Archive for May, 2012

30
May
12

Feeling down

It’s a league where anyone can beat anyone. Unless you’re Consadole Sapporo, it seems…

Regular readers may remember that around this time last year I travelled to Sapporo in the hope of watching a game at the Dome. 

The schedule changes brought about by the earthquake sadly meant that wasn’t possible, but a trip to Miyanosawa (and a couple of bars in the city) left a positive impression so a couple of weeks ago I headed north to pay Consadole another visit. 

This time I was able to see a game at the World Cup venue, but even though the visitors FC Tokyo won 1-0 I am still yet to see a goal there.

After taking plenty of pictures around the venue (including one, of course, from behind the goal where David Beckham scored that awful (yet brilliant) penalty against Argentina in 2002) I had to hurry up to the press seats and missed the kick-off.

By the time I got there Kajiyama had already put Tokyo ahead (in the goal I’d just been crouched behind), and some great saves by Shuichi Gonda and awful misses by the Consadole front-line meant that was to be it as far as the scoring went.

That summed up the home side’s season so far, and as many predicted they have struggled to pick up points back in the top-flight.

When I spoke to their manager, Nobuhiro Ishizaki, ahead of the season he anticipated such difficulty, and stated that his aim was purely to keep the club in J1.

“The target is not to be relegated in the first season, which happens often,” he said.

“If a team manages to stay up, the players gain experience and it all gets much easier. The most important thing is to manage to stay in J1.”

In recent seasons unfancied sides promoted from J2 have caused a few surprises, and I had a sneaking suspicion that Consadole may have been the one to do so in 2012.

Of course we know how reliable my predictions are, and it turns out to have been Sagan Tosu who have carried their strong form up with them.

All is not lost yet, but things are not looking too good for the side and it’s vital they improve quickly if they want to stand any chance of avoiding an instant return to the second division.

Defender Jade North was understandably downbeat after the defeat to his former side, although he pointed out that, up to and including that game, Consadole had yet to be truly taken apart.

“It comes to a point where you think “what do we have to do to pick up points?” It’s not as if we’ve been losing by big scores, we fight right to the death, but…”

I suggested that, in a strange way, it may actually be better to get hammered 4- or 5-0, as that makes it easier to identify the things that need improving, and he could well have been paying attention as the team’s next game was the horrendous 7-0 reverse at Kashima Antlers.

That result will produce one of two outcomes: either it strips the players of any remaining confidence they may have had and they will slide inevitably to their doom, or, alternatively – and, admittedly, less likely – it will shock them into action.

“I think anyone can beat anyone on the day,” North told me after the Tokyo game. “It’s all about who turns up.

“For us now it’s battling to stay up. We’re just over a third of the way through.

“I think it becomes a mental thing after a while. With us at the moment it’s just hard to find that win. When you’re losing you forget how to win sometimes.”

The psychological drain of consecutive defeats is undoubtedly the largest hurdle to overcome, but North is not feeling sorry for himself and is well aware of what he and his teammates need to do to change their luck.

“We’ve got to find that winning mentality. Just pick ourselves up and roll our sleeves up.”

If they can do that and start to rack up some points soon you never know what effect that may have on the teams just above them.

They’ll have to be quick about it though, as they’ve given their rivals a hell of a headstart.

23
May
12

Hopeless

When all’s lost, there’s always hope. Why? Why can’t there just be nothing…

As the cliché goes, it’s the hope that kills you.

Bearing that in mind, as a Manchester United fan I had done my best not to have any; I was hopeless, you could say.

Even when United were eight points clear with just six games to go I refused to say that it was over – that the twentieth title was in the bag.

I remember a Japanese friend laughing at my hesitancy, and deep down I have to admit that it felt as good as done.

But as good as done is not good enough, and with each subsequent game things started to slowly unravel.

Defeat to Wigan was a hiccup, but Sir Alex would surely give the team a kick up the arse and have them back in gear again for the next game.

And that he did, they beat Villa and were then at home to Everton. 4-2 up with seven minutes to go, it looked like another step towards an improbable triumph – don’t forget, United themselves had made up a five-point gap on their “noisy neighbours” Manchester City to establish their lead on the final straight.

But again they messed up, and two goals conceded in three minutes turned a vital three points into one and, in my opinion (and that of Patrice Evra), cost them the title.

As I so often touch upon when discussing the J.League, the psychological aspects of football are absolutely crucial, and that slip-up undoubtedly threw the players off their concentration and introduced nervousness at the worst possible time.

