Archive for July, 2013


Samurai Blue best rivals for 1st E. Asian title

Japan won it’s first ever East Asian Cup on Sunday night, beating South Korea 2-1 in Seoul.

Seoul Olympic Stadium, Jamsil. July 28th, 2013

Alberto Zaccheroni was delighted after the game, and feels that the Samurai Blue have a bright future ahead of them. Here are some of his post-match comments, plus those of two of his star performers, Yoichiro Kakitani and Hotaru Yamaguchi. For The Japan News.


Nadeshiko miss chance to claim 3rd straight crown

Nadeshiko Japan missed out on a third consecutive East Asian Cup on Saturday when they lost 2-1 to South Korea at Seoul Olympic Stadium.

South Korea's Ji So-yun spekaing to the media after Saturday's game

Aya Miyama felt the side weren’t perhaps at 100% throughout the tournament, and they were punished by INAC Kobe’s Ji So-yun, who scored twice. Here’s my story for The Japan News.


Kagawa enjoys topsy-turvy return to Cerezo

Manchester United’s second and final friendly in Japan was played on Friday night, against Shinji Kagawa’s former club Cerezo Osaka.

Nagai Stadium, July 26th, 2013

The 24-year-old had an eventful night and I gathered some reaction from the players involved after the game for The Japan News.


Samurai Blue, Nadeshiko braced to score double.

Nadeshiko Japan and the Samurai Blue could both become East Asian champions this weekend – if they can both beat South Korea…

Yuya Osako speaking to the press in Hwaseong, July 25th, 2013

After their most recent matches in Hwaseong I spoke to players from both sides and got some comments from Alberto Zaccheroni for The Japan News.


Man United plays off surprise defeat to Marinos

On Tuesday night Manchester United played a friendly against J.League side Yokohama F.Marinos.

Nissan Stadium, July 23rd, 2013

The Premier League champions lost the game 3-2 but weren’t too downbeat afterwards. Here’s some reaction I gathered from Nissan Stadium for The Japan News.


No Hisato Sato?

Scoring lots of goals is normally the primary demand of a striker. For Alberto Zaccheroni that gift is obviously not enough…


It was quite the week for Hisato Sato.

In Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s 4-2 win over Kawasaki Frontale on Wednesday night he set the outstanding record of having scored 10 or more goals in each of the past 10 J.League seasons – and not being content with just one strike he helped himself to a hat-trick.

His final finish – a sublime hit from 20 yards – exemplified a player in the form of his career, perhaps even more confident and lethal than last season when he claimed the top scorer award with 22 goals.

Just watch it again. The way he sets himself, lets the ball come across his body and then sweetly guides it over the despairing dive of Rikihiro Sugiyama and into the back of the net. For me what was more impressive than the technical execution of the strike was the sheer certainty with which he carried out the skill. He knew exactly what he was going to do and how he was going to do it. And he knew that he was going to score.

There are few things as fearsome in a striker as that level of self-belief, and bearing that in mind it is astonishing that just five days later Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni elected to omit Sato from his squad for the East Asian Cup – a selection comprising entirely of J.League players.

Hisato Sato warming up for his club Sanfrecce Hiroshima

That blow may very well have sounded the death-knell for his national team career – and almost certainly his hopes of making a last-ditch run at the Brazil 2014 World Cup finals – and it is very difficult to understand why Zaccheroni doesn’t rate him.

Ahead of the season Sato’s club coach Hajime Moriyasu admitted that they had relied hugely on the veteran’s goals on the way to their maiden J1 title last season, and suggested they may have to adapt their approach this year to defend the crown.

“Of course I want Sato to get more than 20 goals again but I can guess the marking against him will be tighter so other players need to score goals, too,” he said.

He needn’t have worried. Despite the fact that everyone knows what a threat the 5 foot 6 striker poses, they don’t seem to know how to stop him and he made it to 12 goals this term after just 15 games.

I spoke to his teammate Mihael Mikic a week or so ahead of the East Asian Cup announcement, and he was in awe of Sato’s adaptability and suggested that if he didn’t make the trip to Korea the Purple Archers would be the ones to benefit.

