Archive for the 'フットボール・チャンネル / Football Channel' Category

15
Apr
17

Sanfrecce’s slump

The departure of some key players and poor form of some of those left behind has seen Sanfrecce Hiroshima stumble out of the starting blocks this season, but things could be about to click for Hajime Moriyasu’s side…  (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 15th April, 2017

Sanfrecce Hiroshima suffered a miserable start to the 2017 season, but last Friday’s hard-fought 1-0 win away to Gamba Osaka may just provide a turning point for Hajime Moriyasu’s side.

The Purple Archers – who let’s not forget won three J1 titles between 2012-15 and ran River Plate close in the Club World Cup semi-finals under 18 months ago – slumped to a sixth place finish last season, finishing a full 19 points behind overall leaders Urawa Reds, before starting this campaign in even worse form.

For the first time ever Sanfrecce failed to win any of their first five league games, and after drawing 1-1 at home to Albirex Niigata on the opening day of the season they lost their next four matches, scoring just once more in the process.

Those struggles in front of goal weren’t much of a surprise considering the club opted to offload Hisato Sato and Peter Utaka ahead of the new season, and losing the second most prolific scorer in J.League history and 2016’s joint-top scorer was bound to impact on the team’s attacking threat.

The decision not to offer Utaka the terms he was looking for looked a strange one after his contribution last year, raising concerns about either the club’s financial capabilities or ambition.

The impact of Sato’s departure should also not be underestimated, and while the veteran played a less central role in his 12th season with the club – clocking up just 665 minutes and four goals over 19 appearances last year – the loss of such an experienced and respected player deprived the team of an important voice in the locker room.

Koji Morisaki hanging up his boots saw Sanfrecce lose another player with deep roots at the club, and it seems fairly clear that, whether through choice or necessity, Sanfrecce are going through a transitional phase.

New signing Felipe Silva has shown some promising signs – not least the shot from nowhere that thundered off the woodwork and produced Masato Kudo’s winner against Gamba – but is yet to really click in Sanfrecce’s passing style, while Kudo himself has similarly struggled since his return to J1.

Football Channel / Getty

The former Kashiwa Reysol man scored on his debut on the opening weekend, raising hopes that he was primed to slip straight into Sato’s scoring boots, but he was unable to build on that in the following weeks and his confidence appeared to be dropping with each successive miss as the team endured its losing run.

The relief was palpable after he reacted quickest to pounce on the rebound and prod home the only goal in Suita though, and as he ran to the travelling fans behind the goal you could see a weight had been lifted off his shoulders. A few minutes later the impact of that strike was clear as he instantly looked sharper and more positive, driving at the retreating Gamba defenders before taking another potshot at goal.

Moriyasu was pleased two of his new frontline had combined to deliver a first win of the season, and insisted he’d never had any doubts about the team’s approach.

“We hadn’t scored from open play so far this season but looking at the stats for J1 we’d taken the most shots at goal so I knew that if we continued to do that then of course we’d score,” he said.

“It is better to break the opponent down with beautiful combinations but I’d been constantly saying to the players that they had to play in a way that would strike fear in the opponents, to always be aiming for goal. Felipe put that into practice here and while he hit the post Kudo followed up well. Neither of them were afraid to be aiming for goal.”

Poor form and fitness problems have also had an effect on Sanfrecce’s form, with Mihael Mikic and Yoshifumi Kashiwa – two players key to the team’s counter attacks – missing games through injury, and the likes of Tsukasa Shiotani and Toshihiro Aoyama – who were both standout performers during the team’s purple patch of league triumphs – struggling for their best form.

Once everyone is back in shape it is hard to see the side’s woes continuing for too much longer, although there is another tricky test coming up on Sunday as Yokohama F.Marinos, who themselves ended a barren run of their own with a much needed three points against Jubilo Iwata last weekend, coming to town.

Defeat would leave Sanfrecce in the relegation zone, but a first home win of the season could be the next step back towards the end of the table they are more familiar with.

