Archive for September, 2013


Jubilo Owatta?

They’ve been everpresent in the top flight since joining the J.league in 1994, but it looks like the game is up for Jubilo Iwata…


The appointment of Takashi Sekizuka at the end of May was supposed to be the move which saved Jubilo Iwata from the relegation scrap and edged them back up to where they belong – in the middle reaches of the J1 table.

It is now almost four months since the former Kawasaki Frontale and London 2012 Olympic coach took over, however, and it looks very much like Jubilo’s race has been run. With just a quarter of the season left to play they realistically have to win the majority of their games as well as needing both Shonan Bellmare and Ventforet Kofu to capitulate on the final straight.

Their story is not unique, and in recent seasons a certain stasis has seen numerous established clubs flirt with or succumb to relegation from the top flight. The biggest profile was obviously Gamba Osaka last year – who were ironically relegated courtesy of a 2-1 defeat by Jubilo on the last day of the season – but Urawa Reds in 2011 and FC Tokyo in 2010 have also had spells battling at the wrong end of the table.

In a recent conversation with a former J.League coach the importance of keeping players’ tension at the right level was discussed; too much stress and they are likely to be nervous and make mistakes, too relaxed and they will lack the necessary concentration or respect for the opposition and be caught out. To me, this is the key contributing factor to the woes of clubs like Jubilo.

The beats go on...

With nine games to go last season they were sitting in 4th place, just six points behind leaders and eventual champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima. The players began to coast, however, not driven enough to take their challenge all the way to the wire but not afraid enough of dropping down to J2, and eventually finished 12th, avoiding relegation by just seven points. That can’t be attributed to tactics or players’ ability, that is down to motivation and concentration.

Things haven’t improved on that front this season, despite the squad being largely unchanged, and the win over Kashiwa Reysol in Round 25 was just their third all season, and first away from home for almost exactly one year.

One player who does look like he is up for the fight is recently-acquired midfielder Carlinhos, who was at the heart of all of Jubilo’s good play in the win over Reysol.

“Of course last year I had experience (of battling and surviving relegation) with Omiya and I hope that I can contribute to Jubilo’s survival as well,” he told me after the match. “Winning puts us on the right track and […] becomes a feeling that we want to repeat.”

"Crawl up", this banner pleads

As well as battling for and creating with the ball, the Brazilian also demonstrated his desire to succeed in a heated exchange towards the end of the match with Reysol coach Nelsinho.

“Of course it was in the final stage of the game so both of us were tense and fired up, that’s just normal,” he explained. “Those kind of things happen.”

It is all too rare an occurrence for Jubilo though, and looks like being too little, too late. A few more players showing Carlinhos’ passion could very well have saved them from their current peril.

“Behind our desire to win the desire to protect what we have has also been pulling away,” Yuichi Komano admitted of the team’s inability to see out victories in the league this year. “There have been many times when that has been our undoing. Because of that we haven’t been able to put pressure on the ball and have lost the initiative and then conceded goals.”

They managed to overcome such fears against Reysol and take all three points, something they will need to do repeatedly over the next two months.

“We believe that we can survive,” Komano insisted. “There is pressure but we have to put that to one side and we have to win [our games].”

Another experienced Japan star, Yasuhito Endo, said almost exactly the same thing to me towards the end of the 2012 season. We all know what happened to him and his Gamba teammates though, and it looks like the same fate is set to befall Komano and co. this year.


Attack, attack, attack

Japan’s defence is still not looking particularly water-tight. Does it matter when you have so much talent pouring forwards at the other end, though…?


It would be something of a turnaround from the last time that Japan appeared at a World Cup finals but I’m beginning to wonder if the team should start to adopt a more aggressive stance regardless of the opposition they are facing.

Defensively the side has not looked convincing for the last six months, and indecision with regards to how much to commit forward and how much to try and keep opponents at bay has invariably seen Alberto Zaccheroni’s men on the wrong side of results.

The Confederations Cup was the perfect case in point, and after offering Brazil a huge amount of respect in the opening game Japan were comfortably swept aside 3-0.

The next game against Italy was undoubtedly the high point of the competition for the Samurai Blue, and after 33 minutes they found themselves 2-0 up against the Azzuri. Nerves then began to set in, however, and after Maya Yoshida’s mistake allowed Italy back into the game just before half-time Japan retreated further and further back, eventually ending up on the wrong side of a 4-3.

Fear of returning from Brazil with a clean sweep of defeats then saw the side enter its final match against an out-of-form Mexico cautiously, and again come away without any points.

Nissan Stadium, 10th September, 2013

Looking at the personnel available it does not seem likely that a surefire defensive leader is going to emerge over the next nine months, and so Zac should perhaps focus on getting everything he can out of the not inconsiderable attacking threat his team possesses.

