Archive for June, 2010

29
Jun
10

Preview of Japan v. Paraguay

While I don’t want it to sound like I don’t think the result matters against Paraguay, this match is something of a bonus.

Yes, Japan have a talented squad, are full of confidence at the moment and, as I outlined here (http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/blog/2010/jun/27/world-cup-2010-japan-paraguay-asia), have every chance of progressing even further at this year’s World Cup. What should be remembered is where the team have come from and where they are aiming for though.

Japan only qualified for their first World Cup finals 12 years ago, since when (save for a more-than-respectable showing when co-hosting in 2002) they have not fared too well at FIFA’s showpiece event. A trio of defeats on their debut in France and just a point from their three games in Germany meant that very little was expected of the team heading to South Africa this year.

Despite coach Takeshi Okada targeting (amid much derision from the Japanese press) a semi-final finish (my defence of which can be found here (http://www.fccj.or.jp/node/5753)), progression from the group stages was always going to be a huge success. The team not only managed to make it out of Group E, but they achieved it in some style – winning many fans in the process with their committed, skilful and assertive play.

In spite of an abysmal build-up to the tournament (three wins – against Yemen, Hong Kong and Bahrain’s reserves – in ten matches) the team has clicked at just the right time, and they are now just 90 (120?) minutes away from the quarter-finals. This would be a phenomenal achievement and would provide Japanese football with just the boost it needs.

The J.League was launched in 1993 and one of its key objectives was to improve the level of the national team. As such, its popularity is heavily linked to the success of the Samurai Blue and, consequently, it currently sits in something of a plateau. The money and excitement that were in abundance in the early years can no longer be called upon, and as the big names of world football head to the oil-rich countries for their last big pay-day, the Japanese game has to largely depend upon mediocre Brazilians and local talent.

As the major European leagues have tightened their grip on the Asian market, these home-grown players have struggled to match the appeal of their Premier League or La Liga contemporaries This successful campaign – which could become even better come 1am local time on Wednesday – will hopefully go some way to addressing that.

I was in Graz for the friendly with England in May and managed to get a couple of opinions on the Japan team from Frank Lampard after the match. While most of the platitudes he served up are probably recycled regardless of the opposition (‘good side’ / ‘passed the ball well through midfield’ / ’caused us a few problems up-front’), something he said did stick in my head and is becoming increasingly pertinent now.  

“There’s normally a surprise team so hopefully they can do well.”

While Japan’s run so far has been fantastic, a team cannot really be considered as the surprise of the tournament for making it to the second round. One more win tonight, however, could make the title theirs for sure.

26
Jun
10

Japan 3-1 Denmark

So they do come in threes after all. In this instance it wasn’t misfortunes that did so though, but goals – Japanese goals.

I am delighted that my prediction of a cagey draw was way off the mark, and am still reeling a little at the brutal manner with which Japan went about their business against Denmark.

I am happy to concede that I was also wrong about something else on Thursday night. As Keisuke Honda stood threateningly over the ball 467 yards from goal an expectant murmur was spreading around the pub. I smiled to myself, enjoying the Japanese fans’ enthusiasm and optimism but knowing that it wasn’t possible to score from there.

Oh. Wow.

This spectacular strike was more than just a thunderbolt that puts all of the complaints about the Jabulani being impossible to control, manipulate or swerve to bed, though. It was a breakthrough for the Japanese team and proof positive to them that taking risks – something they traditionally don’t do often enough – can bring about fantastic rewards. As if to confirm this point, Yasuhito Endo tried his luck ten minutes later and found similar results – and the top corner of Thomas Sorenson’s goal. Still not quite believing, the same player later upped the stakes a little, this time attempting to float one over the Stoke keeper from nigh-on the halfway line. He hit the bar.

Despite bossing proceedings and dealing with the Danish fight-back with composure and authority Japan did concede though – with John Dahl-Tomasson notching the most depressing of goals, the rebound from a softly awarded penalty – and the Samurai Blue were made to deal with another personal demon. While they often wilt when under pressure from a team who sense a way back into the game though, they remained resolute and continued to attack.

This resulted in Shinji Okazaki – a goal from whom I had earlier opined would be the icing on the cake – finishing the game off after some sublime and unselfish approach play by Honda. This goal will do wonders for the Shimzu S-Pulse striker’s confidence, and his CSKA Moscow teammate perhaps also realised the importance of having your number nine amongst the goals.

While, as with the Cameroon game, this was another phenomenal team performance, it would be amiss not to give Honda his dues as the standout performer this time after a sensational display. He looked at total ease throughout the 90 minutes and played with a strength, intelligence and assuredness that will have surely put the seal on his status as a future Premier League player.

