Something else which Bhanji thinks contributed to Okazaki’s success was the fact that he made a concerted effort to pick up the language, immersing himself in the group and embracing the now-famous team spirit within the side.

“I think it massively helped. I saw a photo recently of him with a certificate for passing an English exam. I think in any league you have to pick up the local language to succeed – many players have gone to clubs and failed because of it.”

The fans were taken with Okazaki’s mentality, then, but perhaps even more important was the impression the 30-year-old’s efforts made on his coach, Claudio Ranieri – a man who himself had been through the process of adapting to the rigours of English football, and the language, and who Bhanji had predicted could become a “father figure” after replacing the more temperamental and aggressive Nigel Pearson soon after Okazaki signed.

“I recently saw an interview with Demerai Gray, where he said Ranieri was like your favourite grandad,” Bhanji said. “It was definitely the case here as well with Shinji. [Ranieri] has something about him that makes players want to play for him. It also helps that the dressing room doesn’t have too many egos – proven by the fact that Leicester have created the biggest piece of sporting history.”

That is without doubt, and Okazaki can and should be incredibly proud of his contribution to a season which will never be forgotten.

29
Apr
16

Gamba lacking home comforts

Gamba Osaka were nigh-on unbeatable at home last season, but since moving to their new stadium they have won just once as they struggle to adapt to  their new surroundings… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, Friday 29th April, 2016

What on earth is going on in Suita?

Gamba Osaka’s long-awaited move to their new stadium was supposed to herald the next step in the club’s development, but since moving three-quarters of a mile down the road from the crumbling Banpaku Stadium to the shiny new Suita City Stadium the team has been unrecognizable.

Last year Gamba only lost once at home in the league – when eventual champions Sanfrecce beat them 2-0 at Banpaku in November – but this season they’ve only tasted victory once at their new digs, losing five of their opening seven games in Suita, including each of the last four.

That run sees them marooned in mid-table in the league – seven points adrift of first stage leaders Urawa Reds – and already eliminated from the Champions League, a competition that they made it to the semi-finals of last year and which they were desperate to win this time around.

“We’re not winning at home which means we can’t pick up any momentum,” coach Kenta Hasegawa said after the recent 1-0 loss at home to Kashiwa Reysol. “We’re creating chances but aren’t able to convert them.”

Hasegawa then went on to reveal the extent of the efforts being made to address Gamba’s poor run of form, with even the tiniest of alterations being taken into account.

“Today we cut the grass a little shorter and also halved the amount of time we had the sprinklers on the pitch, as the players had spoken about it being slippery,” he said.

“We’re trying all sorts of things to overcome the situation. Of course the players want to win in front of the fans at this fantastic stadium, but I don’t know what the problem is. At the moment the feeling being put into the games and the results aren‘t matching up.

“Only we can change that, and now we’ll work hard to refresh our bodies and minds in order to pick up a win in the next game against Suwon.”

Whatever they did in the intervening five days didn’t work, however, and the Suwon match ended in yet another defeat, and thus elimination from the competition.

The Reysol and Suwon games both followed a similar pattern, with Gamba having plenty of possession but not threatening to do much with it. The connections going forward are a particular cause for concern, with Takashi Usami, Shun Nagasawa, and Ademilson rarely on the same wavelength, and there is an overriding sense of the team just not feeling at home in their new home.

Suita Stadium, Friday 15th April, 2016

While the arena is undoubtedly impressive it lacks a little identity at the moment, and there is a feeling of it being almost like a neutral venue with visiting players and fans equally as impressed with and motivated by the stadium as those of the home side.

Teams are supposed to have the edge on their own turf and be able to take advantage of the aspects familiar to them, but the Gamba players are clearly still unfamiliar with their surroundings, both on and off the pitch.

Ahead of the 2-1 win over Omiya Ardija back in March, for instance – the club’s only victory in Suita so far – Keisuke Iwashita and Daiki Niwa were two of the players not in the squad that day to be seen lost in the bowels of the stadium trying to work out where they were supposed to watch the match from, while those who were involved in the game had to be given step by step instructions on how to get to and pass through the mixed zone post-match.