28
Mar
17

Halil holding his nerve

A changing of the guard looks like it’s getting closer for the Japan national team, but for the time being Vahid Halilhodzic is right to stick with his big name players… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 10th March, 2017

Vahid Halilhodzic deserves plenty of praise for the way he has dealt with the final round of World Cup qualifying so far.

Japan got off to a terrible start last September when they went down 2-1 at home to UAE, and with several key men not playing regularly for their clubs the Samurai Blue suddenly seemed to have an uphill battle on their hands to make it to a sixth straight World Cup finals.

Goals from Genki Haraguchi and Takuma Asano helped Japan steady their footing with a 2-0 win away to Tuesday’s opponent’s Thailand a few days later though, before the side just about came away with four points from October’s tricky pair of games against Iraq and Australia – Hotaru Yamaguchi slamming home a euphoric injury time winner to seal the 2-1 home win over Iraq, before Haraguchi found the mark for the third game in a row in the 1-1 draw in Melbourne.

The past two games have been the real test, though, and Halilhodzic has negotiated both very well to leave Japan fully in control of their own destiny after beating Saudi Arabia 2-1 in November – Hiroshi Kiyotake and, again, Haraguchi notching – and then gaining revenge over UAE thanks to Yuya Kubo’s and Yasuyuki Konno’s goals in last Thursday’s 2-0 victory.

The reason Halilhodzic should be commended is for the manner in which he has managed his players throughout this process, using them intelligently to benefit the team as a whole.

Japan’s two world-renowned stars, Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa, are both on their days capable of deciding games for their team, but, unfortunately, neither have been seeing anything approaching regular playing time for their clubs this season, leading to calls for them to be axed from the national team set-up.

Halilhodzic himself added fuel to these fires by publicly warning his players that if they weren’t getting regular minutes he wouldn’t be considering them for his squad.

The 64-year-old is a pragmatist though, and knows that national team and club football are very different beasts. Whereas club sides play once or twice a week over a nine-month season and require a balance between short- and long-term planning, when it comes to international football each meet-up is only focused on one or two games – even at finals most teams only play three or four matches.

Screen Shot 2017-03-27 at 16.25.40

With that in mind Halilhodzic knows he can’t plan too far ahead, and that his selections for each squad must be dependent upon the current situation. Ideally he always has 30 or so players starring for their clubs and jostling for positions in the party, but in reality that just doesn’t happen.

Kagawa, in particular, shouldn’t really be starting at No.10 – and several times of late he hasn’t, with Kiyotake replacing him before himself suffering a dip in form – but when there is no-one else demanding to be picked instead it makes sense to go with the most experienced – and naturally-gifted – option. He may not be dictating the play going forwards – and longer term that is certainly an issue that needs fixing – but the opposition will still be drawn to him, freeing up space for the likes of Haraguchi and Kubo to capitalise upon.

Honda, meanwhile, has played just one minute of football for AC Milan in 2017 – a lamentable fact but one we shouldn’t get too carried away with. When at 100% the 30-year-old is still Japan’s best player, and even if he’s not playing regularly for his club he is more than capable of having an impact in a high pressure game for his country. Therefore, he is certainly still worthy of a spot in the 23 ahead of another decent-but-as-yet-unproven alternative.

Halilhodzic said when naming his most recent squad that Honda’s personality is important for the team, and assuming he finally transfers somewhere in the summer and is playing every week by this time next year then there should be no doubts about him being good to go at his third World Cup.

Of course, that is assuming Japan make it, which while looking more likely now than it did six months ago is still far from decided.

Thankfully for Kagawa and Honda enough other players have been stepping up to the plate during their lulls though, with relatively new faces like Kubo, Haraguchi, and Osako making positive contributions and veterans like Eiji Kawashima, Maya Yoshida, and Konno – all of whom were excellent against UAE in Al Ain – making sure they lead by example when called upon.

If they can do the same again against Thailand today then Halilhodzic and Japan will surely have half-a-foot in Russia.

