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


Sendai soaring

Vegalta Sendai have matched their perfect start from last year with back-to-back 1-0 wins in J1, and the players are keen to show they are a tougher proposition this season… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, 9th March, 2018

The J1 season is only two games old, but not many people would have predicted the only three teams to still have perfect records at this point.

Last year’s play-off winners Nagoya Grampus have re-adjusted to life in the top flight superbly by beating Gamba Osaka and Jubilo Iwata; Sanfrecce Hiroshima – who only survived relegation by the skin of their teeth last season – have six points thanks to victories over Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo and Urawa Reds; while Vegalta Sendai are also riding high thanks to back-to-back 1-0s at the expense of Kashiwa Reysol and FC Tokyo.

Vegalta actually got off to an identical start in 2017 – winning 1-0 at home to Sapporo on the opening weekend before following up with a 1-0 victory on the road to Jubilo – but they were then derailed on the third matchday when they lost 2-0 at home to Vissel Kobe, who will coincidentally be the visitors to Yurtec Stadium this Saturday.

“Last year we won the first two games but in the end we finished up where we did in the table [12th], so we know we can’t just be satisfied with what we’ve done so far and we want to do our best to show how we are different from last season,” Naoki Ishihara said after scoring the winner against Tokyo last weekend.

“Last season there were times when we weren’t able to get the second goal, didn’t use time smartly, or made mistakes when it came to closing games down and I think we have learned from that,” the 33-year-old added.

“We all have a feeling of not wanting to repeat the things we experienced last year, and I think the fact we have been able to win and keep clean sheets in both games so far shows that.”

Defensive solidity has always been a by-word for the way Sendai play, and Yasuhiro Hiraoka made it clear that the principle remains the first building block for Susumu Watanabe’s team this year.

“For us at the back that’s the main target [to keep a clean sheet], and we know that if we are able to keep doing that then we will pick up the points slowly but surely,” the former Shimizu S-Pulse man said.

However, after they lost their way a little after a strong start in 2017 Hiraoka also knows the team can’t afford to just sit back and rest on their laurels.

Football Channel, Saturday 10th March 2018

“Last year we were in the same position [after two games] and so we are aware that what happens from now is vital. This has no meaning if we aren’t able to take advantage of it in the next game.”

That hesitancy to relax is true of the team’s approach on the pitch too, and Katsuya Nagato insisted that once the foundations are in place the players want to take games to opponents as well.

“At half time [against Tokyo] we had a real drive to take the initiative and go for the win,” the Chiba native said.

“I think the fact we were able to do that here was great, and we want to keep playing in that way to make sure we are able to see out wins in similar games to this from now on too.

“As a team I think we are moving the ball better and the connections when building attacks are mostly working well. Last year it was a bit of a case of trial and error as we worked at keeping the opponents at bay, and while this year there have also been spells where we have had to persevere I think we are demonstrating the kind of football we want to play too.

“We can’t just be content with winning 1-0 though, and want to start making it 2- or 3-0 at an earlier point in games. The sooner we can do that the sooner we will be able to see games out more easily.”

The team has already gotten one monkey off its back this season, with last weekend’s win the first time they took all three points from a trip to Ajinomoto Stadium, and Ishihara thinks that achievement will give Vegalta added confidence as they look to win three league games in a row for the first time since June 2016.

“The coach mentioned that before the game [that they’d never beaten Tokyo away in the league]. We can’t do anything about past results but we spoke about changing that history, about the fact that we can change the future, and I’m pleased we were able to do so by winning here.”

The next challenge comes this weekend, when Sendai will be looking to avenge last season’s defeat to Kobe and show they are a stronger proposition this time around.


Missing out motivates Misao

Kashima Antlers suffered a rare season without a trophy last year, and Kento Misao is determined not to miss out again in 2018… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, 22nd February, 2018

On paper 2017 was a superb year for Kento Misao as, still only 21, he became a first choice at Kashima Antlers and also made his national team debut at the EAFF E-1 Championship in December.

However, that appearance unfortunately came in the 4-1 hammering by South Korea – albeit as a second half substitute when the game was already long since lost – while his club campaign also ended sourly with Antlers stumbling on the run in and letting the J1 title slip through their grasp.

