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Age old problems

Japan are appearing at the U20 World Cup for the first time in 10 years, and thus far they have shown all the usual signs of Japanese national teams… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 27th May 2017

The players are younger, far less experienced, and haven’t had a huge amount of time playing together as a team, but Japan’s U-20’s shared a few things in common with the full national team in Wednesday’s 2-0 defeat to Uruguay.

Just as they’d done in their opening game against South Africa, Atsushi Uchiyama’s side started slowly, surrendering control of the game to the Uruguayans early on, as they seemed a little overwhelmed by the tenacity of their opponents.

As has also often been the case with the Samurai Blue when the pressure is on against the stronger teams in the biggest competitions the occasion also seemed to get to the players a little in the early stages, something that striker Yuto Iwasaki admitted afterwards.

”On this kind of stage, in international competition, we knew that if we won we’d have a better chance of qualifying for the knockout stage and so maybe we weren’t able to control our emotions completely,” the Kyoto Sanga player said.

“I think today a few of us had the feeling of wanting to make something happen, but perhaps we need to fight more as a team. Instead of looking to do things on our own we need to fight as a group.”

Centre-back Takehiro Tomiyasu had a shaky start in Suwon and almost gifted Nicolas De La Cruz an opener in the 11th minute, but was let off as the Uruguay captain sent his effort just past the post. The South Americans weren’t to be so wasteful with their later opportunities though, and Tomiyasu paid reference to the difference in the decisiveness of the two teams – another criticism regularly aimed at the Japan top team.

“I really sensed their ability to take their chances,” Tomiyasu said. “We put ourselves under pressure a lot from our own mistakes – I personally made a lot of passing errors. More than it being them forcing the issue it was us making errors which led to us being under pressure.”

The loss of centre-forward Koki Ogawa to injury in just the 20th minute threw another spanner in the works for Japan, with a key facet of their game-plan being eliminated by the loss of the Jubilo Iwata youngster.

“After Ogawa went off we lost him as the target up front, which meant we lost the option of long balls and crosses a little,” left winger Koji Miyoshi said. “When Ogawa is on the pitch we always have the option to send in crosses, and that went a little without him.”

The ability to ride out in-game problems and adapt to them is a trademark of winning teams – think of the way Portugal persevered to win Euro 2016 even after Cristiano Ronaldo went off injured, for instance – and Japan’s sensitivity in that resect was noted by Uchiyama in his post-match press conference.

Japan at U20 World Cup

“We intended to play by moving the ball around, but after conceding the first goal our players began to play more in one-on-one situations rather than playing as a unit or using our combinations,” the 57-year-old said.

“I spoke about trying to change that at half time, but I think ultimately the result came from the way in which Uruguay took advantage of our mistakes but we were unable to capitalize on theirs.”

This, too, is a regular issue for the senior men’s team in the biggest games, and Japan’s inability to turn their control of possession in the second half into a more sustained period of pressure in the final third was registered by Iwasaki.

“I think there was a difference in the number of times each team got into positions in front of goal here, and I also sensed a difference in each team’s ability to convert those chances.”

Ogawa’s replacement Takefusa Kubo missed one of Japan’s best opportunities, heading over from close range as the ball rebounded to him in the 55th minute, and the combinations between the 15-year-old FC Tokyo wonder-kid and Iwasaki did look a little clunky at times.

“Sometimes I feel we were too far apart and perhaps our timing wasn’t quite right,” Iwasaki admitted. “We knew exactly what each of our roles were though, and had spoken about that – I was trying to get in behind while he wanted to play in the space.”

Indeed, there were some promising signs as the game wore on, and in the same way that Japan improved in the second half against South Africa they looked far more confident and positive after settling into their stride against Uruguay.

Iwasaki thinks that ability to adapt to the flow of the game is a positive aspect of the team’s game, and is hopeful they can utilise it again while also sharpening up in front of goal in today’s vital last group game against Italy.

“I think this team has the ability react to the way the opponent is playing and correct things in the second half,” he said by way of explanation for the team’s Jekyll and Hyde displays so far. “Once we are used to their style we are able to think about how best to play.

“Italy also have good technique and are physically strong, so I think it will be like today’s game. We know we will only have very few chances and so we have to be prepared to finish the ones we get.”

It is crucial the team don’t wait until the second half to get going against an Italian side which itself needs points to guarantee progression to the last 16 though, and while Japan only have a couple of days to do so, lessons need to be learned and corrections need to be made if the side wants to qualify for the next round.


Antlers start reign with own-goal loss

The new J.League season got up and running in characteristically unpredictable fashion today, with last year’s two best sides both losing their first matches. I was in Kashima to see the champions Antlers splutter in their opener against FC Tokyo…

The Japan News, 25th February, 2017

KASHIMA, Ibaraki — FC Tokyo caused an upset on the opening day of the J.League season, winning 1-0 away to reigning champion Kashima Antlers on Saturday.

