Archive for November, 2011

30
Nov
11

It’s good to talk

Everybody makes mistakes. Why on earth don’t we talk about them though?

One of the things I enjoy most about league football is the way that everything is interrelated. What happens – or doesn’t (more on which shortly) – in one game can affect the fortunes of a team who are not even playing.

The end of the season is the most exciting and complex time to consider this relationship, with almost every game having a bearing on events elsewhere.

The final result of a match is the most obvious example of this – if Team A loses to Team B then Team C can stay top/escape relegation etc. – but there are countless other incidents that can also have knock-on effects.

I find the lack of attention paid to these other details very frustrating.

Take, for example, the varied goings-on in Shizuoka in Round 32.

Reysol weren’t the quickest out of the traps and just before half-time S-Pulse took the lead courtesy of a trademark piledriver free-kick from Eddy Bosnar.

S-Pulse came out at the start of the second half with their tails up and should have had the chance to establish a two-goal lead when Genki Omae was clearly brought down in the penalty box. The referee, Hiroyoshi Takayama, disagreed and waved play on.

Now, it is common knowledge that referees make mistakes. I am not saying that as a criticism but simply as a fact. Everybody – referees, players, coaches, you, even me (occasionally) – makes mistakes.

I have been told on numerous occasions that Japanese people are terrified of doing so, though, and that people would far sooner say or do nothing at all than risk being wrong. To point out somebody else’s error is thus also seen as hugely disrespectful.

I understand this way of thinking to an extent, but, really, it’s complete nonsense. To make a mistake is not a bad thing. In fact, getting things wrong is often the best way to learn.

Once, for example, I was speaking with a friend before a game at NACK5 Stadium. It was the middle of the hanami season and you could see the cherry blossoms behind the stands in Omiya Park. I pointed in their direction and instead of saying “Sakura kirei ne?” (“the cherry blossoms are pretty, huh?”) I said “Sakana kirei ne?” (“the fish are pretty, huh?”)

Needless to say, I am now clearer on the difference between fish and cherry blossoms.

Mr. Takayama’s error and the far-reaching consequences it could have had (if Reysol lost Grampus would have remained top), were not discussed after the game though. The highlights I saw didn’t even show the incident, and the only mention it got was when the commentators were discussing the game statistics and laughingly referred to Afshin Ghotbi’s declaration that his side should have had a penalty.

There was another incident in the game that was also completely ignored, when it really ought to have been highlighted.

Leandro Domingues, undoubtedly this year’s MVP and a wonderful player to watch, caused a fracas on the touchline by flinging himself to the ground and attempting to get S-Pulse’s Calvin Jong-a-pin sent off, suggesting he had been hit in the face.

From my vantage point on the halfway line it looked like nothing more than a regular coming together, and Leandro’s actions were disappointing.

Unsavoury – although, let’s be honest, fun-to-watch – incidents such as these are not given coverage either though, and I don’t understand why.

Leandro, who is far from a stranger to the darker arts of the game – I saw him avoid a blatant red card for an elbow earlier in the season, too – was not asked for his version of events after the match, instead being dealt the regular, formulaic questions about positions and formations.

Just because neither he nor Jong-a-pin were punished in the game doesn’t mean the event didn’t warrant discussion.

In a similar way to that in which one game affects another, what we do and don’t discuss now impacts on the continued development of the Japanese game.

Ignoring mistakes and gamesmanship and attempting to sweep them under the carpet doesn’t mean that they will just go away. In fact, the less coverage they get, the more likely it is that they will keep occurring.

30
Nov
11

Overseas experience boosts Japan’s Olympic footing

Japan Under-22s took one step closer to the London Olympics after winning their two most recent qualifiers against Bahrain and Syria.

Former Kashiwa Reysol forward Yuki Otsu opened his international account with a goal in each victory, and I considered the impact of overseas experience on the next generation of Japanese internationals for The Daily Yomiuri.

23
Nov
11

Japan’s unbeaten record goes south in North Korea

A trip to Pyonyang is always going to be a difficult fixture. I can’t help but think that Japan let the atmosphere affect them a little too much though…

So, Alberto Zaccheroni’s unbeaten run as manager of Japan ended at 16 games.

As well as losing such a proud record the Samurai Blue also surrendered their title as Unofficial World Champions in the process – meaning that the North Koreans can now, justifiably (sort of), claim to be the best team in the world.

The run had to come to an end sometime, and the fact that it did so in the peculiar environment of the Kim Il Sung Stadium in Pyongyang is not actually so surprising.

The game was a dead rubber, with Japan assured of their passage to the next stage of qualification while North Korea had already become the first team to appear at the 2010 World Cup finals to be eliminated from the 2014 competition.