Misao described the feeling at full time on the last day of the season as one he will never forget, but the Tokyo Verdy youth team product is now determined to use that disappointment as fuel to ensure success this season.

“We all have a lot of regret about that,” he said with regards to the 0-0 draw away to Jubilo Iwata that gifted last year’s championship to Kawasaki Frontale. “But we have a really strong feeling of doing it this year, and I think that will come out in our play. As a team we have a real focus on doing that.

“I think you really develop by winning titles, but the same is also true of the regret you feel when you don’t win. So now we have the opportunity to step up.”

Such a mature approach is characteristic of a player wise beyond his years, something also evident when he talks about the time it took for him to gain regular minutes in the Kashima midfield.

“I feel like maybe it took longer than I’d hoped,” he says. “I came here with a focus on playing in my first year.”

With players of the quality of Gaku Shibasaki, Mitsuo Ogasawara, Ryota Nagaki, and current midfield partner Leo Silva challenging for starts since he signed at the start of the 2016 season, however, it is perhaps unsurprising Misao was made to wait, and he concedes it was probably for the best that he had to work for his chance – which finally came when Go Oiwa replaced Masatada Ishii midway through last season and immediately installed him in the centre of the park.

“I guess if you look at the results the timing worked out well. I don’t really think about it too much though. When playing in games I just have a real responsibility, I feel that every time.”

Of course, at Japan’s most successful club there is no shortage of players willing to stand up and be counted, and they’ll have another this year thanks to the return of Atsuto Uchida.

“We’ve brought in players out wide so there’s a new feeling,” Misao said.

Football Channel, Wednesday 21st February, 2018

“Uchida has been playing in Germany for a long time and he’s a player we know we can rely on.

“You can see he has the standard quality demanded in Germany – pass speed, battling for possession, sliding tackles. He’s teaching me all the things that are required – kind of like ‘the world level is like this’ – and I’m aiming to play at that level so being able to know those things is really beneficial and serves as motivation to me. We’ve spoken about all sorts of things, he’s a really good person.”

Another player who’s arrived at full-back is Misao’s former teammate at Verdy, Koki Anzai. The 22-year-old was excellent last season as Miguel Angel Lotina’s side made it to the J2 Play-offs, posing a real threat in the final third and adding goals and assists to his game, and Misao thinks he will provide an extra option for Antlers this term.

“It’s been three years since we were in the same team and it was good fun playing with him,” he said of the reunion. “He’s more of a dribbler who tries to break through now and I think he’s really developed.”

It looks as though Anzai will challenge with Misao’s brother, Yuto, to try and unseat Shuto Yamamoto as first choice left back.

Yuto had a similarly frustrating first season in Ibaraki to his younger brother after joining from Shonan Bellmare last year, but based on his own experience Kento remains convinced an opportunity will come.

“Yuto is getting better and I think he’ll have a chance,” he said. “If he can do well when he plays in games then he can build on that.”

Another player Misao expects to impress this year is Yuma Suzuki.

The Chiba native struggled a little in 2017 – finding the net just six times in 26 league appearances – but is singled out as the potential difference maker for Antlers this season.

“I think he can score around 20 goals,” Misao said of the player just 10 days younger than himself.

“I think he has the most potential to score goals. If he can do well and score a lot then the team can become really strong.”

In the end Kashima only missed out on the title by a single goal last season, and it is clear that Misao is resolved to make up for that this year.


Cerezo set to challenge again

Cerezo Osaka broke their title jinx last year, winning the Levain and Emperor’s Cups. Their showing in the Super Cup last weekend suggests Yoon Jong-hwan’s side will be in the hunt for silverware in 2018 as well… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 13th February, 2018

After Cerezo Osaka beat Kawasaki Frontale 2-0 to win the Levain Cup last November coach Yoon Jong-hwan said he felt they could become a “team to be feared”, and the past three months have done nothing to cast any doubt on that assertion.

Cerezo started 2018 with another triumph, beating Yokohama F.Marinos 2-1 after extra time in the Emperor’s Cup final on New Year’s Day, and after a steady winter during which they lost no key players and signed some solid options to boost the squad they hit the ground running this past weekend with another win over Frontale, this time 3-2 in the Super Cup.