“He’s a really, really good striker,” the Croatian said. “For us it’s better if he doesn’t go but I think for Japan it’s better if he plays because he’s so dangerous. In the box he’s really, really dangerous. He has this perfect technique, movement, everything. Now many teams know how he runs but again he scores. That is unbelievable. Even though they know, he always scores.”

These guys appreciate him, even if Zac doesn't

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, as those who knew Sato as a youngster believe he always exhibited those traits.

“[When I was coach at JEF in 2001] he quickly showed that he was a prospect for the future and there was the feeling that he was going to become a big player,” Zdenko Verdenik told me in April. “He has speed and the ability to cut through teams. He also had a fantastic sense to sniff out chances in the penalty area and to find the spaces from which it is possible to score goals. He’s an incredibly gifted player.”

Urawa Reds captain Yuki Abe came through the youth ranks at JEF with the 2012 Player of the Season and also recognized a rare gift.

“I played with him since the junior youth, so for about eight years,” he said after last year’s J.League Awards. “His play style and one touch finishing, and the way he adjusted his body to meet passes and timed things to escape defenders were always good back then.”

He’s still got it now and is one of the most consistently prolific forwards in the J.League, capable of scoring a wide variety of goals.

Zaccheroni, however, just isn’t interested.



When FC Gifu hosted Gamba Osaka recently it was always going to be a mismatch, but should it have been that bad…?


‘G’ seemed to be the letter of the day a couple of Wednesday’s ago, and it was grey and gloomy as I pulled into Nagoya station on my way to Gifu against Gamba – bottom against top in J2.

I was told by a Gifu-supporting friend on the way to the ground to expect goals, too, with Gamba unsurprisingly prolific at the top of J2 and the home side also enjoying something of a glut in recent games having won three of their last four 2-1, 4-3, and 2-1, as well as losing the other 4-0.

Even so, while the encounter always looked likely to be something of a mismatch I never thought I’d be seeing a new J2 total goals record on my first trip to the better-than-I-expected Nagaragawa Stadium.

Anything other than a Gamba win would certainly have been a shock, but having seen the similarly unfashionable Gainare Tottori battle to a 1-1 draw with the former J1 and AFC champions League winners at Banpaku back in March I didn’t think Kenta Hasegawa’s men would have things all their own way in front of what turned out to be a record home attendance of 11,719 for Gifu.

Stoke-on-a-Tuesday syndrome for Gamba?

Indeed, as the clouds which had been threatening for hours finally vent forth their fury as kick-off approached it seemed as though Gamba didn’t really fancy it. While the Gifu players began their warm-up on the pitch in the torrential rain the visitors continued to jog around under the main stand, occasionally glancing tentatively out at the elements and then thinking better of it and remaining sheltered from them, not emerging for a good 10 minutes after their hosts.

They may be overwhelming favourites to win the league and make a swift return to J1, I thought, but could they do it on a wet Wednesday night in Gifu?

Yes, actually, they could.

“Gamba Invasion” was how the game had been marketed to the locals, with the promotion focusing heavily on the fact that the guests had a large number of “national team class” players, and although in actuality they only currently have two Japan regulars seven of Gamba’s starting eleven were in their first spell in J2 while Gifu had just one – and that wasn’t because Taiuske Mizuno had played higher up the ladder but because he was a 20-year-old rookie.

It turned out that he and his teammates were just as in awe of their opponents as those in the stands, and it took just a couple of minutes for a slick, almost half-hearted, passing move to free Paulinho inside the Gifu box to get the scoring started.

The scoreboard operator’s work was only just beginning and six minutes later Takahiro Futagawa was capitalizing on more substandard defending to double Gamba’s lead and effectively end the tie as a contest.

Gifu and Gamba are worlds apart

In keeping with the day’s alphabetical theme a goalkeeper was soon in the spotlight as a howler by Shogo Tokihisa allowed Gamba to move three ahead, the 29-year-old – who came into the game having stopped five penalties thus far this season – miserably allowing a tame Futagawa effort to elude his grasp and trickle over the line.