It is the issues on the pitch which provide the biggest concern, though, and it would appear that the side is struggling to adapt to the confines of the football-specific venue – which at the closest point sees the stands just seven metres away from the action.

It may just be coincidence, but their poor form from the penalty spot adds some weight to this theory, with Usami seeing both his initial kick and re-taken effort saved against Suwon and, more surprisingly, the ever-reliable Yasuhito Endo also failing to convert from 12 yards in injury time of the 2-1 reverse at the hands of Yokohama F.Marinos on April 2nd.

In both of those games opposing players were able to find the net from set-pieces – with Shunsuke Nakamura arcing home that free-kick for Marinos, and Santos coolly slotting home Suwon’s penalty – suggesting that the issue is a psychological one affecting the hosts at the moment.

Added to that, it would be difficult to suggest that the team is simply not as good this year, with Gamba picking up nine points from 12 on the road so far, including another hard-fought win in Fukuoka against Avispa on Sunday.

They’ll be hoping to build on that away form by overcoming their home hex sooner rather than later – although the wait may have to go on a little longer yet, with high-flying Frontale and Yoshito Okubo the next visitors in town.

18
Apr
16

Urawa ready for glory

Urawa Reds could progress to the knockout stages of the ACL with a game to spare on Wednesday,  and their recent win over Guangzhou Evergrande – and in particular the manner of it – suggests they’ll be one of the teams to reckon with once there…  (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, Monday 18th April, 2016

Mihailo Petrovic had spent the bulk of the game crutching himself about his technical area frantically conveying instructions and encouragement to his players, but at full time the pain disappeared and the sticks flew in the air.

The Urawa Reds manager knew this win, and the manner of it, was huge for his club – perhaps even the biggest since he took over at the start of the 2012 season.

Not only had the hosts beaten Guangzhou Evergrande – the reigning Asian Champions – 1-0 to all-but secure a place in the knockout round of the ACL; not only had they all-but knocked Guangzhou out of the competition in the process; but they had done it with confidence, aggression, and passion.

“I have been in Japan for 10 years and seen many games but it is very rare to see such a good game,” the Serbian enthused after the match.

“The very important thing is that we proved that money cannot buy a win. Guangzhou has great foreign players but we were still able to play hard and beat them. I have a very bad back right now but today I was able to forget that – that’s how much I was able to get into the game.”

Match-winner Yuki Muto spoke afterwards of how Petrovic had demanded that his players treat the game like a final – a cliché, sure, but one which the players seemed to have taken on board, and which, in truth, it sort of was. Knock out the best team in the continent and who is there left to fear?

“We’re aiming to become No.1 in Asia, so if we can’t match Guangzhou physically then that won’t be possible,” Tadanari Lee said.

“In all honesty I don’t think there’s a better team in Asia than Guangzhou, so this really gives us confidence. We have confidence that we can become an even better team and I think we are able to win the ACL.”

Lee singled Wataru Endo out for particular praise, and the manner in which the 23-year-old marshaled Jackson Martinez was hugely encouraging looking to the future for club and country.

The Japan Under-23 captain obviously refused to take personal credit for keeping the Colombia international quiet, but he also suggested there is a new sense of belief within the Reds squad.

Urawa Reds v. Guangzhou Evergrande, Tuesday 5th April, 2016

“Today it was quite easy to read where [Martinez’s] passes were going and so I was able to intercept, but it wasn’t me defending on my own,” he said.

“I was making sure I stayed aware when marking him and if he played the ball out to the side-backs not to commit myself too much, although I was always keeping watch for opportunities to move in and make an interception.

“More so than positioning ourselves as challengers, we have the mentality of playing to win. If we don’t show that posture then it’s not possible to win the ACL. Of course that helps us improve as individual players, but the priority is for the team to win, and we have to keep playing in that way in all competitions.”

