Archive for November, 2013


Mikic: Sanfrecce in perfect position

Last week I spoke to Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s Mihael Mikic about his team’s chances of retaining their J1 title, his former coach Mihailo Petrovic, and the Kanto bias in the Japanese media…

Mikic: Sanfrecce in perfect position

HIROSHIMA – With just three games to go four teams are still in with a realistic chance of becoming the 2013 J.League champion. Leader Yokohama F.Marinos is just three points ahead of fourth place Kashima Antlers, while wedged inbetween at single point intervals are Urawa Reds and, in third, reigning champion Sanfrecce Hiroshima.

Sanfrecce upset the odds to claim their maiden league title last season, but experienced midfielder Mihael Mikic believes that success was theirs for the taking.

“I know our quality and last year, I must say, I was a little surprised,” he said at the club’s training ground last week. “But when I analyzed other teams and our team I said, “we have the perfect players, in the perfect time, in the perfect age. We have the perfect balance and everything is perfect for us. Now it must be our chance.””

He and his teammates took that opportunity and knew that defending their crown would be a tall order, with no team having won consecutive championships since Kashima claimed their third in a row in 2009.

“After last year I was thinking the most hard job was to be champion again,” Mikic admitted. “But after half a season we were in first place and we said, “hey, guys, no more hiding, we are a big candidate [to be] the champion. This year we must also take this chance.””

The Croatian is full of praise for coach Hajime Moriyasu, who achieved last year’s triumph in his debut season on the bench, but is also keen to extoll the virtues of his predecessor, Mihailo “Mischa” Petrovic.

“To be honest I had so many coaches before — and really good coaches,” Mikic said. “The national coach of Croatia in 1998 [Miroslav Blazevic] was my coach in Dinamo Zagreb, then many famous names; also Osvaldo Ardiles.

With Mihael Mikic, Yoshida training ground, November 14th, 2013

“But when I saw Mischa’s style — how he made the training — I really, for the first time in my life, said, “yeah, now I understand what the coach means [to the] team”. That is [fortunate for me], and I am so happy because I [could participate in his] training for three years.”

As an added twist to the title race Petrovic could actually prevent his former club from claiming a second straight crown though, as he is now in charge of Urawa.

The Saitama giant is without a trophy since it won the Asian Champions League in 2007 but currently sits a point above Sanfrecce going into this weekend’s games.

Mikic has no ill-feeling about his former mentor’s switch but is often disappointed with the relative lack of coverage his team — especially as the reigning champion — receives in comparison to clubs closer to the capital.

“Everybody says, “ah, Yokohama, Urawa, now Kashima,” everybody speaks about these clubs but nobody wants to speak about Sanfrecce. Why?” he demands.

“Sanfrecce was the champion last year and this year we have a big chance to be the champion. But everybody ignores us. That, I really must say, that is not correct. Because we are a really good team. We have potential and [over the] next two, three years we [will] play, I think, also at this level.”

They will need to showcase that ability tomorrow when they travel to in-form Cerezo Osaka, and anything other than a victory could see the championship disappear over the horizon. Far from being daunted by that prospect Mikic is instead relishing the challenge.

“I’m excited because we have a big chance,” the 33-year-old said.

“But also I am realistic. We have a hard schedule. Maybe the hardest schedule [of the top four] teams. But what is good for us [is that] against hard teams we always play good. That’s because I’m not so scared for the big games. Cerezo and Kashima [on the last day of the season]; that is, for me, the challenge. If we win these games then we deserve to be the champion.”


Stick or twist?

I wrote this around a month ago, after Japan’s last pair of friendlies in Europe, but for some reason forgot to post it here. My penultimate Weekly Soccer Magazine column on Alberto Zaccheroni’s rigid selection policy…


Good teams have bad games. That can’t be helped and kneejerk reactions are rarely helpful. Six defeats in eight games to non-Asian opposition is not just an off day though, and Alberto Zaccheroni has some big decisions to make as the World Cup finals draw ever closer.

Consistency brings with it many positives but too much repetition can breed complacency and result in things becoming stale and predictable. That is the problem Zac has to overcome now.

The two recent games against Serbia and Belarus were, on paper, the ideal opportunity to try out a few fringe or untested players against decent but far from top level European opposition in an environment far removed from the “Kirin makes smile field” cosiness of domestic friendlies. For reasons best known to himself the Italian neglected to do so though, instead going with his tried and trusted XI and substitutions you can almost set your watch too.

Again, I have no problem with a coach persevering with his preferred selection and feel that the impact of constantly bringing in new faces can be overstated and complicate things if overdone. However, when results are not being achieved – and in fact, defeats are mounting up – it is vital that something is done to lift the ennui over the camp.

Fans welcome Japan to Saitama Stadium, June 2013

As well as giving players the impression that their shirt is secure for Brazil –which can either lead to a sense of contented satisfaction or a fear of making a mistake and messing up your chances (and thus safe and unadventurous play) – opponents also know exactly what to expect when they come up against Japan, and are quite happy to sit back and let them pass the ball around in front of them before seizing possession and breaking quickly by way of attack.

There is nothing wrong with possession-based, passing football – indeed it is positively in vogue right now, especially in Japan where you are not a coach worth your salt unless you profess to be aiming for a Barcelona style of play – but it needs to be carried out in the right way. There is a time to slow down the pace and keep the ball but there is also a point at which the speed must be upped and a certain dynamism and directness needs to be introduced. At the moment the Samurai Blue are not injecting that boost, and the constant circulation of the ball reminds me of so many meetings I’ve had in Japan where it seems the target is not to achieve a goal but purely to have a meeting. Possession is all well and good but it needs to be taken advantage of.

"Are you ready to fight?"

In order to win big games – or at the moment just games – your big players need to perform and of late they haven’t done so. Keisuke Honda and, in particular, Shinji Kagawa have looked devoid of ideas recently, and when they don’t click Japan invariably do.

So, who can add that missing spark? The list of players who could be drafted in is exhaustive and almost every team in J1 has a candidate: Manabu Saito, Yoshiaki Ota, Yasushi Endo, Masato Kudo, Kengo Kawamata, Yoshito Okubo, Hisato Sato…; a host of aggressive, direct, and unpredictable players who could serve to mix up Japan’s approach play far more than Mike Havenaar or Takashi Inui have done in their recent attempts. Quite how they would fare at international level remains to be seen, but how will we know unless they are given opportunities?

Yoichiro Kakitani looked like he may be the trigger but has simmered down after entering the fray at boiling point, demonstrating how key the timing of such call-ups can be. Roy Hodgson, for instance, is another coach perceived to be too cautious but performed a recent masterstroke by adding Andros Townsend to the mix for England, and the Tottenham winger’s introduction spurred the Three Lions on to Brazil.

Is Zac waiting until the last moment before including a surprise player or two in the hope of providing a similar jolt at the finals themselves rather than one which wears off months in advance? It’s unlikely, but I certainly hope he has something up his sleeve.


Kudo strike gives Reysol Nabisco Cup

Kashiwa Reysol won their second Nabisco Cup – and fourth title in four years – on Saturday when they beat Urawa Reds 1-0 courtesy of a Masato Kudo strike.

The 2013 Nabisco Cup trophy

I was at at National Stadium in Tokyo to see the victory, and wrote a short report on the final for The Japan News.

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

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November 2013