Archive for October, 2012


Up for the cup

Shimizu S-Pulse take on Kashima Antlers in the Nabisco Cup final on Saturday so this week I wrote a short preview for Soccer Magazine…

Either of Shimizu S-Pulse or Kashima Antlers will be worthy winners of the 2012 Nabisco Cup.

In fact, in the case of holders Kashima they will five times as worthy of triumph this year than they were last.

The 2011 champions made it to last season’s final against Urawa Reds after winning just two matches, whereas this year they have played 10 in order to take their defence to the final hurdle.

Shimizu, too, have been involved in the competition since the very start – and, in fact, progressed from the same group league as Antlers, which got underway way back in March.

The tournament is a long way from perfect and does struggle to muster a huge amount of enthusiasm from fans, players, and media alike, and I still believe – as I argued last year – that it would be much improved by the inclusion of the J2 sides.

However, there is still an excitement in the latter stages of knockout competition that is lacking in regular league play, and having seen the first leg of Shimizu’s semi-final with FC Tokyo and second leg of Antlers’ win over Kashiwa Reysol there was no doubt that the four sides involved were all desperate, having come so close, to take part in Saturday’s final.

Before Antlers’ 2-2 draw with Kashiwa that saw them into the showpiece at National Stadium I spoke to some of their fans, and while I was unsure they would be able to hold off the reigning J.League champions at their own stadium (Kashima had won the first leg 3-2, meaning Reysol needed just a one-goal win to overcome that loss) their supporters were full of confidence.

“We win a title very year,” they told me. “We’re not doing so well in the league but every year we win something.”

Indeed, you have to go back to 2006 to find the last season in which the Ibaraki club finished up empty-handed, since when they have won three J.League titles, two Emperor’s Cups and last year’s Nabisco Cup.

That record means they are the only J.League side who can realistically be described as a “big club”, with no other team coming close to matching their trophy haul.

Several challengers have come and gone, and Antlers are in anything but full health at the moment, but they have been able to keep picking up titles regardless, and in the current crop of players the signs are certainly promising for the future.

S-Pulse, too, are a side worth keeping an eye on.

When Afshin Ghotbi arrived at the start of the 2011 season most people foresaw a battle against relegation for the Shizuoka side, with them losing several key players in one fell-swoop, including Shinji Okazaki, Jungo Fujimoto, and Frode Johnsen.

The Iranian-American placed his trust in the younger players under his charge though, and has built on last year’s mid-table finish by guiding his side into the battle for the ACL places this year.

That has all come despite the fact that the departures gate in Shimizu seems to be permanently open.

The talented duo of Alex Brosque and Shinji Ono have both moved on mid-season, while regulars Daisuke Iwashita and Takuma Edamura have also headed for pastures new, and Freddie Ljungberg – brought in to considerable fanfare midway through 2011– didn’t even make it into a second season in orange.

There has been little or no noticeable impact from all that upheaval out on the pitch, though, and in the likes of Genki Omae, Toshiyuki Takagi, and Hideki Ishige S-Pulse possess a huge array of young and exciting attacking talent to carry them onto the next stage.

They also look to have shored up their back line with Calvin Jong-a-pin a solid presence at the heart of defence and Kaito Yamamoto and Akihiro Hayashi providing a real headache for Ghotbi when it comes to selecting his No. 1.

Success in the present – or lack of – can determine just how much players and teams can make of their potential.

While S-Pulse and Antlers look to have bright futures in the offing, however, neither of them will be looking any further ahead than this weekend for the time being, with immediate glory occupying the minds of both sets of players.


Uncomfort Zone

Japan recently took part in a couple of high-profile friendlies, and they will certainly have learned a lot from the experience…

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the problems some J.League sides have when choosing not to play certain home matches at their own stadium.

For the Japanese national team it may actually be a good idea to play all of their games away from home between now and the 2014 World Cup, however, as the cosiness of playing in a familiar environment may be preventing the most talented collection of players the country has ever seen from reaching its full potential.

The Samurai Blue’s friendly matches are invariably played on home soil, where the players are guaranteed the support of tens-of-thousands of adoring fans regardless of how uninspiring the opposition are or how badly they play.

Alberto Zaccheroni is fully aware that such a routine may soften up his players, and so last week he took them out of their comfort zone for their first games outside of Asia since the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, against France and Brazil.