That all-for-one-and-one-for-all spirit was evident in the performance, with the players crashing into challenges, chasing down loose balls, and continuing to attack when the clock was running down and they could have been forgiven for trying to sit on their lead.

Petrovic often complains that his team lacks a certain ruthlessness when it comes to killing teams off, and he is sure to have been delighted with the way they persevered in that respect. They may have been unable to find a second goal, but they didn’t stop pressing forwards in search of one.

They weren’t intimidated by the opponent or occasion either, and at one point Tomoaki Makino could be seen having a verbal exchange with Guangzhou coach Luiz Felipe Scolari as the Brazilian tried to exert an influence on the referee using his not inconsiderable stature. If anything, playing against bigger, stronger, harder opponents seems to suit Reds, with the players apparently relishing the opportunity to get stuck in and scrap for the win.

“For us we want to play the kind of fantastic football that calls out to people and keeps producing results,” Makino said after Reds had made sure of the three points.

“Honestly speaking, I’m sure there were people here today who came because they wanted to see the Asian champions and Guangzhou’s players, and our aim is to play the kind of winning football that means instead of coming to see the opponent they are coming to watch Urawa’s football and Urawa’s players.”

If they can maintain the level they achieved in front of 30,000 on a chilly spring evening as the season starts to heat up, they won’t have any problem on that front.

30
Mar
16

2nd straight Japan rout still leaves questions

Japan made it comfortably into the final round of World Cup qualifiers, but know that improvements need to be made once the next stage gets underway…

The Japan News, Thursday 25th February, 2016

SAITAMA – Japan may have secured progression to the final round of World Cup qualifiers with back-to-back 5-0 wins over Afghanistan and Syria, but the players aren’t resting on their laurels and are determined to improve as they edge closer to the 2018 finals in Russia.

Vahid Halilhodzic’s side made sure of top spot in Group E of the second round of qualifiers on Tuesday courtesy of a Syrian own goal, a Shinji Kagawa double, and strikes from Keisuke Honda and Genki Haraguchi.

The final three goals all came in the last eight minutes of the game, however, with the Samurai Blue also presenting Syria with a number of sights on goal in an open second half.

The manner in which we kept pushing forwards was good and we created many chances, but on the other hand we left gaps at the back and gave the opponent a lot of opportunities to score,” Shinji Okazaki, made captain on his 100th appearance but unable to add to his 48 international goals, said after the game.

“Maybe that was ok today, but from now on we’ll be playing against stronger teams and whether to take risks or not when we have a one-goal lead is something we will have to keep in mind.”

Maya Yoshida agreed, and was adamant that the team needs to tighten up if they want to make it to a sixth consecutive World Cup.

“The next round will be more difficult for us so we need to organize much better than today,” the Southampton centerback said.

“If we give away chances like today it will be a problem for us, because the opponents’ level is completely different [in the final round of qualifiers].”

The shutout against Syria meant Japan made it through the eight-game stage without conceding once, but goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa also spotted areas in need of fine-tuning.

“We did very well and pressed well from the front, winning the ball in good areas,” the Urawa Reds stopper, who started six of the second round qualifiers, said.

Japan v. Syria, Tuesday 29th March, 2016

“In the second half maybe the forward players got a little bit tired, so at those times it’s important that we organize well, and I have to contribute in that way by giving instructions.”

Honda sounded another note of caution, pointing out that the manner of qualification is ultimately irrelevant if, as in Brazil in 2014, the team doesn’t perform at the finals.

“In the end, if you don’t achieve results at the World Cup it doesn’t matter what you did beforehand. It’s a harsh world but all you are judged on is whether those three games [in the initial group stage at the World Cup] are good or bad.”

Indeed, the most recent such setback is still fresh in Yoshida’s mind.

“I remember the first game against Ivory Coast in Brazil, we had a little bit of a shock and panicked and we couldn’t manage the recovery.”

The 27-year-old thinks the team is better placed to cope in that respect now, though, with the majority of the squad increasingly accustomed to the top leagues in Europe.