In years to come this could very well be looked back on as the game in which he not only announced himself to the world, but also when he truly realised himself that he was able to compete at the top level. He has of course never been lacking in confidence or ambition – and anybody with any knowledge of the Japanese game had singled him out as the team’s hope in South Africa – but such hype always needs to be backed up on the pitch. Against Denmark he did that.

If this is the case the man himself was far from letting it slip though, and his post-match interview gave the clearest insight into his character.

“For Japan it’s a big win. I’m glad we won but I am not satisfied. The next game is more important. I want to show the Japanese that nothing is impossible. We have to still go further and step by step we have to go about doing this. There will be challenges, but I believe the team as a whole can succeed here.”

With self-belief and confidence coursing through the team right now, and Honda in scintillating form, there are very few who could argue with him.

24
Jun
10

Musings ahead of Japan v. Denmark

I have a horrendously sore throat and am on antibiotics (so no beer for me tonight – well, maybe one) and as temperatures reach 30°C with 50% humidity my fridge has decided to break. These things happen in threes apparently, and I sincerely hope that the hat-trick does not arrive this evening with Japan failing to progress from Group E.

All the signs point towards a fairly staid affair in their match with Denmark, and my prediction for the game before the tournament kicked off was an insipid 0-0. Now though, with Denmark in need of a win, it is difficult to see the game ending goalless.

Japan have looked fairly resolute thus far and, while Denmark are no slouches, having tamed the attacks of Cameroon and the Netherlands there is not anybody in the Danish ranks who should cause undue concern to the Japanese defence.

This is not the same as the matches against Cameroon or the Netherlands though and there is real pressure riding on this one. One misplaced pass, lack of concentration at a set-piece or rash tackle in the penalty area could be the difference between progression and elimination.

I took part in a talk-show at a football pub in Osaki on the evening of the opening ceremony and was asked what I thought Japan’s biggest problems were. The first, I volunteered, was that they appeared to struggle somewhat when playing at home, seemingly suffocating under the pressure of expectation. Check. This is not a problem half-way around the world in South Africa and, thus far, the team has retained its composure.

Secondly, I voiced my concern for the team when they concede first. This is something that had come up in a conversation I once had with Mato Neretljak, a Croatian defender at J.League side Omiya Ardija, and he expressed bemusement at the way in which the concession of a goal always seems to rattle Japanese players. “Sometimes I don’t understand it here, when we concede a goal we start to play very badly,” he told me. “Maybe it’s a mental problem. I think it’s only a mental problem.” With Denmark likely to come out and attack in the early stages tonight Japan cannot afford to a) play badly or b) experience any mental weakness. They need to stay calm and, if and when they do concede, stick to their game-plan and not become flustered.  

Finally, I suggested that Japan are a fairly predictable team to play against and that they need to vary their play far more if they are to truly improve on the international stage. They like to play many short passes and retain possession of the ball, often without any real thrust. While this is all well and good when 1-0 up with 15 minutes to go, it is not particularly useful when in need of a goal (as they may well be tonight). More risks need to be taken (as head coach Takshi Okada alluded to here (http://www.fccj.or.jp/node/5753)) and the team sometimes need to be a little more direct when attacking. Any number of things can influence the flight of a strike from range (wind, deflection, bobble, Robert Green) and sometimes, rather than trying one more slide-rule pass, an optimistically-struck 30-yarder could bring about fantastic rewards.  

In Keisuke Honda, Japan do have a player capable of trying something a little different though, and maybe it’s blind optimism, maybe it’s hope or maybe it’s the cocktail of drugs the nice doctor gave me this morning, but I think he will be the key tonight and that his goal will ease Japan into the second round. 1-1.

24
Jun
10

the people’s game preview of japan v. denmark

Yesterday I was interviewed by Alan Minsky from LA-based radio show ‘The People’s Game’ ( http://www.thepeoplesgame.org ) ahead of Japan’s crunch match with Denmark today.

Lars Eriksen also featured on the show, giving a Danish perspective going into the game.

The audio can be found here http://archive.kpfk.org/parchive/m3u.php?mp3fil=27640 , with Lars appearing from about 24 minutes and myself bumbling in (and forgetting about Japan captain Makoto Hasebe) after 37 ish. I also thoroughly recommend you give the remainder of the show a listen too, with World Cup opinion and recation being garnered from the States, New Zealand and Ghana.

21
Jun
10

Tae-se out for revenge

The latest installment of my interview with Jong Tae-se is now on the-AFC.com (specifically, here http://www.the-afc.com/en/tournaments/men-a-youth/fifa-world-cup-2010/29464-jong-fired-up-for-day-of-destiny ).

This time he speaks about that game in 1966 and how DPR Korea will be looking to inflict some payback on Portugal this evening.