10
Mar
17

Cerezo looking to end play-off jinx

Since J2 introduced play-offs in 2012, every team promoted via the post-season  decider has finished bottom of the top flight the following year. Cerezo Osaka are expected to buck that trend this season, but they have gotten off to a fairly inauspicious start…  (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 10th March, 2017

We have only had two rounds of the new J1 season, but Saturday’s game between Consadole Sapporo and Cerezo Osaka is incredibly important for both promoted sides.

Neither has managed to pick up a win from either of their first two outings in 2017, and a victory this weekend could provide just the kick-start needed to get last year’s J2 champion or play-off winner up and running.

Sapporo have lost both their openers without scoring a goal (1-0 to Vegalta Sendai and 3-0 to Yokohama F.Marinos), while Cerezo have just one point to show for their efforts after drawing 0-0 with Jubilo Iwata and losing 3-1 to Urawa Reds.

While Sapporo were widely tipped to struggle back in the top flight, Cerezo’s slow start is a bit of a surprise, and they will want to right their course sooner rather than later if they are to end the curse of the play-off champion.

Considering the quality of Cerezo’s squad – which as well as boasting current and recent national team players Hotaru Yamaguchi and Yoichiro Kakitani was boosted just before the start of the new campaign by the returning Hiroshi Kiyotake, who has established himself as Vahid Halilhodzic’s first choice in the hole for the Samurai Blue – it would be something of a surprise if they did slip straight back through the trapdoor.

A loss against Sapporo would leave them in ominous company though.

All four sides previously promoted via the play-offs have gone on to finish bottom of J1 the following season, and only one of them – Montedio Yamagata in 2015 – managed to pick up a win in their first three matches.

It took Cerezo a couple of seasons and they certainly made hard work of getting back out of J2, but they were a big fish in the second tier and now they need to adjust to their new status in the top flight.

“We know that in J1 we will spend more time in games defending,” Yamaguchi said after last weekend’s defeat in Saitama. “Whereas Urawa have very high accuracy in their passing and combinations when attacking we made too many mistakes when we went forward and gifted possession back to them many times.”

The 26-year-old cited mitigating circumstances for Cerezo’s disjointed display though, pointing out that they lack the consistency of Mihailo Petrovic’s side.

“Our coach has just changed, we’ve got some players out injured and some new players in the side, plus we are trying to play a new type of football, so of course there is a difference in the degree of completion between us and Urawa, who rarely change their players or approach.”

Kakitani offered a similar explanation, and suggested that lack of communication was partly to blame.

“The coach has just changed, whereas Urawa’s manager has been in charge for a long time,” he said. “After the game the players were talking a lot about many things, and I think it would be good if we were able to do that before the game too.”

Football Channel:Getty, Friday 10th March, 2017

Depsite the array of attacking talent at Yoon Jong-hwan’s disposal it was centre-back Matej Jonjic who found the net against Urawa, and the new addition from Incheon United was also keen to emphasise the gap between last year’s overall league winner and the returnees from J2.

“They are in the top three teams in the J.League, playing in the Champions League,” the Croatian said. “We just came from the second division; the difference is obvious. We have to work harder and try to work on our mistakes.

“We started too slow and I think we were missing some confidence in this game. After my goal we tried to come back, but it was too late.”

Souza agreed that Cerezo’s hesitant start was what cost them the game against Urawa.

“They’re a very high quality team so if you give them the freedom to build up like we did in the first half then that will happen,” the Brazilian said. “In the second half we pushed up a bit more and I think things went better then.

“We need to work on our defending but it’s not just that and there are many areas we need to correct. That’s not to say everything was bad though, and as well as fixing the things that need improving we also need to keep going with the areas that worked well.”

Indeed, Cerezo did cause Reds some problems in the second half, and with better finishing they could have made for a nervy end to the game for their hosts. That fact provided a source of some optimism for Souza.

“In J1 the level of the players and the tactics is higher, but we play with good connections going forward and I think we are capable of causing opponents problems.”

