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


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.


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.


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.


2021 J2 Best XI

The likes of Daizen Maeda, Kyogo Furuhashi, and Miki Yamane all built upon their burgeoning reputations in 2021, winning awards, earning moves to Europe, and establishing themselves with the national team.

One thing these three have in common is that they all spent the early part of their careers in J2, a league in which a whole host of players emerge every year looking destined for bigger and better things.

With that in mind, excluding players from promoted Jubilo Iwata and Kyoto Sanga or those on loan, here’s a Best XI (plus substitutes) of talent from J2 who shone in the 2021 season and should be worth keeping an eye on in the coming years (日本語版)

Goalkeeper: Koto Abe (24, Albirex Niigata

Abe started the season in goal for Albirex as they set the pace at the top of J2, but then dropped to the bench once Ryosuke Kojima was fit again. Another knock to Kojima soon presented Abe with a fresh chance as No.1, however, which he took with both hands. A confident presence between the posts who is also comfortable with the ball at his feet, Abe ultimately kept 12 clean sheets and conceded just 28 times in 32 games.

Centre back: Tetsuya Chinen (24, FC Ryukyu)

Ryukyu were third, six points behind leaders Kyoto Sanga, when Chinen picked up an injury against Blaublitz Akita on 28 August, and his absence had a clear impact on the team. They had won 15 and conceded just 27 goals in their first 27 games with him but lost their first four and went winless in seven without him, ending the season with just three wins in their last 15 matches as they struggled to cope without his assuredness in the backline.

Centre back: Rikito Inoue (24, Fagiano Okayama)

Inoue played every minute for Fagiano Okayama in his first season in the second tier after joining from J3 outfit Gainare Tottori at the start of the 2021 campaign, and looked immediately at home at City Light Stadium. Despite Fagiano finishing in 11th place, Inoue and the on-loan Takashi Abe formed a formidable pairing at centre back and the team ended the year with the joint second-best defensive record in the league after conceding just 36 times.

Centre back: Hiroki Noda (24, Montedio Yamagata)

Aside from eight minutes rest at the end of a 4-0 cruise over Ehime FC, Noda was ever-present for Montedio before getting injured ahead of the 31 October clash with Tochigi SC. The team’s form slipped drastically after that, and they only won two of their last seven games – losing four of them, including a 5-2 drubbing at home to Machida Zelvia – having only lost five times in their previous 22 matches under Peter Cklamovski with Noda on the pitch.

Right wing back: Riku Handa (19, Montedio Yamagata)

Hopes are high for this Yamagata native who is already involved in the Japan youth set-up, and Handa established himself as a regular this season, clocking up 37 appearances and registering three goals and five assists. Confident on the ball and well-suited to Peter Cklamovski’s high-pressing, proactive approach, he looks set to become an increasingly important player for the Mountain Gods next season. 

Left wing back: Satoki Uejo (24, Fagiano Okayama) 

Actually played in a more advanced central role for much of the past campaign, but Uejo is just as adept working his way in from outside on the left. The former FC Ryukyu man delights in getting shots off early and is just as capable of lashing home efforts from distance as he is of arriving late to tap-in from close range. A sharp, intelligent, and lethal player who causes opponents real problems. 

Defensive midfield: Caio Cesar (26, V-Varen Nagasaki) 

The oldest player in this selection but an assured presence in the middle of the park who strikes an intimidating presence at 193cm tall. Caio Cesar assumed the role as Varen’s leader in central midfield in the absence of Hiroki Akino this year, and drives the team forward with his confidence. The Brazilian is also authoritative in possession and capable of finding the back of the net with the odd wonder goal as well.

Defensive midfield: Kaishu Sano (20, Machida Zelvia) 

Sano also made my J2 selection last year, and has continued to improve as Machida further established themselves as one of the teams to be reckoned with in the second tier. Played slightly fewer games than in 2020 on account of injury (34 as opposed to 41), but despite that he still managed to impress with his composure and quality at the heart of midfield, as well as adding more end product to his game with six goals rather than the one he served up in 2020.

Attacking midfield: Tomoya Miki (23, JEF United)

One of the most consistent performers in J2 this season, Miki was a constant threat in the final third and is incredibly adept at popping up at the exact moment when he can cause maximum damage. Finished the campaign as JEF’s top scorer with 14 goals and also provided five assists, and if they can keep him at Fukuda Denshi Arena next year he could be the player to finally spearhead a proper promotion challenge back to the top flight for Yoon Jong-hwan’s side.

