Author Archive for Sean Carroll

10
May
22

Leading from the front

Kawasaki Frontale flattered to deceive once again in Asian competition this year, but their upcoming schedule leaves them well placed to make a real push for a third consecutive J1 title… (日本語版)

It feels as though Kawasaki Frontale have been sat permanently astride the J1 rankings since Covid-19 started to wreak havoc around the world, and for the past two-and-a-bit years Toru Oniki’s men have been a class apart in the J.League.

They may have sealed their maiden title in 2017 by only going top for the first time at the end of the final round of games, and 2019 did see them slip momentarily back into the pack to finish 10 points behind eventual champions Yokohama F.Marinos, but since the fourth round of the 2020 season Frontale have been almost permanently in possession of first place as they have established themselves as the dominant power in Japanese football

Kawasaki have of course had to fend off the occasional challenger during that spell, but even as key players have departed for pastures new in Europe they have managed to keep playing assertively from a position of power, coping admirably with the pressure of being the hunted and ultimately protecting their leads with relative ease to celebrate back-to-back championships twice in half a decade.

Last week they returned from their AFC Champions League duties in Malaysia in an unfamiliar position, however, sitting in second place and five points adrift of a resurgent Kashima Antlers.

Not only that, but Frontale were smarting from another chastening experience in continental competition, struggling yet again to transfer their J.League swagger to Asia and failing to make it out of Group I after winning just three of their six matches – the only one of this year’s J.League representatives not to progress to August’s Round of 16.

This latest collapse in the ACL will certainly have smarted, and everyone at the club will know that for all their domestic dominance glory further afield is needed to truly cap this generation’s dynasty and move the side from Todoroki up into the next bracket as a giant of the Asian game.

Set against that backdrop then, Saturday’s game away to Shimizu S-Pulse looked like a potential banana skin, with Kawasaki needing to shake of their disappointment and reacclimatise and Hiroaki Hiraoka’s men unbeaten in five games and full of confidence after an impressive 4-1 win away to Shonan Bellmare in their previous match.

Well, on paper at least. In reality, Kawasaki slipped straight back into their effortless J.League groove and moved ahead inside the first quarter of an hour after some characteristically intricate build-up play between Yasuto Wakizaka and Akihiro Ienaga ended with the former rifling home at Shuichi Gonda’s near post.

Wakizaka then turned provider just past the half hour mark as he floated a delicious ball to the back post for Marcinho to head home, and with an hour left to play the visitors already had the luxury of being able to take the sting out of the game and preserve some energy and three more precious points – racking up 69 percent of possession in the first half and making almost twice as many passes as the hosts (378 to 194) with 89 percent accuracy.

That completion rate was maintained over the 90 minutes as a whole, and although Shimizu had a few potshots at goal Frontale’s victory never looked like it was in any serious danger. At the same time, Kashima were falling to a surprise 3-0 defeat away to Sanfrecce Hiroshima to see their lead at the summit reduced instantly to just two points, with Frontale also having a game in hand.

With only a third of the season played it would of course be foolish to start speculating with any real conviction about favourites for the title, but a quick glance at the upcoming fixtures suggests Kawasaki have a real opportunity to seize the initiative and once again situate themselves as the leaders of the pack.

Their next seven league games starting with this weekend’s clash at home to Avispa Fukuoka and ending with the visit of Jubilo Iwata at the end of June all look eminently winnable, with neither of those opponents or any of the handful in-between (Vissel Kobe, Sagan Tosu, Shonan Bellmare, Kyoto Sanga, and Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo) any higher than mid-table and all needing to be at their very best to stand a chance of upsetting the two-time defending champions.

Frontale’s early exit from the ACL is an undoubted disappointment, but the fact the club now has no further continental commitments this year could serve as a blessing as the season picks up pace and the pressure starts to build. Kawasaki have shown time and again that they have terrific staying power at the top, and as spring moves into summer the question could be whether anyone else is similarly able to handle the heat.

27
Apr
22

Sean’s Samurai Selection

If national teams could only include players from domestic clubs, what would the Samurai Blue look like at the World Cup? I came up with a 23-man squad I reckon could do the J.League proud in Qatar this November… (日本語版)

There is increasing talk about the prominence of overseas-based players in the Japan national team, and it is surely only a matter of time before the full squad at a World Cup finals is comprised of players plying their trade in Europe. 

