Archive for January, 2017

27
Jan
17

Podolski no magic bullet

Lukas Podolski’s protracted transfer to Vissel Kobe is edging closer to completion, but his arrival is no guarantee of success for J1’s perennial underachievers… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 27th January, 2017

Despite the injection of DAZN cash heightening the expectations of fans around Japan, most of the transfer activity this off-season has been the typical J.League fare, with the usual merry-go-round of Japanese players and same old Brazilian faces moving on to pastures new.

Shunsuke Nakamura’s bitter departure from Yokohama F.Marinos to Jubilo Iwata and Yoshito Okubo’s decision to cross the Tama river and join FC Tokyo from Kawasaki Frontale have been two of the most noteworthy transfers so far – or at least the ones afforded the most attention – while Masato Kudo’s arrival at Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Akihiro Ienaga’s move to Frontale, and Omiya Ardija’s capture of Genki Omae from Shimizu S-Pulse are also interesting deals.

The Brazilian carousel, meanwhile, has spun as smoothly as ever, with Wilson and Ramon Lopes leaving Vegalta Sendai for Ventforet Kofu and Kashiwa Reysol, respectively, Urawa Reds returning to their old favourite prep-school Albirex Niigata for Rafael Silva, from where Kashima Antlers have also made an acquisition in the form of the excellent Leo Silva. The reigning champions signed another Brazilian, too, providing Pedro Junior with his sixth J.League home after spells at Omiya, Niigata, Gamba Osaka, Tokyo, and most recently Vissel Kobe.

The player who looks set to replace him at Vissel, however, is the most eye-catching piece of business, with former Germany international Lukas Podolski on the verge of joining Hyogo’s permanently sleeping giant.

The Rakuten-backed side has as yet been unable to realise the potential provided by its sizeable budget and top class facilities, but the capture of the 2014 World Cup winner – who scored 48 goals in 129 games for the Mannschaft – could help turn Kobe into an authentic challenger in 2017.

As when Diego Forlan arrived at Cerezo Osaka in 2014 there will be pressure on the 31-year-old to deliver instant results in the J.League, but as Forlan’s ill-fated spell in Japan also demonstrated it is vital that he is received and used in the correct way.

The expectation then was that the Uruguay star would catapult Cerezo directly to the J1 title, but the subsequent slacking off of his teammates – who seemingly also thought Forlan would be able to decide games on his own – and then bizarre decision of his coach Yuji Okuma to drop him on account of his inability to contribute to the side defensively saw the club sensationally relegated to the second tier.

Football Channel (Getty Images), 27th January, 2017

The former Manchester United and Inter Milan striker was frozen out and didn’t start any of Cerezo’s last 12 games as they slid towards the trapdoor, although he did still finish the campaign as their top scorer with seven goals. He then stuck around to see out the rest of his contract in J2, again finishing as the club’s best finisher with 10 goals in 16 games before leaving in the summer of 2015.

Just because things didn’t ultimately work out in that instance doesn’t mean similar transfers shouldn’t be attempted though, and the early signs regarding Podolski are positive.

Kobe have made it clear that he won’t be afforded any special treatment – the news that he would have to share a room with a teammate if he’d been signed in time for their pre-season camp made headlines, for instance – and manager Nelsinho is a wise old hand who will know exactly how to get the best out of his new player and incorporate him as a part of the team.

And it is the team that must take precedence.

Last year, despite the fact that the two-stage system may have afforded them their best chance of achieving success, Vissel blew as hot and cold as ever, and were unable to maintain the consistency required to qualify for the Championship play-offs.

They ultimately finished the second stage as runners-up after ending the season with eight wins and just one defeat in their last 10 games – a spell which took in wins over all four ACL qualifiers Kashima, Urawa, Kawasaki, and Gamba – but a run of seven games between 14 May and 25 June epitomised their Jekyll and Hyde status and meant they had to settle for their regular mid-table finish, seventh overall.

The move for Podolski is certainly a show of intent and he would be an impressive replacement for the outgoing Pedro Junior, who scored 11 times last year, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that the side are already reasonably well-stocked with goal-getters and finished as fourth highest scorers in 2016.

Leandro finished joint top scorer in J1 with Sanfrecce’s Peter Utaka on 19 goals, while captain Kazuma Watanabe also made it to double figures with 12. Defensively, however, they conceded 43 times – 15 times more than table-topping Urawa – and it is in that respect that improvements also need to be made.

