Archive for November, 2016


Antlers on the charge

Kashima Antlers finished well off the pace in the regular J1 season, but are now just two games away from being crowned champions – at the expense of bitter rivals and overall table-toppers Urawa Reds… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, Monday 28th November, 2016

Here we go, then. Urawa Reds versus Kashima Antlers to decide who will be crowned 2016 J.League champions. On paper this is the ideal way to see off the ill-fated two-stage system: the biggest club in Japanese football against the most successful club in Japanese football.

However, while a mouthwatering fixture, a glance at the overall table suggests the scales aren’t evenly balanced ahead of this heavyweight showdown.

Antlers ended up 15 points behind table-topping Reds after 34 games, as well as being worse off by 14 goals, and appeared to be on holiday during the second stage – finishing 11th in the rankings for the second term with only 20 points, less than half the 41 amassed by Reds over the same period.

The Ibaraki side won just six games in the second half of the season, losing nine times including their last four matches. They failed to even score in their final two league games, as they suffered back-to-back 1-0 defeats at home to Kawasaki Frontale and Vissel Kobe.

Ultimately, having already booked their place in the play offs by winning the first stage, their last 17 games of the season didn’t matter though. That’s not to say they weren’t trying, but when there are no consequences for defeat it is understandably harder to motivate yourself to give everything for victory. Reds themselves cruised to the first stage title unbeaten last year, for instance, but went on to finish nine points behind second stage champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima.

“We want to get into the Championship however we can,” Daigo Nishi told me back in June, after Kashima had beaten Reds 2-0 in Saitama to move six points clear of Urawa in second with two first stage games to play. “Antlers are good at knockout football so we want to make sure of our place.”

That victory set them on their way, and Kashima moved top the following weekend before finishing the job off and claiming the first stage crown a fortnight later. Rounds 16 and 17 of the first stage were the only two weeks Masatada Ishii’s side spent in first place all season. Kawasaki, who they beat 1-0 in the Championship semi final last Wednesday, conversely spent 21 rounds at the summit.

Antlers on the march

Frontale once again finished the campaign empty handed, however, while Antlers are just two games away from adding an eighth first division title. After cruising through the past few months they now have the bit between their teeth, nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

Antlers have played the system almost to perfection and conserved their energy, both physical and mental, for the final push – just as they did at the end of the first stage when they executed their smash and grab with six wins on the bounce to pip Reds and Frontale to the post.

“I told you, right, during the first stage? If we make it into the Championship we will be strong,” Nishi reminded me after Wednesday’s win over Frontale. “We are the challenger.

“We were a little bit stiff [at the start of the semi final], but I don’t think it was too different to usual. There’ll be less of that in the final – we’re confident. I think winning today will give us a boost.”

Captain Mitsuo Ogasawara dismissed the idea that the respective finalist’s league records will have an influence on the game, as well as brushing aside any suggestion that Antlers have the extra motivation of denying their biggest rivals a first league crown for a decade.

“I don’t care who the opponent is,” he said in typically forthright fashion. “Looking at it from a different perspective of course we wanted to do well in [the second stage] too, but that is that and this is this.”

Kento Misao, who was sent on to firm things up as Kawasaki looked for an equaliser in the semi final, is of a similar mind and thinks Reds will be feeling a greater sense of expectation on their shoulders.

“It’s different games, the league and Championship, and it doesn’t matter that we were 15 points behind them,” he said.

“We have to win and play aggressively. I think they have more pressure than us. It will be difficult but if we play our football we can win.”

For all the talk of it being a different competition, though, it isn’t. Whoever emerges as the victor from the next two games will go down in history as the 2016 champions.

Antlers have shown time and again that they can up their game when the heat is on, and the temperature is sure to be searing come the second leg in Saitama on 3rd December. Can Reds avoid being burned?


Changing of the guard

Japan’s first choice XI is changing bit by bit under Vahid Halilhodzic, although the Bosnian still seems unsure about who he wants playing in central midfield… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, Monday 14th November, 2016

It is only happening gradually, but the make up of Japan’s best XI appears to be evolving under Vahid Halilhodzic.

Stalwarts of the side from the past couple of World Cup cycles are increasingly finding that their places in the XI are not guaranteed – whether as a result of form, fitness, or a combination of both – and new players are steadily establishing themselves as key to the side’s chances of success.

Yuto Nagatomo, for instance, has not started any of the last five games, Shinji Kagawa has been in and out of the team – although still tends to start the more important matches – Shinji Okazaki hasn’t completed 90 minutes since 8 September last year, and even Keisuke Honda is no longer the untouchable of two years ago, being subbed off for the fourth game in a row against Oman on Friday night.

Meanwhile, Genki Haraguchi and, most impressively, Hiroshi Kiyotake have been performing so well that Halilhodzic has no choice but to keep picking them, while Hiroki Sakai and Gotoku Sakai now look settled as the first choice full-backs.

Yuya Osako’s ruthless display in front of goal back in Kashima also demonstrated that there are other players capable of filling Okazaki’s boots when he is not in form – as he undoubtedly isn’t for the Samurai Blue at the moment, having been stuck on 49 goals for his country since netting in the 7-2 rout of Bulgaria seven games ago.

The centre of midfield, however, is the one area of the pitch where it seems Halilhodzic is struggling to find a solution.

Yasuhito Endo played his last national team game under previous coach Javier Aguirre in the quarter final loss to UAE at the Asian Cup in January 2015, and a return under Halilhodzic never seemed to be on the cards for the Gamba Osaka star. With a line having been drawn under the international career of Japan’s most capped player, however, no-one has been able to stake an authoritative claim for the vacant No.7 shirt.

