Archive for June, 2017


Marinos Sailing Smoothly

Yokohama F.Marinos have been doing it quietly, but the City Football Group-backed club are edging towards the top of J1… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 23rd June, 2017

Yokohama F.Marinos are J1’s form side and head into Sunday’s match against Vissel Kobe on a run of five games unbeaten, four of which, including their last three, have produced victories.

The club has climbed to fifth in the table as a result, five points behind leaders Kashiwa Reysol – who themselves are unbeaten in nine – and only three adrift of second placed Cerezo Osaka, who likewise haven’t lost in five.

Marinos’ most recent win was the late 1-0 away to FC Tokyo last weekend, which followed on from an impressive three points against Kawasaki Frontale – another side widely expected to be challenging at the top of the table again.

“1-0 is also enough, and I think we are learning a lot,” Quenten Martinus said after Jun Amano’s 88th minute strike decided the game at Ajinomoto Stadium. Even so, the Curacao forward knows the team can’t bask in the glory of a few good games and that they need to maintain a high level of performance.

“We need to be more consistent with our results and especially with [the way we are] playing. We need to grow – we cannot go down like this,” he plunged his hand down as if descending on a roller-coaster, “and then one time here,” he placed his hand at an invisible peak. “If you play not so good then play a six (out of ten) and then only better (than six). We need to do that more.”

That stance followed on from comments Martinus made earlier in the season, after the 1-1 draw with Albirex Niigata at Nissan Stadium in Round 4.

“If you want to be at the top of the league you cannot make these silly mistakes,” the 26-year-old said after Marinos had gifted Albirex an equaliser in a game the home side were dominating.

“They don’t make chances, they did nothing, and we created a lot of chances but we didn’t score them. Then you need to look at yourself and think for yourself. I think we need to speak about this, but we also need to keep on going because we also did a lot of good things.”

His teammate Milos Degenek was in full agreement on that front.

“I think that’s the big difference between top, top clubs and clubs who are all on the same level – if you use your chances,” the Australian said after that match on 18 March.

Football Channel, Friday 23rd June, 2017

“A big team needs only one or two chances in a game, and I think we kind of missed out on that today. I think this was a game we had to win because we did everything well and pretty much just didn’t score.”

David Babunski was similarly disappointed with Marinos’ failure to make their supremacy count against Albirex, but detected positive signs in the team’s beginning to the 2017 campaign and was optimistic they would only get better as the season wore on.

I think we had a fantastic start and then we faced a very strong team, Kashima where we also played quite good,” the Macedonia international said of the narrow 1-0 loss away to the reigning champions in Round 3. “I think we proved to ourselves that we could win, that we are ready to compete with any team, that we can be one of the top teams in the J.League.”

Ten games down the line and Marinos have certainly built on that promise, thanks in no small part to the influence of the overseas players brought in by City Football Group. Martinus, Degenek, Babunski, and Hugo Vieira have all made crucial contributions to the cause, but the team’s array of domestic talent has also caught the eye.

“I think we have a very, very, very talented team,” Martinus said after the recent win over Tokyo. “Some players are out now which is difficult for us, maybe we have to have a little bit of a bigger squad to cover that, but I think we have quality players and also young players who are very good.

“For example, Jun (Amano) – for me he can play easily in Europe, easily. He doesn’t play so much but he has a lot of qualities. I don’t know, maybe a lot of people don’t see it, but I train every day with him and he’s really, really good.

“His first touch, and he can turn with a man at his back so easily and not many people can do that. His left foot is also very dangerous; you saw in the last game how he gave the ball to me (with a cross that led to Hugo Vieira’s opener against Frontale), it was perfect. And he can do this a lot, with his free kicks also. If he just keeps on training then for me he can easily play in Europe, easily. In Holland for sure.”

For the time being Marinos will be content for him to keep his concentration on J.League duties though, and if Amano and co. can pick up another three points against Vissel this weekend it will certainly lay down a marker that the team is one to be reckoned with.


Honda central to Japan’s World Cup chances

Keisuke Honda was again used out wide in Japan’s recent World Cup qualifier against Iraq, but he needs to be moved to a more central role if the team is to get the best of him… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Tribe, 17th May 2017

If Japan want to qualify for the World Cup in Russia next year then Vahid Halilhodzic needs to make Keisuke Honda his main man in the centre of the park – either at No.10 or as one of the deeper lying midfielders.