The recent announcement that the 2022 EAFF E-1 Football Championship will now be held in Japan after China pulled out as hosts got me thinking, however, and I wondered how a Samurai Blue squad comprised only of domestic players would fare at the global showpiece.

While of course a purely hypothetical exercise, I realised there is still a wealth of talent taking to J.League pitches every week – both gifted up-and-comers and seasoned old pros – and I managed to put together a 23 I think could give a decent account of themselves in Qatar. (Players already likely to be in Hajime Moriyasu’s plans were not considered for ‘Sean’s Samurai Selection’.)  

Goalkeepers: Masaaki Murakami (Avispa Fukuoka), Takanori Sugeno (Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo), Zion Suzuki (Urawa Reds)

I think this would provide a decent mixture between the posts. Murakami perhaps doesn’t get the praise he deserves for Avispa, and not only played a huge part in getting them promoted in 2020 but has also excelled over the past season-and-a-third in J1. Sugeno and Suzuki would provide more than capable deputies at differing ends of the experience spectrum, with the former a terrific option to have in the squad who would keep everyone focused and the latter a prodigious talent who would benefit hugely from the experience and wouldn’t let anyone down if called upon. 

Defenders: Shinnosuke Hatanaka (Yokohama F. Marinos), Shogo Taniguchi (Kawasaki Frontale), Ryuho Kikuchi (Vissel Kobe), Taiyo Koga (Kashima Reysol), Masato Morishige (FC Tokyo), Tomoki Iwata (Yokohama F. Marinos)

I would opt for a three-man defence, at the heart of which I would place the unshakeable Taniguchi. Hatanaka is a similarly composed character who I think could be relied upon alongside the Kawasaki Frontale captain, with Kikuchi bringing some passion and aggression to the back line. Morishige would be my choice to fill in for Taniguchi in the event of an injury or suspension, while Koga and Iwata are flexible options that could slot comfortably into the back three or even fulfil roles across the midfield if needed.

Midfielders: Joel Chima Fujita (Yokohama F. Marinos), Sho Inagaki (Nagoya Grampus), Kuryu Matsuki (FC Tokyo), Hiroyuki Mae (Avispa Fukuoka), Takuro Kaneko (Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo), Ryosuke Yamanaka (Cerezo Osaka), Kosuke Onose (Gamba Osaka), Tsukasa Morishima (Sanfrecce Hiroshima), Akihiro Ienaga (Kawasaki Frontale), Yusuke Matsuo (Urawa Reds)

Here again I have tried to blend experience with youthful vim and vigour, and at the base of midfield I would partner the energetic duo of Inagaki and Fujita. Both are box-to-box players with terrific engines, capable of breaking up opponents’ attacks, moving the ball intelligently, and threatening themselves with shots on goal. Out wide I’d start Kaneko and Yamanaka, who have the stamina to work up and down their flanks and also cause serious problems in the final third – either by whipping crosses into the area (Yamanaka) or cutting in and taking shots themselves (Kaneko).

In the support striker role, meanwhile, I’d have the evergreen Ienaga – a sumptuous player for whom football just appears too easy, and who continues to improve with age – alongside the live-wire Matsuo, who is constantly looking to get in behind with his ceaseless running and scheming. In reserve, Mae and Matsuki would provide me with excellent alternatives in the centre of the park – able to affect the game in both directions – Onose would provide cover for either of my wing-backs, and Morishima would be on standby to add a slightly different creative streak in place of my attacking midfielders. 

Strikers: Yuma Suzuki (Kashima Antlers), Takuma Nishimura (Yokohama F. Marinos), Mao Hosoya (Kashiwa Reysol), Koki Ogawa (Yokohama FC)

At the business end of the things you absolutely can’t go wrong with Suzuki. HIs abrasiveness would undoubtedly cause opposition centre-backs headaches for the full 90 minutes, but to characterise him as no more than an irritant is to grossly misrepresent an intelligent, skilful, and lethal centre-forward who would be leading my line for sure.

Nishimura would give the team another smooth operator up front – not to mention an aerial threat – while Hosoya has been excellent for Reysol so far this season and certainly has the ability to serve as our joker in the pack. Finally, Ogawa has been rejuvenated since moving to Yokohama FC from Jubilo Iwata ahead of the 2022 campaign. Injuries and loss of form cruelly robbed the player expected to carry the goalscoring burden for Japan at the Tokyo Olympics of that opportunity, but he is bursting with confidence right now and looks like he believes everything he hits will end up in the back of the net. Most of the time he is right, and therefore he’d be on the plane too.

