Archive for December, 2013


Nakamura first two-time J.League Player of the Year

Shunsuke Nakamura picked up his second J.League Player of the Year award this week, and after the awards ceremony I asked those who’ve played with and against him over the years  – and the man himself – for some thoughts on the accolade…

Nakamura first two-time J.League Player of the Year

YOKOHAMA—Shunsuke Nakamura made J.League history Tuesday when he became the first two-time winner of the top division’s Player of the Year award.

The Yokohama F Marinos midfielder also earned the title in 2000 during his initial stint at his hometown club, and his peers were unanimous in endorsing the 35-year-old’s second accolade.

“For me there wasn’t any option but him,” Nakamura’s Marinos teammate and 2004 Player of the Year Yuji Nakazawa said after the ceremony. “If he hadn’t have been here, then I don’t think Marinos would have finished in second place [in J1].”

“He’s amazing,” said Nakamura’s former Japan colleague Yasuhito Endo, who was selected as J2’s best player for his efforts at Gamba Osaka. “It looked like this year he’d take it, and I’m glad he did.”

Hisato Sato, whose Sanfrecce Hiroshima side pipped Nakamura’s Marinos to the post for the championship this year, agreed there had been no mistake in the voting.

“It’s a deserved result,” said Sato, who picked up the Player of the Year trophy last season. “Of course we won the title, but if I had to think of one player who had done the most in the J.League this year then Shunsuke would be the first to come to mind.”

Nakamura was proud to claim his second trophy, but was keen to stress the support that made it possible.

“I know what it takes to have a good season—I had it at Celtic, too, so I understand that feeling,” he said, referring to the series of individual and team honors he earned with the Scottish giant.

J.League Awards 2013

“I know you can’t do this without having very talented teammates, coaches and, of course, great supporters. All those things come together and that’s when it’s possible to receive this kind of prize.”

The fact his team failed to end the season as champion understandably took an edge off the celebrations, with Nakamura yet to add a domestic league title to those he earned in Scotland. But the Kanagawa native maintained he hadn’t given up hope of lifting the J1 shield one day.

“Of course, during the last two games I was thinking it was the last chance,” he admitted about Marinos needing just one win from their final two matches to sew up the championship. But they dropped both to Albirex Niigata and then Kawasaki Frontale, allowing Sanfrecce to come up on the rails and defend their crown.

“I’ve had a few days to get over it and have managed to get my head straight now, but I do wish I could have kept my emotions in check at the time. Having gone over it all in my head, I still believe that I am capable of going that extra step. We just have to work hard in training and do it on the pitch.”

Any nagging doubts about this having been the golden opportunity were shrugged off, with the former Japan star keen to stay positive.

“Of course, you don’t know if the Marinos players will be able to perform the same as this year and many new players will join,” he said. “If I think like that, there could be regret about what we could have achieved this year, but I prepared a lot as captain so in that sense I don’t feel any regret.”

Hideaki Kitajima, whose Ichiritsu Funabashi defeated Nakamura’s Toko Gakuen in the 1996 All Japan High School final, is also confident that time hasn’t run out for his long-time sparring partner and friend.

“Age is not important, he has the technical ability and consistently plays fantastically,” Kitajima, who retired at the end of this season, told The Japan News. “His performances this year got him the Player of the Year award and I’m really happy for him.

“He still has a chance [to win J1]. He is undoubtedly the type of player who can lead his team to the title.”


Sanfrecce repeat as Marinos miss out

Sanfrecce Hiroshima dramatically retained the J1 title yesterday, as Yokohama F.Marinos choked at the last. Here’s my short report on the final day’s action for The Japan News.

Sanfrecce repeat as Marinos miss out

KAWASAKI—Yokohama F Marinos threw away the J.League Division One championship on Saturday, losing 1-0 to Kawasaki Frontale.

That defeat gifted the title to Sanfrecce Hiroshima, which beat Kashima Antlers 2-0 to become the first team since Kashima in 2009 to successfully defend its crown.

Marinos had been in the driver’s seat since Oct. 19 when they usurped Sanfrecce at the top of the table by beating them 1-0, and was four points clear in first place with just two games to go.

A win in either of those matches would have secured the title for Marinos—and even a defeat would have been enough this weekend if Sanfrecce had failed to beat Kashima—but Yasuhiro Higuchi’s men choked under the pressure, losing 2-0 at home to Albirex Niigata last Saturday and then going down to a solitary Renato strike in Kawasaki.

From the outset Frontale were the brighter of the two sides at Todoroki Stadium, and the casual observer would have been forgiven for thinking that the home side was the one within touching distance of the championship.

They had the first real attempt on goal in the 20th minute when a viciously swirling Renato freekick from the right wing struck the angle of post and bar.

Renato went close again four minutes later when Yoshito Okubo—who ended the season as top scorer in J1 with 26 goals—teed him up, but he could only whistle an effort wide of the post from the edge of the D.

There was no light at the end of the tunnel for the Yokohama F.Marinos fans

Marinos’ best chance of the opening period came in the 38th minute when Manabu Saito couldn’t quite connect with a header from a Yuzo Kobayashi cross from the right.