A fit Kiyotake would certainly improve the team in that respect, although Souza refused to build the new No.46 up too much, clearly unwilling to talk down any of the players currently in the first eleven.

“We’re a very good team and Kiyotake is a great player who plays for the national team, but that’s up to the coach to think about so please ask him,” the 28-year-old added with a grin.

In Yoon the club certainly have a boss capable of building a solid outfit, with the South Korean having worked wonders at Sagan Tosu before he was controversially fired with them top of the table in August 2014.

He has made his aims very clear this year too, and Jonjic insists the players are focused on ending the play-off jinx by finishing in the top half of the table.

“The manager already said his goal before the season started, so we just follow his ideas and his goals and let’s see where we will be after the season. He said top nine, so the club have made that goal and we will follow that and are trying our best to reach it.”

A win in what is sure to be a packed Sapporo Dome on Saturday would certainly lay down a marker on the way to that target. Defeat, however, could strike an early psychological blow to Cerezo’s ambitions.

24
Feb
17

Points win prizes

Kashima Antlers picked up the J1 trophy last season, but their points totals over the past few seasons suggest they will have to up their game this year if they want to be doing so again in 2017… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 24th February, 2017

The 2017 J.League season started in much the same way as the 2016 one ended, with Kashima Antlers just about edging out Urawa Reds to pick up another piece of silverware.

The manner of Antlers’ 3-2 win in last weekend’s Super Cup was also similar to that in which they snatched the J1 title last year, with Yuma Suzuki capitalising on a late mistake by a Reds defender to decide the game – Wataru Endo his victim this time after Tomoaki Makino was caught snoozing in December.

The reigning J1 champions emerging victorious from the season curtain-raiser is far from a surprise – the last nine have now been claimed by the previous year’s league winner – and while the match is always an enjoyable way to shake off the cobwebs and get the ball rolling on a new season, everyone knows not to read too much into the result.

What comes next is what matters, and while winning one-off games against title rivals is not a bad habit to get into, of equal importance is the ability to deal with the rest of the division as well.

While the temptation is to tip Antlers as favourites to retain their title, then, a closer look at the stats suggests they have plenty of improvement to make if they want to be picking up a ninth J1 shield come December.

Last year, as received much coverage, Masatada Ishii’s side finished 15 points adrift of overall league leaders Urawa before sealing the league in dramatic fashion on away goals in the Championship final. This year the one-stage format is back though, meaning there are no shortcuts to glory available and all that matters is who is standing tallest after 34 rounds of games.

That should provide plenty of encouragement for Reds and the other sides targeting the title, with Antlers not only having struggled on that front last season but having done so for the past few years.

The Ibaraki side’s league form in 2016 read 18 wins, five draws, and 11 defeats, leaving them with 59 points. In 2015 they also picked up 18 wins, five draws, and 11 defeats. The year before that they managed 18 wins, six draws, and 10 defeats, while, incredibly, 2013 also produced a record of 18-5-11.

While such numbers display scarcely believable consistency, these are not the kind of figures usually associated with winning the league. Indeed, 60 points is the lowest total accrued by a champion since J1 expanded to 18 teams, and that was in the famous 2005 season when five teams were in with a chance of winning the title on the final day of the season.

Football Channel, Friday 24th February, 2017 (Getty)

With that in mind, the Antlers players know they need to deliver a steadier pace over the course of the 2017 campaign.

“The coach hasn’t really given any new instructions, but we all know we have to maintain a high level for the whole season,” Daigo Nishi said after the Super Cup.

“For that we will need the strength of more players then before, and we have a very good group. It is up to the coach and the senior players to make sure we are able to achieve and maintain that feeling.”

Suzuki, perhaps mindful of having won last weekend’s match after coming off the bench, agreed that standards have to improve throughout the entire squad.

“We have a heavy schedule and so need the strength of every player,” the 20-year-old observed.