Next came the derby with City, and with their expensively-assembled squad sensing blood the unthinkable came true and they ground out the win that took them back to the top of the table.

But, don’t forget, there’s always hope. Goddammit, there’s always hope.

Both teams won their next games meaning it would all be decided on the final day of the season.

Thankfully City were at home to QPR though, so it was inevitable they’d win and take the title. I didn’t have to get my hopes up.

Things progressed as expected and they took a first half lead through their Argentinean full-back Pablo Zabaleta. Still, with United also leading against Sunderland, just one goal would send the trophy to the red half of Manchester instead.

There it was again, like those annoying and unavoidable Japanese politicians who drive down your street repeating nothing but their name over and over again; always in the background.

And just after half-time somebody decided to turn the volume up. Djibril Cisse equalised for QPR and United went top. I refused to celebrate or be tricked into anything though, knowing full well that Mark Hughes’ side wouldn’t be able to hold on for the best part of 40 minutes.

My heart-rate was helped a little by Joey Barton a few minutes later, bless him, when he did what he does best and acted like an absolute bell-end to get himself sent off before trying to start a fight with half of the city of Manchester as he left the pitch.

“Ok, just as I thought, there’s no chance. The title’s City’s.”

Then the car stopped right outside my apartment. The noise was deafening and it was all but impossible to ignore: Jamie Mackie had put QPR ahead. City needed two goals.

By this point I don’t mind admitting I was in quite a state. I couldn’t sit still but had nowhere to go. Time couldn’t move quickly enough. In fact, I felt sure it wasn’t moving at all.

All I knew was that I couldn’t do it. Whatever it took I wasn’t to think about it. It was impossible. City were going to win.

But 90 minutes were up. It was still 2-1 to QPR and I did it, I gave in to hope. And that was it. A couple of minutes, a couple of goals and everything was snatched away.

I said that the draw with Everton was what cost the title but I can’t help but feel I’m also partly to blame. I was seduced and – to return to my laboured metaphor – I returned a wave to that irritant and his incessantly-smiling cronies in their white gloves, and I paid the price.

I certainly won’t let it happen again.

I hope.

22
May
12

S-Pulse among new contenders as old guard struggles

The J.League is steadily earning a reputation for being an open and competitive division. The first third of this season has been no exception, and while some of the bigger clubs struggle in the lower-reaches of the table several unfancied sides are leading the way in J1.

On Saturday I was at Saitama Stadium to see two of these sides – Urawa Reds and Shimizu S-Pulse – go head-to-head, and gathered some thoughts from those involved on their title chances in 2012.

16
May
12

All bets are off

When it comes to calling the outcome of games my luck has been well and truly out of late. Then again, is anybody able to predict what will happen in the J.League…? 

I’m tempted to give up.

I always like to try and call the outcome of games with fellow journalists and fans ahead of matches, but in recent weeks almost every single prediction I have made has been wrong.

Perhaps worryingly for somebody in my profession my woeful inaccuracy is actually starting to become something of a defining characteristic.

I have never been one to benefit financially from betting on games, at university I used to buy a weekly “accumulator” – where a couple of pounds could become hundreds if the outcome of a handful of matches was correctly guessed – without ever coming close to striking it lucky.

Granted, I never did quite as badly as a friend who burst into the living room one Saturday afternoon with a list of about 20 matches which would have earned him tens of thousands, only to discover that the first one had already finished unfavourably, but my poor form did continue with my first few Toto attempts in Japan.

I’m now ¥100 a week better off after kicking that habit.

Rather surprisingly considering my lack of form in the field, last season I provided J.League game previews for a sports gambling website, part of which involved me having to guess the result.

After the first two rounds I had a fairly poor record and was reminded that my success rate would have an impact on whether or not I held onto the job.

I usually try my best to take negative feedback on board, but not that time.

I pointed out to my employer that part of the beauty of football – particularly in Japan – is that you never know for sure who is going to come out on top, before adding that the entire betting industry is built upon the premise of people thinking they know what is going to happen when they don’t.

They said they understood and I didn’t receive any more complaints – although, as I said, I no longer have that job. Hmm…

Anyway, thankfully it is not only me who struggles, and J.League players, too, are bemused by the lack of predictability in their division.

I recently interviewed Urawa Reds’ Tomoaki Makino, and he cited the erratic results in J1 as his favourite aspect of the domestic league.