The first half ended goalless, but over in Kashima, Sanfrecce had taken the lead courtesy of a Naoki Ishihara strike so Marinos knew they needed a goal—either of their own or from Kashima—after the break.

They certainly started the second half brighter, and Saito arced a ball through for Marquinhos in the very first minute, but the Brazilian couldn’t quite latch onto it.

Marinos were then stunned in the 54th minute as they fell behind.

Goalkeeper Tetsuya Enomoto spilled a swerving effort by Okubo, and Ryota Oshima claimed the rebound before teeing up Renato for the simplest of finishes from close range.

That blow hit Marinos for six, and they failed to fashion any real chances for the remainder of the game.

They did pile bodies into the Kawasaki box in injury time but it was too little too late, and with Ishihara having added another for Sanfrecce, the race was over.

Kawasaki’s win saw it claim the last guaranteed Asian Champions League spot, with champion Sanfrecce and runner-up Marinos taking the other two places.

Cerezo Osaka, who beat Urawa Reds 5-2, could claim the fourth and final berth if any of Yokohama, Kawasaki, or Sanfrecce win the Emperor’s Cup.


Albirex put Marinos’ title party on hold

The J1 title race could have been wrapped up on Saturday but Yokohama F Marinos missed their cue and lost for the second home game in a row. Here’s my report for The Japan News…

Albirex put Marinos’ title party on hold

YOKOHAMA — Yokohama F Marinos were unable to seal the J.League Division One title on Saturday, falling to a 2-0 defeat at home to Albirex Niigata.

A win would have secured a fourth J1 crown for Marinos, but Kengo Kawamata lashed home the opener for Albirex in the 72nd minute and substitute Musashi Suzuki made sure of the result with a second in injury time.

“We wanted to decide it today, but now we have to face up to reality and win the 34th game,” Marinos coach Yasuhiro Higuchi said after the game. “It’s still in our hands. Even if we only win 1-0, that will give us the title next week.”

As is so often the case in the J.League, the race for the title will now go down to the last round of games next Saturday, when Sanfrecce Hiroshima could pip Marinos to the post.

A giant crowd of 62,632 had gathered at Nissan Stadium in the expectation of seeing Marinos crowned champions for the first time since 2004, and the home side did have the better of the early exchanges.

In just the ninth minute Shingo Hyodo fizzed a low cross in from the right, but Albirex goalkeeper Masaaki Higashiguchi reacted the quickest to foil Marquinhos, who was ready to pounce.

Then Manabu Saito embarked upon a weaving run in the 22nd minute and teed up Kosuke Nakamachi, but his effort was struck straight at Higashiguchi.

Although they were probing well, Marinos looked to be feeling the pressure a little, and they lacked composure in the final third with the last pass often going astray.

In the 33rd minute, left-back Dutra did find space in the box and dinked in a cross for his fellow Brazilian Marquinhos, but after setting himself, Marinos’ top-scorer could only head straight at Higashiguchi.

Around the hour mark, Marinos earned several corners, and their best chance came from one in the 63rd minute, when Yuji Nakazawa found himself unmarked in the center of the box.

The former Japan captain met Shunsuke Nakamura’s outswinger firmly, but saw his header arrow narrowly past the post.

The Marinos fans' wait for the title will go on a little longer - or perhaps a lot...

Marinos continued to dominate possession but could only fashion half-chances, and they were soon made to pay for their lack of cutting edge.

Yuzo Kurihara misjudged an attempted clearance from a corner and was mortified to see his header fly straight to Kawamata, who made no mistake from close-range.

“We were thinking that if we could get to halftime at 0-0, then we could go for it in the second half,” Higuchi admitted.

“Things went largely according to the game plan but in the end we couldn’t fight back from going a goal down.”

It looked like Nakamura was set to equalize in the 79th minute as Higashiguchi parried out to the former Celtic star, but his rasping effort was blocked bravely by Kim Jin Su.

Three minutes later, Marquinhos spun his marker smartly and tore into space deep in the Albirex half, but substitute Yoshihito Fujita could only sweep his cut-back wide of the near post.

That was the closest Marinos would come, and as they frantically pressed for an equalizer Suzuki rounded off a smart Albirex counter-attack to wrap up the three points for the visitors.

“In the second half we felt the strength of the Marinos players and survived many dangerous scenes,” Albirex coach Masaaki Yanagishita said post-game.

“It was a difficult atmosphere but the players concentrated well for the whole 90 minutes.”

Sanfrecce moved into second place courtesy of a 1-0 win over Shonan Bellmare, with midfielder Toshihiro Aoyama claiming the game’s only goal. Kashima Antlers jumped up into third on the back of a 2-1 win at Cerezo Osaka as Yuya Osako and Atsutaka Nakamura found the net.

Marinos must now beat Kawasaki Frontale away next Saturday to make absolutely sure of the title, and any slip up on their part could see Sanfrecce—who take on Antlers—crowned champions. Kashima also have a mathematical chance, although it would need to overturn a substantial goal difference to claim an eighth J1 title.

Urawa Reds had started the day in second, but fell to a comprehensive 4-1 defeat to Sagan Tosu and dropped down into fourth and may now miss out on the Asian Champions League.

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December 2013