With that in mind Alberto Zaccheroni was able to experiment a little, and went into the game minus seven regular starters (including the injured Keisuke Honda).

While the outcome of the match wasn’t important, the Italian would still have been paying close attention to how his back-up players performed in such hostile surroundings though, and will certainly have taken note of several things.

Chief among them was the fact that the side seemed to be lacking in guts a little, and they were clearly affected by the intimidating atmosphere created by the fervent home support. From the moment that Kimigayo was vehemently booed the players, used to being pampered in their comfortable lives outside the hermit kingdom, struggled to focus on their game and were unable to build any kind of rhythm in an incredibly stop-start opening 15 minutes.

North Korea are a very physical outfit and didn’t hold back in any of their challenges, but while Zac suggested after the game that they had no need to worry about suspensions with their qualification campaign already over, that seemed to me like something of a weak excuse.

Some of the tackles were a little over-zealous but very few, if any, were especially dangerous, and if the Japanese players had matched their opponents for desire in the challenge then their hosts may well have backed down a little.

That didn’t happen though and, having realised that their combative tactics were causing Japan to retreat further into their shell, the North Koreans kept up their approach. This added further fuel to the home fans’ enthusiastic support and made Japan’s job even more difficult.

To an extent, the Japanese players’ trepidation was understandable, and even watching on TV I was fascinated by the scenes inside the stadium.

As well as the intricate card displays in the main stand grabbing my attention I was intrigued by the appearance and behaviour of the North Korean supporters.

With everybody dressed in uniforms or simple, prim-and-proper button-up shirts, and sporting conservative, no-nonsense hairstyles it reminded me a little of archive footage of English football fans from the 60s.

The impression of travelling back in time was added to by their behaviour after the goal, with the excited clapping and broad smiles also reminiscent of a bygone era.

These finer points will almost certainly have passed the players by, but the palpable desire of everybody in the stadium to beat Japan was clear for all to see. The celebrations after the final whistle drove home just how much more the North Koreans wanted the win than their opponents, as did the fact that the big screen behind the goal did not deviate from the score even as the supporters finally made their way to the exits.

It is said that you learn more in defeat than victory, and Zac will also now be aware of the fact that the team needs to improve on its travels. They may be able to perform in the exhibition-match niceness of the Kirin Cup and lambs-to-the-slaughter visits of the likes of Tajikistan, but when they are away from home the side looks less comfortable.

The unique atmosphere of Pyongyang is, of course, not going to be experienced anywhere else in the world, and there is no need to panic.

Tricky away fixtures are sure to be on the cards in the next round of qualifiers as well though, and lessons can and should be learned from this disappointment before they come around.

16
Nov
11

Former Arsenal star Ljungberg aims high with S-Pulse

Freddie Ljungberg’s arrival at Shimizu S-Pulse was completely unexpected and served to revitalise the side in the second half of the 2011 J.League season.

Last week I sat down with the former Sweden captain to find out why he chose to come to Japan and what he is looking to achieve in his time here.

16
Nov
11

Difference between Dwight and wrong

Sometimes, if nothing else is working, bringing in a new coach and some fresh ideas can be just what the doctor ordered. All too often these days football clubs jump to this last resort a little too quickly though…

Sir Alex Ferguson, probably the most successful manager ever, has just celebrated his 25th anniversary in charge of Manchester United.

He has been on the bench for over 1,400 matches, and, despite a difficult start at the club, things clicked into place in his fourth season when United won the FA Cup in 1990.

Three years later, his seventh as manager, United finally won the league and, in his quarter of a century at the helm to-date, 37 trophies have been won – including 12 Premier League titles.

Now, of course, Sir Alex is a freak and it would be ridiculous to compare the fate of 99% of the world’s other managers with him.

However, his record and the patience with which he was treated in his early days at United do raise an interesting question: was he given time because those in charge sensed success, or did the achievements come about because he was given time?

Football has changed in many ways since Sir Alex took the reins at a struggling United in 1986. The increasing effect of money on the sport and the consequent – and ridiculous – expectations of sponsors and supporters mean that it would be very difficult to display such loyalty in the modern era.

However, constantly chopping and changing the guy in charge does not mean you will enjoy success, as two of the J.League’s biggest clubs have recently demonstrated.

Urawa Reds have struggled since they won the Asian Champions League in 2007. This has been by far their worst season in recent years, and they had little choice but to fire Zeljko Petrovic after their former player led them into the heart of the relegation battle (and particularly after he announced to the media his decision to quit at the end of the season before informing his bosses).