“I think it’s impossible with just 11 players; we need to have everyone on board. My job is to keep scoring the goals and I want to score lots,” he added, declining to provide any specific target and merely reiterating, “Lots”.

Reds, meanwhile, picked up a league-record 74 points last year after winning 23 games, drawing five, and losing six. That followed an impressive 21 wins, nine draws and just four defeats in 2015, which was preceded by a tally of 18-8-8 in 2014, and while the Saitama giant does still need to shake of its nearly-men tag, the team is clearly improving each season.

However, while the players have undoubtedly grown in confidence as a result of their table-topping exploits last year they still don’t have any league medals to show for their efforts, and Yuki Muto is determined to put that right this time out.

“We want to show that we are the best team and we have the same motivation as always,” he said.

“Of course, there is still a lingering sense of regret that we were pulled back in despite having 15 points more [than Kashima in 2016], but this year the team at the top of the table becomes champion and so we have to pick up points over the whole season to make sure that come the end of the year it is Reds that are smiling.”

There is a lot of football to be played, but if Mihailo Petrovic’s side can match their recent figures then it will take an impressive effort for somebody else to beat them to the finish line in 2017.

18
Feb
17

J.Liga

J2 has seen plenty of managerial changes over the offseason, with three coaches from Spain the standout new arrivals… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 27th January, 2017

There hasn’t been a great deal of movement in the dugouts of J1 over the off-season, with only four top-flight teams experiencing a change of manager.

Of the newcomers it can only really be said that Tatsuma Yoshida at Ventforet Kofu and Fumitake Miura at Albirex Niigata were moves instigated by the clubs themselves, with Yoon Jong-hwan’s long-awaited arrival at Cerezo Osaka finally relieving Kiyoshi Okuma of the job he always seemed desperate to escape, and Tooru Oniki being bumped up to the hot seat at Kawasaki Frontale after Yahiro Kazama decided he wanted a change of scenery after five years at Todoroki.

Kazama is now tasked with guiding Nagoya Grampus straight back up to the first division as they face a maiden campaign in J2, and the 55-year-old has plenty of fellow newbies to keep him company in the second tier, with Grampus one of 10 clubs to have changed their man in charge ahead of the 2017 campaign.

Some of these appointments are familiar faces on the J.League circuit, with a couple of former Jubilo Iwata coaches, Hitoshi Morishita and Masaaki Yanagishita, pitching up at Thespakusatsu Gunma and Zweigen Kanazawa, respectively, Takeshi Kiyama moving to Montedio Yamagata from Ehime FC, and ex-Shimizu S-Pulse and Kyoto Sanga manager Takeshi Oki taking the reins at FC Gifu.

In addition there are a couple of inexperienced coaches attempting to work their way up the ladder – former Kashiwa Reysol coach Takanori Nunobe getting his first manager’s job leading Tulio et. al at Kyoto Sanga, while Shuichi Mase is continuing his transformation from Ivica Osim’s translator to the main man by stepping up from J3 side Blaublitz Akita into Kiyama’s shoes at Ehime.

Perhaps the most interesting arrivals, however, come in the form of three Spain-reared bosses taking their first roles in Japan.

JEF United, Tokyo Verdy, and Tokushima Vortis are all sides with J1 experience, but each of them finished some way short of earning returns to the first division under Japanese coaches last season. JEF wound up in 11th after replacing Takeshi Sekizuki with Shigetoshi Hasebe, Verdy stalled down in 18th under Koichi Togashi, while Hiroaki Nagashima could only take Tokushima as far as 9th.

In an attempt to improve on those showings this year JEF have hired former Getafe boss Juan Esnaider, Verdy have drafted in ex-Villareal manager Miguel Angel Lotina, and Tokushima have placed Ricardo Rodriguez in charge at the Pocari Sweat Stadium, after spells with the Saudi Arabia national team and Bangkok Glass in Thailand.