My Starting XI (3-4-2-1)

GK: Masaaki Murakami (Avispa Fukuoka)

DF: Shinnosuke Hatanaka, Shogo Taniguchi, Ryuho Kikuchi

MF: Takuro Kaneko, Joel Chima Fujita, Sho Inagaki, Ryosuke Yamanaka

AM: Akihiro Ienaga, Yusuke Matsuo

FW: Yuma Suzuki

09
Apr
22

Vissel vexed

Vissel Kobe looked like they would finally be a side to be reckoned with in 2022. Instead, they’re plunging new depths of underachievement and starting again under yet another manager… (日本語版)

Vissel Kobe’s season hasn’t started exactly how the club, or many of us supposed experts, had anticipated. In fact, thus far it has been utterly catastrophic. 

The Hyogo side ended 2021 very strongly, losing just one of their last eight games to finish third in J1, and as a result they came into this campaign as one of the favourites to challenge Kawasaki Frontale for the title.

Instead, they have endured their worst start ever, with Wednesday’s 3-1 defeat away to FC Tokyo Vissel’s ninth game without a victory, leaving them second bottom of the table with just four points.

Atsuhiro Miura left his position as manager after the seventh of Vissel’s winless games against Shimizu S-Pulse on 19 March, with Miguel Angel Lotina announced as their 10th coach in the past five years (including interims and Takayuki Yoshida’s two periods in charge) on Friday.

The Spaniard’s most recent spell in the J.League ended with something of a whimper when he was fired by Shimizu S-Pulse in the midst of a relegation battle in November 2021, but prior to that he had developed a solid enough reputation after turning Tokyo Verdy and Cerezo Osaka into well organised and difficult to beat outfits in J2 and J1, respectively.

Some kind of defensive structure would certainly be useful with Kobe once again in the mire, but the confusing thing about Lotina’s arrival is that, once again, it has no real relation to any of the recent appointments made at Noevir Stadium. There doesn’t appear to be a clear underlying tactical approach in the style of football the club are aiming for, with no rhyme or reason apparent in the recruitment of managers or, for that matter, players.

Miura impressed with victories in his first three games in charge after being thrust into the role as Thorsten Fink’s replacement towards the end of the 2020 season, and although the following 11 matches yielded just one more win things picked up impressively last year as the side achieved a best ever J1 finish of third.

That promise fizzled out in spectacular fashion at the start of this campaign, however, in a similar way to that in which Vissel’s first piece of silverware in 2019 proved to be a false dawn for Fink himself. The German parted ways with the club less than nine months after winning the Emperor’s Cup, leaving in September 2020 after a run of form that saw the team drawing eight and winning just four of their 19 J1 games.

Although his approach did finally give the club something to put in their trophy cabinet, it still represented a departure from that which they had seemingly been pursuing a couple of years previously, however, when the highly-regarded Juan Manuel Lillo arrived in Kobe.

The Spaniard was seen as being quite the coup for Hiroshi Mikitani, with Pep Guardiola – who he now works alongside at Manchester City – declaring him “the best coach he ever had”, and he seemed to be exactly the right man to bring the Barcafication of Vissel to fruition.

Barely six months after his unveiling Lillo was waving adios to the club, however, presumably because he felt he was unable to implement his possession-based football and turn Kobe into the force their spending demanded.

And it is herein that we seem to come to the crux of the problem: the spending – or at least the haphazard nature of it.

Rather than looking to trust in a particular way of playing – a method which has worked wonders for Kawasaki Frontale in recent years, as well as the only other team to win J1 in the past half-a-decade, Yokohama F. Marinos – the approach at Kobe seems instead to keep throwing money around until something sticks.

The solitary Emperor’s Cup triumph aside that hasn’t produced any meaningful progress thus far, and despite the eye-watering sums of money shovelled into the bank accounts of big name foreigners and current/former Japan national team players in recent years Vissel don’t look any closer to winning the J.League now than they did five years ago when Nelsinho was fired with the team sitting 11th after 22 games of the 2017 season.

In fact, would they really be any worse off now if instead of disposing of the veteran Brazilian back then and chopping and changing every few months since, they had instead stuck with the man with experience of winning every domestic trophy at Kashiwa Reysol?

A look at the current league table, and the respective parties’ positions in it, suggests not.

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.