“Compared to other leagues you don’t know which team is going to become champions,” he said.

“In Spain it is Barcelona or Real, Germany is Bayern or Dortmund. Japan is not like that. Every team has a chance to win the league. That’s the best, most interesting thing about football in Japan.”

Makino’s former Sanfrecce teammate Mihael Mikic agrees that the almost random nature of results makes for a fascinating competition.

“It’s unbelievable. At the beginning of this year I was thinking about who can be champions, and I thought it would be maybe from five or six teams,” the Croatian told me after his team’s 4-1 win over Kawasaki Frontale moved them into second place.

“Then I was thinking about who will go to J2. I thought maybe Sapporo, Tosu and, I was thinking third, I don’t know.

“But now Tosu is up and only Sapporo stays [lower down], so I don’t know who will go to J2 next year! It’s unbelievable how this league is so close.”

The three most recent champions – Kashiwa Reysol, Nagoya Grampus, and Kashima Antlers – all found themselves in the bottom half of the division after ten games, while unfancied sides such as Tosu, Shimizu S-Pulse and, of course, early pacesetters Vegalta Sendai are riding high.

It is tempting to suggest that those clubs will of course slip-up at some point soon, and that the natural order will be resumed, but recent seasons suggest that may not be the case.

Nobody expected Reysol to be so consistently good last year (or appalling this), for example, and Mikic feels that psychology is vital.

“I think this year the race will be very, very tight and who keeps their nerve and their confidence will win the league.”

Well, I think it’s fair to say that I’m losing my nerve, and my confidence is shot so perhaps I should give the predictions a rest for a while and just enjoy the games?

10
May
12

The Mixed Zone with…Tomoaki Makino

For the latest installment of my interview series on the J.League website I chatted with Urawa Reds and Japan defender Tomaki Makino.

Amongst other things he spoke about his year playing in Germany and subsequent return to the J.League, his role for the national team, and just what Japanese players need to do to be successful overseas.

08
May
12

On the spot

It is often assumed that penalty kicks are foregone conclusions, and some even suggest that strikers who inflate their scoring ratios from 12-yards should have their hauls judged accordingly. If you ask me that’s ridiculous… 

This week I want to take the opportunity to discuss the issue of penalty kicks.

Josh Kennedy, the J.League’s top-scorer for the past two seasons, has often had his achievement questioned in some quarters because of the fact that he is Nagoya Grampus’s penalty taker and thus is assumed to have an advantage in the race for the golden boot (and hideous sponsors’ trinkets).

Personally, I’ve always felt that was nonsense and recent events have served to back me up.

Three former World Player of the Year winners – Kaka, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – all failed from 12-yards in their Champions League semi-finals, and their misses prove that penalties are far from being as good as a goal.

When I played football back in England I was generally used as a fairly ineffective defender.

Because of that I wasn’t exactly a regular on the scoresheet, and any chances that did fall my way tended to end up anywhere but the back of the net.

However, when it came to penalties as an enthusiastic teenager I was always first to raise my hand.

I can still remember the first time I volunteered to take a spot-kick as part of a penalty shoot-out when I would have been 17 or so.

Several of my more attack-minded (and more talented) older teammates weren’t keen to have a go so I offered my services.

My manager pretended not to hear me and asked again who fancied one.

I again raised my hand and said I’d take the fifth kick – I fancied a bit of glory.

After realising no one else was going to volunteer he grudgingly accepted and I duly tucked my kick away and we won the game.

At the time I really couldn’t work out why my teammates were so nervous. To me it was just like completing a pass to a teammate. The goal wasn’t far away, all I had to do was pass the ball to the corner before the keeper got there; nothing to it.

Another penalty shoot-out came about and I again took last and again scored the winner. Having proved it wasn’t a fluke I was then installed as the team’s regular penalty taker.

Of course, as we all know, in every story the protagonist suffers a fall just when everything seems to be going well.

I had grown up watching Eric Cantona coolly slot home penalty after penalty and until that point my youth and naivety meant I was so full of confidence I would score it never entered my mind that I might not.

A couple of penalties down the line those doubts did eventually surface.

It was a bit of a windy day and as I was placing the ball on the spot I heard a teammate comment to an opponent that there was no way I would miss.

“What if do miss?” I thought.

And that was it. Suddenly the goal seemed tiny, the keeper looked huge and the breeze appeared stronger. I doubted if I could even reach the goal-line, let alone cross it.