That made it three trophies from their last three visits to Saitama Stadium, and after the game Matej Jonjic made it clear that now the club has shaken off its ‘nearly’ tag the target is to add more silverware this season.

“We want to aim for another title this year because we know we can do it,” the Croatian said.

“[The Levain Cup] definitely gave us confidence and showed us that we can win a title. We won another one after that and feel full of confidence and are taking that into each game.”

They certainly started Saturday’s Super Cup slickly, seizing the initiative ahead of reigning J1 champions Frontale early on, with Hiroshi Kiyotake, Kota Mizunuma, Yoichiro Kakitani, and Kenyu Sugimoto looking especially self-assured.

“I didn’t expect we were going to attack, that we were going to put pressure,” Jonjic admitted of the team’s burst out of the gate in a game usually characterised by rusty performances as teams get back into the flow after a couple of months off.

“They are really good when they have confidence,” he added of the team’s front four. “They are really good players and they can damage every team.”

Kiyotake also paid reference to the unexpected ease with which he slipped into the season’s curtain-raiser.

“I wasn’t at all tired,” the 28-year-old said. “As a team we played very compactly and, for me personally, I played the same as always and also managed to get a goal. It was the ideal chance for me and I hope there are many more scenes like that to come this year.”

Keeping things compact has always been the overriding principal for Yoon’s teams, and nothing will change as he looks to steer Cerezo to more glory this season.

“We struggled in the second half of the season and couldn’t keep a clean sheet but we kept winning because we had a good offence, we scored three or four goals, which was a good thing,” Jonjic said of the side’s finish to the 2017 campaign.

Football Channel, Tuesday 13th February, 2018

“But now in pre-season we have been working on our defending as a team, as a unit together – we have to stay compact and defend all together.

“We started with that last season, we started well with something like eight clean sheets in 10 games [actually six in eight including the Levain Cup], and after that we felt we could attack a little bit more so things became a little bit disorganized. We have to get the balance. In our team we are saying all the time that the base is defending together with 11 players behind the ball, so we have to start from that. Today [the forwards] did a really good job, they helped the defence a lot. Even 30 meters from our goal they were defending and tackling, which was really good, really helpful for us.”

That effort didn’t go unnoticed by Kiyotake either, and he was full of praise for the manner in which the team defended from the front.

“Yoichiro and Kenyu put in a lot of effort to keep an eye on Kawasaki’s defensive midfielders, which made things much easier for us,” he said. “I think it will be good if we can take this as our base.”

Of course, with so much attacking talent packed into the squad Cerezo – who were second-highest scorers in J1 after Frontale last year with 65 goals – won’t just be aiming to play reactively and will still cause opponents plenty of problems in the final third themselves.

“Kenyu and Yoichiro combined well, Yang (Dong-hyen) gave us good variation after he came on, and Toshi(iyuki Takagi) got his goal, so I think everything’s in place for us to become a good team this year,” Kiyotake added.

“The season has only just started though and the real work starts from now so we can’t just be satisfied with this.”

Jonjic highlighted the extent of the team’s workload, pointing out that even before their J1 duties begin Cerezo have an away game against Jeju United in the AFC Champions League on Wednesday.

“Tomorrow morning, early morning, we fly to Jeju,” the 27-year-old said.

“It’s a tough schedule – a lot of games, a lot of tough games. It will be a tough season, we know it will not be smooth like last year because we have a lot of tough games, but we are preparing for that so we know what to expect.”

Opponents will know what they will be getting from Cerezo this year too, and it would be surprising if they are not in the mix to add to their trophy cabinet when the prizes are being dished out nine months from now.


Making moves

There has been the usual flurry of transfer activity over the J.League off-season, with reigning champions Kawasaki Frontale and promoted Nagoya Grampus making the biggest splashes in the market… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, 25th January, 2018

With a month to go until the J.League season gets underway there is still plenty of time for clubs to finalise their squads for the 2018 campaign.

Training camps and pre-season friendlies are already underway though – and, of course, Kashiwa Reysol have their Asian Champions League qualifier next week – so it looks like the bulk of the off-season transfer activity has been concluded.

From this it is possible to make some tentative early forecasts, with Kawasaki Frontale, Urawa Reds, and Nagoya Grampus’ comings and goings particularly catching the eye.