It took an own goal to separate the sides, with the result ultimately decided by unfortunate Kashima substitute Yuto Misao in the 82nd minute.

Both teams had spells in the ascendancy during a closely contested battle, but FC Tokyo coach Yoshiyuki Shinoda was pleased his team was able to start with such an impressive scalp.

“It was the opening game of the season, so we were still a little rusty in some respects,” the 45-year-old said.

“Antlers are not the kind of opponent you can play for a draw against though, and we knew we had to aim to score goals over the whole 90 minutes if we wanted to take anything from this game.”

The visitors certainly started as the more expansive of the two sides, and their first sighter on goal came in the seventh minute when new signing Yoshito Okubo stung the fingers of Kashima goalkeeper Kwoun Sun Tae with an effort from close range.

Yojiro Takahagi then fired straight at Kwoun from distance in the 37th minute, before an unmarked Kensuke Nagai somehow failed to meet a Sei Muroya cross two minutes later.

Pedro Junior reminded Tokyo of the threat Antlers pose on the break with a swift counter in the 43rd minute, but the impressive Muroya recovered well to shut down the danger.

Fourteen minutes after the break it was Okubo’s turn to contribute a glaring miss to the proceedings.

The three-time J1 top scorer signed from Kawasaki Frontale over the offseason looked odds on to score, but got a little overexcited and lashed wildly over from point-blank range after Nagai had prodded a corner in his direction.

The Japan News, Saturday 25th February, 2017

He was almost punished for that miss less than a minute later, but Tokyo keeper Akihiro Hayashi did well to foil Pedro Junior on another quick break.

“If Hayashi hadn’t made that save at 0-0 things could have been different,” Shinoda observed afterwards.

Instead it was Tokyo who went on to pick up the three points, with the winner coming eight minutes from time.

Substitute Shoya Nakajima had a shot from range more in hope than expectation, and which looked like a routine collection for Kashima keeper Kwoun.

The South Korean fluffed his lines, though, and spilled the ball into the path of fellow league debutant Misao, who couldn’t react in time to avoid inadvertently sending it into his own net.

Elsewhere, there was plenty of drama in the day’s early kick off as last year’s runner-up Urawa Reds also lost, going down 3-2 in a rollercoaster match away to Yokohama F Marinos.

Marinos took the lead through David Babunski in the 13th minute, but Rafael Silva then struck twice in three second-half minutes to put Reds 2-1 up.

Marinos secured a dramatic late win with a quickfire double of their own, as Hugo Vieira equalized in the 86th minute and Naoki Maeda converted the winner in the second minute of injury time.

Meanwhile, the newly promoted sides had muted days.

Cerezo Osaka drew 0-0 with Jubilo Iwata, while Consadole Sapporo and Shimizu S-Pulse both lost 1-0, against Vegalta Sendai and Vissel Kobe, respectively.


J.LEAGUE PREVIEW / Marinos move on after Nakamura departure

There were ructions at Yokohama F.Marinos in the off-season as club legend Shunsuke Nakamura departed in acrimonious circumstances, but coach Erick Mombaerts is unruffled heading into a new era for the Nissan Stadium club…

The Japan News, 24th February, 2016

Yokohama F.Marinos manager Erick Mombaerts insists it will be business as usual at Nissan Stadium this year, despite the headline-grabbing departure of captain Shunsuke Nakamura.

The 38-year-old Nakamura left his boyhood club for Jubilo Iwata over the offseason, with rumors swirling of discontent behind the scenes and an uneasy relationship between coach and player.

Former France U-21 coach Mombaerts is unfazed by the upheaval though, and remains firmly focused on the task at hand in his third year at the helm.

“Whether Shunsuke was here or not, the aim would be to improve on last year, to show a better performance than last season,” the 61-year-old said.

“Our style is based upon speedy play with good combinations, and the objective is to fine-tune that. That isn’t dependent upon which players have left or come in, but is always the target.

“The players who are able to play that style are the ones who will appear in the games. If Shunsuke was still here, that would be the aim, and it doesn’t change because he’s not.”

The ongoing shift to a younger, more dynamic Marinos is epitomized by the team’s new captain, Manabu Saito.

“He’s a very important player at this club and I hope he will take on the extra responsibility this season,” Mombaerts said of his decision to select the livewire forward as Nakamura’s successor.

“He’s a national team player and gives everything he has in every single game, so I’m sure he can lead the team.”

Saito, who will also assume Nakamura’s No. 10 shirt, was chosen ahead of more experienced members of the squad, but knows he has their full backing.