“When players are used to playing against top class players it helps a lot in international games,” he said.

“For example, I’m always training with a Dutch international, Portuguese, Italian; that’s a lot of experience for me, and I’m going to try to give that to other players in Japan. That’s really important for the World Cup in Russia.”

Honda believes that the bond between the players and Halilhodzic is also vital to the team’s chances of success.

“He respects people underneath him and there’s no betrayal or blaming people in either direction,” he said. “I think he’s the kind of boss who can make a group who fight together until the end.”

The draw for the next round of qualifiers takes place on Apr. 12, with South Korea, Iran, and Asian Cup holder Australia potential opposition.

27
Mar
16

Samurai Blue benefit from more direct approach

Japan put in an assertive second half display in a match that was already won on Thursday night, and the 5-0 victory over Afghanistan contained some positive signs looking ahead to the final round of qualifiers… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, Sunday 27th March, 2016

It would be easy to dismiss the result on account of the opposition – and after a resolute start Afghanistan did fall apart in the second 45 minutes at Saitama Stadium on Thursday night – but Japan’s 5-0 win over Petar Segrt’s side offered plenty of encouragement as the final round of qualifiers edge closer.

Home games at this stage of qualifying tend to follow a similar pattern – defensive opponents retreating in a mass of red shirts and Japan desperately trying to pass their way through – but in the second half of this game in particular there was something a little different, more proactive, about the Samurai Blue’s approach.

“It was a beautiful victory with panache and aggression,” Vahid Halilhodzic said post-match. “Our team spirit was phenomenal and we played very aggressively.”

The manner in which his players kept up the unrelenting pressure on Afghanistan as the clock ticked down was certainly a refreshing sight, with an extra sense of zip and directness about the side as they poured forward in search of more goals.

“We were creating chances from crosses and also trying to get the ball in behind and pick up the second ball without overdoing the passes, which were things we’d spoken about before the match,” captain Makoto Hasebe said.

“Instead of playing too prettily we took a few more risks and sent some long balls attempting to break their line.”

That diversion from playing ‘pretty’ football was certainly pleasing, and the assertive formation the team set up in – essentially 4-4-2 with a diamond in midfield, although almost a 4-1-3-2 in reality – is perhaps something that should be attempted more often to ensure that Japan are a less predictable side to play against.

“We approached it with a fresh mentality,” man-of-the-moment Shinji Okazaki said after notching his 48th national team goal. “We had two up front, but it could also become three – it looked like it had the potential to be a dynamic combination.

“To an extent the idea was to try things without looking and see how they went. I didn’t have time to think about things too much. Maybe there were times when we were in too much of a hurry, but I felt like if we kept on like that the opponent wouldn’t like it.

Japan v. Afghanistan, Saitama Stadium, Thursday 24th March, 2016

“Against a stronger opponent maybe we wouldn’t be able to play in that way because of concerns about them countering, but today the opposition really dropped back and defended so we were able to play dynamically. We weren’t impatient and we made chances. I think things worked well when I dropped back and played as a two-shadow with [Hiroshi] Kiyotake, and that’s how my goal came about.”

Indeed, Kiyotake looked sharp in behind the strikers, while the pairing of Okazaki and Mu Kanazaki certainly has potential. The Kashima Antlers man also found the net – well, he just about managed to get the ball over the line at least – and was a constant threat going forward, with Halilhodzic praising his combativeness, presence, and the fact that he was always showing for the ball.

Then there was the returning Mike Havenaar as well, who wasn’t able to get his name on the scoresheet but did make the goal for Kanazaki after heading a cross down into his teammate’s path.

“I had 20 minutes and wanted to score – that was the intention with which I entered the game and I really thought it was going to happen,” he said after his first Japan game since October 2013. “Still, I managed to get the assist.”

The 28-year-old feels he has become physically stronger and also adapted in the way he thinks about the game since he moved to Europe, and he is confident that Halilhodzic has a clear idea of how to get the best out of his play.