Kawasaki are in unchartered waters as reigning champions, but the club certainly haven’t messed about in following the adage that you need to strengthen even when at your strongest.

Any other year the return of Yoshito Okubo after a difficult season across the Tama River at FC Tokyo would be the standout acquisition, but the capture of Manabu Saito from Yokohama F.Marinos ensures Okubo will have to settle for a supporting role – both in terms of headlines and, perhaps, when it comes to getting game time over the next 12 months.

Signing the captain of a local rival would be a sensational coup in its own right, but when that player is a youth product who assumed the No.10 shirt from a club legend just a year ago the move looks even more audacious.

While undoubtedly a smart piece of business Saito doesn’t immediately look a natural fit for Frontale’s intricate style of play though, lacking the delicate touch and finesse Toru Oniki demands of his players. What he will bring, however, is an explosiveness and electricity, and it is perhaps this unpredictability that the 27-year-old has been recruited to add to the side’s attacks.

Okubo will also contribute in that way, but with him turning 36 in June it would be surprising if he plays as central a role as he did before leaving Todoroki at the end of the 2016 season.

While the fan favourite’s decision to hop across town to Ajinomoto Stadium was something of a surprise, overall it looked like a sensible decision for both him and the club, and Kawasaki certainly didn’t miss him last season as they picked up their first ever piece of silverware with Yu Kobayashi thriving as the main man up front.

Indeed, despite picking up three consecutive top scorer awards between 2013-15, Okubo has not always been a prolific goal scorer, and those emphatic seasons were preceded by four in which he failed to get into double figures – as was also the case last year when he netted just eight times for Tokyo.

Even so, adding a player of his quality to the squad can only be seen as a positive for Frontale as they look not only to defend their title but also improve upon their quarter-final finish in last season’s Asian Champions League.

Football Channel, 26th January, 2018

It was Urawa who knocked them out at that stage on route to winning the continental showpiece, and at the turn of the year the champions of Asia looked to have everything in order to make a meaningful assault on the title they really want, the J1 crown.

Having finished seventh last year Reds won’t have the chance to defend their ACL title, but that gives them the opportunity to focus solely on domestic issues, for which they seemed well equipped after the steady acquisitions of Takuya Iwanami, Kosuke Taketomi, and Quenten Martinus – as well as the return of Naoki Yamada from his loan at Shonan Bellmare.

Takafumi Hori’s side suffered a critical blow at the start of their pre-season training camp, however, as Wuhan Zall matched the buyout clause in Rafael Silva’s contract to take the Brazilian to the Chinese second division.

The 25-year-old was the difference between success and failure for Reds last year, so often coming up with a moment of magic or lethal finishing to decide a game in his side’s favour – not least when finding the net in each of their last three ACL games, including that emphatic strike in the second leg of the final – and losing him leaves the club with a massive hole to fill and not much time to find a suitable replacement.

How they must wish they had known of Wuhan’s intent a little sooner, as they could perhaps have tried to scupper Nagoya’s efforts to sign former CSKA Moscow and Manchester City striker Jo from Corinthians.

The 30-year-old was joint top scorer in the Brazilian Serie A last year, registering 18 times as his club claimed their seventh league title, and he has the potential to take the J.League by storm this year.

Defensively, in true Yahiro Kazama style, Nagoya look rather vulnerable, but going forward they have an abundance of riches, with the combination of Jo and Gabriel Xavier a terrifying prospect for defenders around the country. With them leading the charge Grampus may even fancy their chances of replicating the success of Kashiwa (2011) and Gamba Osaka (2014), who won the first division immediately after returning from J2.

Cerezo Osaka also made an impact in their first season back in J1 after promotion last year, winning a Levain and Emperor’s Cup double, and it looks as though Yoon Jong-hwan is happy with the bulk of the squad that achieved that success, recruiting just a couple of options to add depth.

The same is also true of Kashima Antlers – who let’s not forget were just a single goal on the final day of the season away from becoming champions last year – while Reysol have equally opted for steady reinforcements to bolster their strength in depth as they look to do battle both at home and in Asia.

It’s far too soon to be making any meaningful predictions, but looking at the current lie of the land this half-dozen clubs look the best prepared to challenge for glory in 2018.