“Many people are supporting me — Bomber [Yuji Nakazawa], Machi [Kosuke Nakamachi], Yuzo [Kurihara] — and so along with their help I will try to add something of myself,” the 26-year-old said.

The Japan News, 24th February, 2017

“It’s not the case of wondering what will happen now that I’m captain, but instead to just work at improving the team. I think for that to happen it is important there are many voices being heard.

“There’s been a turnover of players and of course a legend has left, but Marinos will keep going.”

Cayman Togashi is another player who represents the emerging generation of talent at Marinos, and echoed the sentiments of both his coach and new captain.

“We want to continue with the things we were doing last year while also adding some new elements and trying to get some cohesion between the two,” the 23-year-old striker said.

“Of course, now we don’t have an absolute star player in the same mold as Shunsuke, but I feel that unconsciously the team is in the situation of feeling, ‘right, let’s get things done by ourselves.’

“Manabu has been made captain, but it’s not just up to him, and I think we are now in a position whereby all of us have to take responsibility.”

Nakamura played 338 times during two stints with his boyhood club — punctuated by a successful spell in Europe — but only appeared in just over half of his team’s league games in the two seasons since Mombaerts took charge.

In that time the club finished seventh and 10th in the overall table, and Mombaerts is looking to lift the team up a notch this campaign.

“Coaches all over the world say they want to win the league, that the target is to become champions, but that is easy to say,” he explained.

“What is actually important is to improve the performance of the team from last year to make the team better than before. That comes from working hard every day — not just words, but actually putting it into practice — and the results correspond with that.

“I want to raise the level of the team and have us move up the table and compete with the top sides. It is not words but playing quality that leads to results.”


Kashima give Real a run for their money

Kashima Antlers put in a sensational effort at the recent Club World Cup in Japan, taking Real Madrid all the way to extra time as the pair tussled for the world title.

Soccerphile, 22nd December, 2016

I looked back at Antlers’ achievement of becoming the first Asian side to make the final of the competition for Soccerphile.


Antlers show spirit of Zico and do Japan proud

Kashima Antlers took Real Madrid all the way in the final of the Club World Cup last night, ultimately going down 4-2  in extra time.

Japan Forward, December 19th 2016

Here’s my report from a remarkable match for Japan Forward.


Bigger not always better

The Club World Cup could soon be getting a revamp, but a new souped-up format may not be the answer for the admittedly unloved competition (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, Friday 16th December, 2016

Last month FIFA president Gianni Infantino spoke to media in Europe about his wish to restructure the Club World Cup.

The competition, which began under its current guise in 2000 and is taking place for the 13th time this year, is an odd tournament that is a good idea on paper but hard to execute in reality.

A key issue is that it’s difficult to find a window in the increasingly packed international football calendar to suit all the participating clubs. Kashima Antlers, for instance, only secured their place five days before the opening game of this year’s edition, while Real Madrid were forced to endure a long haul flight immediately after their La Liga match against Deportivo La Coruna in order to take part.

Infantino complained to Italy’s Gazzetta dello Sport that the competition, “has a complicated formula, [is] held at a difficult time, [and] attract[s] little enthusiasm,” and while he has a point his proposed solution – to hold it in the second half of June, with 32 clubs – looks likely to create far more problems than it solves.

“Football nowadays isn’t just Europe and South America,” he told Catalan newspaper Mundo Deportivo.

“The world has changed, so we have to find a Club World Cup which will be more interesting for the teams, as well as the fans around the world.

“That’s what we’re trying to do, by creating a tournament that is much more attractive, with more quality among participants, and more clubs. That will attract more sponsors and television companies from around the world.”

Despite the claim to be striving for a truly global tournament, the suggestion that it be held in June primarily suits European teams, with plenty of leagues elsewhere in the world – including, of course, Japan – still in play at that time of year.

The reference to sponsors and television rights acts as a further warning sign, and it is inevitable that the majority of participants in Infantino’s desired format would be invited not solely for their achievements on the pitch, but equally on account of their ability to secure lucrative contracts.

That would imply the aim is to create a ‘European Champions League Plus’ style competition, with all the regular heavyweights from England, Spain, Germany and so on supplemented by a few token slots reserved for the rest of the world. China, you’d imagine, would be granted a berth or two, with Alibaba E-Auto installed as Club World Cup title sponsor until 2022 and the country pouring vast sums of cash into the game.

The Club World Cup's rather awkward format

The proposal to hold the tournament in June may also be a ploy to divert some of the money from the increasingly lucrative European off-season period into FIFA’s coffers. Teams traverse the globe anyway at that time of year to play money-spinning friendly matches, and FIFA would much prefer the world’s biggest brands were doing so under their flag rather than in showpieces like the International Champions Cup.

