Archive for May, 2011

27
May
11

One step Atsu time

Although Atsuto Uchida didn’t make it to the Champions League final this time around, his progression, and that of many other Japanese players, suggests it won’t be long before a member of the Samurai Blue is contesting the biggest game in club football.

This weekend is the Champions League final. While Park Ji-sung’s participation means there will be one former J.League player on the once-hallowed-but-now-just-dangerous Wembley turf, we were tantalizingly close to having the first ever Japanese player in the final this season.

Atsuto Uchida’s Schalke may have been unceremoniously dumped from the competition by Manchester United in the semi-finals thanks to a combination of naïve tactics by their coach Ralph Rangnick (who, it turns out, once attended my University in England and played in the same county football league as me) and a gulf in overall quality between the sides, but the player’s rapid progression should not be underestimated.

Just over 12 months ago I sat down with “Ucchi” after his Kashima Antlers side had beaten Montedio Yamagata 3-1 in the J.League.  The right-back was in a relaxed and friendly mood, and after some small talk about his birthday – he turned 22 that day – we moved onto the prospects that lay ahead for him, about which he was clearly excited. 

He was not able to talk openly about a transfer to Europe at the time, but it was clear that there were possibilities opening up for him, and with the World Cup finals also on the horizon things were looking good.

Although an untimely injury (and the excellent form of first Yasuyuki Konno and then Yuichi Komano when filling in for him) meant he didn’t get on the pitch in South Africa, the move to Europe did materialize, and in July he bade farewell to Kashima and joined the ever-growing exodus of J.League talent moving to the Bundesliga.

While Uchida’s potential was never in doubt I did have my reservations about his lightweight style in the far more aggressive environs of the European game, and these concerns were added to when he displayed an apparent lack of belief in his own abilities when I pressed him on which clubs he fancied signing for.

I reeled off the names of some teams and asked if he would like to play for them, and at the mention of Manchester United he said, “No, I’m not ready for that level yet,” before grinning and following up with, “That’s a typical Japanese answer, huh?!”

And it is. Or at least, it was.

Since moving to Schalke shortly after the World Cup he has become a fixture in the side’s first XI, and no doubt boosted by this he also regained his starting berth for the Samurai Blue and was an integral part of Zac’s Asian Cup winning team in Qatar in January.

Such drastic improvement is becoming a recurring theme of late, and the likes of Shinji Kagawa – not so long ago a J2 player with Cerezo Osaka – and Yuto Nagatomo – last season a member of the ultimately-relegated FC Tokyo side – are also forging impressive reputations in the biggest leagues.

Anyway, we found out if Uchida was “at that level yet” in the semi-final against United and, sadly, it seems that he was right.

However, while he struggled – along with his teammates, including the esteemed Raul – to cope with United’s vast experience in the competition, his mental approach to the game certainly seemed to have improved and he was far more self-assured and confident in his ability.

Speaking to Kyodo ahead of the first leg, for instance, he declared, “I’m a professional footballer just like they (Manchester United’s players) are. I can’t allow myself to be intimidated if I want to do my job.”

Such spirit was a far cry from the self-effacing response at Kashima Stadium a year earlier, and this was evident again in his comments after the second leg at Old Trafford, when he dismissed claims that to get to the Best 4 was a great achievement in itself.

“I wanted to win,” he said. “It was only the people around who were saying that to get to the semi-final was good enough. The players all wanted to win.” 

He may still be a little short of the elite in world football, then, but if his perception of himself continues to grow and he carries on maturing as he has over the past year then another graduation is surely not beyond him.

19
May
11

Tochigi top of the tree

I didn’t plan my trip properly but was very impressed on my visit to Tochigi; a club that seems to have a much greater sense of direction than I do…

 

My old P.E. teacher always used to say, “Fail to prepare and prepare to fail”, and it turns out I really should have listened more in school. 

Last Sunday morning I was up bright and early to go and check out the surprise early leaders of J2, Tochigi SC.

Having initially intended to go to the game with a friend (who cancelled the night before) I hadn’t done anything in the way of planning, and set off half-asleep for Tochigi station.

The more eagle-eyed among you will have noticed my error: Tochigi, of course, play nowhere near Tochigi station, they actually play close to (well, a fairly substantial bus journey from) Utsunomiya station.

Anyhow, while sleep-walking my way to Shinnakano I was blissfully unaware of this. As I got closer to my destination I did start to wonder why there weren’t many people on the train (except for an Indonesian guy who chatted me up and asked for my number on the way to Itakuratoyodaimae), but seeing as it was still a good few hours before kick-off I wasn’t too worried.

My first attempts to research where the team played only came after I’d got off at Tochigi, and a quick check online and a plea on twitter soon had me on my way.

Thankfully, despite my error, I still made it to the wonderful Tochigi Green Stadium before kick-off, and was even honoured with a personal escort to the press entrance (who radio-ed through that there was a “gaijin free-writer” trying to get in. I nearly joked that I was actually a gaikokujin but didn’t know how long I’d have to be walking with him so resisted the urge).

Although I’d aimed to arrive an hour-and-a-half earlier I still had a little time to soak up the atmosphere, and enjoyed a bit of banter with the fans behind the goal in the home end before bumping into (a hot and sweaty) Kazu as he came off after the warm-up.

I also had a chat with my friend from Yokohama FC who said he was there because the team hadn’t been doing so well lately and that he might be needed after the game to apologise to and appease the fans if they lost again.

