Archive for November, 2012


In the Tosu up

Heading into the final round of J1 matches Sagan Tosu are in pole position for a place in next year’s Asian Champions League. Nobody foresaw that at the start of the year, but they are well worth their lofty position…

If they were a Kanto club Sagan Tosu would surely be the story of the season.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Vegalta Sendai’s unforeseen title challenges have deservedly claimed a lot of column inches, but if we’re being brutally honest neither of them have had the aura of a championship team about them this year.

Both sides have been about the same standard as they were in 2011, and their status as the top two has been as much about other teams’ poor form as their own relative consistency.

Tosu’s achievement, however, should not be underestimated, and the manner in which they have adapted to the first division is a credit to everyone at the club.

Most people – myself included – were convinced that they would only be paying a fleeting visit to the top-flight, with no recognised stars and very few players with any J1 experience on their books, but they got off to a terrific start and never looked back.

They were unbeaten in their first seven home games in the league – not even conceding a goal until the sixth of those against Vegalta Sendai when they drew 1-1. Sanfrecce also came to town during that terrific spell and the Purple Archers were beaten 1-0.

I headed down to Kyushu at the end of March – in part because I wanted to take in a game at the Best Amenity Stadium at some point during the season and didn’t think Sagan would be keeping up their impressive start for much longer – and was hugely impressed.

The football they played was high-tempo, organized and clinical, and in Kim Min-woo I felt they had one of the most impressive wide players I’d seen live for some time. Even from left back – where he started that day against Vissel Kobe – he constantly caused problems and summed up the team’s confident, assertive approach.

Yohei Toyoda, too, is a striker who has to be a shoo-in for the team of the year. Like his club the 27-year-old hasn’t received the coverage he deserves this season, and I can’t help but feel that if he were 194cm and white he may even have earned a call-up to the national team to rejoin the teammates with whom he travelled to the 2008 Olympics.

I fell for the Best Amenity stadium instantly, as well. It’s practically in the train station, doesn’t have a running track, has nice steep stands that are close to the pitch, and the club’s enthusiastic, slightly cross-looking, and unimaginatively monikered mascot “Wintosu” was enthusiastically high-fiving the fans as they entered.

My only complaint, actually, is that not enough supporters were being greeted, and their home crowds have been disappointingly low. I appreciate Tosu is only a small town, but they have managed to get around the 20,000 mark a couple of times this season and should be trying to do so more often.

After the game against Vissel head coach Yoon Jong-hwan also left a positive impression, and it’s clear that he’s a man who commands respect from his players.

While understandably not wanting to overhype his team so early on, it was clear that he knew he had a group of players willing and able to put his style of football into practice, and that was also evident when I saw them later in the season beating Gamba Osaka 3-2 from 2-0 down, and against FC Tokyo, when their gung-ho approach brought about the opposite luck, with a 3-2 defeat from a 2-0 lead.

The “one game at a time” cliché is oft-trotted out but in Tosu’s case it rings true. The only time they’ve lost consecutive games was when they suffered a minor blip in September and October, losing three in a row, but they remedied that with a hat-trick of wins in their next three games.

After the Vissel game Kim was cautious but did let slip that a lofty finish was not beyond his thinking.

“Where we are now has no meaning,” he said. “If we are here [in fifth] when the season has finished it will be a fantastic achievement but there’s a long way to go and many games to play.”

Now there is just one left and fifth is a realistic, perhaps even understated, target.


Back with the big boys

On Friday Oita Trinita returned to J1 after a three-year absence when they beat JEF United 1-0 in a dramatic play-off final.

I was a National Stadium to see the action unfold and filed  this report on the match for The Daily Yomiuri.


Relegation form

He famously guided Japan to victory over Brazil and won everything there was to win with Gamba Osaka, but Akira Nishino’s fortunes have taken a turn for the worse of late…

It seems increasingly likely that one way or another Akira Nishino is going to have played a role in the relegation of one of J1’s established teams this year.

Heading into the final two rounds his most recent club, Vissel Kobe, are hovering perilously close to the drop-zone, while his previous employers, Gamba Osaka, are also still right in the heart of the relegation battle.

The 57-year-old can’t really be held responsible for the latter’s perilous position, but his departure from Banpaku will be seen as the point at which the club’s status changed from that of perennial title challengers to relegation scrappers.

The folly of hiring the inexperienced Wagner Lopes in Nishino’s place – under the guidance of the nominal “head coach” Jose Carlos Serrao – was quickly remedied, or so it seemed, with the recruitment of club stalwart Masanobu Matsunami, but he, too, has far from impressed.

The former striker has failed to lift the team any higher than 14th all season, and much like FC Tokyo in 2010 and Urawa Reds last year the Osaka giant – and with eight top three finishes in 10 years that’s exactly what the club is – has constantly had its abysmal form suffixed with plenty of, “but they’ll be alrights”.