The 31-year-old became something of a forgotten man during his wasted last season with Milan, but as he demonstrated with an excellent free kick in his farewell game at San Siro he is still more than capable of making important contributions at the business end of the pitch.

And against Australia at the end of August Japan will be in desperate need of someone to spark the team into life in the final third, needing all three points to book their ticket to Russia after a sluggish 1-1 draw away to Iraq.

The heat on Tuesday undoubtedly had an impact on the Samurai Blue – most of whom have just finished long seasons in Europe, where temperatures are nowhere near the 37 degrees in Tehran – but after 90 minutes mostly devoid of ideas it is vital that the team bounces back and comes out positively against the Socceroos in two months’ time.

Japan are already guaranteed of at least a place in the play-off and could still secure one of the automatic spots even if they draw or lose to Australia, but that would almost certainly require them to win their final Group B game away to Saudi Arabia, who, as per Dave Phillips (@lovefutebol) on Twitter, have suffered defeat at home in World Cup qualifiers just twice in the past 32 years.

The best way to ensure smooth passage to a sixth consecutive World Cup, then, is by harnessing what is sure to be an electric atmosphere in Saitama and taking the game to Australia, and there is no-one better equipped to drive this Japan team forward than Honda.

It would appear that his teammates know that too, and even though he was again stationed wide on the right against Iraq the majority of Japan’s attacks were built through him down that flank, further highlighting the strangeness of Halilhodzic’s refusal to arrange his three support strikers in their best positions.

Getty / Football Tribe

Yuya Kubo, for instance, demonstrated in the last pair of qualifiers against UAE and Thailand what a threat he can be driving inside from the right flank or running onto balls nudged in behind the defence, but he looked less comfortable trying to do the same on the opposite side, where surely Genki Haraguchi – who himself produced some excellent results from the left wing in last year’s qualifiers, scoring in four in a row – would have been more effective.

The Hertha Berlin forward was instead selected in an unfamiliar No.10 role against Iraq though, and he struggled to adapt to his more claustrophobic surroundings and was replaced with 20 minutes to go.

Surely, with Shinji Kagawa injured and Hiroshi Kiyotake left out of the squad Honda was the ideal candidate to play in behind Yuya Osako and try and pick holes in the Iraqi backline for others to capitalise on.

The stats bear that out too, with Honda making more passes (51) than Kubo (19) and Haraguchi (30) combined, and also receiving possession from a teammate more than any of Japan’s other attackers.

With Ange Postecoglou having introduced a new 3-2-4-1 formation Australia are looking decidedly unsteady at the back right now – only just squeezing past Saudi Arabia 3-2 in their last qualifier before being torn apart in a 4-0 friendly defeat to Brazil in their final game ahead of the Confederations Cup – and direct, powerful, and positive attacks right at the heart of that nervous back line could be the key to success against the reigning Asian champions.

Honda struck the decisive blow to send Japan to the last World Cup with a penalty in the 1-1 against Australia at Saitama in 2013, and Japan’s No.4 should be given the opportunity to dictate the game from a more central position against the same opponent in almost identical circumstances this year too.

History rarely repeats itself in football, and new heroes often appear from unlikely places – just ask Tadanari Lee, who slammed home the winner in the 2011 Asian Cup final (Australia the victim again) having only previously played a little over an hour’s football at the competition – but Honda has been Japan’s man for the big occasion for almost a decade now, and he still presents the best option to get the job done.


Japan’s friendly lesson

Japan play Iraq in a vital World Cup qualifier this evening,  and hopefully they can avoid the blues that tend to afflict them at this time of year… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 13th June 2017

Last Wednesday’s draw with Syria was far from a classic but, unfortunate as it is for those of us watching, exciting performances and positive results are not the purpose of friendly matches.

If Japan can learn lessons from the underwhelming 1-1 and improve enough to take a vital three points against Iraq in Tehran on Tuesday then the run-out at Ajinomoto Stadium will have fulfilled its purpose.