Attacking midfield: Kai Matsuzaki (24, Mito Hollyhock)

Still a little inconsistent, but that is part of the charm for Matsuzaki. In many ways he epitomises the unpredictability and chaos of Mito under Tadahiro Akiba, with them finding the net 59 times this year but also conceding 50. Matsuzaki had a hand in almost a quarter of those scored, notching eight goals and coming up with six assists in his 41 appearances, and his low centre of gravity and rapid footwork must make him a nightmare for opposing defenders to face.

Striker: Asahi Uenaka (20, V-Varen Nagasaki)

Uenaka wasn’t expected to feature much ahead of the season with Edgar Junio, Ken Tokura, Cayman Togashi, and Victor Ibarbo ahead of him the pecking order, but the youngster finished the campaign as Varen’s surest bet in front of goal. The rangey target man exhibited real ruthlessness with his chances, and ended his debut season with 10 goals from just 975 minutes on the pitch – a little shy of one goal per game in real terms.

Bench: Junto Taguchi (FC Ryukyu, 25); Niki Urakami (Ventforet Kofu, 25); Rui Sueyoshi (JEF United, 25), Yuya Kuwasaki (V-Varen Nagasaki, 23); Taiki Hirato (Machida Zelvia, 24), Motoki Hasegawa (Ventforet Kofu, 23); Ryoga Sato (Tokyo Verdy, 22)


Tiki-taka Tokyo

FC Tokyo have been coasting for the past couple of seasons, but with Albert Puig looking likely to be named their new manager in 2022 things could be looking up for the J.League’s capital city club… (日本語版)

FC Tokyo are expected to announce Albert Puig as their new manager any day now, with the Spaniard set to lead the club into the 2022 season after Tokyo and Kenta Hasegawa parted ways following the humiliating 8-0 defeat to Yokohama F.Marinos on 6 November.

The 53-year-old has spent the past two seasons steadily re-shaping Albirex Niigata in J2, and although he was ultimately unable to deliver a return back to the top flight he made a positive impact in Hokuriku, forming a strong bond with Albirex’s fans on account of his open personality and dedication to an attractive style of play.

The manager’s role in Niigata was actually Puig’s first as the main man in charge, although he had amassed a wealth of experience in the preceding 30 years. Beginning his coaching career in his early 20s, Puig spent 11 years as a scout, academy coach, and academy director at Barcelona, before taking on roles as a technical director or advisor in Gabon, USA, Spain, and Angola, as well as serving as assistant coach at New York City FC for the two seasons before arriving in Japan.

Unsurprisingly for someone who played such a key role at La Masia, he defines his play style as “position, possession, passion”, and under his tutelage Albirex stuck to a 4-2-3-1 formation with plenty of the ball and an assertive, attacking stance.

He found it slightly difficult to instil that philosophy and produce results in his first year in Niigata, with the team struggling to dominate enough games and all too often relying upon a piece of individual skill to decide games in their favour. They ultimately finished 11th in 2020 – 27 points off the promotion places – although the impact of Covid-19 and subsequent lack of time between games to work on the training field will hardly have helped the players adapt to his specific instructions.

The team started this season far more emphatically though and took the early initiative in J2, winning their first five games and scoring 17 goals in the process – including an incredible 7-0 hammering of Tokyo Verdy at the end of March. Albirex’s unbeaten run would stretch to 13 games in the end, but they faded as the campaign wore on and key players picked up injuries.

As well as struggling to adapt to the absence of game-changing talents like Shion Homma, opponents also started to play reactively on account of Albirex’s style and were often content to sit back and limit the amount of space they had to work in.

After the battering of Verdy – which followed 4-1 and 3-1 wins over Giravanz Kitakyushu and Thespakusatsu Gunma in the opening handful of games – Albirex have only gone on to score more than two goals in a game three more times this season, for instance, and to-date they have drawn 13 of their 40 matches this year, failing to find the net on nine occasions as they have struggled to break obstinate opponents down.

Puig, however, is a coach very much dedicated to his approach to the game and refuses to adapt that in order to win by any means necessary.

“Keep the ball, love the ball, respect the ball”, was how he explained his message to the Albirex players ahead of the game against Machida Zelvia on 16 May (which would go on to be their first defeat of the season), and even as the team fell away from the promotion race in the latter quarter of the campaign he has stuck doggedly to that approach.