Nelsinho is shrewd enough to know that Podolski isn’t going to be a magic bullet that fires Vissel to glory, and it is vital that everyone else associated with the club is on the same page if the deal is to produce a happy ending.

12
Jan
17

Keeping things safe

Riku Hirosue’s performance between the posts for Aomori Yamada on Monday earned his side a maiden High School title, and the future looks bright for the new FC Tokyo keeper…

Football Channel, 12th January, 2017

If you only saw the final score you would think Aomori Yamada’s victory over Maebashi Ikuei in the High School football final was an easy win, but the eventual 5-0 scoreline was largely made possible by the performance of Aomori’s man at the back, Riku Hirosue.

The Japan U-19 goalkeeper nearly had a nightmare start to the final when Maebashi striker Daichi Hitomi chased the ball down and blocked an early clearance in the opening seconds of the match at Saitama Stadium, but Hirosue grew into the game and ultimately laid the foundations for his team to cruise to their first ever High School title.

The 18-year-old shot-stopper kept Go Kuroda’s side in the contest in the 16th minute, denying Hayate Takazawa in a one-on-one after his defence had switched off. That save came in the midst of a dominant spell for Maebashi, and if they had taken the lead there it could instead have been them taking the trophy back to Gunma.

Hirosue’s stop kept things level though, and enabled Issei Takahashi to give Aomori the lead just seven minutes later. Aomori’s crucial second goal – converted coolly just before half-time by Riku Saga – was also preceded by some Hirosue heroics, and instead of going in 1-1 at the break he and his teammates found themselves 2-0 up.

Such contributions all too often go unnoticed, with the majority of focus in the modern game being directed at the players putting the ball in the back of the net rather than those working to prevent it getting that far.

Game-changing interventions like Hirosue’s are equivalent to goals scored, however – something that Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho recently noted after David De Gea kept his side in the game against West Ham United on 3 January.

“When they play phenomenally people forget, when they make a mistake, everyone remembers,” the Portuguese said after his keeper denied West Ham’s Michail Antonio with the score tied at 0-0 in a game United went on to win 2-0. “That’s why I hugged David at the end of the game, because no save, Antonio goal, no three points.

“Of course I would love goalkeepers to be recognised, to win the golden ball, to be player of season in the Premier League, because goalkeepers are lonely guys with a different shirt to everybody else.”

Riku Hirosue, Getty Images/Football Channel

Such accolades usually only arrive when it is perceived that a team has failed to perform at its best, however, with Mourinho adding that he hopes De Gea doesn’t pick up United’s Player of the Season award for the fourth straight year, opining that, “Season after season, if the goalkeeper is player of the season it means that something is wrong.”

Of course, that is not always the case, and on 7 January Leicester City shot stopper Kasper Schmeichel was rewarded for his part in the Foxes historic Premier League triumph, ending Christian Eriksen’s dominance of the Danish Player of the Year award and becoming the first goalkeeper to pick up the trophy since his dad Peter claimed his third such title back in 1999.

Hirosue was equally vital to Aomori’s success, and as well as helping to keep things tight at the back to ensure a clean sheet in Monday’s final he also started the moves for Aomori’s third and fourth goals with raking passes out from the back.

The High School title is just the latest medal for Hirosue’s collection, and he was also involved for Japan U-19’s when they won their maiden Asian title last year. He only made one appearance at the AFC Championship in Bahrain, but his contribution in the 3-0 semi-final win over Vietnam preserved the young Samurai’s impressive run without conceding a goal – one which was extended to an outstanding 840 minutes by first choice Ryosuke Kojima of Waseda University in the final.

All of which suggests the signs are positive for the future of Japanese goalkeeping at large. Shusaku Nishikawa of Urawa Reds looks settled as No.1 for the Samurai Blue for the time being, but Kashiwa Reysol’s Kosuke Nakamura is steadily establishing himself as a clear contender and, while only 21, is widely expected to break into the full national team squad very soon.

A promotion that far may be some way down the tracks for Kojima or Hirosue, but the latter will be making the step up to the professional game at FC Tokyo this season – returning to the club where he played at U-15 level before being released – and if he can continue to build upon his clear ability then there is no reason why he can’t make even more of a name for himself in the coming years.




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