After the match Gamba boss Hasegawa confessed that he’d been expecting more of a challenge from the hosts – who eventually fell to a quite ludicrous 8-2 defeat – with the minnows having made Gamba work for their win earlier in the season at Banpaku, losing just 2-0, the second goal of which came in the last minute. He credited the strong start as key this time around, and the early goal really did seem to take the wind out of Gifu.

The gulf in quality was embarrassing, and the difference between the bigger sides that drop down to J2 from the first division and those battling to stay in existence is plain for all to see, but I can’t help but feel that Gifu could have approached the game a little differently.

It seemed to me as if the club had treated it almost as an exhibition and this must have filtered through to the players. Instead of being swept up in the glamour they could perhaps have done with some more guts and gaman.


East Asian Cup squad suggestions

The squad Japan takes to Korea in a few weeks for the East Asian Cup will look very different to usual. Perhaps something like this…?


After the rather anticlimactic Confederations Cup campaign – which aside from the few highlights in the Italy match did not go according to plan (“People don’t expect much of us, but I’m going there to win it”, Keisuke Honda had declared ahead of Japan’s arrival in Brazil) – Samurai Blue fans now have the intriguing prospect of the East Asian Cup on the horizon.

At the time of writing Alberto Zaccheroni had not made it entirely clear what his selection policy would be, although he had suggested it would be a wholly different squad to that we are used to seeing, with European-based players and regulars from the Confeds omitted.

Taking that as my guide I have drawn up a 23-man list of J.League-based players that I would take to Korea if I was the man tasked with picking up the pieces from the last three defeats. Here it is:

Goalkeepers: Shuichi Gonda, Shusaku Nishikawa, Takenori Sugeno

Defenders: Yuhei Tokunaga, Tomoaki Makino, Kyohei Noborizato, Yuichi Komano, Daiki Iwamasa, Daisuke Nasu, Hiroki Mizumoto

Midfielders: Keita Suzuki, Toshihiro Aoyama, Hotaru Yamaguchi, Gaku Shibasaki, Hiroki Yamada, Manabu Saito, Yoichiro Kakitani

Forwards: Yohei Toyoda, Masato Kudo, Hisato Sato, Yuya Osako, Shinzo Koroki, Yoshito Okubo

Nakazawa was a popular national team member but his time has been and gone

The two main topics of discussion have been which young players Zac should give chances to, and which veterans (if any) he should bring back into the fold.

On the young-guns front I don’t really think my selection involves many shocks – except perhaps Noborizato, who I’ve been impressed with when I’ve seen him for Frontale this year. Yamaguchi, Shibasaki, Saito, Kakitani and Osako have all been touted as potential national teamers for a while now, and with each of them continuing to impress for their respective J.League clubs it wouldn’t be a surprise if most – if not all – of them are making the short trip to Seoul in a couple of weeks.

My decision to leave out Takahiro Ogihara is perhaps a little unexpected, with he and Yamaguchi usually referred to as a pair, but the 21-year-old looked a little nervous at last year’s Olympics and I feel that, on current form, there are other players in his position who deserve the chance to show what they can do.

Debate about whether or not to recall Yuji Nakazawa and Tulio – who were outstanding at the heart of defence in South Africa in 2010 – has also raged, and while they have every right to feel more than a little aggrieved by the way they were so promptly cast aside by Zaccheroni after he assumed the reins, I wouldn’t bring them back.

Both players were must-picks in their prime but for me they peaked at the last World Cup and if they were reintroduced now it would probably not end well for anyone involved. Neither are blessed with anything approaching pace, their decision-making is not what it was, and while they can get away with their increasingly regular lapses in concentration in the J.League they would almost certainly become liabilities at international level.

Tulio has also been moved to the margins since Zaccheroni took over

Of course, some experience is surely needed and Zac could do worse than slotting Keita Suzuki into one of the deep-lying midfield roles. It took me a while to fully appreciate the Reds veteran, but after being advised to take a closer look by a colleague earlier in the season his contribution is outstanding. He sets the pace of the team, and the number of times he nips opponents’ attacks in the bud with an impeccably-timed interception is remarkable. Having him alongside Yamaguchi with Shibasaki sat just in front in the No.10 role could work very well.

