Archive for December, 2018


Abe more than able

Hiroki Abe enjoyed a breakout season for Kashima Antlers this season, and looks like he has everything in place to become a truly top player… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, Friday 28th December, 2018

From time to time a player emerges in the J.League who looks like the real deal.

Every year, of course, there are those who show potential, who hit purple patches of form and raise the hopes of their club’s fans, but all too often these players struggle to build on those early flashes, failing to add the tools they require to move to the next level.

On occasion though, a youngster appears with everything already in place – in need of fine-tuning and improving, of course, but the ingredients are there – and Hiroki Abe is one of those players.

When I arrived in Japan a decade ago a 17-year-old Takashi Usami was making waves at Gamba Osaka, in 2014 it was fresh-from-university Yoshinori Muto dominating for FC Tokyo and attracting the attention of Europe’s biggest clubs, and this season Abe has shown similar ability at Kashima Antlers.

The 19-year-old hasn’t possessed the same goalscoring threat as either Usami or Muto, but the way he carries himself out on the pitch shows he is already fully at ease playing for the best team in Asia and more than capable of becoming a player who can decide games.

The esteem in which he is already held at Kashima was demonstrated when he flew back from Indonesia having helped Japan U-19s qualify for next year’s U-20 World Cup and was put straight into the starting line-up for the first leg of the ACL final against Persepolis, not letting his coach down and playing a vital role as the team claimed a crucial 2-0 victory.

Abe didn’t look the least bit intimidated by the occasion and caused his Iranian opponents all manner of problems, looking to carry the ball forward at every opportunity and always trying to make something happen.

Similarly to when both Usami and Muto were breaking out, there is a swell of expectation in the stadium when Abe gets on the ball, and his desire to play proactively drew five fouls in his 69 minutes on the pitch, while he also recorded an 88.2% accuracy rating with his passes in the opponent’s half (87% overall).

“We all knew this wasn’t going to be an easy game, but we had confidence that whether we were put under pressure or however the game went that we could keep our concentration and persevere, and I think we showed that here,” he told after the game.

“When [Persepolis] brought more of a mental game we made sure we didn’t break, and I think we were able to outdo the opponent in that respect, which also became a factor in the win.”

Football Channel, 28th Dec 2018

As mature and composed off the pitch as he is on it, the Tokyo native added that far from being nervous about the upcoming second leg he was instead relishing the opportunity to play in front of 100,000-plus fans in Tehran.

“As professional sports players it’s unacceptable not to play to the best of our ability in front of supporters,” he said. “As players we have to show strength worthy of that stage, and I’m looking forward to it.”

After seeing the job through in the Azadi, Abe and Kashima booked their place as Asian representatives in this month’s Club World Cup, where the youngster again took no time to make an impression.

While it was his fine goal in the quarter-final against C.D. Guadalajara that earned this year’s J.League Young Player of the Year all the headlines, it was something he did one minute earlier that reinforced the fact that this is a player with a real sense for the game.

With things still delicately poised at 2-1, a Kashima attack in the 83rd minute broke down and Guadalajara midfielder Orbelin Pineda strode forwards with the ball looking to launch a dangerous counter attack. Many young players would have made an honest attempt to try and win back possession in that situation but Abe, wise to the danger, knew the odds were against him and didn’t hesitate to take one for the team, committing a clear foul and picking up a yellow card but ensuring Antlers were still in charge of their destiny – which he himself made sure of 60 seconds later when he arced that perfect strike beyond the despairing dive of Raul Gudino.

Abe had only come on as a substitute against Guadalajara, but after playing a pivotal role in turning that game in Kashima’s favour he was back in the eleven for the semi-final against Real Madrid, and while the team struggled to offer much resistance against Gareth Bale and co – paying the price for some lax defending right before and soon after half time to find themselves 3-0 down – he continued to run at Dani Carvajal at any opportunity, chasing and harrying from the front right until the final whistle.

Although Kashima again finished on the wrong side of the result in their next game against River Plate, the 4-0 scoreline flattered the Argentinians – Antlers hit the bar three times and conceded the third and fourth goals in the 89th and 93rd minutes – and Abe was again a constant threat with the ball at his feet, reinforcing the fact that his aim is not just to appear on the biggest stages but to make an impact on them.