Argentinian Esnaider played as a striker for several big European clubs – including Real Madrid and Juventus – and was coached by the likes of Marcello Lippi, Carlo Ancelotti, and Marcelo Bielsa during his playing career, but his time as a coach has thus far been fairly muted, with less than successful spells with Getafe and Cordoba.

He is taking over from Hasebe, who replaced Sekizuka with 17 games to go last year. He did reasonably well and has been kept on as part of Esnaider’s coaching staff, but always seemed more concerned with keeping the team organised defensively than letting its creative players show what they could do going forwards.

Esnaider will have been tasked with improving the team in that respect, and it looks as though he’ll prefer a 3-4-2-1 formation, with a focus on pressing high up the pitch and looking to attack from wide.

Football Channel / Getty

Last year JEF made the third most passes (21,522) and crosses (719) in J2, as well as taking the third most touches of the ball (28,608), but they had the worst shot-on-target ratio (32.7% of 456 efforts) and Esnaider will hope the signing of his compatriot Joaquin Larrivey from Baniyas in the UAE can help them improve on that front.

Finishing chances was an issue for Verdy in 2016 too, with just 10.4% of their 415 attempts finding the net, and Lotina will be expected to add some killer instinct to a hard-working but far from ruthless team.

The Spaniard is an experienced coach who has been in charge of a handful of La Liga sides, and he is used to working on a limited budget – which should put him in good stead at Ajinomoto.

The 59-year-old also has a reputation for picking up short term results and making his sides difficult to beat, and the early signs from pre-season are that he will set Verdy up in a 3-4-3.

His predecessor Togashi always looked a little unsure of his best formation, often changing mid-game and seeming to confuse his players, and some consistency on this front should help the side find some rhythm and also shake off their reputation as slow starters – only three of their 43 league goals last year came in the opening 15 minutes of games.

There hasn’t been much activity up front in the off-season, with the only attacking arrival the returning Ryota Kajikawa, although Douglas Vieira, whose debut campaign was blighted by injury, has been in decent form in pre-season.

Tokushima, meanwhile, were fairly middling all over the pitch last year, and a realistic challenge for a play-off place was always kept out of reach by their lack of concentration and/or physical endurance late on in games – 20 of the 42 goals they conceded went in in the last 30 minutes of matches.

Rodriguez, who started coaching at the age of just 24 after an injury ended his playing career at youth level, will want to iron out those creases.

He has a UEFA Pro License and had a few jobs in Spain before taking up a role with Saudi Arabia in 2011, before getting his first job as a manager in 2014 at Thai side Ratchaburi. From there he moved on to Bangkok Glass and then Suphanburi – although he left his role there after just three months.

Rodriguez would appear to be a flexible coach with a focus on the mentality and motivation of his players – utilising a method he terms ‘Tactic Specificity’, whereby he gives individual players precise instructions for their particular roles – and a glance at his blog suggests he spent the latter half of last season scouting J.League games, so he should be acquainted with the style of football here and his detailed approach should be well suited to the local players.

Tokushima will hope that enables Rodriguez to improve on the rather conservative football of his predecessor Nagashima, who always seemed more concerned with making sure his team didn’t lose rather than aiming for wins.

Whether he can deliver on that front remains to be seen, but the J2 field looks as wide open as ever this season and the new men in charge will be cautiously optimistic as they take their places on the starting line.

27
Jan
17

Podolski no magic bullet

Lukas Podolski’s protracted transfer to Vissel Kobe is edging closer to completion, but his arrival is no guarantee of success for J1’s perennial underachievers… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 27th January, 2017

Despite the injection of DAZN cash heightening the expectations of fans around Japan, most of the transfer activity this off-season has been the typical J.League fare, with the usual merry-go-round of Japanese players and same old Brazilian faces moving on to pastures new.

Shunsuke Nakamura’s bitter departure from Yokohama F.Marinos to Jubilo Iwata and Yoshito Okubo’s decision to cross the Tama river and join FC Tokyo from Kawasaki Frontale have been two of the most noteworthy transfers so far – or at least the ones afforded the most attention – while Masato Kudo’s arrival at Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Akihiro Ienaga’s move to Frontale, and Omiya Ardija’s capture of Genki Omae from Shimizu S-Pulse are also interesting deals.