Needless to say my attempt was saved and my confidence from 12 yards evaporated.

The level I was playing at was completely inconsequential compared to a Champions League tie – perhaps a couple of dozen spectators and the odd dog – and while J.League games are also a step away from the very elite level, keeping your emotions in check in front of thousands of expectant or jeering fans is no mean feat.

I put the question to Kennedy himself after a Grampus game earlier this season and he, too, insisted that spot-kicks are far from straightforward.

“Penalties are harder to score than people think,” he said. “If I had the choice between a sort of half-chance in the game or a penalty I’d rather have a half-chance.”

The fact that there is thinking time adds to the pressure, and it is dealing with that, more than the technique, which separates those who can from those who can’t.

Therefore, nothing should be taken away from Kennedy or any other players who bolster their records from 12 yards.

The man himself put it best.

“At the end of the day they all count. They all win games and that’s how I see it.”

02
May
12

Makino gives Reds lift during loan stint

Last week I visited Urawa Reds’ training ground in Saitama to interview defender Tomoaki Makino.

He was keen to talk his future ambitions, J.League referees and the Olympics and you can read the full article here.

02
May
12

Seeing Red

Urawa Reds fans protesting after a frustrating defeat to Omiya Ardija was a little odd but, at the same time, it was nice to see a little bit of passion from J.League supporters…

In April I attended three consecutive derbies in the J.League, and it was only after the final of those had finished that I really experienced anything that resembled a clash between local rivals back in England.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the incident occurred after the Saitama Derby between Omiya Ardija and Urawa Reds, when Reds fans refused to let their team leave NACK5 Stadium.

Ardija had managed to hold onto an early two-goal lead and claimed their first ever home victory over Urawa.

Reds had been kept at bay after the Mighty Squirrels parked the metaphorical bus for the final hour, and once the post-match formalities had been completed and they tried to make their exit they were soon suffering from a far more literal problem.

Security had moved barriers in place inside the ground to stop the media from getting too close but, keen to see what was going on, I headed outside to where everybody was gathered.

There were perhaps 50 or so people stood behind a banner (I couldn’t read what it said as it was facing the bus) which had been stretched out across the exit.

I made my way into the group and got my phone out to take a picture. As I did so a guy next to me told me not to take pictures. I asked why and he merely repeated I shouldn’t take one.

I took one anyway, at which he merely tutted and said that it was nothing to do with him and that he’d warned me.

My intention had been to tweet the image as I wanted to let people know what was going on. Such actions are very rare in Japan and I was sure the incident would be of interest.

If I’ve learned one thing from The Simpsons, though, it’s that you should never antagonise an angry mob, so in the end I decided against making the image public and just posted details of what was happening.

The group were not booing – in fact they were almost completely silent – and were just displaying the banner. Then I heard voices.

Head coach Mihailo Petrovic and club captain Yuki Abe had gotten off the bus and begun a dialogue with those in their way. This was fairly cyclical and comprised of assertions that this was a derby and therefore not an acceptable game to lose, points that were accepted and defended with, “We know, we give our all in every game.”

Eventually both sides reached an agreement (seemingly after Petrovic maintained that they would “fight to the death” in the next derby) and the bus was applauded out onto the road.

I have to admit that my initial impression of this scene was a positive one.

A derby match is different, and while players and coaches come and go fans are stuck with their club. Losing to your neighbours always hurts the most and there’s nothing wrong with letting the players know this.

The more I thought about it the stranger it seemed, though.

Yes, Reds had lost, but they had pretty much dominated the game and were still in a much higher position than anybody had expected ahead of the season. Why make a stand now?

I’m fairly certain there isn’t an answer to that question, and had I thought to ask anybody outside NACK5 that evening none of them would have been able to provide one.

Fundamentally, the people in the blockade were wrong. All that had happened was that their team had lost a game of football. Suck it up and move on.

However, following a team can become disproportionately important and in such circumstances relentlessly realistic explanations don’t cut it. (I’m sure they wouldn’t have done for the Gamba Osaka fan I bumped into kicking a fence near Umeda station after his side had lost their derby earlier this year, either.)

Losing hurts, and letting your team know that is not necessarily a bad thing. The Reds players had all shuffled to the front of the bus and looked to be taking the situation seriously.

It is small things like that which can pile up to build real rivalries.

Of course, we won’t really know if the little stand was successful or not until the next derby.

See you on September 1st.




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