‘Fan service’ is a big deal in Japan, and the Samurai Blue players were all sure to read from the same apologetic script after the match, but with more and more of them based in the top leagues in Europe they know that some games are more important than others and that sometimes bad performances can serve as an important kick-up-the-arse.

“I think it’s good that this wasn’t a qualifier,” Genki Haraguchi said after the game. “We’re sorry that we couldn’t show the fans who came to watch tonight a good game, but if the players can improve because of this then we have to take that as a positive.”

Hiroki Sakai was also keen to take lessons on board, and knows the fans will forgive drab midweek displays in chilly Chofu when and if the ultimate aim of qualifying for the World Cup is achieved.

“We have to send the people who came to watch home satisfied and we have to pursue the things we are looking to achieve, and so there is absolutely no need to be negative,” The Marseille full-back said.

“If we lose the next game things will become really tough, and so I’m going to do my best to try and think of today’s bad things as positives.”

One slight cause for concern is the timing of the crucially important qualifier against Iraq, coming as it does right at the end of the European season.

The majority of the Japan side now play their football overseas, and the recent draw against Syria is the latest in a series of below-par offerings from the Samurai Blue at this time of year.

On 7 June last year, for instance, the side was out-muscled by a direct and physical Bosnia-Herzegovina in a 2-1 loss in Osaka, while the infamous 0-0 World Cup qualifier at home to Singapore was also played at the start of June in 2015.

“It’s not easy but we are national team players and so we need to make sure we deal with it and knock ourselves into shape,” Sakai said of the need to still be performing after a long and arduous campaign.

Yuto Nagatomo, a veteran now of six-and-a-half Serie A seasons, also admitted that there are difficulties in keeping the mind and body at its peak after a year of European club football.

“It’s the end of the season and so of course everyone is feeling the fatigue both physically and mentally,” the Inter Milan star said.

Football Channel, Tuesday 13th June, 2017

“However, we can’t use that as an excuse, and the purpose of today’s game was to get ourselves in condition for the Iraq match. Of course it’s a shame we didn’t win the game, but I think the most disappointing thing is Shinji (Kagawa)’s injury. Even so, I think today’s game has a big meaning in terms of raising our condition so we are in a position to beat Iraq on the 13th.”

The loss of Kagawa, who has recently shown signs of returning to something approaching his best form for Borussia Dortmund, is indeed a blow, and without him in Tehran Japan will need someone else to step up and fill the creative void created by his absence.

“We need to improve defensively and going forwards,” Haraguchi said. “It’s important now that the players and coach get together and discuss things and exchange ideas.

“I missed a chance (against Syria), and because I lacked quality then the game stayed at 0-0 and became more difficult for us. A national team player has to be scoring those opportunities, so next time I have that kind of chance I need to make sure I take it.”

Nagatomo, meanwhile, feels Japan started sluggishly against Syria, and knows how crucial it is to hit the ground running against Iraq.

“I think in the first half in particular, when the opponent still had plenty of energy, we struggled to lose our markers and link up to break them down,” the 30-year-old explained.

“Also, in spite of the way the opponent was playing, we were attempting passes that weren’t really on and then being caught on short counters, especially in the first half. Against Iraq we need to be very careful, as if we had conceded once in the first half here (against Syria) then the flow of the game would have changed.”

Iraq have demonstrated under new temporary manager Basim Qasim that they will present a similarly obstinate opponent, having kept back-to-back clean sheets in their warm-up games for this encounter with a 1-0 win over Jordan and, most recently, 0-0 draw against South Korea.

Morale in the team is high after a first game on home soil in four years (the win over Jordan drew a crowd of almost 60,000 fans in Basra) and with Iraq already out of the running for qualification they have nothing to lose and everything to gain with a positive result against one of Asia’s most prized scalps.

Australia are also now tied with Japan and Saudi Arabia on 16 points after beating the Saudis 3-2 last Thursday, although Japan have a game in hand in Tuesday’s clash against the Lions of Mesopotamia.

After that Vahid Halilhodzic’s side have just two qualifiers left – against Australia and Saudi Arabia – meaning three points are an absolute must against Iraq. They will need to sharpen up at both ends of the pitch to achieve that, and there is now absolutely no margin for error.

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