A quick look at Albirex’s five most recent games perhaps offers the clearest insight into what caught FC Tokyo’s eye. The 1-1 draw against Fagiano Okayama on 31 October, for example, saw Albirex register 65 percent of possession and make 714 passes with an 86 percent success rate. In the final third they took 14 shots at goal, five of which were on target. These figures have also been replicated in each of their subsequent four games:

Jubilo Iwata (0-1) – 57 percent possession, 657 passes (90 percent successful), eight shots, five on target; Matsumoto Yamaga (1-1) – 67 percent possession, 627 passes (85 percent successful), 17 shots, five on target; Ehime FC (2-0) – 62 percent possession, 632 passes (82 percent successful), 16 shots, nine on target; Thespakusatsu Gunma (0-0) –  73 percent possession, 721 passes (86 percent successful), 12 shots, nine on target.

Despite a clear profligacy relative to their domination of the ball, Albirex still go into this weekend’s games as fifth top scorers in J2, having found the net 60 times in their 40 matches. At the other end of the pitch, meanwhile, they have also measured up pretty well and are in possession of the fifth best defence having conceded just 37 times.

His countryman Ricardo Rodriguez, now at Urawa Reds, needed four seasons to get Tokushima Vortis promoted, and If Puig had decided to stay with Albirex next season as well they would certainly have been one of the favourites to be challenging for a place in J1. 

Instead he looks set to be making the step up on his own, and it will be fascinating to see how he adapts to the top tier and how much closer he can get to success with a deeper squad and ostensibly better players at Tokyo.

Results won’t come immediately and he will need at least a season or two to re-shape the team in his image, but if the board and fans buy in and he gets the time and players he needs then Puig could prove to be a very shrewd appointment indeed.


Samurai Blue in need of cutting edge

A slow start to the final round of World Cup qualifiers leaves Japan with a lot of ground to make up, and Hajime Moriyasu needs to make proactive changes to reignite his team… (日本語版)

As we approach the midway point in the third round of qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup finals things are far from straightforward for Hajime Moriyasu.

The 2-1 win over Australia at Saitama Stadium in October was ultimately secured at the death by a slightly fortuitous own goal, but on the balance of play Japan were well worth the three points and it has to be hoped that victory provides a much-needed boost to morale ahead of two more must-win contests against Vietnam and Oman this month.

Even so, the Samurai Blue are still languishing in fourth place in Group B after already losing to Oman and Saudi Arabia, and the starting 11 looks far from settled with big decisions needing to be made in key positions all over the pitch.

The fact that Eiji Kawashima remains in the squad despite not having featured at all for Strasbourg this season hints at an ongoing stagnation in goal, for instance, and while Shuichi Gonda remains a dependable enough first choice for the next couple of years, at 32 it would be nice to see him given more of a challenge for the No.1 jersey. Kosei Tani is of course a promising prospect, but the fact that Keisuke Osako, Yuya Oki, and Kosuke Nakamura’s progress has stalled enough to prevent them being included is something of a concern.

The end of the line also looks as though it is finally approaching for Yuto Nagatomo, and the lack of a clear successor at left back is an issue Moriyasu will have to contend with sooner rather than later. Yuta Nakayama and Reo Hatate are his two understudies in the current squad, and while the former impressed in patches at the Olympics he doesn’t yet have the same quality in attack as Nagatomo at his peak. Hatate more than matches up in that regard, but as an attacking midfielder by trade he still has a lot of work to do defensively if he is to make the full time conversion to full-back.

In the middle of the park, meanwhile, there is the question of who starts alongside Wataru Endo. The VfB Stuttgart man is now nailed on as one of the first names on the team-sheet for his country, and the combination of him, Ao Tanaka, and Hidemasa Morita was pivotal to ensuring control of proceedings against the Socceroos last month. Of course, persevering with that trio in a 4-3-3 as opposed to the long-preferred 4-2-3-1 would mean again leaving Gaku Shibasaki out in the cold, and despite his costly error against Saudi Arabia the Leganes man remains more than capable of making a difference at this level.

Perhaps the biggest questions linger over Moriyasu’s choices in the final third of the pitch for these two games though, with Japan in desperate need of some cutting edge in front of goal if they are to reignite their hopes of automatic qualification for Qatar.

Kaoru Mitoma, along with his former Kawasaki Frontale teammate Hatate, has finally been given his first call-up to the full national team, and the Brighton and Hove Albion man, currently on loan at Belgian Pro League high flyers Royale Union Saint-Gilloise, should be thrown straight into the starting line-up against Vietnam on Thursday.

The 24-year-old is exactly the kind of player Japan need to add some urgency, unpredictability, and, most importantly, goals to their play, and with Takefusa Kubo again missing on account of injury the team is crying out for Mitoma’s craft at the business end of the pitch.