Thankfully there were no major problems, although within seconds of me taking my seat things didn’t look too promising for him, as young centre-back Park Tae-hong headed a cross from the right-wing past a stranded Kentaro Seki and into his own net.  

The goalkeeper at the other end, Hiroyuki Takeda, had a much better start to the afternoon, and reacted well on several occasions to keep the home side in front.

The last time I had seen Tochigi in action was back in 2009 when they were in a completely different situation and were rooted to the bottom of J2. I was impressed with the energy and positive play of the rejuvenated side, with them looking to break as soon as they were in possession. Their enthusiasm to get forward did mean that decisions were often rushed though, and there was a fairly high turnover of possession.

On occasion it would have made sense for them to just keep the ball and slow down the pace a little, although for the neutral such a gung-ho approach made for a far more exciting game.

Their vulnerability on the counter-attack was eventually taken advantage of when Yokohama sub Yosuke Nozaki won the away side a penalty after a great run down the left wing shortly after coming on at half-time.

The injection of his creativity certainly livened up a fairly ordinary Yokohama side, but Tochigi continued to buzz around the pitch and their winner, a Hirofumi Watanabe header in the 74th minute, was richly deserved.

It is still very early in the season and as injuries come into play and teams become familiar with Tochigi’s style they will certainly have to improve to make a real push for J1.

If they can maintain this level of performance they do have the potential to mount a serious challenge though, and they certainly have a clear idea of where they are aiming for. Which is a lot more than can be said for me.

18
May
11

The Back Post – Wasted time waffling over Copa

First they were going to the Copa America, then they weren’t, then they were again…

Anyway, now they’re not so I thought someone should ask the JFA why it took quite so long to decide.

14
May
11

Derby day out

I went to the Tokyo derby and while the atmosphere was in fitting with occasion, the football was some way off…

Officially this was one of the most eagerly anticipated games of the season. 

Yes, it was happening in J2 but the Tokyo derby was back. FC Tokyo’s recently humbled stars were coming face-to-face with Tokyo’s ‘original’ club (if we ignore that whole starting-in-Kawasaki bit) for the first time in three years.

To be honest though, I went along more out of a sense of obligation than expectation. 

I’d been at Ajista for FC Tokyo’s previous game against Consadole and it was dire. Tokyo (red and blue) and Consadole (white) had served up a poor-man’s El Clasico, complete with slow approach play, poor refereeing and Brazilians overreacting. Unfortunately, nobody reprised the ‘Messi’ role and it ended as a drab 0-0.

Verdy, meanwhile, were alone with Tochigi as the only teams to have started with a 100% record in J2 – although they were probably slightly less happy with their three losses from three than the league leaders were with their trio of victories.

Still, it was Golden week, it was Greenery Day (which the pre-match VT took much glee in promoting, to the ire of the away support), and it was a derby. As the original Clasico so wonderfully demonstrated, a game needn’t be technically gripping if the drama can be provided elsewhere.

And things started fairly well. The teams were greeted by nearly 30,000 supporters, the home fans (although, really, there was no such thing as a home team) unfurled a “Real Tokyo” banner to taunt their Johnny-come-lately neighbours, and the match started at a fairly frenetic pace.

After an end-to-end start when Verdy should have had a penalty and Kajiyama should have scored for Tokyo, both teams began to surrender possession far too easily, although Verdy certainly looked the most likely to score.

An FC Tokyo fan I’d spoken to before kick-off confessed he wasn’t holding out much hope for the match and expected the Gas Men to be 1-0 down at half-time and to go on to lose 3-0. I told him to do his best but he replied simply, “It’s not up to us to do our best; it’s up to the players.”

And these fears seemed well-placed as his team struggled to cope with the positive, probing runs of Hiroki Kawano who was steadily establishing himself as the best player on the pitch by some distance.

Half-time came and went without any goals, but shortly after the break the game’s decisive incident occurred.

Roberto Cesar, who had been booked in the first half (and was lucky not to receive a second yellow straight away for showing a complete lack of respect to the referee), burst towards the Verdy penalty area and then flung himself embarrassingly to the ground after minimal, if any contact. A deserved red card, and game on. Although not in the way I’d expected.

Rather than looking to make the most of their one-man advantage Verdy seemed happy to settle for the 0-0 and cut-back on their expansive forays into the Tokyo half.

This approach certainly livened up the occasion, primarily because it enabled Tokyo to create chance after chance. Yazawa had a goal correctly disallowed for handball and Kiyoshi Okuma marched repetitively from the bench, shouted at someone then strode back to his seat swigging water and ruffling his hair. Verdy keeper Doi invited pressure from Suzuki when dallying in possession and was extremely lucky to see the ball squirt up into his arms, then he got injured and sub forward Kazuki Hiramoto had to pull on the jersey as the closing minutes were played out 10 v. 10.

No goals but plenty of talking points, then, and the match was tense, enjoyable and fairly draining.

However, while this is fine for the neutrals, the reactions of both sets of fans demonstrate just how far these two teams are from where they want to be.

The Verdy players were applauded enthusiastically for picking up a point against 10 fairly unimpressive men, while FC Tokyo were jeered from the pitch after their second 0-0 in a row.

I’ll certainly be going to the Tokyo derby again, although, on this evidence, it looks like the fixture will be staged in the second tier for a  while yet.




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