The last time Japan met either of those sides some comprehensive beatings were handed out, and media, fans and players alike were keen to see how far they had come since falling to a 5-0 defeat to France in 2001 and 4-1 humbling at the hands of Brazil at the 2006 World Cup.

For the opening half-an-hour against France in Paris it really didn’t look like much had changed, with the players seemingly thrown off by the change in atmosphere and a little overawed by the opposition.

Although they weathered the storm and grew into the match in the second half – eventually snatching a 1-0 victory that certainly flattered them – the players were far from satisfied with their performance, and justifiably so.

Keisuke Honda, despite not featuring in the match, was characteristically forthright after the game.

“Our performance was just acceptable, nothing more. I was watching and I thought we were intimidated by them in the first half,” he was reported as saying by Kyodo News.

“If all we want to do is reach the quarter-finals at the next World Cup then [the performance against France] will do. But this Japan team, we’re capable of a lot more.”

Shinji Kagawa was of a similar mind.

“We should have shown what we can do right from the first half,” he said. “When you stop to think about it, we didn’t accomplish a great deal on the pitch apart from the result.”

If France had had a striker capable of finding the back of the net then the game could have been as good as over at half-time in Paris, and up against the far deadlier marksmen of the selecao that was exactly what happened once Japan moved on to Wroclaw to take on Brazil.

After a positive start which saw the side stroke the ball around confidently and even create a presentable chance that Honda could only lash straight at Diego Alves, Japan were undone by a potshot from Paulinho after a sloppy header by Atsuto Uchida.

That kind of mistake would probably not lead to a goal in a friendly against Iceland at Ecopa Stadium – or even in a World Cup qualifier against Jordan – but against world class players unforced errors are not permissible.

Once Brazil had the lead they showed little sign of surrendering it, and although the award of the penalty that gifted them their second goal was generous to say the least, Mano Menezes’ men barely needed to move out of second gear for the remainder of the match as they relied on their superior ability and Japan’s all-too-regular unforced errors to cruise to a comprehensive 4-0 victory.

The impact of that loss is very difficult to gauge now. It may come to be regarded as a vital lesson on the road to success at the Brazil World Cup or, alternatively, the point at which Japan’s bubble burst.

Zac certainly has plenty to ponder over the next year and-a-half, and he will have a much clearer idea now which of his players are capable of gracing the biggest stage and which retreat into their shells when playing the very best sides in the world.

There was an advertising hoarding next to the pitch in Poland with the slogan “JapanReady” on it; not yet.



Sanfrecce Hiroshima have experienced their fair share of good luck this season – perhaps even more than – and I think I may have had a hand in turning the winds of fate in the favour of their three arrows…

There are still six games to go but, even bearing in mind the unpredictability and inconsistency of the J.League, it is looking like one of three teams will be crowned champions.

And if I was a betting man – and regular readers will know that, due to form, I’m not – that number could probably be whittled down to just two with Urawa having shown anything but title-winning form of late, losing their last two home games against sides in the relegation zone.

That leaves just Vegalta Sendai and Sanfrecce Hiroshima, and if the latter are to emerge victorious I can’t help but feel that I have to take some of the credit.

Ok, that might be pushing it a bit far, but it increasingly feels like something, somewhere is spurring them on, and it may very well have stemmed from a conversation I had with Tadanari Lee at the end of last season.

We were discussing the phenomenal success of Lee’s former club Kashiwa Reysol in becoming J2 and J1 champions in consecutive seasons and also touched upon the fact that the club where he started his career, FC Tokyo, had just won J2.

I suggested that his departure from clubs seemed to pre-empt success in the league and proposed that if he really wanted Sanfrecce to be crowned champions he knew what he had to do.

“All my old teams win the league,” he laughed. “Ok, I’ll leave, then. But it’s your fault.”

So there you have it.

Fate has certainly seemed to be on Sanfrecce’s side of late, whether it be in the form of Kazuyuki Morisaki’s deflected opener in the crunch game against Vegalta Sendai, Ryota Moriwaki’s improbably arcing last minute headed winner against Nagoya Grampus, or Yuji Ono’s shanked penalty for Marinos last weekend – which is reportedly still rising somewhere over the Den-en-toshi line.

Mihael Mikic, who had fouled the young striker to concede that spot-kick, paid reference to the importance of good fortune in the run in.

“It was a penalty but we must have luck if we want to be champions, of course,” he said.

He also suggested, when asked what he was thinking when the referee pointed at the spot, that there may have been a little divine intervention.

“I said “Please God, help me today” and he helped me.”