The emergence of Yoichiro Kakitani as not just a fine J.League player but a realistic option to lead the line for the full national team may well be the final piece in a puzzle that has long remained unfinished.

Frustration at the lack of a proven goalscorer has constantly dominated discussion about a succession of Japan teams, but the current abundance of not-quite-strikers-but-not-midfielders looks like that conversation may be irrelevant for this generation.

With Kakitani ostensibly the furthest forward but constantly moving left and right and dropping deep against Ghana an abundance of space was created for Hiroshi Kiyotake, Keisuke Honda, and Shinji Kagawa to exploit, and the Ghanaians really struggled to contain the foursome.

If one constant goal threat is not available then having four accomplished – if not prolific – finishers buzzing around is not a bad alternative.

Eiji Kawashima, who in his duties at the other end of the pitch knows exactly what defences don’t want to come up against, was impressed with Kakitani’s instant acclimatization to the Samurai Blue.

Good on paper, too

“He’s got good potential as a striker,” the Standard Liege keeper told me after the Ghana game. “Also he’s getting used to playing with the national team quickly so I think he can be a good option for us. He’s still young and if he learns a lot of things I think he can contribute much more to the team.”

I asked Kawashima if he felt that the side had the ability to switch from being a pragmatic team aiming to win games without conceding goals to a more bombastic, expansive outfit in the mold of the 1999 Manchester United team which famously adopted the approach of ‘you score three and we’ll score four’.

He – understandably for a keeper – didn’t seem certain they should adopt quite such a gung-ho way of playing, but did concede that the team was better placed now than it was in South Africa to take the game to opponents, who would be starting to fear the attacking threat posed by Kakitani and co.

“I think absolutely [opponents] know about us. They are thinking that Japan is much stronger than before,” he said. “So even though in 2010 we were just defending mostly for 89 minutes and [then] try to score, this time we have more quality for the attacking. But as I said it’s not about only attacking as a team, we have to mix it.”

That’s true, and becoming too top heavy could be dangerous, but throwing off the shackles a little and keeping opponents occupied with containing the variety of quick, skillful, and intelligent attackers at Zac’s disposal could limit the amount of defending that Japan actually need to do. It is the best form of defence, after all.


Wins boost Samurai Blue

Japan picked up a couple of wins in the Kirin Cup this week, and while the opposition weren’t the strongest there were plenty of positives to take from the games.

Japan and Ghana fans, Nissan Stadium, September 10th, 2013

Here’s some reaction from Eiji Kawashima, Maya Yoshida, Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa, and Yoichiro Kakitani, for The Japan News.


Nels-in-ho, Nels-out-ho…

Out of nowhere Kashiwa Reysol boss Nelsinho announced he was resigning – then he reconsidered…


Nobody expected it. In fact, when Nelsinho announced his resignation after Kashiwa Reysol’s 3-1 defeat to Kashima Antlers I was already on the bus heading back to Tokyo.

Granted, that was partly because the game had taken place at Antlers’ ludicrously-situated stadium and any failure to catch said bus would have left me sleeping with the deer in Kashima Jingu, but I also didn’t have any inkling that there’d be anything noteworthy said in the press conference after a fairly standard J.League game.

A quick scan of Twitter on my way home proved otherwise, however, and as news broke of the Brazilian’s decision to stand down the typical reaction of fans and media alike was shock.

Yes, Reysol had been comfortably beaten by Antlers but prior to the loss they were unbeaten in nine in the league, had their Emperor’s Cup second round game coming up in midweek, a Nabisco Cup semi-final the following Saturday and, grandest of all, the ACL quarter-final second leg against Al Shabab on the agenda next week.

Kashiwa Reysol line up against Kashima Antlers ahead of what was, temporarily, Nelsinho's last game in charge.

Nelsinho’s reason for calling it a day was that he felt the club shouldn’t be languishing in mid-table come the business end of the season and should instead be leading the way, or at least in or around the top three. Considering Reysol’s strenuous schedule this year though – the loss to Kashima was their 36th game of the season, if you include the Super Cup, and they had a maximum of 23 more to play – it is entirely forgivable that they would struggle to compete fully on all fronts.

Also, while ninth place is below par for a club that has established itself as one of the top teams in J1 over the past couple of years, there was still almost a third of the season to play when the veteran tactician threw in the towel, and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that they could accumulate enough points in the last 10 games to move themselves back up to where Nelsinho feels they belong.

Perhaps this was one of the things that crossed his mind in the cold light of the days following his announcement, as five days later – and with any official announcement from the club having been conspicuous by its absence – the 63-year old reversed his decision and was back on the training pitch.

The silence from the club had provided fans with the glimmer of hope that he may make a swift return to the dugout, and they campaigned passionately at their side’s Emperor’s Cup second round match against Tsukuba University (for which coach Masami Ihara was in temporary charge) for Nelsinho to rethink.