Rough ride for refs

Managers in Japan rarely, if ever, complain about referees, and while more criticism could help the game grow, the J.League would do well to avoid following the example of the English Premier League… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, 12th January, 2018

Sometimes in Japanese football it would be nice if there was some excitement away from the pitch – if coaches and players brought a little bit of emotion to their pre- and post-match interviews to give us something to talk about.

The steadfast refusal of managers to discuss controversial or even clearly incorrect decisions can make the J.League seem rather tame at times, and the media must also share some of the blame for this, demonstrating an unwillingness to raise contentious topics for fear of stepping out of line.

However, having spent a couple of weeks back in England over the Christmas and New Year period, I have to admit the Japanese model is preferable to the almost cartoonish nonsense that goes on in the Premier League.

Barely a day went by without somebody blaming a referee for their team’s failure to win a game, with Jose Mourinho unsurprisingly at the forefront as he looked to divert attention from his Manchester United side’s inability to take more than three points from consecutive draws against Leicester City, Burnley, and Southampton.

“It’s a penalty, like Marcus Rashford against Leicester and Ander Herrera against Manchester City,” the 54-year-old said after Maya Yoshida appeared to handle in the area in the 32nd minute of United’s 0-0 draw with Southampton at Old Trafford on 30 December. “A very good referee, one of the most promising young referees in Europe, had a very bad decision that punished us.

“Jonathan Moss, Michael Oliver and Craig Pawson are good referees, so the referees’ performances in these matches were good – these were unlucky decisions that punished us.”

Mourinho opted for flattery of the officials to water down his complaints and avoid any disciplinary action, but the intention was still to deny responsibility and shift the blame elsewhere; in effect saying, ‘the referee isn’t bad, but it’s his fault (and not mine) that we didn’t win.’

The Portuguese’s long-time adversary Arsene Wenger took a far more direct approach for his attacks on the men in black, earning himself a three-match ban and £40,000 fine.

The Arsenal manager was furious after Mike Dean gave a dubious penalty to West Bromwich Albion for handball in the 89th minute of their New Year’s Eve clash – which ended 1-1 after Jay Rodriguez scored from the spot – describing the decision as “farcical” and even referencing the Yoshida incident by way of comparison.

Football Channel, Friday 12th January, 2018

“That [Yoshida’s handball] was much more a penalty than [today],” he said of the decision against Callum Chambers. “They [the referees] don’t look to have the same rule book.”

The Frenchman then went on to claim that the quality of English referees hadn’t improved since they became professional in 2001, despite an increase in explanatory meetings between officials and clubs ahead of each season.

“The referees should spare that visit to our training ground and stay at home, because they never respect what they say,” a visibly irritated Wenger said. “They gave a clear directive on handball but that changes, always, during the season because they must watch the television and say: ‘Oh, he has given a penalty – maybe next time, I do it.’ They need clear guidance.”

His rant wasn’t restricted to penalty calls either, and the overall management of games also came in for criticism.

“Sometimes I say to the fourth official, when the goalkeeper starts to waste time after five minutes: ‘There are people who pay a lot of money to watch football. You are responsible to make sure football happens on the pitch.’ They have to serve the game, like we do. They have not to be the star.

“It’s not appropriate any more, in 2018, that the referee calls a player and speaks to him for half a minute or a minute. That is the 1950s, where the referee talks to the player and says: ‘If you’re not nice, I might punish you.’ Come on; let’s not waste time. That is not the rhythm of modern society. People want crisp, sharp action and the referee has to make sure that happens. We don’t live in the dark ages.”

‘Mind games’ have long been a staple of Premier League football, and Mourinho and Wenger – two old pros at the tactic – are clearly hoping their respective approaches towards referees will ensure important decisions go their way further down the line.

While discussion of mistakes is undoubtedly important, the constant droning on about perceived slights is becoming tired and out-dated though – rather like the two managers themselves, who are beginning to look like it may be they and not the officials who are being left behind by the modern game.


Harsh reality for Halil

The knives were out for Vahid Halilhodzic after Japan ended 2017 by being roundly beaten by South Korea in the EAFF E-1 Championship, but there’s no need to read too much into the loss… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, 20th December, 2017

It is tempting, and understandable to an extent, to react with dismay to Japan’s meek 4-1 humbling at home to South Korea on Saturday night.