That does mean they have had four head coaches in as many years since they became kings of the continent though, and you can’t help but wonder how much better off they’d have been if they’d given one of their German coaches another season or two to build a team.

A more bizarre example is provided by JEF United who, the day after Petrovic was sacked, announced that their coach Dwight Lodeweges was also on his way.

At the time, despite having lost two games in a row, JEF were just three points away from a place in J1.

They may have been disappointed not to be more certain of a return to the top-flight, but even before the season had started Dwight had told me that promotion to J1 was not being taken for granted.

“I do want promotion, absolutely. I’ve got no idea how real that is, I mean, can we?” he said. “I’m more or less busy with putting a foundation underneath this team and building from there. I’m not really looking at J1, I’m looking at how do I get the team better. And if that is enough to get promotion, yeah, beautiful. If not, maybe it’ll take another year.”

He also touched upon the club’s fall from grace prior to his arrival, suggesting that perhaps those in the front office had not made the best decisions.

“You’ve got to wonder, you’ve got to analyse what has happened there. Not from me because I wasn’t here in the past, but I think if you’re the club.”

Those at the top may have been far from enthralled with the style of football, but to replace him with technical director Sugao Kanbe at such a crucial point of the season was bewildering. And it didn’t work.

The three games they played after giving Lodeweges the boot yielded just two points and one goal, effectively condemning JEF to the second division for a third straight season.

In an earlier column on promotion from J2 I quoted Dwight who had said, “It’s not just a name that brings you back or does well or keeps you in J1. We have to do the right things.” Never has that seemed a more fitting observation.

Both Reds and JEF, with their trigger-happy approaches to recruitment, should provide a lesson to other aspiring clubs.

While it is important to keep things fresh and avoid stagnation, consistency is often key. Sometimes change is not for the best.

12
Nov
11

Okashi(i)

In my opinion, the Nabisco is very much a cup half empty…

The Japanese word for snacks, okashi, is strikingly similar to the word for strange, okashii. With that in mind it is particularly fitting that the J.League Cup – a pretty bizarre competition – is sponsored by the confectionary company Nabisco.

This year’s final was contested by two teams who have been having far from their best seasons – as indeed it invariably is.

The three previous showpieces – which admittedly are great occasions and generate a terrific atmosphere – have seen Jubilo Iwata, FC Tokyo and Oita Trinita emerge triumphant.

None of those sides were seriously challenging on any other fronts at the time, and for the latter two the tournament actually appeared to be something of a curse as they suffered relegation to J2 in the season following their victories.

While the teams that are in with a chance of winning the league or even the Emperor’s Cup – which carries the huge, and fitting, bonus of an ACL spot – focus on frying their bigger fish, the also-rans are left to fight over the crumbs.

Kashima Antlers will have been delighted to get one over their old rivals and pick up yet another trophy at Reds’ expense, but they would surely rather have been battling it out for the league title or to become the Kings of Asia.

Indeed, this was the first time that Oswaldo Oliveira had won the Nabisco Cup – the only domestic trophy he hadn’t collected in his time at the club – and while he will no doubt be happy to have collected the full set, he must also be feeling a little disheartened that Antlers are now having to settle for the smaller trinkets.

He even hinted at as much after the final, telling reporters in the press conference that, “because we are no longer in a realistic position to win the league we had a responsibility to win a title and so perhaps I focused on this competition a little more than I usually would.”

It could be argued that Reds deserved to win the championship more than Antlers, though.

Yes, they were largely outplayed in the final and the game was effectively ended as a spectacle with the over-enthusiastic refereeing of Mr. Tojo (Naoki’s first caution was a little harsh – although he, admittedly, knew he had received it and was stupid to fly in for the second tackle – while Aoki’s second yellow card was truly bizarre), but they had worked three times as hard as their opponents to get to the final.

Kashima had played just two matches prior to the clash at Kokuritsu, while Urawa contested six – all of which they won.

Teams with commitments in continental competition usually have their workload lightened, and this year the difference was more extreme because of the rearranged schedule after the earthquake but such a large disparity is very odd.

There has been talk of including J2 in the tournament from next season and I personally think that would be a great idea and could really inject some life into the competition.

Many factors – sponsors’ interests and club’s budgets chief among them – need to be taken into account but as a simple suggestion, my version of the League Cup would look something like this.

Eight groups of four teams, four consisting of three from J2 and one from J1, four with two from each division. Each team would play three matches and the winner of each group plus the best two runners up would progress to the next round.

Here they would be joined by the previous season’s top four from J1 and the reigning Emperor’s Cup and Nabisco Cup champions. (If the cup winners also finished in the top four then 5th and 6th from J1 would take their byes. If a J2 team won either or both cups then only 18 or 19 second division sides would be in the group stage with 14 or 13 from J1).

