Archive for March, 2022

23
Mar
22

From the shadows

The rivalry between Japan and Australia has seen plenty of back and forth over the years – and, indeed, over the past year – but the Samurai Blue are now in the ascendancy as they target the win that would secure their place at Qatar 2022… (日本語版)

With two games of the final round of Qatar 2022 qualifiers to go, Japan are on the brink of their seventh consecutive appearance at the World Cup finals.

Victory over either Australia or Vietnam will book Hajime Moriyasu’s men a ticket to this winter’s showpiece in the Middle East, but a little under six months ago things looked very different for the Samurai Blue and their opponents this coming Thursday in Sydney.

Defeat in two of their first three matches, at home to Oman and away to Saudi Arabia, raised serious questions about Moriyasu’s future, and Japan looked in real danger of missing out on a World Cup for the first time since 1994 as they headed into the crucial home leg against Australia on 12 October.

On the other hand, the Socceroos were flying and in the midst of a record 11 consecutive wins in World Cup qualifying, including their first three games in Group B against China, Vietnam, and Oman.

Television cameras zoomed voyeuristically in on Moriyasu welling up during the national anthems ahead of kick-off, and it would certainly prove to be an emotional night in Saitama as an Ao Tanaka strike and late Aziz Behich own goal secured Japan a 2-1 win, initiating a startling about-turn for both sides. Australia have picked up just six points from their four games since, drawing three and beating Vietnam, while a Junya Ito-inspired Japan have claimed the maximum return to leapfrog Graham Arnold’s side into the second automatic qualification spot.

“It’s hard to put your finger on any one particular thing that has gone wrong, and even now if you look at the cold hard facts Australia has lost just one of their 16 qualifiers to this point, which came against Japan,” founding editor of The Asian Game website and podcast Paul Williams explains. “But Australia has struggled to take the step up against the best teams in Asia, the likes of Japan and Saudi Arabia, and has been exposed for a lack of depth and elite talent coming through.

“Late fade outs have hurt too. Australia has dropped points against Japan, China and Oman by conceding goals late in matches. If they had held onto those points, they would be top of the group and almost a sure bet to qualify. So it is small margins.

“I think most fans are realistic about where the team is currently at and realise this is, with the greatest of respect, one of the weaker teams Australia has had over the last decade or two. I think most people realise there are significant and drastic changes that need to be made across the entire game – and Japan is often used as the model that we should follow.”

Indeed, the relationship between Japan and Australia has come full circle since the latter joined the AFC in 2006.

Australia had the better of the early exchanges, coming from behind at the World Cup in Germany that summer to beat Japan 3-1 and then taking top spot in the final round of qualifiers for the 2010 edition in South Africa ahead of Takeshi Okada’s men. The Socceroos fans were confident enough of their superiority over the Samurai Blue to raise a banner reading ‘Nippon: Forever in our Shadow’ during their 2-1 victory against Japan in Melbourne in the course of that qualification campaign, although their bravado backfired spectacularly, with Australia not winning a contest between the sides since.

“I’d call it a rivalry of respect,” Williams says. “There is no hatred towards Japan, and I don’t think there ever has been. I think it’s now well accepted that Japan is on a completely different level to Australia, but at the time of that banner when Australia still had it’s ‘Golden Generation’, the rivalry seemed to be built around who was the strongest team in Asia and for a period Australia had some great results against Japan.

“But the gap between the two is now substantial, Japan are streets ahead. The ‘rivalry’ is still there, but as I said it’s one very much built on respect. Australia still probably doesn’t respect Asian football as much as it should, but the exception to that is Japan. The J.League is popular here, especially since the success of Ange Postecoglou, and we now look up to Japan.”

The Postecoglou effect and increasing success of Japanese players in Europe has further strengthened the country’s reputation, and as such Williams believes Australian observers will be especially anxious about the threat posed by two of the former Yokohama F.Marinos manager’s current charges at Celtic.

“Australians will always be wary of the players they know, so someone like Daizen Maeda will be on our radar [since withdrawn from the squad], same with Reo Hatate.”

On the flip side, he suggests a 34-year-old debutant will be most likely to cause Maya Yoshida and co. trouble at the other end of the pitch.

“Bruno Fornaroli, a Uruguayan, has been one of the best strikers in the A-League for the past six or seven years and has a fantastic goal scoring record. He recently became an Australian citizen and has been called up for the first time in this squad. He is incredibly dangerous. He is a poacher, he can score screamers from distance, he can score free kicks, he can play with his back to goal, and he has a bit of mongrel about him. He doesn’t leave anything on the pitch and doesn’t mind getting dirty to win.”

Williams believes Australia do still have a chance of mounting a sensational push for automatic qualification, although concedes it is a slim one.

“Australia has an incredible home record in competitive qualifying matches. The hope would be that they at least force it to the final game. Japan hasn’t beaten Australia in Australia since Australia joined the AFC, so that will give them some confidence. But in reality, it’s a faint hope. Most expect we will have to navigate our way through the playoffs.”