Now I think it is safe to say that, relegation or not, ‘alright’ is far from the case in northern Osaka.

Vissel, too, were similarly regarded as safe quite some time ago.

The season had started with high hopes and the acquisition of quality players such as Takuya Nozawa and Masahiko Inoha, but when it seemed like Masahiro Wada was going to fail to deliver the ACL spot that the club’s ambitious yet unfocused owners demanded he was fired.

That was harsh on a young and talented coach who, in my opinion, deserved a little more time, but the recruitment of Nishino appeared on the face of it a clever move that could establish Vissel in the upper echelons of the league.

Things did not work out as planned. With their J1 future hanging in the balance the board once again pulled the trigger, and while Nishino is free from blame for Gamba’s predicament he cannot escape so lightly when it comes to Vissel.

An atrocious run of no wins in nine games which saw them pick up just three points and drop from 11th to 15th was ostensibly what cost the former Japan Olympic coach his job, and form like that is ultimately the responsibility of the man coaching and picking the team.

On closer inspection, however, the board may be the real culprits.

Nishino, for all his success at Gamba, was never an immensely popular figure with his players or supporters, and his single-minded personality had rubbed countless people up the wrong way – including figures at the JFA, which ultimately ruled him out of succeeding Takeshi Okada after the 2010 World Cup.

I interviewed Nishino around that time, when he gave a clear insight into his coaching mentality.

“I know that always thinking, “group, group” is not good, but somehow for me, with my character and style, it is hard to work with players who are too individualistic,” he told me. “I can’t accept their approach.

“Discipline is crucial for my team building. Within the performance I expect that of them and that’s the role the players have to fulfil.”

Bringing him in to take charge of a Vissel side that is hardly short of individualistic characters was perhaps not a wise decision, then.

His admission that he actually took more pride in preparing the team for the 1996 Olympics, rather than their actual achievements while there perhaps offers the clearest hint as to what may have gone wrong at Vissel.

“It was more about the process of building the team for that. Not actually being in Atlanta but the efforts to get there and the team-building process,” he explained.

A host of players entirely convinced of their own ability and intent upon winning things now do not necessarily mix well with a manager focused on slowly building for prolonged success.

Such a philosophy is admirable and Nishino certainly still has plenty to offer, but he needs a club that is prepared for and suited to his approach. Vissel, patently, was not such a club.


What goes up must come down?

The J2 season has almost concluded and all that’s left are the play-offs to determine the final team to gain promotion to J1. Does Newton’s law mean that the celebrations will be short-lived, though?

We now know the sides who are going to be playing – or are in with a chance of playing – in J1 next year, but after a year of striving to be in exactly that position is this actually where the fun stops for the clubs in the top six of J2?

I am already on record as backing the play-offs for a place in the first division, and think that providing more teams with a realistic target of getting into the top flight should help the level throughout the league increase.

Just as importantly, from a viewing and entertainment perspective, the play-offs keep the league interesting. Or should that be “have made” it interesting?

Up until this season most sides would by his stage of the year have been in autopilot for around two months – either resigned to the fact that they’re a bit crap and are going to finish near the bottom, or are not quite as good as they’d hoped and don’t have a chance of finishing third.

This year there are very few clubs who have been able to sleepwalk their way through the final quarter of the season though, with everybody still having the carrot of the play-offs just about in sight, or with the ominous creaking of the trapdoor down to the JFL audible behind them.

While the desire to get out of or stay in the division (depending on which exit you’re aiming for or looking to avoid) is strong, however, things on the other side are not always as you’d expected.

There were only three seasons that the third-placed team in J2 automatically earned a seat at the top table, but in each of them they came crashing straight back down the next year.

Shonan Bellmare were the first to do so, plummeting through the hatch in 2010 with just 16 points from their 34 J1 games.

After the J.League’s expansion to two divisions that was only their second appearance in the top flight, and their previous stint was similarly as short when they dropped into the newly-formed J2 at the first time of asking in 1999.

They have an impressive young coach and have been reasonably consistent this season, but are they any better equipped now to cope with the big boys?

Yokohama FC, too, only have one previous year’s experience in J1 and it was as bruising as Shonan’s, also producing just 16 points. They hardly look ready to improve on that dismal performance – or those of Consadole Sapporo this year or Avispa Fukuoka last – and perhaps another year or so developing some decent young players under Motohiro Yamaguchi in J2 would be better for the club long-term.

Even runaway champions Ventforet Kofu are not in any way assured of an easy ride back up in J1, and have never previously been able to manage more than two consecutive seasons there.

Much may depend for them on ridiculously-prolific striker Davi; can they keep hold of him and, if they do, will he be able to replicate his white-hot form against better defences?