Plenty have been auditioned for the role – with Ryota Nagaki’s debut on Friday making him the 11th player to line up in the middle since Halihodzic took the reins in March last year – but it is still not clear what the Bosnian’s preferred combination is. The last time he stuck with a pairing for back-to-back games was when Makoto Hasebe and Yosuke Kashiwagi started both the Bulgaria and Bosnia friendlies in June.

Football Channel, Monday 14th November, 2016 (Getty)

Since then there has been a tendency to alternate between Kashiwagi and Hotaru Yamaguchi, although Halilhodzic doesn’t seem convinced enough by either to make them his first choice to partner captain Hasebe – who we must assume is guaranteed one last chance to play at the World Cup finals considering that he started eight in a row before being rested against Oman.

“I still don’t feel as if I am established in the side and have to keep playing with that outlook, knowing my place is not safe,” Yamaguchi said after another steady display in Kashima.

“There are new players coming in – today I think Ryota [Nagaki] played well – so within that there is good competition for places.”

One interesting aspect of that competition is that Halilhodzic appears to be leaning towards a more experienced head in the centre, having sampled and not been too impressed with younger candidates like Gaku Shibasaki (24), Wataru Endo (23), and Ryota Oshima (23), who all appear to have been cast aside for now.

Nagaki’s call up adds weight to that theory, with him earning his national team bow at the ripe old age of 28 – making him the least experienced yet second oldest outfielder against Oman. He didn’t look especially nervous though and put in an assured display at the base of midfield, suggesting that Halilhodzic may consider him as the alternative to Hasebe if the captain is injured now that Toshihiro Aoyama also seems to have been removed from consideration.

“The coach hasn’t spoken to me personally about why he called me up, but I think he rates my ability to battle for the ball, and so I want to do my best to demonstrate that ability when I play,” Nagaki said.

“I think defensive midfield is a position that can really become the key for the team, and so there are times when it is important to rein in the selfish instincts about what I can do and to consider the positioning of my midfield partner. While paying attention to that balance I want to be able to go forward when the opportunity is there too and hope I can be able to show my quality in that way.”

Tuesday’s Saudi Arabia game marks the half-way point of the final round of qualifiers though, and the time for testing things out is drawing to a close for Halilhodzic. The team needs consistency if it is to make it to a sixth straight World Cup, and in order to achieve that it is vital that the coach settles on his preferred combination in the middle of the park as soon as possible.


Reds lock up playoff slot with draw

Urawa Reds just about sealed first place in the overall rankings in J1 on Thursday, drawing 1-1 draw with Yokohama F.Marinos to finish two points ahead  of Kawasaki Frontale…

The Japan News, Friday 4th November, 2016

SAITAMA – Urawa Reds booked itself a place in the final of the J.League playoffs in front of a bumper 56,841 crowd on Thursday, despite being held to a 1-1 draw by Yokohama F.Marinos.

Japan midfielder Yosuke Kashiwagi gave Reds the lead in the 66th minute, but Marinos substitute Quenten Martinus equalized in the 85th to make for a nervy end to the game for Mihailo Petrovic’s side.

Even so, Reds hung onto top spot in the overall rankings and earned a bye direct to the two-legged final as closest challenger Kawasaki Frontale surrendered a two-goal lead to lose 3-2 at home to Gamba Osaka.

“Our target was to finish the season at the top of the table and I’m delighted we were able to achieve that,” Kashiwagi said.

“Last year we weren’t able to make it to the final,” he added with reference to Reds’ loss to Gamba in the 2015 semifinal. “Now we want to make sure we win both matches in order to become the champion.”

Had Frontale beaten Gamba they would have leapfrogged Reds, but despite establishing a 2-0 lead thanks to goals from Tatsuya Hasegawa and Koji Miyoshi, they conceded three times in 12 second half minutes to finish on 72 points, two behind Urawa.

They will now face a semifinal bout against third-placed Kashima Antlers in the postseason Championship series on Nov. 23.

Back in Saitama, Reds started the brighter of the two sides and Shinzo Koroki headed the first chance of the game wide in the 8th minute.

Urawa Reds v. Yokohama F.Marinos, Saitama Stadium, Thursday 3rd November, 2016

Reds continued to dominate possession for the remainder of the first half, and Toshiyuki Takagi went closest to opening the scoring with a couple of decent efforts, one of which was headed off the line by Park Jeong-su in the 30th minute.

Reds came out with extra impetus at the start of the second half and almost took the lead in the 48th minute, as Wataru Endo tested Tetsuya Enomoto from close range after a Kashiwagi corner.

Manabu Saito fired a warning shot for Marinos in the 51st minute, but his effort was blocked by a combination of Takagi and Shusaku Nishikawa.

Reds began to turn the screw in the final half hour, with Takahiro Sekine and Tadanari Lee both drawing saves from Enomoto, and the home side’s superiority was rewarded in the 66th minute.

Sekine drew yet another stop from Enomoto after a tidy passing move, but Kashiwagi made no mistake with the rebound, slamming home from inside the six yard box.

Martinus made Reds sweat on their fate as the clock ticked down, racing onto a through ball from Sho Ito and converting in style to equalize with five minutes to play, but the scoring ended there and Reds’ point was enough to keep them top.

Elsewhere, Nagoya Grampus was relegated for the first time after losing 3-1 at home to Shonan Bellmare. That let Albirex Niigata off the hook after its 1-0 loss to Sanfrecce Hiroshima, as well as Ventforet Kofu, which lost 1-0 to Sagan Tosu.

Meanwhile, Jubilo Iwata made sure of its survival with a 1-0 win away to Vegalta Sendai, Kashima lost 1-0 to Vissel Kobe, Omiya Ardija went down 1-0 to FC Tokyo, and Kashiwa Reysol hammered Avispa Fukuoka 4-0.

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November 2016