Vahid Halilhodzic’s side burst out of the traps and took the lead almost instantly courtesy of a Yu Kobayashi penalty, but for the remaining 87 minutes they were totally outclassed all over the pitch by a fine-tuned opponent and punished for some very poor lapses in defence.

However, while such an emphatic loss at home to your biggest rivals is never easy to swallow, the projections of doom being cast looking ahead to the World Cup as a result of it are a little over the top.

“This is the biggest defeat we have had since I took over, so I’m very sorry to end the year in this way,” Halilhodzic said at his post match press conference.

“However, this is the kind of match that showed us a great deal and will enable us to learn a lot of things. Looking at the true current situation of Japan I know what is waiting for us at the World Cup. We should learn from this kind of thing to make improvements.”

The East Asian Cup is essentially a friendly competition which can be ranked alongside the Kirin Cup – perhaps even below it, seeing as 90% of the regular squad are unavailable for selection – and in friendly games learning about limitations and problems is always more important than winning or losing.

“I won’t be taking today’s squad to the World Cup,” a slightly exasperated Halilhodzic added after being told by one reporter that the Japanese people were in despair as a result of the defeat.

“I wanted to check possible reserve candidates for the World Cup, and 21 players got onto the pitch. Of course if you only focus on today’s match you will be disappointed, maybe even depressed – I’m sorry we didn’t achieve a better result. But within 10 minutes of this match kicking off I was able to observe many things and see that the Korean team was better than this Japanese side in all aspects.”

Some may be unhappy with such frankness, but there are times when you have to hold your hands up and admit you were outplayed.

When the squad was announced for this tournament there was little by way of excitement or expectation, yet three games down the line – two of which, admittedly both rather fortunately, were won – the overriding mood is one of shock and concern.

The truth, however, is that this was not the Japan national team but more of a ‘J.League Selection’. Again, that doesn’t mean fans shouldn’t feel the pangs of a defeat to South Korea just as keenly, but at the same time it doesn’t mean projections need to be made about the team’s World Cup hopes, which considering things calmly are only average at best anyway.

Football Channel, Wednesday 20th December, 2017

“After the first match (against North Korea) I said maybe I shouldn’t be too tough on this team, as I don’t know how much better a performance this squad could show us,” Halilhodzic said.

“For this championship there were 10 or 11 players I wasn’t able to call up even if I’d wanted to, but even if we’d had those 10 or 11 players with us I think this match against South Korea would have been very difficult. Maybe it’s difficult to accept but that is a kind of truth we have to recognise.”

The 65-year-old was probably just looking to protect his dazed and confused understudies with this claim, and while Korea were impressive a full strength Japan would surely have given a better account of themselves.

Kim Shin-wook, despite being almost two metres tall, managed to elude his marker for both his goals, Jung Woo-young arrowed home an unstoppable free kick, and a fourth was added after a deflection from another set play. Japan undoubtedly deserved to lose this game, but on another day the margin could have been smaller, even with the same players. Indeed, after changing to a 4-2-3-1 set up late on the side started to look slightly more threatening – although they were certainly helped by an increasingly retreating Korea backline.

The vital thing now is that Halilhodzic learns from this loss and begins to formulate clearer ideas of his options for Russia – both in terms of personnel and tactical variations.

He need only consider the man in the opposing dugout on Saturday to see how a proactive response to a painful defeat can pay dividends in the long run.

In the final qualifiers for the Rio Olympics we played against Japan and were leading 2-0 but they came from behind and we lost 3-2,” Shin Tae-yong recalled after his finest night so far as coach of the Taeguk Warriors.

“Because of that I know that even if we are winning it is possible for us to lose, so I always have a simulation in my head of what might happen in the match. Today we conceded first but we already had a scenario of how to come from behind.

“In Doha (at the 2016 AFC U-23 Championship) Japan came from behind and we lost 3-2, which was a good lesson for me. That was a painful loss but became an asset to me and I learned from it. Today we had big pressure on us, but using the experience from the past helped me to overcome that pressure.”

If Halilhodzic can use this rough experience as similar fuel next summer then the defeat could ultimately prove to be a key turning point for him and Japan.