Oita Trinita must also be wary of trying to do too much too soon, and they won’t need reminding what happened last time they tried to run before they could walk. A fourth-place finish in J1 and triumph in the Nabisco Cup sparked an attempt to jump up to the elite level but in choosing to twist rather than stick they went bust. Almost literally.

Then there are Kyoto Sanga and JEF United. Both have enjoyed prolonged spells in J1 – with varying levels of success – and could perhaps be the two best placed to stay up this time.

Even so, while Sanga do have an experienced coach and wealth of young talent they have been far from dominant in the second tier, and JEF’s air of ‘we-don’t-really-belong-here’ has been exactly what’s kept them in J2 the past three years. Confidence is vital, but complacency bordering on arrogance helps nobody. Except the opposition.

Success stories such as Vegalta Sendai, Sanfrecce Hirshima and Sagan Tosu show the gap can be bridged, but it might equally be the case that the promotion parties for three of these clubs are their last celebrations for a while.


Zac takes nothing for granted in Oman clash

Japan play Oman today in Muscat knowing that a win will all but ensure their progression to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

I wrote a preview of the match for The Daily Yomiuri, which can be found here.


Words speak louder than actions

Recently the lines of communication between referees and players and coaches have once again been under the spotlight. The route to resolving these issues really isn’t that difficult…

I try very hard not to criticise referees, fully aware that their job is the toughest on the pitch.

Recently though I found myself – an impartial viewer in the press seats – getting progressively frustrated, almost angry, at the ineptitude of one official.

Kenji Ogiya had an absolute nightmare in charge of the Machida Zelvia v. FC Gifu clash in Round 40 of J2 – a vital match in the battle to avoid relegation to the JFL.

Mr. Ogiya displayed none of the necessary composure for such a key game, and even though they were in no way merited he managed to dish out nine yellow cards – two of which combined to see Zelvia’s Kai Miki sent off.

Ossie Ardiles’ side did still manage to hold onto their 1-0 lead but the Machida head coach was not happy after the match.

“Today’s referee was bad,” the Argentine opined bluntly. “With regards to the yellow cards, it wasn’t a game that needed that many. We are not that kind of team; it wasn’t that kind of game. If there is a foul then ok but he gave yellow cards out far too easily.”

Indeed, the former Tottenham Hotspur player was so incensed at full-time that he was moved to angrily confront the man in black as he left the pitch. I asked him what he said.

“I said that he gave too many yellow cards,” he replied. “If it was Liverpool v. Man Utd how many would it be? There’d be no players left!

“If,” and he placed great emphasis on this word, “we deserved that many yellow cards then the J.League would be concerned and I’d really like them to take a look at the game.”

While I have chosen to highlight this situation, however, it is not my intention to single Mr. Ogiya or Japanese referees in general out for criticism. Referees the world over are increasingly under the microscope.

Later that same evening, for example – and fittingly, after Ardiles’ comparison – Chelsea and Manchester United went head-to-head at Stamford Bridge, with the away side coming out on top after Mark Clattenburg saw fit to send off Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic – correctly – and Fernando Torres – incorrectly.

Again the man in charge had suffered a rush of blood of the head and unfortunately – as seems to be the norm now after any Premier League game involving Chelsea – the episode did not stop at a couple of rash decisions, with Clattenburg becoming the subject of an official inquiry after claims he racially abused a Chelsea player.

At the time of writing the legitimacy of these accusations is still unknown, but what is certain is that the relationship between officials and players and coaches is at an all time low.

FC Tokyo head coach Ranko Popovic believes that greater co-operation off the pitch is the key to healing these issues.

“If there were more chances to have meetings to discuss things then I don’t think these kinds of problems would occur,” he told me recently when speaking about his sending off earlier this season against Vegalta Sendai.

“I know that I also have to change many things about the way I behave, but I get excited very easily and I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing.

“This is how [coaches] live. If I make a mistake the referee can continue to work. If the referee makes a mistake then there is a chance I might lose my job.

“Because of that difference I would like to receive some explanation. This is something we have to think about. We must have more communication.”

That certainly seems the best way to approach the issue, and both Ogiya and Clattenburg’s poor displays can be attributed in part to the poor levels of communication between officials and the participants.

Ogiya’s schoolmasterly approach and Clattenburg’s efforts to assist English football’s bizarre witch-hunt against divers did nothing but break up the flow of the game and rile the players.

The only way the barrier between players, coaches and officials can be broken down is if both sides give a little ground. Meetings to air grievances would be the perfect place to start, and may just lead to more respect in both directions.


Double trouble / Shibasaki brace helps Antlers defend Nabisco Cup title in tense final

This past weekend Kashima Antlers defeated Shimizu S-Pulse 2-1 after extra time to win the 20th Nabisco Cup final.

I was at National Stadium for the match and filed a match report for The Daily Yomiuri.

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

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November 2012