Yojiro Takahagi was of a similar mind after the win over Vegalta, but added that the team could still not rest on their laurels.

“I think that “lucky goals” like [Kazu’s] are sometimes necessary to win, and the team must be able to make the most of such luck to play at a higher level and win the title,” he said.

Mikic, too, knows that the side must give everything on the final straight to make sure of their first J1 title, but is convinced they have the quality to do so.

“We have [in defensive midfield] two very, very good players – Kazu and Ao. That is very important. Also we have a striker with experience, Hisa, who [has] scored 20 goals. Also I play on the right side and I have experience with Dinamo Zagreb to win many titles. [This] is a new challenge but I think we are in a good [condition].”

As well as believing the team has the ability to claim its maiden championship – and the blessing of a higher power – the Croatian wide-man referred to an extra motivation for the Purple Archers.

“When the season started everybody said, “Sanfrecce may be fighting to stay in J1” – all the experts said that,” he said with a satisfied grin. “We have this inside us so we say “ok, we want to prove these experts wrong.” They made a mistake. Now we are working very, very well.”

And that, as well as my prophetic conversation with Lee – now of Southampton – may be exactly what carries Sanfrecce over the finish line in first place.

“If you don’t work hard and give 100% in every training then you don’t have the luck,” Mikic concluded. “If you are not fair to your job then you also don’t have luck. But everybody is working so hard and we have such good guys in this team. And something this year is behind us.”


Endo set to eclipse cap record

If Yasuhito Endo makes it onto the pitch for Japan’s friendlies against France and Brazil on Friday and Tuesday – and judging by the past 10 years he almost certainly will – he will become the most capped player in the history of the Samurai Blue.

I recently spoke to the man himself about the achievement and also got reaction from the player he will overtake – former Japan captain Masami Ihara – for The Daily Yomiuri.


Away and Away

Teams the world over play each other twice a season; once each at home to ensure that neither gains an unfair advantage. In the J.League, things don’t always quite work out that way…

“Is kick-off definitely at 3?” I asked my friend as we arrived at Ajinomoto Stadium.

The gates were closed and aside from the three guys in futsal gear just ahead of us there weren’t many people around.

“Yeah, that’s over an hour away though,” he replied.

“The fans normally start arriving hours before,” I said, beginning to get concerned.

In hindsight, of course, we’d been pretty stupid to make it as far as the stadium without realising something was up. We hadn’t seen many people on the train or walk from the station, and had even commented that it was a shame Verdy had experienced such a fall from grace.

A quick check on my phone confirmed that support for the first giant of professional football in Japan hadn’t shrunk to single digits but that, instead, we were idiots and in the wrong place.

But were we? Shouldn’t football clubs play their home games at their home stadiums. Isn’t that kind of the point of “home” games?

For this match instead of hosting Ehime FC at Ajinomoto the game was taking place at Komazawa Stadium though; over an hour away.

Perhaps I should have known better. This wasn’t the first time I’d made such an error, and in 2009 I got as far as the firmly closed gates of NACK5 Stadium before realising that Omiya Ardija were instead playing Kawasaki Frontale at Saitama Stadium. However, having become more familiar with Japanese grounds since then I had gotten out of the habit of checking the venue of games.

As well as being a pain for people like myself with negligible planning skills, the nomadic way in which some Japanese clubs allocate their home fixtures also has other downsides.

Old Trafford. Camp Nou. Anfield. These stadiums conjure up images of the world’s most famous clubs, and form part of the very fabric of their identities.

The latter recently became a gathering point for Liverpool fans after the findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel report were released, and its Kop, and Shankly and Paisley Gates are iconic landmarks indelibly associated with the club.

Imagine arriving there and looking up at the “You’ll Never Walk Alone” sign to find out that, actually, you just had. Today’s home game was being played across Stanley Park at Goodison Park. Impossible.

Omiya (them again) have done just that though, occasionally  opting to play their home game against local rivals Urawa Reds at Urawa’s own Saitama Stadium.

The Shizuoka derby, too, was just this past weekend held at Ecopa Stadium, and while Jubilo were nominally the “home” side the fact that Shimizu also sometimes host games there meant any semblance of true home advantage was all but lost.

Much of the appeal of going to matches, especially derbies, is the spectacle of visiting the rivals’ stadium or “welcoming them” to yours, and that, too, is entirely absent when stadiums are shared so freely.