26
Feb
22

Marinos rediscovering their mojo

Yokohama F.Marinos have drifted a little after winning the 2019 J1 title, but the early signs are positive for Kevin Muscat’s men after two assured performances to start the new season… (日本語版)

There was much talk about what Yokohama F.Marinos had lost coming into the new season, but the primary takeaway after their first two matches of 2022 is what, perhaps surprisingly, still remains at the club.

Following on from the departures of Ange Postecoglou and Ado Onaiwu midway through last year Marinos were forced to part with three more of their most important players over the off-season as Daizen Maeda and Thiago Martins headed for pastures new, and while their replacements Anderson Lopes and Eduardo both arrived with pre-established reputations in the J.League few expected them or Marinos to hit the ground running.

A healthy return of four points has been collected from two tricky opening fixtures though, with the icing on the cake being that Marinos were the dominant side in each of those contests against Cerezo Osaka and, most impressively, Kawasaki Frontale – playing in a proactive style not dissimilar to that which drove them to the title under Postecoglou in 2019.

“We really played with strong Marinos values today, so from that perspective I’m very pleased,” Kevin Muscat said after the 2-2 draw with Cerezo on the opening weekend, brushing off the disappointment of conceding twice from corners, including in the 90th minute, and insisting his focus was on attacking and not defensive matters.

“We’re going to continue to select players based on how we want to play football, not on set pieces. Today we conceded from two set pieces, we will analyse that part of the game like everything else, but I’m sure that set pieces are more in the mind, more of a mental thing than height.

“There’s no doubt that we will get better. We will push the players and take them out of their comfort zone to push to get better individually and better as a group. If we’re honest, we really dominated the opponent. The two corner kicks and maybe another corner kick or free kick was the only time we had to really defend. It was as dominant a performance as I can remember.”

The statistics backed up that claim, with Marinos taking 26 shots to Cerezo’s 11, landing nine efforts on target in comparison to Cerezo’s two, racking up 64.8 percent of possession with their 748 passes, and finishing the 90 minutes with an xG of 2.98 as opposed to Cerezo’s 1.32.

The late concession to Hiroshi Kiyotake’s header could nevertheless have served as a blow to confidence with Kawasaki up next, and after a bright start the following Wednesday Marinos did indeed find themselves trailing after Akihiro Ienaga gave Frontale a 32nd-minute lead.

Muscat had promised his team would be ready though, and they maintained their composure superbly after going behind, turning the contest round in sensational style early in the second half as Elber and Teruhito Nakagawa both found the net within 67 seconds of each other to put the hosts 2-1 up.

Far from looking to sit tight after moving ahead Marinos instead worked to drive their advantage home, and it was no surprise when Elber notched his second with a speculative effort from range in the 64th minute.

With Marcos Junior scheming and – newly sprouted shock of hair aside – reminiscent of the player who set the league alight three years ago, and Takuya Kida and Tomoki Iwata controlling things impressively in the middle of the park Marinos were totally in charge of proceedings, and even when Kei Chinen pulled one back for Frontale in the 73rd minute it never looked like the points were in doubt.

And indeed they weren’t, with Nakagawa showcasing his and Marinos’ confidence five minutes later by arcing a ludicrous effort into the top corner to put the game to bed.

“We understand that the result is very important, but it’s also important to us that we understand how we get the results,” Muscat said in his post-match press conference. “I’ve always said if we perform to our capabilities and to our structure that we will always have a chance of winning football matches.”

Out-passing Kawasaki by 608 to 509 (with an 81 percent completion rate), rattling off 14 shots, and claiming 55 percent of possession against the reigning champions provided the how on this occasion, and with Frontale looking fallible and fellow pre-season favourites Urawa Reds and Vissel Kobe starting the year tentatively Marinos will be very pleased with the way they’ve eased out of the starting blocks.

Sunday’s visit to Kashiwa Reysol is followed by another pair of home games in quick succession against Vissel and Shimizu S-Pulse, and if Marinos can maintain their current form then they have every chance of establishing themselves as J1’s early pacesetters.

11
Feb
22

2022 J1 season preview

Kawasaki Frontale come into the new J.League season aiming for three consecutive J1 titles, but it’s unlikely things will be quite so straightforward for them this time around… (日本語版)

What with the high school football competition, women’s Asian Cup, and men’s World Cup qualifiers it perhaps hasn’t felt like we’ve had much of a break from high-level football, but it has already been two-and-a-half months since the final round of the 2021 J1 season and the new campaign is almost upon us.