“It was not because of this game but a considered decision,” the coach had insisted when announcing his resignation after the loss to Kashima, but he exhibited a slightly more emotional streak in the light of the fans’ requests, performing a sensational U-turn on Thursday evening.

Nelsinho back on the Reysol bench a week later

“In the days afterwards I spoke to many friends and different people about the decision and on reflection felt that I wanted to come back and work for this club again,” he explained. “It is not easy to retract a decision like that, but if you realize you have made a mistake or an error I think it is stupider to see it through.”

Of course, there are a host of other theories as to what may have brought him back, but I am inclined to take him at face value. That may be naïve but in my experience he has always come across as an honest, intelligent, and amiable individual and if the club simply refused to accept his resignation he may have felt duty-bound to see out his contract.

The timing was always baffling, and it was hard to understand why he would leave Reysol at such a vital stage of the season. Perhaps the full realization of that didn’t sink in until after the decision had been made, and having enjoyed so much success with the club during his four years in charge – and with a realistic opportunity of adding more silverware this year – he may have envisioned a more distinguished way to bow out at the end of this season.


Kagawa makes case in Guatemala win

Shinji Kagawa is yet to feature for Manchester United in the Premier League this season but he started for Japan against Guatemala on Friday night.

Nagai Stadium, September 6th, 2013

After the game he spoke about his role in the national team, his fitness, and his relationship with new coach David Moyes.


Squirrels going nuts

It takes a special kind of team to set a record unbeaten run and club best (worst?) consecutive losing run in the same season. Was firing the coach the right call for Omiya Ardija though?


I interviewed Zdenko Verdenik after Omiya Ardija had beaten Cerezo Osaka 2-1 back in April and asked him tongue-in cheek if he thought Shin Kanazawa would ever be able to repeat his astonishing halfway line goal that had put them ahead inside the first minute of that game.

He laughed and said he very much doubted it, before adding a caveat: “In football anything can happen, nothing is strange.”

I’m not so sure. Kanazawa of course hasn’t managed to replicate his wonder strike, but if he had would it have been any more surprising than Verdenik’s unceremonious firing three weeks ago?

While rumours have swirled since to the contrary, for most of us looking in from the outside the sacking was totally unexpected and it is still hard to understand how a coach who had lifted the perennial relegation-battlers to the top of the table could be so mercilessly dismissed.

Yes, their fortunes had changed markedly since that first Cerezo game, and the loss to Yoichiro Kakitani and co. on August 10th was Ardija’s fifth in a row, but such bumps in the road have been ridden out before. Kashima Antlers lost five on the bounce en route to their 2009 J1 title, for example, while that same season Urawa Reds were defeated in seven straight games without Volker Finke being shown the door.

Verdenik wasn’t afforded such patience tough, and amid accusations of losing the dressing room and arguments with his coaches the Slovenian was disposed of.

Omiya Ardija

Upon my return from England the first game I took in was Tsutomu Ogura’s debut in charge of Ardija – having previously served as a coach under Verdenik and, very briefly, as technical director – and it was clear that there is much that needs repairing at NACK5.

Not least of all there is the form, fitness and, let’s be honest, mood of star strikers Milivoje Novakovic and Zlatan Ljubijankic. The pair will obviously have been two of the most aggrieved at recent events, and just how much longer they will be in Saitama is hard to gauge.

I spoke with Ljubijankic after the 3-2 loss to Reysol, and while he insisted it wasn’t his business who sat in the dugout it is fair enough to assume that the loss of his compatriot will have an impact on his longer-term future at the club.

“No, look, I [have] changed already lots of coaches, so I can only say this is not for players to think about, this is for the people in the club,” he said. “But I want to say only with Zdenko that he is a really good coach and we had a really good time together, good results, and I will never forget this time I spent here with him. So I want to say thank you for that to him, and I hope he is going to have luck [soon] in another job.”

Tsutomu Ogura has now shifted down the bench

With regards to his future, the 29-year-old maintained he would be going nowhere before December and that he would not be thinking about next year until then.

“We will see, [my contract is] until the end of the season, that’s why I am still here in this club. I need to show my best performance and then we will see. I really like everything here, so we will see.”

As for how a team that just six weeks previously had been top of the table could suddenly be experiencing such abysmal form he was certain that the problem was mental.

I don’t know what to say. We are in a really difficult period now. I see how it is in Japan when you start winning you can’t lose in a long time and now when you start losing it is also…” he drifted off and laughed regretfully. “Now we [have lost] seven games [in a row].”

Confidence is undoubtedly in incredibly short supply for the Squirrels at the moment, but Ljubijankic is not intending to feel sorry for himself, and demands the same of his teammates too.

“It’s very nice when you’re winning, everything is super with the fans and everything, but the true mentality shows when you’re losing,” he declared. “Then you see if we have a good mentality.”

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September 2013