Japan will certainly hope that’s how things ultimately play out, but having delivered a sucker blow of their own to the Socceroos last year they will be wary of a reaction, and know nothing can be taken for granted.

11
Mar
22

Statements of intent

Machida Zelvia and Fagiano Okayama have both started the 2022 J2 season solidly, and if either can emerge victorious from their encounter this weekend their burgeoning campaign will be served another early boost… (日本語版)

It is obviously far too early in the season to be paying any serious attention to league tables, but this weekend’s clash between Machida Zelvia and Fagiano Okayama could provide an early indication as to whether either, or both, could be set to make a realistic push for promotion to J1 this year.

Each side has taken a solid seven points from the first nine available to them, with Zelvia claiming back-to-back wins over Iwate Grulla Morioka (1-0) and Zweigen Kanazawa (2-1) after a frustrating 0-0 on the opening day of the season against FC Ryukyu, and Fagiano sandwiching a 1-1 with Tokushima Vortis between victories over Ventforet Kofu (4-1) and Tochigi SC (1-0).

These starts represent improvements on last season’s early knockings for each club – Machida only won two of their first seven games in 2021, while Okayama claimed all three points just twice in their first nine J2 matches – and although each are at different stages of development under their respective managers both have plenty of reasons to be cheerful.

Had there been play-offs last year Machida would have been involved after finishing fifth, for instance, and the aim in the third year of Ranko Popovic’s second spell in charge of the club is to at least replicate that success this time around. The only key player to have moved on from last term is Kaina Yoshio, who returned to parent club Yokohama F.Marinos, and although some of them arrived later in the window than Popovic would have liked the signings of Wiliam Popp, Hijiri Onaga, Shunya Suganuma, Kazuma Yamaguchi, and Vinicius Araujo add some excellent depth in key positions for the team this year.

Perhaps more important than the new faces, however, is the fact that Taiki Hirato is still in possession of the No.10 shirt for Zelvia. After impressing while on loan from Kashima Antlers in 2017 and 2018 Hirato returned to Ibaraki at the start of the 2019 season, but with chances at a premium at the J1 giant he headed back to Machida on a full transfer in the summer of that year and has established himself as one of J2’s most reliable performers since.

As well as orchestrating so much of the team’s attacking play and posing a serious threat from set-pieces the 24-year-old has also found the net 21 times since rejoicing Machida, with two of those being critical contributions this season as he netted the winner against Grulla and equaliser in last weekend’s comeback away to Kanazawa.

The presence in the squad of veteran strikers Yuki Nakashima, Dudu, and Chong Tese – whose composed finish sealed all three points in the last minute against Zweigen – as well as new arrival Vinicius Araujo, who notched 14 times for Montedio Yamagata last year, means Hirato has plenty of talent around him to tee up, while if fellow Kashima alumni Yamaguchi can rediscover the form he showed for Mito Hollyhock in 2020 then Hirato will have somebody to share the creative burden with as well.

Fagiano are also blessed with a solid attacking line-up in 2022, and although Takashi Kiyama didn’t have the best of times with Vegalta Sendai during his brief J1 sojourn in 2020 he has shown time and again that he is more than capable of building teams to be reckoned with in the second tier.

The 50-year-old has led each of JEF United (2012), Ehime FC (2015), and Montedio (2019) to the play-offs, and upon being handed the reins at the City Light Stadium this season he was backed in the transfer market as well, with Fagiano adding plenty of quality to the solid-yet-unspectacular side that idled to an 11th-place finish under Kenji Arima last year. While Machida prioritised consistency of personnel coming into the new campaign, Fagiano opted – or perhaps were forced somewhat – to freshen things up, with half of last year’s regulars moving on and a host of new faces arriving.

The new centre back pairing of Jordy Buijs and Yasutaka Yanagi leaps out immediately, for example – and not just because they stand at 186cm and 188cm, respectively. Dutchman Buijs has cut a dominating figure at each of V-Varen Nagasaki, Tokushima, and, most recently, Kyoto Sanga, and scored an excellent free-kick to deliver the recent win over Tochigi, while Yanagi is not only an imposing presence in his own penalty area but also a threat at the other end, registering 14 times over the past two years for Tochigi and even ending last year as their top scorer with eight goals.

Okayama do also have some actual strikers to take care of the goalscoring too, and as well as doing very well to keep hold of Australia international Mitch Duke over the off-season they added Tiago Alves from Gamba Osaka – with the Brazilian introducing himself in sensational fashion with three goals so far, including a debut brace and wonder-goal from his own half.

The early signs have been just as impressive between the defence and attack too, with Okayama’s new-look three-man midfield offering excellent balance in the transitions. Former Shimizu S-Pulse man Yosuke Kawai’s experience is supplemented by the energy and composure of rookies Haruka Motoyama and Yudai Tanaka, neither of whom look at all phased at being thrown straight into the mix by Kiyama.

Their battle with Leo Takae and Kaishu Sano – one of the second tier’s best midfield pairings – will be yet another thing to keep an eye on in Sunday’s game, which is sure to be a terrific battle at Machida Gion Stadium.




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