Archive for October, 2021


Up for the Cup

Nagoya Grampus and Cerezo Osaka are very evenly matched heading into this weekend’s Levain Cup final, and victory will almost certainly be dealt to whichever side best keeps its concentration at Saitama Stadium… (日本語版)

This weekend’s YBC Levain Cup final looks set to be a tight encounter between two evenly-matched teams on paper, and the result could serve to energise whichever of Nagoya Grampus or Cerezo Osaka emerge victorious.

For Nagoya it would represent a first trophy since they were crowned J.League champions in 2010, and serve as encouragement that the team is moving in the right direction under Massimo Ficcadenti.

In the earlier part of this season Grampus looked like they would be Kawasaki Frontale’s closest challenger for the league title, but back-to-back defeats to Toru Oniki’s side in the spring and then a dip in form in the summer saw them slip down the rankings, and the best they can hope for now in J1 is to match last year’s third place finish and return to the Asian Champions League.

Nagoya were Japan’s last representative standing in continental competition this season, but despite outlasting Kawasaki, Gamba Osaka, and Cerezo in the ACL they ultimately exited fairly meekly to Pohang Steelers of South Korea in the quarter-final. That 3-0 loss on 17 October was a slightly bizarre result after Grampus gave as good as they got in the first half and could even have gone in ahead at the break with slightly better finishing, but they were too flat in the second period and never looked like finding a way back into the game after going behind to Lim Sang-hyub’s goal eight minutes after the break.

Ficcadenti is of course well known for his disciplined approach to the game, with his sides always centred upon well-organised defence and currently in possession of the second best record in that regard in J1 (just 26 goals conceded in 33 games). On the flip side, he rarely authorises his charges to take the handbrake off and really go for opponents, and despite the array of attacking talent Nagoya have at their disposal they have only managed to find the net 37 times in the league this year – just six times more than bottom-placed Yokohama FC.

Cerezo, meanwhile, have been in patchy form all season – and, it could even be argued, for the best part of a decade.

Akio Kogiku taking over from Levir Culpi at the end of August represented the 11th managerial change in the 10 years since Culpi ended his second period at the club at the close of the 2011 season (the Brazilian also accounted for two of those subsequent changes after returning in 2012 and at the start of this season), and the longest consecutive spell anyone has had in charge is the two seasons spent at the helm by Yoon Jong-hwan (2017 and 2018) and his successor Miguel Angel Lotina (2019 and 2020).

That period has unsurprisingly failed to produce anything close to consistency for the pink half of Osaka, with the lowest ebb being two years spent in J2 between 2015 and 2016 and the high point a domestic cup double under Yoon in 2017.

Like Nagoya Cerezo do have a wealth of talented players, and claiming a first piece of silverware in four years could serve as a solid foundation from which to build for this squad. On their day Cerezo are capable of beating any opponent – as they showed last weekend against high-flying Yokohama F.Marinos – although the opposite is also true and three points can rarely be seen as a given in their fixtures.

The main issue this campaign has undoubtedly been a lack of a consistent scorer, and even though they have struck more in the league than Grampus (42 times in 33 games), they have similarly lacked an outright goal-getter, with their three top marksmen Tatsuhiro Sakamoto (six goals, none in the last nine games), Yoshito Okubo (six goals, five of which came in the first five games of the season), and Mutsuki Kato (six goals, one in the last 12 games).

As the cliche goes, recent form can of course go out of the window in cup finals and what ultimately decides the victor is which side manages to win its individual battles on the day. This showpiece doesn’t look like being any different in that regard, and there are three head-to-heads that look particularly key to deciding the destination of the Levain trophy.

With both teams craving control of proceedings the eye is immediately drawn to the centre of the park and the match-up between Riki Harakawa and Sho Inagaki. Both are capable of breaking up their opponent’s flow with impeccably-timed interceptions, getting things moving for their own side with crisp passing, and are also no strangers to lashing home efforts of their own from 20-plus yards.

The wide areas will also prove pivotal to the outcome of this contest. It is vital that Cerezo can get their ball-playing wingers in behind to breach Nagoya’s resolute rearguard as often as possible, and with that in mind the tussle between Yutaka Yoshida and Sakamoto promises to be especially fascinating.