The same can be said of Kyogo Furuhashi, who is showing no signs of slowing down for Celtic in either the Scottish League or European competition and has found the net 13 times already this season (plus the 15 he notched for Vissel Kobe before leaving in the summer).

Although I remain in the minority in that I prefer him starting out wide in a position from which he can play with the game in front of him, the former Kobe and FC Gifu man has been in scintillating form as the central striker for Ange Postecoglou’s side, and while Yuya Osako has long been established as first choice for the Samurai Blue he only has one goal in his last four games for Japan as well as just two in his eight appearances since joining Vissel as a replacement for Furuhashi at the end of August.

Those figures and their undoubted impact on each player’s confidence means it should be a straightforward choice for Moriyasu as to which one takes to the field at My Dinh National Stadium, but regardless of whether he sticks or twists what everyone can agree on is that six points from six are a must – by any means necessary.


Up for the Cup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Do or die

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Omiya oh my

Omiya Ardija were punching above their weight in J1 for over a decade, but since their second relegation in 2017 things have gone from bad to worse for the Saitama side… (日本語版

In 2016 things were as good as they’ve ever been for Omiya Ardija.

After being relegated two years previously Hiroki Shibuya’s men instantly returned to J1 as 2015 J2 champions, and they didn’t lose any momentum as they surged to a fifth place finish in the overall rankings back in the top flight.

Akihiro Ienaga and Ataru Esaku top scored with 11 and eight goals, respectively, for the Squirrels, and after losing just one of their last 11 matches they recorded their best ever finish in the first division. 

Fast forward five years and things aren’t going anywhere near as well for the Saitama club though. They capitulated after their 2016 exploits and were relegated the following season, and after a couple of near misses in the race for promotion they slumped to a worst ever J.League finish of 15th in the second tier last year and are scrapping for survival at the foot of J2 again this season.

Omiya were unbeaten in their three league games in September of 2016 after wins against Sanfrecce Hiroshima (1-0, Esaka) and Kawasaki Frontale (3-2, Ienaga 2, Esaka) and a 1-1 draw with Sagan Tosu (Ienaga), and they mirrored that by picking up seven points this September too (albeit from four matches instead of three). In contrast to those high-flying days in the top tier, however, the draw with Ehime FC (3-3) and wins over Tokyo Verdy (2-1) and, most recently, fellow strugglers SC Sagamihara (1-0, thanks to a sensational Kazuaki Mawatari free-kick 13 minutes from time) have served only to move them tentatively out of the relegation zone.

Things weren’t any better under current Sagamihara boss Takuya Takagi last season, and his replacement Ken Iwase also endured a torrid three months at the helm, delivering just two league wins in 15 games on the NACK5 bench before being put out of his misery after the 3-1 defeat away to Giravanz Kitakyushu on 23 May. That loss was Ardija’s eighth of the campaign – in the halcyon days of 2016 that was the amount they lost all year, the last of which came on the final day of the season.

Iwase departed with Omiya second bottom of the table on 11 points, and only above Sagamihara on goal difference (Omiya -5, Sagamihara -11). After stunning everybody – including, possibly, themselves – by making a late surge for the second automatic promotion spot last year, Sagamihara’s struggles on their J2 debut have been far less surprising, and their season has actually followed a very similar curve to Ardija’s.

Like Iwase, Fumitake Miura only managed to lead his team to two victories in the first third of the season and was moved on after a 2-0 defeat away to Montedio Yamagata on 30 May, with Takagi installed as his successor. Despite getting off to a slow start and losing his first three games at the helm without finding the net, Sagamihara’s performances and results gradually started to improve and they came into the clash with Omiya, Takagi’s 15th in charge, unbeaten in three games without conceding and having lost only two of their last 10.

Some smart work in the loan market has been key to that resurgence, with young, talented, confident ball players like Hikaru Naruoka (19, Shimizu S-Pulse), Seiji Kimura (20, FC Tokyo), Yuan Matsuhashi (19, Tokyo Verdy), Reotaro Kodama (19, Sagan Tosu), and Yudai Fujiwara (19, Urawa Reds) adding some youth and hunger to complement the experience and goals of a resurgent Jungo Fujimoto (37), who has found the net five times in Sagamihara’s last 10 games.

There has been no such freshening up at Omiya though – in fact, they went the opposite route in the summer and added even more experience to a squad already bursting with it, with their two acquisitions being goalkeeper Yuta Minami, 42, and striker Atsushi Kawata, 29 – and it is difficult to see what the long-term plan is.