From that point on it would be a simple one-legged knockout competition from an unseeded draw.

The J.League is keen to expand and improve the credibility of its second division, and this format would certainly provide J2 sides with more exposure, as well as opportunities to test themselves against stronger opponents.

There would, admittedly, still be a slight discrepancy in the number of games teams play, but it would make for a slightly more even playing field, and the tournament could truly be considered as the “J.League Cup” – a tournament worth winning.

04
Nov
11

Raising the stakes

Three teams are neck and neck as we head towards the final straight of the 2011 J.League season. With Kashiwa Reysol, Gamba Osaka and Nagoya Grampus matching wins with wins it looks like being a case of who blinks first…

Here we go again. The climax of the J.League season is upon us and as is almost always the case (last year excepted) it is looking like going right down to the wire.

Heading into the last four games things are perfectly poised with three teams neck and neck for the title.

Kashiwa Reysol have the narrowest of advantages in pole position, but with Gamba Osaka two points behind and Nagoya Grampus just one further back the slightest slip-up by anybody could prove fatal.

All three teams have proven they have the ability – never losing two games in a row, recording the most victories in the division, and, along with free-scoring, free-conceding Cerezo Osaka, scoring the most goals – but now it comes down to more than that.

When the chips are down, guts are crucial.

In the last round Grampus showed they have the stomach for a fight, and after their victory over Omiya Ardija Dragan Stojkovic was particularly pleased with his players’ ability to keep going.

“For us the most important thing is that we found the energy, we found our belief to give us the result and to bring three points home,” an exhausted Pixi said after watching his side go from 1-0 up to 2-1 down before eventually triumphing 3-2.

“I really wanted to play with all the cards on the table, nothing in my pocket and everything on the table. I think this tactic and this idea gave us the result.”

Reysol didn’t fold under pressure either and managed to keep their noses just in front, refusing to panic after their old-boy Tadanari Lee gave Sanfrecce a second half lead in Hiroshima and coming back to win 3-1.

That was the sixth time this season that the Sun Kings had recorded a victory after conceding first, and when I spoke to Hiroki Sakai a couple of days before the match he mentioned how important that ability had been to the side.

“If you compare it with last year we didn’t get many wins from losing positions,” he said. “This year, even if we are losing I still feel as though we can win the game though, and this gives confidence to the players.”

After their comprehensive 4-1 defeat to Grampus in Round 29 Gamba faced a tricky fixture against Montedio – a team fighting for their J1 place and which Akira Nishino’s men hadn’t beaten on either of their previous trips to Yamagata.

Their confidence and composure showed no signs of having been dented though – even without their ace, Yasuhito Endo – and their emphatic 5-0 win upped the ante in the title race.

Grampus may have been forced to go all in against Ardija, but when you have their strength-in-depth – the double change that turned things in their favour saw Kensuke Nagai and Mu Kanazaki introduced – that was not particularly risky.

Utilising the fullness of their impressive squad was key to Nagoya being crowned champions last season, and the fact that they were able to last the pace then should serve them will this time around.

Reysol also secured a championship last season though, so can see Grampus in that respect.

However, both teams wrapped their titles up with games to spare so the action wasn’t quite as intense last year as it is right now.

Gamba, too, are more than used to being in and around the top table come the final stages, and have only finished outside of the top three once in the past seven seasons.

Impressive as this is, they have claimed the jackpot just once.

Furthermore, while they held their nerve impressively amongst five hopefuls in 2005, that title was effectively sealed by a last-gasp Yasuyuki Konno goal for FC Tokyo against Cerezo who were on the cusp of the championship themselves.

So, it really is nigh-on impossible to choose a favourite and we are set for a gripping ride all the way to the finish.

My tip to claim the pot? Well, I have a sneaking suspicion about one of them but as my dark-horse (Omiya) and top-scorer (Carlao) predictions go to show, I think it’s probably best for all concerned that I don’t show my hand this time.

04
Nov
11

Osako strike gives Antlers Nabisco title

Neither Kashima Antlers or Urawa Reds have been having thir best season in the J.League in 2011.

The two sides did make it to the Nabisco Cup final though, where it took 120 minutes to decide the victor.

04
Nov
11

The Mixed Zone with…Hiroki Sakai

Last season’s J2 champions Kashiwa Reysol are still on course to complete incredible back-to-back league championships.

A couple of weeks ago I spoke to the side’s young right back, Hiroki Sakai, as part of my series for the J.League website, The Mixed Zone with… 




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