East is least

Japan play China tonight in their second game of the 2017 East Asian Cup – a slightly half-hearted competition which seems to lack any real purpose or place… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, 12th December, 2017

The EAFF E-1 Football Championship ground slowly into action over the weekend, with the opening four matches across the men’s and women’s tournaments providing a fitting introduction to a rather odd competition.

First of all Asako Takakura’s Nadeshiko Japan slogged their way to a back-and-forth 3-2 win over South Korea on a bitterly cold and wet Friday night in Chiba, before Vahid Halilhodzic saw his side make even harder work of their opening game in Tokyo 24 hours later, as they needed a 93rd-minute Yosuke Ideguchi thunderbolt to deliver a 1-0 win over North Korea in a match they could – and probably should – have lost.

The other two fixtures were similarly low-key, with North Korea’s women outdoing a disjointed China outfit to pick up a 2-0 win and South Korea and China’s men sharing the spoils after a clunky and fragmented 2-2 draw.

This slightly underwhelming fare was watched by less than 25,000 fans all told, demonstrating that supporters, as well as the associations and players, are hesitant to place too much importance on the four-way, round-robin event which has been an almost-bi-annual fixture since 2003 (following on from the formation of the East Asian Football Federation in 2002).

While the coaches and players talk a good game heading into the competition it always seems like something of an afterthought for those involved, and is treated more as a chance to test out second- or third-string options rather than as an opportunity to beat regional rivals to some meaningful silverware.

The far from settled timing of the contest – the previous two editions were held in Wuhan and Seoul in the summers of 2015 and 2013, whereas the last time it came to Japan was in the freezing February of 2010 – not to mention the fact it is re-badged more often than the beers on offer in your local convenience store (previous incarnations saw it known as the East Asian Football Championship (2003-10) and then the EAFF East Asian Cup (2013-15)) hardly help it establish itself as a significant addition to an already heavily congested calendar, and the apparent lack of enthusiasm this year is unsurprising with it being tagged onto the end of a long J.league season.

Of course, while they don’t necessarily make for the most exciting football there are benefits to tournaments that enable coaches to try new things out. As well as being able to give previously unconsidered players minutes in competitive action, for instance, positional and formational tweaks usually only possible on the training ground can also be tested, with Takakura reiterating that she wants her players to be comfortable in more than one position after giving left back Aya Sameshima a run-out at centre back in the absence of Olympique Lyon’s Saki Kumagai for the Nadeshiko in their opener.

Football Channel, Wednesday 12th December, 2017

Halilhodzic was also eager to stress the positives after the narrowest of narrow victories over a dogged and dangerous North Korea on Saturday night, justifiably singling Kosuke Nakamura out for compliments after the 22-year-old put in an excellent display between the posts on his first start for the full national team, as well as praising his Kashiwa Reysol teammate and fellow debutant Junya Ito for a positive and direct showing off the bench.

It was ultimately down to two players already established in the national team picture to deliver victory for both Japan sides though, with Mana Iwabuchi – who is remarkably still only 24 but already has over 40 caps for the national team after making her debut at the 2010 East Asian Cup as a 16-year-old – and Ideguchi finding the net late on to secure all three points.

The biggest positive to be gleaned from the opening round of matches, however, probably came off the pitch.

In the midst of a whole host of non-football related issues swirling around relations between North Korea and their three fellow participants – and despite pleas from the organisers to keep all coverage to strictly sporting affairs – Vahid Halilhodzic responded eloquently when asked about the importance of Japan taking to the field against the North Koreans in the current climate.

“We are not here to talk about politics,” the 65-year-old said.

“Through football we like to communicate friendship and good feeling. The players of both teams greeted each other and shook hands, and I shook hands with the opponent too.

“The world is strange but by playing football we can enjoy the best parts of it, which are joy and friendship. In Europe, in Africa, in Japan, everywhere there are rivalries. Rivalries in the sporting world are a good thing, and in today’s match there were many tough duels and some aggressive play, but nobody was playing in an unsportsmanlike manner so I’d like to compliment both sides.”

Such common sense will sadly never make it into the political sphere as well, but if the rest of the tournament can progress in a similarly amicable fashion then it will have certainly served a purpose in that regard.

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