If he continues to develop as he has done this season then those days are sure to come sooner rather than later.


Oliveira brings Midas touch to Urawa

Urawa Reds won the Emperor’s Cup this past weekend, and as well as booking their place in next year’s ACL the triumph also added another medal to the impressive collection of the man with the Midas touch, Oswaldo de Oliveira… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, Wednesday 12th December, 2018

When it comes to winning titles in Japan there are few, if any, who have exhibited quite as ruthless a streak as Oswaldo de Oliveira.

The Brazilian ended all five of his years in Kashima with his hands on a trophy, claiming three J.Leagues (2007, 2008, 2009), two Emperor’s Cups (2007, 2010), and a J.League Cup (2011), and after just eight months in Saitama he has kept up his record of ending every season here with a piece of silverware by leading Urawa Reds to their first Emperor’s Cup since 2006.

Speaking with his latest medal hanging proudly around his neck in the Saitama Stadium press conference room after Urawa’s 1-0 win over Vegalta Sendai on Sunday Oliveira didn’t look anything approaching his 68 years, and the glint in his eye suggested his appetite for glory has been fuelled rather than satiated by this year’s triumph.

“This emotion is something I tasted before and now I’m renewing (that feeling),” he said with a satisfied grin. “This makes me very happy.”

He was also optimistic when asked if he felt lifting the Emperor’s Cup could energise Urawa in the same way the league and Emperor’s Cup double in his first season in Ibaraki set the wheels in motion for Kashima’s golden patch under his charge a decade ago.

“I hope so. That’s why I work very, very hard to try and repeat at least some of that. I breathe when I win. I work to win, this makes me more young!”

With Reds sitting ninth in J1 when he took over after nine games of this season the league title was always going to be a tall order in 2018, but Oliveira insisted that he had been driving home the importance of the Emperor’s Cup to his players since the start of the tournament.

“All the time since the first match in the Emperor’s Cup I showed them the way – “We have to win this competition, because this is the passport for the next season’s ACL”,” he explained of his approach.

“This is something I’m working for. I played (in the ACL) four times before and I never hit the final, and I will try my best next season, really.”

To achieve that aim the former Corinthians boss wants to add more depth to the squad, although he feels he has a strong core to work with and has been impressed with the effort of the players since his arrival.

Oliveira Urawa, 12th December 2018

“They are very disciplined, very obedient, they try to do their best. They come early for training, so they do everything I ask and that’s why we could win today.”

Yuki Abe was singled out for special praise, and after shining in the back three in the absence of the injured Mauricio the 37-year-old was full of admiration for his manager as well.

“He reinforced the fact that we have to do all the things required of us, that it is unacceptable not to do so,” Abe said of Oliveira’s arrival in Saitama.

“He picked up on all the things that weren’t working so well in the team, and is the kind of coach who makes sure that his ideas soak in for everyone. He came in during the season and I’m sure there were some difficult things, but it’s great that now we’ve ended the season in this way by winning.”

Despite his enviable record of collecting titles Oliveira was coy when asked if he possesses a particular ‘winner’s’ characteristic – merely chuckling and saying, “I do my best” – but he did stress that players need to have the right attitude if they want to join him in picking up trophies.

“Mentality is the base. Many times I worked with players with fantastic ability, technique, individuality, but if he is not strong in the mind, if he doesn’t have enough confidence, he is like zero. So it is something we have to work on with the players. If he is good he (gets) better, if he has confidence (then) what can he do.”

In order to help motivate the team and inspire that confidence the coach took the unusual step of inviting Urawa’s fans to attend training the day before the semi-final and final of the Emperor’s Cup, engendering a sense of togetherness between them and the players.

“Our supporters are fantastic, the number and the quality,” he explained of the idea. “We have to bring these people closer to us. Because surely if they act like they have done, if they are near the players the players will get this enthusiasm. That’s why I tried to bring them closer and closer to pass to the players this enthusiasm, this confidence – to show the players how they love the team.”

It certainly worked this time, and few would bet against the fans also developing plenty of affection for the man with the Midas touch in the coming years as well.

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