Masahiro Shimoda, who was installed as Iwase’s permanent replacement in the middle of June, has plenty of talented individual attacking players at his disposal – including Atsushi Kurokawa, the raw Masaya Shibayama, and gifted but injury-prone Kanji Okunuki – but they have struggled to spark consistently going forwards while the defence always looks to have a mistake or two in it.

The fact they have several players capable of providing moments of quality like Mawatari’s gem against Sagamihara means Omiya should ultimately have enough to steer themselves away from the trapdoor this year, but considering the heights they were hitting not so long ago the club should be aiming for far more than that.

Right now games look as though they are being taken on an as-they-come basis though, with Minami saying after the Sagamihara match that the focus had been on getting the win by any means necessary rather than worrying about the quality of the performance. If that remains the case and a clear playing style can’t be established, however, then another return to J1 looks an increasingly long way off.


Here WE go

The fully professional WE League launches this weekend, and marks a huge step forward for women’s football in Japan… (日本語版)

It’s fair to say things didn’t go as well as many had hoped for Nadeshiko Japan at Tokyo 2020, with the team never really clicking into gear and being eliminated with relative ease by eventual silver medallists Sweden in the quarter-finals.

Manager Asako Takakura’s spell in charge came to an end after the competition and the JFA is now at a crossroads as it looks to appoint her successor, with rumours swirling behind the scenes that a foreign coach may be considered to try and restore the women’s national team to its former glories.

Another stepping stone on that journey is the establishment of the fully professional WE League, which is set for its much-anticipated launch this weekend – furthering the impression that 2021 represents a critical juncture in the development of women’s football in Japan.

This new division brings with it plenty of opportunities but also represents a leap into the unknown, and it is vital that the enthusiasm swirling around the start of the season can be converted into something longer term as the players and clubs adapt to their newly professional status.

Terms like ‘strengthen’ and ‘generate excitement’ were thrown around a lot in the various media activities ahead of the maiden season – which kicks off with 10 of the 11 founding members in action on Sunday – and while many factors will ultimately determine how successful the division becomes, the initial responsibility rests largely on the players and coaches and how well they perform out on the pitch.

The fact that all matches are being broadcast on DAZN will ensure the league is able to reach a far larger audience than the relatively niche following the women’s game has enjoyed to date in Japan, and the first priority must be to establish a connection between the competition and those watching it. The more established teams of course already have core fanbases, but the move to professionalism means they will need to amplify them while the newer clubs have to work to position themselves in their local communities and attract as many supporters as possible to provide themselves with a steady footing.

Star players are one surefire way to gain and keep attention – particularly from the more casual strata of fans needed to help move the women’s game into the mainstream – and it is vital that clubs pull out all the stops to ensure the limelight stays on the league.

Time, money, and effort need to be dedicated to marketing efforts off the pitch, while requisite support needs to be provided behind the scenes to ensure the conditions are right for young local talent to develop and establish themselves as the faces of the competition. The women’s game in Japan is very highly regarded around the world, and if the right professional environment can be established that would increasingly attract players and coaches from further afield, whose arrival in Japan would then in turn add to the WE League’s appeal.

There are positive signs in this regard with the signings of Alex Chidiac and Quinley Quezada at JEF United, Sarina Bolden at Chifure AS Elfen Saitama, and Rosnani Azman at INAC Kobe Leonessa, and if these players can make positive impressions then it is only natural that other clubs will be tempted to follow suit and expand their scouting horizons. The Olympics showcased some of the best female players in the world, and it is a slight shame that WE League clubs didn’t capitalise upon the opportunity of having them playing on their doorsteps by putting out some feelers for potential recruits. The bigger stars of that competition would of course have been beyond the financial means of the WE League clubs – and the ongoing Covid-19 entry restrictions make international signings extra complicated – but it does look like something of an opportunity missed.

As demonstrated by England’s burgeoning Women’s Super League (WSL), perseverance, increased visibility, and financial backing are key ingredients to success. The WSL is now into its fourth season as a fully professional competition having been semi-professional since 2011, and its growth in recent years has led to greatly increased media exposure, an influx of some of the world’s best players – including Nadeshiko Japan stars Mana Iwabuchi at Arsenal and Yui Hasegawa at West Ham United – and, from this season, a broadcast deal worth a reported £8 million a year.

The WE League of course has plenty of obstacles to overcome before it can hope to be in such rude health, but if the first steps can be taken confidently then the future of both the domestic game and national team should be bright.

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July 2022