Finally, whichever of Jakub Świerczok and Ayumu Seko manages to get the upper hand at the business end of the pitch will most likely be collecting a winner’s medal at full time. The Pole has shown since arriving in August that he is absolutely lethal when given a clear sight of goal – or even half of one – and so Seko is going to need to have a near-faultless game at the heart of Cerezo’s defence to prevent that happening.

With the likes of Takashi Inui, Mateus, Hiroshi Kiyotake, Naoki Maeda, Hiroaki Okuno, and of course Yoichiro Kakitani also in the mix there are plenty of match-winners on each side, however, and things look as finely balanced as they could be heading into what promises to be a gripping final.


Do or die

A dire start to the final round of World Cup qualifiers already has Japan’s automatic qualification hopes in doubt, and if they don’t spark into life against Australia then things will go from bad to worse for the Samurai Blue… (日本語版)

Japan didn’t play well against Saudi Arabia on Thursday night, but on another day they could have shared the points with an opponent that also failed to really shine.

The issue with the Samurai Blue at the moment, however, is that results aren’t falling their way and, let’s be honest, it is difficult to remember the last time they did play well.

If we include the knockout games at Tokyo 2020 – which seems fair, as the majority of those who featured for Hajime Moriyasu at the Olympics are also involved with the full national team – the last six showings blur into one long, uneventful contest in which Japan, at best, are just about in contention without ever really looking like they are going to emerge with the victory.

The results bear this out, with four of those six games ending in defeat (Spain, Mexico, Oman, and Saudi Arabia), one culminating in a penalty shoot-out win (New Zealand), and one a needlessly nervy win over an abysmal China.

Aside from the bronze medal match against Mexico, when Japan were out for the count before half time, the team have put in reasonably steady, professional displays in all of those games, and with the bulk of the squad either plying their trade overseas or, like Hiroki Sakai and Yuto Nagatomo, recently returning to Japan after several years having done so, you can see the players are used to playing in difficult atmospheres against talented opponents.

The problem at the moment is they seem so preoccupied with maintaining balance and keeping their shape in order to avoid conceding that they almost entirely lack the ability to take the game to the opposition and do something unexpected when attacking.

Build up is slow and predictable, and on the rare occasions they do get into scoring positions the team lack the composure to put the ball in the back of the net – although this lack of killer instinct is hardly a new issue for Japan, and will seemingly haunt them in perpetuity. At this level you can’t afford to play in such a passive manner, and the wealth of attacking talent Moriyasu has at his disposal should be given the freedom to play and produce moments out of the ordinary to turn games in their favour.

The manager could quite rightly point to the absence of Takefusa Kubo, Ritsu Doan, and Junya Ito in Jeddah, with that trio all capable of prying open obstinate defences. While the latter did provide the assist for Yuya Osako’s goal against China – the only time Japan have found the net so far in the final round of World Cup qualifiers – the former pair both started every game at the Olympics, however, and can hardly be said to have been given free reign to play to their strengths there or in either of the recent qualifiers against Oman or China.

Meanwhile, Kyogo Furuhashi, who remains the J.League’s third top scorer despite leaving in July and who has added eight goals for Celtic to take him to 24 for the year, was only thrown on with 30 minutes to play against Saudi Arabia, Ao Tanaka was left on the bench even though Gaku Shibasaki was clearly out of sorts and gave the ball away in dangerous positions a couple of times even before the costly error that gifted the hosts their goal, and Kaoru Mitoma – the kind of player this Japan team is absolutely crying out for – didn’t even make the squad.

It is all a far cry from the exciting early days of Moriyasu Japan, when Shoya Nakajima, Doan, and Takumi Minamino formed a pacey, incisive, and clinical triumvirate behind the team’s central striker.

In the interim the team has lost its sparkle and grown stale though, and it looks increasingly as though the manager is approaching games with the initial aim of not losing them rather than trying to win them.

That approach can work on occasion, but without a guaranteed source of goals – or creative players being given the freedom to play in a way that enables them to fashion plentiful chances – you will always be vulnerable to sucker punches like those delivered by more wily, ruthless opponents like Oman and Saudi Arabia.

All this has produced the situation whereby Japan now need to come out swinging against an in-form Australia on Tuesday. If they look to try and contain the game and eke out a narrow victory again then the Socceroos are more than capable of serving up another defeat for the Samurai Blue. That would almost certainly spell the end for Japan’s chances of securing automatic qualification for Qatar, and quite possibly Moriyasu as well.

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October 2021