As ever, there has been plenty of transfer activity over the intermission, and as well as the now-routine exodus of emerging talent to Europe we have seen the usual merry-go-round of activity as players move between J.League sides.

The ongoing difficulties with regards to foreigners entering Japan means there has again been very little by the way of international shopping, and it still remains unclear when the handful of signings that have been made from overseas will be able to join up with their new teammates.

That also goes for the incoming managers at Kashima Antlers and Sanfrecce Hiroshima, with René Weiler and Michael Skibbe forced to take charge of their maiden pre-seasons remotely – a set of circumstances that Daniel Poyatos had to endure last year with Tokushima Vortis, and which he was ultimately unable to overcome as the Shikoku club dropped through the trapdoor on the last day of the season.

While the situation at that pair of clubs looks a little unclear, however, there are positive signs for a trio of others, each of whom found themselves at differing points on the success-failure continuum last year.

Urawa Reds ended 2021 as Emperor’s Cup champions after a dramatic 2-1 win over Oita Trinita on 19 December, and allied with their sixth-place finish in the league that triumph made for a highly promising first term under Ricardo Rodriguez.

Plenty was made of the senior departures from Saitama Stadium at the end of last season, but Reds’ work in the transfer market has looked astute as they enter a new era. Rodriguez has again plucked some of the finest talent from J2 in Kai Matsuzaki, Tetsuya Chinen, and Kazuaki Mawatari – with whom he worked at Tokushima in 2017 – as well as adding some J1 quality and experience by securing the services of Tomoya Inukai, Yusuke Matsuo, and Ken Iwao – another with whom the manager has previous in Shikoku, with Iwao captaining Vortis to promotion in 2020.

We’ll get a first glimpse of this new-look Urawa in Saturday’s Fujifilm Super Cup against two-time defending champions Kawasaki Frontale – who we’ll come to shortly – but while that match will act as a great curtain-raiser for the season, the result won’t tell us too much and we won’t know for sure if Reds will be mounting a serious title challenge for another few months yet.

Avispa Fukuoka came up alongside Rodriguez’s Tokushima two seasons ago, and far exceeded expectations back in the top flight in 2021 as they ultimately finished eighth and comfortably beat the jinx which had seen them relegated at the first time of asking after each of their three previous promotions. Emil Salomonsson is the only key player to have left from last year, and with Makoto Hasebe adding the quality of last season’s J2 top scorer Lukian and Tatsuya Tanaka from Urawa, the side should pose more of an attacking threat this year as they look to further consolidate in the first division.

One side that badly lacked attacking threat in 2021 was Gamba Osaka, who started the year with just three goals in their first 12 games and finished the season as the fourth lowest scorers after finding the net just 33 times. In Tomohiro Katanosaka they have recruited a talented new manager though – who if given the time and backing could have Gamba challenging back up at the right end of the table in the near future – while the likes of Mitsuki Saito and Hideki Ishige should add some much-needed spark to the team’s approach play to ensure this year plays out far better than the last.

Things don’t look quite so promising for two teams expected to be battling at the wrong end of the division though.

Kashiwa Reysol very nearly slipped though the trapdoor last year, and with several of their best attacking talents moving on – including the talismanic Cristiano – it is hard to see Nelsinho’s men pushing on much higher than the bottom third in 2022. Jubilo Iwata, meanwhile, are back in the big time after a couple of years in J2, but while the experience of their squad gave them the edge in the second tier they look to be lacking a little vibrancy for the rigours of the top flight – not to mention the loss of the aforementioned Lukian’s goals.

This leads us neatly onto the reigning champions, who once again come into the season as the favourites but once again do so minus a few of the stars that began the previous campaign at Todoroki Stadium.

Ao Tanaka, Reo Hatate, and Kaoru Mitoma all lined up for Frontale’s opener against Yokohama F.Marinos in 2021 but have since moved on to pastures new in Europe, while key players like Jung Sung-ryong (37), Akihiro Ienaga (35), and Yu Kobayashi (34) are all another year older.

Sir Alex Ferguson used to repeat the adage that teams must strengthen after success if they want the glory to continue, but while Tatsuki Seko and Chanatahip Songkrasin are two excellent additions they represent the only senior signings for Kawasaki ahead of the new season. Toru Oniki has of course shown repeatedly that he is also willing to throw high-school-, university-, or youth-graduates straight into the fray if they have the quality, but whether that will be enough to deliver titles at home and in Asia remains to be seen.