20
Jun
10

Japan 0-1 Holland

I think that four points will be enough but am not convinced that Japan can get them. This was the ‘in a nutshell’ comment I provided the Guardian with for my bio on their Fans’ Network a couple of weeks ago. Now, as Japan head into their final game in Group E, they have three points and need just one against Denmark to ensure qualification. So, four points will be enough. Am I convinced they can get them yet? Hmmm.

In their two games so far Japan have played well – much better than expected – and after grinding out a 1-0 win against Cameroon they performed impressively against a strong Dutch side last night, despite their eventual defeat. Once again they defended resolutely, and were it not for an error by Eiji Kawashima could well have clung on for a point. Although Holland dominated possession, Japan looked far more potent when they did have the ball than against Cameroon and created more chances than in their opening match.

However, as is all too often the case with Japan, they were not able to take advantage of any of these chances – with Shinji Okazaki being the biggest culprit, blazing over the bar when he had a clear sight of goal in the dying stages.

The result, in the end, was actually irrelevant as even a draw with Holland would have meant a point in their final match would suffice. As I have previously referred to though, psychology is so important in sport, particularly in tournaments like the World Cup. Had Kawashima kept a second consecutive clean sheet he would be feeling that inch taller in his goal, had Okazaki fired home he would be brimming with confidence. Instead it is now Denmark who are in the ascendancy after their victory against Cameroon, while Japan have to pick themselves up and dust themselves off after defeat.

This is not to say they cannot do it. Takeshi Okada has demonstrated that he is able to motivate his players and his demeanor in the post-match interview last night was that of a man who was genuinely disappointed not to have gotten something from the game. The players roused themselves from their dismal preparation for this tournament by defeating Cameroon and now know they are just one more solid performance away from progressing to the second round.

The fact they only need a draw appears, on the face of it, as a positive. Two of three possible outcomes will see them through, and the fact that Denmark must come out for the win could leave them susceptible to counter-attacks – particularly without their defensive lynchpin Simon Kjaer, who will be suspended for the match. However, there is always a danger that the team who know a draw is enough sit back a little too much and eventually succumb to defeat.

While the 4-1-2-2-1 formation has worked for Japan to an extent, they have found it difficult to make the ball stick in their opponents’ half and, as such, have surrendered the lions’ share of possession. This is a dangerous game to play when the opposition need a victory though, and doubts still remain about whether Japan can hold out for the full 90 minutes (with, for instance, Yuji Nakazawa’s lack of pace being exposed on a couple of occasions against Holland).

It will be a tense night in Rustenburg (particularly if honours remain even going into the final 20 minutes or so) but if Japan can settle and avoid conceding early then there is a very real possibility that they could sneak a goal as Denmark become stretched. Of course, this is all ifs and buts, and a mistake, sending off or moment of magic from any of the 22 men on the field could turn the whole situation on its head.

What cannot be denied is the fact that they are in a fantastic position though, and one that they (and I) would certainly have taken before the tournament kicked off.

19
Jun
10

Preview of Japan v. Holland

A healthy body is associated with a healthy mind. In order to achieve our goals it is important to pay more attention to our inner-value.

These words are, of course, not my original thoughts; I am far from capable of forming such insightful comment, especially after just an hour-and-a-half of sleep.

They are instead the wise observations of the Dalai Lama, whose press conference I had the pleasure of attending this morning. (I hope that my sleep deprivation gave me the appearance of a man who had achieved a state of zen-like focus, rather than that of a fool who had sat up all night for the minute-by-minutes of England 0-0 Algeria.)

As Japan head into their second game of the World Cup this evening, the above struck me as rather apt. Before the tournament began the players and coaches couldn’t catch a break. Each poor performance and result was roundly criticised, morale dropped as a result, bringing about another poor performance and result, and it seemed like the team was there for the taking in Group E.

After the Cameroon game that has all changed though. The squad is rejuvenated and a sense of vigour, purpose and, most importantly, confidence is emanating out of the camp ahead of the difficult encounter with Holland. Talk is not just of eking out a point though, and there seems to be a certain amount of belief among the players that they could take all of the spoils in Durban. This would have been unimaginable just one week ago when the Samurai Blue were caught in the midst of a run of four defeats and a training ground draw with Zimbabwe and, while it is important not to get carried away, this new assuredness could be vital in gaining something from tonight’s match – even if it is just a point (and let’s face it, what a terrific just that would be).

The psychological aspects and pressure of top-level football are starting to be taken a lot more seriously and, as France, Spain, England, Italy and Germany can attest to, being a European superpower is no longer enough to ensure victory over a supposedly ‘lesser’ footballing nation.