Instead of watering the competition down and making it just another opportunity for the same old European teams to play each other again – albeit in front of excitable crowds keen to part with their cash for a glimpse of their favourite video-game and YouTube stars – why not pare it back and have it a simple six-team contest?

“There is something extraordinary whenever you can gather the champions from all six confederations,” Infantino writes in his welcome notes for this year’s competition. “These continental tournaments are just as rich and diverse in human stories as they are equal in significance and in the emotions they arouse.”

That is certainly true, and the opportunity to have the reigning champions from each of the six continents do battle is a unique, and in many ways old-fashioned, format.

Despite Kashima’s impressive efforts to make it to Sunday’s final, the reservation of a slot for a host representative is a slightly jarring aspect of the competition and one which should probably be done away with – although admittedly that would likely make it less appealing to local fans, broadcasters, and sponsors.

However, why not simply invite each of the continental champions and place them unseeded into two groups of three? The winners of each group then play each other in the final, while the respective second- and third-placed teams also square off against each other to determine the final rankings.

That would take no more time than the current format, provide a more even playing field than the present lopsided arrangement – which sees the Oceania champion spend around 10 days in town for one match, yet the European representative nip in and out to pick up the trophy after two games in a week – and also guarantee each participant three games against opposition they have never played before, and may never play again.

Of course, that would require some allowances on the part of the European participant – who can barely be bothered with the current format, so would take some convincing to fit another game in – and, more importantly, FIFA, who would make far less money from a simple sporting competition than the super league alternative they are pitching.


Reds win Levain Cup on penalties

My match report from today’s Levain Cup final between Urawa Reds and Gamba Osaka, for The Japan News…

The Japan News, Saturday 15th October, 2016

SAITAMA — Urawa Reds picked up their first domestic silverware in a decade on Saturday, winning the Levain Cup by defeating Gamba Osaka 5-4 on penalties after a 1-1 draw at Saitama Stadium.

Japan Olympic captain Wataru Endo was the hero for Mihailo Petrovic’s side, slamming home the decisive spot kick to deliver Reds their first trophy since the 2006 J.League title.

Ademilson gave Gamba the lead in the 17th minute after a sensational solo effort, but substitute Tadanari Lee leveled things up with his first touch in the 76th minute. With neither team able to add to the score after that the final went to extra time and then penalties, where Endo delivered Reds’ second League Cup crown.

“Until now as a team, and for me individually as a coach, we have been unable to achieve success in the decisive matches, so we were playing this game under that kind of pressure,” Petrovic said after winning his first top flight title in Japan and bringing Reds’ dry spell to an end, to leave them in with a chance of claiming a clean sweep this season.

“They say that the first title is the most difficult to win, but after their coach [Kenta Hasegawa] won his first many more followed,” he added with regards to Gamba’s treble in 2014. “Hopefully the same will now happen for us.”

The first meaningful action of the game came in the 9th minute when a Takahiro Sekine effort from range was tipped past the post by Gamba goalkeeper Masaaki Higashiguchi.

Gamba’s first half-chance came in the 14th minute as Ademilson tricked his way into the penalty area with some fancy footwork, but Reds managed to scramble the ball to safety after his cut back.

The Brazilian was celebrating three minutes later though, after giving his side the lead with a superb individual goal.

Levain Cup final 2016, Gamba Osaka v. Urawa Reds. Saitama Stadium, Saturday 15th October

Yasuhito Endo won possession midway inside his own half and stabbed the ball forward to Ademilson, who shrugged off Wataru Endo before applying the afterburners. He left Tomoaki Makino and Ryota Moriwaki in his wake and then kept his composure to nudge past the advancing Shusaku Nishikawa from inside the area.

Reds rallied well after falling behind and almost pulled level in the 21st minute as Makino headed narrowly off target from a corner.

The J.League leaders continued to have the better of things in the second half and made a handful of presentable chances, with Sekine missing the best of them after being denied by Higashiguchi in a one-on-one in the 55th minute.

Reds did manage to pull level 20 minutes later, as Lee made an instant impression off the bench.

Toshiyuki Takagi saw an effort tipped past the post by Higashiguchi in what would be his last contribution before being replaced by Lee, who lost his marker with ease from the resultant corner and headed home to make it 1-1.

Neither side was able to find the net again in the remaining 14 minutes or half an hour of extra time — although Hiroto Goya went incredibly close for Gamba in the very last minute, seeing an effort hit the post and then roll agonizingly along the line before being hacked away by Moriwaki.

Goya’s suffering was compounded in the shootout after Nishikawa saved his kick to hand Reds the advantage. Lee then converted to put Reds in front, and although Yasuhito Endo kept Gamba in the contest by scoring his penalty his namesake then did the same for Reds’ to seal the victory.

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