And what of Vissel Kobe? The 2019 Emperor’s Cup is the only silverware they have to show three-and-a-half years on from Andres Iniesta’s arrival in Hyogo, but after ending last season strongly to finish third they finally look well placed to make a real challenge in the league this year.

The entry ban on foreigners has seen a – surely temporary – curtailment of Vissel’s transfer policy of signing ex-Barcelona players, but after bringing in Yuya Osako and Yoshinori Muto midway through the previous season two more vastly experienced J.Leaguers have now arrived in the shape of Tomoaki Makino and Takahiro Ogihara.

That certainly makes Kobe look a more coherent outfit heading into the new season than they have at any point in recent years, and with Urawa and Marinos rebuilding and Kashima, Nagoya Grampus, and FC Tokyo all under new management, Vissel certainly look the best placed to prevent Frontale becoming just the second team in J.League history to win the title three years in a row.

26
Jan
22

Centre(back) of attention

Japan will be without the ever-dependable Maya Yoshida for this week’s critical World Cup qualifiers against China and Saudi Arabia, and the captain leaves huge boots to fill at the heart of the Samurai Blue defence… (日本語版)

There weren’t too many surprises when Japan manager Haijme Moriyasu announced his squad for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers at the weekend, and with the J.League in-between seasons and injuries ruling out the likes of Kyogo Furuhashi and Kaoru Mitoma the Samurai Blue boss pretty much selected the attacking options he has available to him.

The inclusion of Ritsu Doan and Takefusa Kubo – both of whom were absent with fitness concerns for the team’s most recent games, the former restricted to the bench and the latter ruled out completely – brings some much-needed creativity and guile in the final third of the pitch, while Daizen Maeda’s selection offers a glimmer of pace and goalscoring threat as well.

The concern ahead of the two must-win games against China and Saudi Arabia, however, lies in some glaring absences at the the heart of defence, where along with no Takehiro Tomiyasu there will be a Maya Yoshida-shaped hole for the first time in almost a decade.

Japan’s captain hasn’t missed a big game for his country since injury kept him out of a 1-1 draw away to Australia in June 2012, and the loss of his presence on and off the pitch undoubtedly represents a huge blow.

Yuzo Kurihara filled in for Yoshida the last time he was unavailable for meaningful national team duty, and the Yokohama F.Marinos man had an eventful evening in Brisbane, scoring Japan’s goal, making a heroic goal-line clearance, and then receiving a late red card as Alberto Zaccheroni’s men picked up a vital point on their way to Brazil 2014.

Since then Yoshida has been ever-present at centre-back in the biggest games, playing every minute of the matches that matter in the final round of World Cup qualifiers, Asian Cup, and World Cup finals, being rested only for the dead rubbers against Iraq in the final round of 2014 World Cup qualifying and Uzbekistan in the group stage at the 2019 Asian Cup.

There are, of course, plenty of talented replacements available for Hajime Moriyasu to choose from in his and Tomiyasu’s places, but while each of those in the squad bring their own qualities to the pitch they all lack Yoshida’s experience on the international stage – in fact, they all lack much experience at all playing at centre back for the full national team.

Naomichi Ueda has been in and around the Japan set up for the longest of the alternative options, but while the Nimes man has been involved since the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia he has only played one game in the final round of World Cup qualifiers in that time, and that was the dismal 1-0 defeat at home to Oman last September.

Ko Itakura, meanwhile, is a promising option who has been in good form playing in a back three for Schalke of late, although like Ueda he has just a single competitive appearance for the full national team at centre back – and the ‘competitiveness’ of that fixture probably requires an asterisk, as it was the 10-0 romp over Myanmar last year.

Yuta Nakayama has also been playing as part of a three-man defence for his club PEC Zwolle recently, but despite emerging in that position for Kashiwa Reysol – being named as 2017 J.League Young Player of the Year in the process – centre-back isn’t a role he has occupied yet for the Samurai Blue, with his most recent appearances all coming as a second half replacement for Yuto Nagatomo at left-back.

Shinnosuke Nakatani was a late call-up after Tomiyasu was forced to pull out, and while a solid performer is another yet to be given a proper test playing for his country, with his three appearances coming in last year’s cruises against Mongolia (14-0), Tajikistan (4-1), and Kyrgyzstan (5-1).