His Reds teammate Nasu also deserves serious consideration as a solid presence when defending and attacking set-pieces – still a major flaw of Zac Japan – and Yoshito Okubo has been in fine form since joining Kawasaki, and his aggressive, tenacious and committed style sets him out as a rather unique player amongst his contemporaries.

All six strikers I’ve named are well aware of where the goal is, and all-in-all I’d opt for an experienced defensive line-up and slightly more experimental attacking combination. My starting XI would look something like this:

(4-2-3-1 (R-L)) Gonda; Tokunaga, Mizumoto, Nasu, Komano; Keita, Yamaguchi; Kudo, Shibasaki, Kakitani; Sato

What do you think?


Total Recall

Nagoya Grampus ended the first phase of J1 a shadow of themselves. Will the break have done them some good…?


Neither Omiya Ardija nor Urawa Reds will have been particularly happy about the fact they just had to take a six-week break. Both sides were in great form and would surely have preferred to maintain their momentum than spend a month-and-a-half treading water back in training camps.

While the interlude won’t have been greeted warmly in Saitama I imagine things were a little different down in Aichi though, with Nagoya Grampus having been desperate for a bit of time away from the stresses and strains of league action.

Grampus under Dragan Stojkovic don’t lose two games in a row. At least they didn’t for two-and-a-half years. Between October 2009 and April 2012 each time they lost Grampus took points from their next match. Consecutive losses to Urawa and Kawasaki brought that phenomenal run to an end and while there were a couple more instances of back-to-back defeats in the 2012 season it never stretched to more than two games.

Considered in that context the club’s current run is astonishing.

The 2010 champions are without a league win since April 13th and have lost their last five matches. They are only three points outside the relegation places and Stojkovic is in no doubt about the fact that he is in charge of a team in crisis.

Will Nagoya fans still be watching a shower once things restart?

“I cannot recognise my players,” he said after the most recent defeat to Cerezo Osaka. “I’m very disappointed like all the fans from Grampus. All I can do is apologise to the supporters for the last five games. This is shameful and we must do everything to change the situation. This is why the break is very important to us.”

What makes the recent slump all the more surprising is that the squad has not changed drastically from that which surged to the title in 2010 – the most comprehensive champions in J1 single-stage history, which wrapped things up with three games to play and eventually finished 10 points ahead of second-placed Gamba Osaka.

Their seven-game winless streak this season started with a 3-1 loss at FC Tokyo in April, after which Piksi referred to the errors his team made as being like those of “amateurs”.

Josh Kennedy agreed, and gave an insight into what may be the problem for the side.

“We made a few mistakes and everybody caught onto them. It went through the whole team. You know, a few guys make a few mistakes and then everybody catches the next one and all of a sudden nobody wants the ball.”

As well as confidence sorely lacking on the pitch there are suggestions that all is not rosy behind the scenes, with the relationship between Kennedy and his coach seemingly deteriorating.

Can Piksi regain the trust of the fans, players and board?

“[We have] no determination, no player who is able to score,” Piksi said after the loss to Kashima Antlers. “Psychologically, we are not good enough. I accept all the responsibility. I accept all the criticism from the supporters. We play with the best team. But the quality is a big question mark.”

Then in the press conference after the Cerezo defeat he was even more explicit, saying, “I decided to use Tulio as a striker [after the second goal] and if I do that you know our attack is nothing, zero. But this is the reality.”

Another reality, he admitted after the Antlers game, is a relegation battle if things don’t improve quickly.

“It’s a difficult situation, you don’t need too much intelligence to understand that. We are very close to J2. This is how you go to J2: by losing every game and J2 will be waiting for you. This is the reality.

“The only positive thing is the break is coming. This is very good for us at this moment. I will talk very seriously to the players and I will hear from them what they are thinking because this is not good. We must think of our reputation and name. We don’t want to be bottom. So, this break is very good for us.”

We’ll find out this weekend just how good it proved to be. Will they come back rebooted and fully functioning as the ruthlessly efficient outfit of recent times, or did the time off just give them a bit of a break from losing games?

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July 2013