Of course, the decision is often made so more fans can fit in the stadium to ensure bigger profits for the club. When bearing in mind that prize money is allocated on final league position and only goes to the top seven teams sometimes even those sums may not quite add up though

Kashiwa Reysol, for instance, have this year played two home games away from their intimidating Hitachi Dai Stadium, instead using National Stadium. They lost both – to Nagoya Grampus and Urawa Reds – and Mihailo Petrovic paid reference to how the difference in atmosphere helped Reds earn their recent victory.

“Today was an away game but there were so many Reds fans here that it felt like a home game,” he commented.

It’s not a given that Reysol would have come out on top in Kashiwa, but for arguments’ sake let’s say those six points lost end up being the difference between 5th and 8th place. That’s a loss of tens of millions of yen.

It’s not an exact science – Reysol won their other game at National Stadium this year; as the away team against FC Tokyo – but creating your own fortress can certainly help tip the scales in your favour.

From now on I’ll be double-checking which stadium I’m heading to, but I really don’t think I should have to.


Forward thinking

Urawa Reds may have an outside chance of claiming the title this year but they are still missing somebody who leads from the front…

Urawa Reds still have a problem.

Yes, they are in far better shape than they were 12 months ago and considering how close they came to relegation to J2 last season criticising the club now – as they sit in a strong position for an ACL place – may seem a little strange, but they remain in desperate need of a striker.

This issue has been ongoing since I came to Japan in 2009, and while their need last year was for someone to hit the target to preserve their J1 status, a regular goal-getter in the side now could provide just the boost needed to carry them to the title.

While Hisato Sato has been carrying that can for Sanfrecce Hiroshima, plundering 20 goals, and Vegalta Sendai’s front two of Wilson and Shingo Akamine have 19 between them, Reds’ leading scorer is Marcio Richardes with eight, followed by Genki Haraguchi with just six.

Nine goals was the most that the club’s top-scorer last season – Haraguchi – managed, and new signing Popo, who was the only striking option signed ahead of the 2012 season, had never made it into double-figures in his four previous seasons in J1. This year he has just three in 17 appearances.

I claimed at the start of the year that Ranko Despotovic would get 10 goals this season; he’s only just managed to make that many appearances, with Mihailo Petrovic obviously not a fan.

Tatsuya Tanaka, meanwhile, has seemingly been recovering from injury for the last three years, and the only other player listed as a forward for Reds coming into this season was Sergio Escudero – a guy who looks up so little that I doubt very much whether he has even realised he is now running up and down blind alleys in Seoul rather than Urawa.

All this means that nobody has made it into double-figures for the club since Edmilson struck 16 in 2010.

While he did possess a keen ability to register from inside the box though, the Brazilian was not exactly the most mobile of front men and a more active striker who could link up with the runners from deep would serve the club far better.

That kind of player has not been signed though, and I don’t understand why they haven’t been more active about acquiring somebody.

I was a big fan of Rafael at Omiya, for instance, and while he was far from prolific for Reds’ local rivals he was incredibly good at holding the ball up and bringing his teammates into the game.

Having him as the focal point of attack with the likes of Tsukasa Umesaki, Yosuke Kashiwagi, Richardes and Haraguchi playing off him could have worked extremely well and resulted in the gangly forward finding the back of the net a lot more often.

He also posed a considerable aerial threat – as Reds found out firsthand when he nodded home the winner in the Saitama Derby last season – something that is almost completely non-existent for Petrovic’s side now.

Another Brazilian who has enjoyed recent success at Saitama Stadium would also have been a good fit.

Since returning from Qatar Leandro has picked up exactly where he left off for Reds’ other great rivals Gamba Osaka, netting 11 times in his first eight games back in J1.

His previous spell with the Osakans produced an equally impressive return of 11 goals in 21 appearances, and even though the side were then challenging at the top of the table rather than staving off relegation the 27-year-old seems unfussed as to what the target is, as long as he is scoring goals.

“I don’t think I’m the team’s savior,” he said after notching twice in Gamba’s recent 5-0 demolition of Urawa.

“Naturally I’m happy I’m scoring and able to contribute to the team but things still aren’t over and I have to continue like this and keep helping the side.”

If Reds had been a little smarter in the transfer market it could have been them that Leandro – or a similarly sharp shooter – was helping, and while he made it clear he has no delusions of grandeur someone with an eye for goal would be a godsend for them right now.

If Sakka Nihon isn’t enough then you can follow my every move (sort of) here.

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October 2012