That leaves Shogo Taniguchi as the final and, in my opinion, best option to fill Yoshida’s boots as the leader at the back for this pair of games. The 30-year-old only has a handful of appearances for Japan – none of which have come beyond the second round of World Cup qualifiers – and he is admittedly not as much of a ‘looking to the future’ option as those named above, but right now Moriyasu needs somebody to come in and help organise the back line, and even though he is still in the midst of his pre-season preparations that is something Taniguchi is definitely able to do.

The Kumamoto native has shown outstanding leadership and unshakability for Kawasaki Frontale over the past five years, missing just 16 of 174 league games as Toru Oniki’s side have established a J1 dynasty, and that experience and composure will be even more crucial in these matches with Tomiyasu also absent.

While he lacks Yoshida’s experience at the very highest level, in playing such a key role for Frontale as they have filled their trophy cabinet Taniguchi has shown that he is more than capable of dealing with the pressure of these two far-from-straightforward games.

Whichever understudy Moriyasu does ultimately go with will need to slot seamlessly into the back four over the next week, and they could do a lot worse by way of preparation than watching Kurihara’s performance from 10 years ago.

Well, red card aside, that is. With Japan’s progression to this year’s finals in Qatar still very much in the balance, they can’t afford to put a foot wrong.

12
Jan
22

Enjoy the moment

The High School Championships kicked off the 2022 Japanese football season in style, and while the stars of the tournament will be focused on further improvement in the coming years it is also important they remember to savour these moments of triumph… (日本語版)

Aomori Yamada were crowned as Japan High School champions at the start of the week, claiming their third title after finishing as runners-up for the past two years by beating Ozu 4-0 in Monday’s final in front of a packed Tokyo National Stadium.

The High School tournament is an iconic mainstay of the new year in Japan, and all 20 members of the Aomori squad will cherish the memories forged out on that famous turf for the rest of their lives, irrespective of what comes next.

And, while the potentiality of the tournament is what acts as the major hook for broadcasters and neutral observers, we shouldn’t forget that achievements at the competition remain important in and of themselves, not only on account of what doors they may eventually open.

In football these days – perhaps even in life in general – less and less attention seems to be paid to the now, with everything framed in terms of what it means looking further ahead. There is no time to bask in individual victories or enjoy moments of triumph, with them instead being framed as stepping stones on the road to whatever comes next.

In England, for instance, finishing fourth in the Premier League has surpassed the winning of a domestic trophy as a target for many clubs on account of the UEFA Champions League berth, and associated riches, it provides. For a certain strata of fans, meanwhile, supporting their club by focusing on the actual games they are playing has taken a backseat to the bizarre fetishisation of the transfer market, with one eye, if not both, constantly on what potential new signings – often only seen through brief clips on YouTube or Twitter – will bring to the team down the line.

The High School competition here strikes something of a similar tone, with observers cooing over the standout performers by emphasising the trajectory their careers could take in the coming years or which J.League clubs are sniffing around the signatures of the latest batch of No.10s strutting their stuff. The slogan of this year’s edition, meanwhile – “To Tomorrow. Then to the Future!!!” – also left no doubt as to how the tournament should be viewed.

That is understandable, but while many of these players will certainly go on to forge careers for themselves in the professional game, both at home and abroad, the vast majority of them will not. Their focus right now should not be on tomorrow or the future and whether they ultimately ‘build on’ this success by becoming professional or ‘fail’ and end up doing something else, but instead on savouring today, on revelling in the triumph of winning one of the most fiercely contested football tournaments in Japan, of playing in front of over 42,000 people at a world famous venue.

The cliche of ‘taking each game as it comes’ is anathema to football journalists, but it persists for the very good reason that is the best way to approach things. Grand plans can be made and long term targets set but, just as with everyday life, you shouldn’t take your eye of the ball when it comes to day-to-day matters.

That is perhaps especially important when considering that these players are at an age when everything is new and exciting and bursting with possibility. The mid-to-late teens are a period when experiences, friendships, and achievements become forged for life, and those who made it to the final of this year’s tournament will forever tell the story of their 2022 Coming of Age Day.

As Covid-19 continues to drag on, we are increasingly reminded of the unpredictability of life and importance of appreciating and enjoying what we have. An entire class of students faces the prospect of spending a large chunk of – perhaps even their entire – three years at high school under restrictions that prevent them fully capitalising upon one of the most exciting, formative times of their lives, making it even more important that they are able to relish the moments of release that do come their way.