If Japan can harness this spirit in the right way and maintain their momentum against the Dutch then they could be sitting very pretty going into the final game against Denmark on Thursday.  Of course, they must make sure they do not become over-confident and will want to avoid the same fate as South Korea who, after achieving victory in their opening match, were slain with some aplomb by Argentina on Thursday.

It should also be remembered that a loss tonight does not spell the end for Japan. If they are defeated it is important that they keep everything in perspective and stay strong mentally ahead of the possible make-or-break game with the Danes.

And what are the Dalai Lama’s thoughts on the World Cup?

“I have no interest in sports. I have been to watch cricket a few times and there are always thousands of people there but I have no idea what is going on or who is winning or losing. When I was young I played badminton and ping-pong a few times though.”

Oh. How’s that for an anticlimax? Let’s hope that the end product is more positive for Japan tonight eh?

18
Jun
10

Takeshi Okada and Roy Keane: Two peas in a pod?

In the build up to the World Cup fnals I decided that Japan’s head coach, Takeshi Okada, had taken enough stick from the media and deserved a little support.

As a result I wrote an article for the Number 1 Shimbun, which can be accessed by following this link. (It can either be read as a webpage or you can download the magazine as a pdf.)

http://www.fccj.or.jp/publications/no1shimbun

15
Jun
10

Japan 1-0 Cameroon

Needless to say it was sunny today, gloriously so. The umbrellas were still out in patches (well, you don’t want to get sunstroke do you?) but Japan seemed to have awoken anew.

Well, ok, maybe that’s a slight overstatement but, still, the result last night has reinvigorated the appetite for the World Cup in the country. Keisuke Honda’s beaming, chiselled face adorned the front pages of every newspaper and the reams of inanity on my TV were interrupted by far more utterances of the words ‘warudo’ and ‘kappu’.

Fantastically, my worries ahead of the game were entirely needless and Mr. Okada had set his charges up perfectly for their opener. Every player on the pitch stuck doggedly to their task for the duration of the match, and although Cameroon came close on a couple of occasions they were never able to gain a real foothold on the game.

While Honda grabbed the headlines, goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima can also take a great deal of credit for the win, and his spectacular save in the dying moments of the match ensured that Japan kept their first clean sheet since shutting out Bahrain in March.

It really was one of those games when it is difficult to single out any one player though, and the team worked superbly as a unit to nullify the threat of their opponents.

Full-backs Yuto Nagatomo and Yuichi Komano hardly put a foot wrong, while Tulio and Yuji Nakazawa marshalled the heart of the defence impeccably, throwing themselves in the way of strikes from range and sweeping up whenever the danger seemed to have breached the back-line.

Yuki Abe was similarly solid in the holding role at the rear of midfield, snapping into tackles and disrupting any rhythm that Cameroon were attempting to build, while Yasuhito Endo and Makoto Hasebe each played their own game perfectly, keeping possession for Japan with a calmness that spread throughout the team.

Daisuke Matsui and Yoshito Okubo – two players often much-maligned while on international duty – were tireless, putting in impressive shifts down the flanks and providing their teammates with much-needed breathers as they carried the ball forward, drawing countless fouls from Cameroon and, in Matsui’s case, claiming an assist for the goal by man-of-the-match Honda.

The substitutes Kisho Yano and Shinji Okazaki slid seamlessly into the game, and while I was initially surprised to see two strikers coming on with the game so precariously balanced, their superb work-rate and forward-thinking instincts were far more useful for Japan than the less adventurous style of a defensive midfield replacement would have been.

Just as it seemed that the team was inviting a little too much pressure though, Mr. Okada did throw on such a player, and Junichi Inamoto added just enough bite and aggression in his short time on the pitch to ensure that Japan took home all three points.  

I personally don’t think anybody deserved the victory more than the head coach Takeshi Okada though. He has been slaughtered in the press almost constantly throughout his tenure and I am delighted that he has received his just rewards for sticking to his guns and refusing to bow to external pressures.

Many people were convinced (and indeed, seemed hopeful) that he would add three more losses to the trio of defeats Japan recorded during his first tenure as manager at the 1998 World Cup. That is now an impossibility and, regardless of what Japan do or don’t achieve in their next two (maybe more) matches at this tournament, he will instead always be the manager of the first Japanese team to record a World Cup finals win on foreign soil.

The highlight of the night for me was the shot of Mr. Okada – a man who does not often allow his emotions to get the better of him – fist clenched and smile unashamedly breakng out across his lips as Honda stabbed home the decisive goal. Good on you sir!

15
Jun
10

jong tae-se hopes to be the star of the show

The second installment of my interview with Korea DPR’s Jong Tae-se is now available at the-AFC.com:

If you would like to read it then please follow this handy link.

 http://www.the-afc.com/en/component/content/article/29362-jongs-dream-about-to-become-reality




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