The Brazilian carousel, meanwhile, has spun as smoothly as ever, with Wilson and Ramon Lopes leaving Vegalta Sendai for Ventforet Kofu and Kashiwa Reysol, respectively, Urawa Reds returning to their old favourite prep-school Albirex Niigata for Rafael Silva, from where Kashima Antlers have also made an acquisition in the form of the excellent Leo Silva. The reigning champions signed another Brazilian, too, providing Pedro Junior with his sixth J.League home after spells at Omiya, Niigata, Gamba Osaka, Tokyo, and most recently Vissel Kobe.

The player who looks set to replace him at Vissel, however, is the most eye-catching piece of business, with former Germany international Lukas Podolski on the verge of joining Hyogo’s permanently sleeping giant.

The Rakuten-backed side has as yet been unable to realise the potential provided by its sizeable budget and top class facilities, but the capture of the 2014 World Cup winner – who scored 48 goals in 129 games for the Mannschaft – could help turn Kobe into an authentic challenger in 2017.

As when Diego Forlan arrived at Cerezo Osaka in 2014 there will be pressure on the 31-year-old to deliver instant results in the J.League, but as Forlan’s ill-fated spell in Japan also demonstrated it is vital that he is received and used in the correct way.

The expectation then was that the Uruguay star would catapult Cerezo directly to the J1 title, but the subsequent slacking off of his teammates – who seemingly also thought Forlan would be able to decide games on his own – and then bizarre decision of his coach Yuji Okuma to drop him on account of his inability to contribute to the side defensively saw the club sensationally relegated to the second tier.

Football Channel (Getty Images), 27th January, 2017

The former Manchester United and Inter Milan striker was frozen out and didn’t start any of Cerezo’s last 12 games as they slid towards the trapdoor, although he did still finish the campaign as their top scorer with seven goals. He then stuck around to see out the rest of his contract in J2, again finishing as the club’s best finisher with 10 goals in 16 games before leaving in the summer of 2015.

Just because things didn’t ultimately work out in that instance doesn’t mean similar transfers shouldn’t be attempted though, and the early signs regarding Podolski are positive.

Kobe have made it clear that he won’t be afforded any special treatment – the news that he would have to share a room with a teammate if he’d been signed in time for their pre-season camp made headlines, for instance – and manager Nelsinho is a wise old hand who will know exactly how to get the best out of his new player and incorporate him as a part of the team.

And it is the team that must take precedence.

Last year, despite the fact that the two-stage system may have afforded them their best chance of achieving success, Vissel blew as hot and cold as ever, and were unable to maintain the consistency required to qualify for the Championship play-offs.

They ultimately finished the second stage as runners-up after ending the season with eight wins and just one defeat in their last 10 games – a spell which took in wins over all four ACL qualifiers Kashima, Urawa, Kawasaki, and Gamba – but a run of seven games between 14 May and 25 June epitomised their Jekyll and Hyde status and meant they had to settle for their regular mid-table finish, seventh overall.

The move for Podolski is certainly a show of intent and he would be an impressive replacement for the outgoing Pedro Junior, who scored 11 times last year, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that the side are already reasonably well-stocked with goal-getters and finished as fourth highest scorers in 2016.

Leandro finished joint top scorer in J1 with Sanfrecce’s Peter Utaka on 19 goals, while captain Kazuma Watanabe also made it to double figures with 12. Defensively, however, they conceded 43 times – 15 times more than table-topping Urawa – and it is in that respect that improvements also need to be made.

Nelsinho is shrewd enough to know that Podolski isn’t going to be a magic bullet that fires Vissel to glory, and it is vital that everyone else associated with the club is on the same page if the deal is to produce a happy ending.