Like winning a national football competition. Some of these players will become much more familiar to us over the coming years, others of them won’t. But for now, they should just enjoy the moment.

22
Dec
21

Seamless transition

Urawa Reds won the Emperor’s Cup last Sunday, and while the 2-1 win over Oita Trinita brought the curtain down on one era, it also heralded the beginning of a new and intriguing one for the Saitama side… (日本語版)

When teams win trophies, it is often customary to contextualise their triumph in one of two ways.

The title can be looked at as the realisation of a long and hard road to glory, for instance, as with Kawasaki Frontale’s maiden J1 title in 2017 after many years of falling at the final hurdle.

On other occasions – think Vissel Kobe lifting the 2019 Emperor’s Cup – the feat is considered more as a springboard, in terms of what it could lead to for an emerging side in the following seasons.

Urawa Reds’ 2-1 win over Oita Trinita in last weekend’s Emperor’s Cup final, however, was a little unusual in that it provoked both feelings simultaneously.

Much was made in the build-up to the showpiece at the new National Stadium of the fact that the match would be Yuki Abe, Tomoya Ugajin, and Tomoaki Makino’s last as Reds players, and it was certainly hard to shake the significance of that fact as proceedings played out on a crisp and clear afternoon in Sendagaya.

The retiring Abe didn’t make the matchday squad, but both Ugajin and Makino came on as second half substitutes for Urawa – the latter performing his trademark mini haka before entering the fray with seven minutes to play and Urawa 1-0 up and seemingly on the brink of victory – and despite the concession of a last-gasp equaliser the trio’s fairytale ending was assured in the 93rd minute when Makino, who else, diverted home a dramatic late winner.

At the same time as that narrative being drawn to an emotional close, though, there was also a great deal about Reds’ triumph that served as something of an hors d’oeuvre to whet the appetite for what may lay ahead for Ricardo Rodriguez’s side.

Urawa tore out of the traps in the early knockings, clearly having seen how well Trinita frustrated Frontale in the semi-final a week earlier and not wanting to allow Tomohiro Katanosaka’s side to settle into their groove again in the final. Takahiro Sekine and Yoshio Koizumi were especially lively going forwards, Kasper Junker and Ataru Esaka pressed high up the pitch – even for Oita goal kicks – while Kai Shibato and Atsuki Ito buzzed and snapped around in the middle of the park to seize control of the opening exchanges.

Hiroki Sakai and Takahiro Akimoto also exemplified Reds’ early intent and offered proactive and energetic options from full-back, and it was hardly surprising when they took the lead in the sixth minute, Esaka drilling home from the edge of the area after Koizumi and Sekine had forced their way in from the right flank.

Oita came out with more fire in their belly in the second half and the game plateaued somewhat as the minutes ticked away, but Reds maintained their composure even after being pegged back so late on and few could argue that they weren’t worthy winners.  

Claiming a title and securing an ACL berth in his first season in charge is no mean feat for Rodriguez, particularly when considering just how much he has managed to reshape the team since taking over at the start of the 2021 campaign.

Urawa ended the previous year miserably, losing four and drawing one of their last five games as they slumped to a 10th place finish in J1, and it was clear that sweeping changes were required on and off the pitch if the Saitama side was to get back amongst the big boys.

The Spaniard didn’t shy away from instigating that revamp, and the team he sent out to take on Oita was almost unrecognisable from that which hobbled over the finish line 12 months earlier. Stalwarts Yosuke Kashiwagi and Yuki Muto had both been moved on by the summer, as was Kenyu Sugimoto, and along with Abe, Ugajin, and Makino the writing also looks like it is on the wall for another club legend Shinzo Koroki, who is widely rumoured to be at the top of his former manager Mihailo Petrovic’s shopping list at Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo.

The manner in which Rodriguez has facilitated that changeover while still producing results is worthy of huge praise, and it is certainly rare for a manager to be able to preserve a spirit of togetherness amongst a squad during such upheaval.

The recent/impending departure of so many key figures certainly didn’t seem to have affected the morale of the team if the interviews after the semi-final and final were anything to go by, and Ugajin – who opened the scoring in the semi-final against Cerezo Osaka – and Makino both spoke of their motivation to go out on a high and leave the players who will be pulling on the red shirt next season the gift of ACL football.

The next stage of the team’s evolution will of course be far from straightforward and many hurdles remain, but the assuredness with which the first steps have been taken suggests the future looks bright indeed for this new-look Urawa.




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