“The coach wants to make a difference with me in the team. He wants more crosses coming into the box, and I think he’ll make a difference [to my role] in the team.”

More direct approach play, injecting pace and spontaneity into attacks, scoring ugly goals; these are not traits usually associated with Japan, but they are some of the things that the team need if they are serious about doing something meaningful at Russia 2018.

Of course, they need to get there first, but if they are able to build upon their ruthless second half display in this game they will certainly put themselves in a good position for a sixth straight finals.

12
Mar
16

Sasaki’s sour sayonara

Norio Sasaki delivered unprecedented success for Japanese football, and the outgoing Nadeshiko manager really deserved a better send-off than the one he received… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, Saturday 12th March, 2016

A win over China in their third match and it could all have been very different, but in the end Nadeshiko Japan missed out on the Rio Olympics, signalling the end of Norio Sasaki’s outstanding reign in charge of the side.

Regardless of whether he should have taken the decision to step down after the team finished as runners-up at the 2015 World Cup or not, the manner of Sasaki’s departure leaves something of a sour taste in the mouth. Bearing in mind all the 57-year-old achieved for Japanese football, he deserved a better send-off.

Instead of a fond farewell, however, the man who guided Japan to the 2011 World Cup title was forced to shuffle offstage with rumours of dressing room unrest and more swirling around the team, provoking the former Omiya Ardija boss to hit out at the media his final press conference.

“We always talk about the ‘football family’,” Sasaki said after his last match in charge ended with a 1-0 win over North Korea. “The football family doesn’t just mean the team and the fans and the JFA, but it includes the media, too. When we win everything’s great, but when we lose the coverage becomes like gossip. That’s not the job of sports newspapers.

“In the first and second games we couldn’t take three points. I think if we had been able to do that we would have had a chance. I think you can see that looking at the game today and the way we played. If we could have had our rhythm then it may have been different.”

Indeed, losing their opening game 3-1 to Australia was not an ideal start for the reigning Asian champions, and following that with a 1-1 draw against South Korea left them with an uphill battle to secure one of the two qualification berths to Rio.

It was ultimately the third game which made a difficult task nigh-on impossible, however, as a dispirited and visibly fatigued Nadeshiko side slumped to a 2-1 loss to China.

After that game China coach Bruno Bini picked up on the at tensions between the Japanese team and sections of the media, and delivered a message in support of his fellow coach Sasaki.

IMG_8146

“Tonight I cannot stop myself from thinking about my colleague, from the team of Japan,” the former France boss said. “He has won many things in the past five years, achieved the best results in the world, and I hope the people here do not have a short memory. He deserves respect from everyone.”

The 61-year-old also pointed out the impact the ludicrous schedule of the qualifiers – five games in 10 days with just a 20-woman squad – had on Japan’s high-tempo style.

“They didn’t play as they usually do today. I think this is natural. You have three games in so few days so it is very difficult to play as they usually do – meaning lots of passing and combination play.”

As well as the physical strain on the players, as hosts Sasaki and the Nadeshiko players had to deal with the expectations – and then scorn – being heaped upon them, too.

“There is always a lot of pressure around this team,” Sasaki said. “First of all it was pressure to win, to take a ticket to Rio. Then, once we couldn’t qualify, it became a different kind of pressure.

“It takes a lot of mental strength to cope with that, but the players have a very good spirit. I said to them before this last game that everyone’s still supporting so let’s show them that spirit.”

They did that by delivering their best performance of the competition and winning 1-0, and their coach exited in as optimistic a manner as he could, given the circumstances.

“This isn’t the last chance to qualify for this kind of competition,” he concluded. “In this past year [Kumi] Yokoyama and [Emi] Nakajima have really developed and grown in confidence, and more players like that will appear. I expect big things at the future.”

As one of the few – perhaps, in fact, only – Japanese coaches sought after around the world, it will be interesting to see what Sasaki does next, too. Whatever it is, though, as Bini so rightly pointed out, he deserves nothing but respect.




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