12
Jan
17

Keeping things safe

Riku Hirosue’s performance between the posts for Aomori Yamada on Monday earned his side a maiden High School title, and the future looks bright for the new FC Tokyo keeper…

Football Channel, 12th January, 2017

If you only saw the final score you would think Aomori Yamada’s victory over Maebashi Ikuei in the High School football final was an easy win, but the eventual 5-0 scoreline was largely made possible by the performance of Aomori’s man at the back, Riku Hirosue.

The Japan U-19 goalkeeper nearly had a nightmare start to the final when Maebashi striker Daichi Hitomi chased the ball down and blocked an early clearance in the opening seconds of the match at Saitama Stadium, but Hirosue grew into the game and ultimately laid the foundations for his team to cruise to their first ever High School title.

The 18-year-old shot-stopper kept Go Kuroda’s side in the contest in the 16th minute, denying Hayate Takazawa in a one-on-one after his defence had switched off. That save came in the midst of a dominant spell for Maebashi, and if they had taken the lead there it could instead have been them taking the trophy back to Gunma.

Hirosue’s stop kept things level though, and enabled Issei Takahashi to give Aomori the lead just seven minutes later. Aomori’s crucial second goal – converted coolly just before half-time by Riku Saga – was also preceded by some Hirosue heroics, and instead of going in 1-1 at the break he and his teammates found themselves 2-0 up.

Such contributions all too often go unnoticed, with the majority of focus in the modern game being directed at the players putting the ball in the back of the net rather than those working to prevent it getting that far.

Game-changing interventions like Hirosue’s are equivalent to goals scored, however – something that Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho recently noted after David De Gea kept his side in the game against West Ham United on 3 January.

“When they play phenomenally people forget, when they make a mistake, everyone remembers,” the Portuguese said after his keeper denied West Ham’s Michail Antonio with the score tied at 0-0 in a game United went on to win 2-0. “That’s why I hugged David at the end of the game, because no save, Antonio goal, no three points.

“Of course I would love goalkeepers to be recognised, to win the golden ball, to be player of season in the Premier League, because goalkeepers are lonely guys with a different shirt to everybody else.”

Riku Hirosue, Getty Images/Football Channel

Such accolades usually only arrive when it is perceived that a team has failed to perform at its best, however, with Mourinho adding that he hopes De Gea doesn’t pick up United’s Player of the Season award for the fourth straight year, opining that, “Season after season, if the goalkeeper is player of the season it means that something is wrong.”

Of course, that is not always the case, and on 7 January Leicester City shot stopper Kasper Schmeichel was rewarded for his part in the Foxes historic Premier League triumph, ending Christian Eriksen’s dominance of the Danish Player of the Year award and becoming the first goalkeeper to pick up the trophy since his dad Peter claimed his third such title back in 1999.

Hirosue was equally vital to Aomori’s success, and as well as helping to keep things tight at the back to ensure a clean sheet in Monday’s final he also started the moves for Aomori’s third and fourth goals with raking passes out from the back.

The High School title is just the latest medal for Hirosue’s collection, and he was also involved for Japan U-19’s when they won their maiden Asian title last year. He only made one appearance at the AFC Championship in Bahrain, but his contribution in the 3-0 semi-final win over Vietnam preserved the young Samurai’s impressive run without conceding a goal – one which was extended to an outstanding 840 minutes by first choice Ryosuke Kojima of Waseda University in the final.

All of which suggests the signs are positive for the future of Japanese goalkeeping at large. Shusaku Nishikawa of Urawa Reds looks settled as No.1 for the Samurai Blue for the time being, but Kashiwa Reysol’s Kosuke Nakamura is steadily establishing himself as a clear contender and, while only 21, is widely expected to break into the full national team squad very soon.

A promotion that far may be some way down the tracks for Kojima or Hirosue, but the latter will be making the step up to the professional game at FC Tokyo this season – returning to the club where he played at U-15 level before being released – and if he can continue to build upon his clear ability then there is no reason why he can’t make even more of a name for himself in the coming years.




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