Archive Page 2


Japan’s friendly lesson

Japan play Iraq in a vital World Cup qualifier this evening,  and hopefully they can avoid the blues that tend to afflict them at this time of year… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 13th June 2017

Last Wednesday’s draw with Syria was far from a classic but, unfortunate as it is for those of us watching, exciting performances and positive results are not the purpose of friendly matches.

If Japan can learn lessons from the underwhelming 1-1 and improve enough to take a vital three points against Iraq in Tehran on Tuesday then the run-out at Ajinomoto Stadium will have fulfilled its purpose.

‘Fan service’ is a big deal in Japan, and the Samurai Blue players were all sure to read from the same apologetic script after the match, but with more and more of them based in the top leagues in Europe they know that some games are more important than others and that sometimes bad performances can serve as an important kick-up-the-arse.

“I think it’s good that this wasn’t a qualifier,” Genki Haraguchi said after the game. “We’re sorry that we couldn’t show the fans who came to watch tonight a good game, but if the players can improve because of this then we have to take that as a positive.”

Hiroki Sakai was also keen to take lessons on board, and knows the fans will forgive drab midweek displays in chilly Chofu when and if the ultimate aim of qualifying for the World Cup is achieved.

“We have to send the people who came to watch home satisfied and we have to pursue the things we are looking to achieve, and so there is absolutely no need to be negative,” The Marseille full-back said.

“If we lose the next game things will become really tough, and so I’m going to do my best to try and think of today’s bad things as positives.”

One slight cause for concern is the timing of the crucially important qualifier against Iraq, coming as it does right at the end of the European season.

The majority of the Japan side now play their football overseas, and the recent draw against Syria is the latest in a series of below-par offerings from the Samurai Blue at this time of year.

On 7 June last year, for instance, the side was out-muscled by a direct and physical Bosnia-Herzegovina in a 2-1 loss in Osaka, while the infamous 0-0 World Cup qualifier at home to Singapore was also played at the start of June in 2015.

“It’s not easy but we are national team players and so we need to make sure we deal with it and knock ourselves into shape,” Sakai said of the need to still be performing after a long and arduous campaign.

Yuto Nagatomo, a veteran now of six-and-a-half Serie A seasons, also admitted that there are difficulties in keeping the mind and body at its peak after a year of European club football.

“It’s the end of the season and so of course everyone is feeling the fatigue both physically and mentally,” the Inter Milan star said.

Football Channel, Tuesday 13th June, 2017

“However, we can’t use that as an excuse, and the purpose of today’s game was to get ourselves in condition for the Iraq match. Of course it’s a shame we didn’t win the game, but I think the most disappointing thing is Shinji (Kagawa)’s injury. Even so, I think today’s game has a big meaning in terms of raising our condition so we are in a position to beat Iraq on the 13th.”

The loss of Kagawa, who has recently shown signs of returning to something approaching his best form for Borussia Dortmund, is indeed a blow, and without him in Tehran Japan will need someone else to step up and fill the creative void created by his absence.

“We need to improve defensively and going forwards,” Haraguchi said. “It’s important now that the players and coach get together and discuss things and exchange ideas.

“I missed a chance (against Syria), and because I lacked quality then the game stayed at 0-0 and became more difficult for us. A national team player has to be scoring those opportunities, so next time I have that kind of chance I need to make sure I take it.”

Nagatomo, meanwhile, feels Japan started sluggishly against Syria, and knows how crucial it is to hit the ground running against Iraq.

“I think in the first half in particular, when the opponent still had plenty of energy, we struggled to lose our markers and link up to break them down,” the 30-year-old explained.

“Also, in spite of the way the opponent was playing, we were attempting passes that weren’t really on and then being caught on short counters, especially in the first half. Against Iraq we need to be very careful, as if we had conceded once in the first half here (against Syria) then the flow of the game would have changed.”

Iraq have demonstrated under new temporary manager Basim Qasim that they will present a similarly obstinate opponent, having kept back-to-back clean sheets in their warm-up games for this encounter with a 1-0 win over Jordan and, most recently, 0-0 draw against South Korea.

Morale in the team is high after a first game on home soil in four years (the win over Jordan drew a crowd of almost 60,000 fans in Basra) and with Iraq already out of the running for qualification they have nothing to lose and everything to gain with a positive result against one of Asia’s most prized scalps.

Australia are also now tied with Japan and Saudi Arabia on 16 points after beating the Saudis 3-2 last Thursday, although Japan have a game in hand in Tuesday’s clash against the Lions of Mesopotamia.

After that Vahid Halilhodzic’s side have just two qualifiers left – against Australia and Saudi Arabia – meaning three points are an absolute must against Iraq. They will need to sharpen up at both ends of the pitch to achieve that, and there is now absolutely no margin for error.


Pressure points

Japan just about made it through to the last 16 at the U20 World Cup, but Atsushi Uchiyama’s players could learn a thing or two from their English counterparts when it comes to dealing with pressure… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Tribe, 29th May 2017

Dealing with, overcoming, and working out how to actually benefit from pressure should be the key lessons the Japan players are trying to learn from their exploits at the Under 20 World Cup, currently underway in South Korea.

Atsushi Uchiyama’s side started each of their three group games slowly, conceding first against South Africa, Uruguay, and Italy, before going on to have the better of things as each game wore on, ultimately claiming four points to set up a Round of 16 clash against Venezuela in Daejeon on Tuesday.

The players have so far struggled to find a rhythm when things are finely poised in the opening exchanges of games and any error could prove costly, before settling into their groove once behind and safe in the knowledge they have nothing to lose.

“Once we were 2-0 down we had no option but to go for it,” Takehiro Tomiyasu said after the side’s 2-2 draw with Italy in Cheonan on Saturday night.

“I think we would be able to do even better if we could play with the mentality to challenge from the very start at 0-0, before we have fallen into the situation of being 2-0 behind and so having nothing to lose.”

The only way to acclimatise yourself to pressure in order to be able to do that against the best players in the world is by subjecting yourself to it as often as possible, and too many of the Japan players find themselves in situations that are far too comfortable.

Compare the 21 players representing Japan at this year’s competition to their counterparts from England, for instance.

While the majority of the Japan side are settled in their roles in the orderly hierarchies of their J.League clubs – either as starters or back-ups – the English players are scrapping every day, whether that be by trying to get past a world class player in a Premier League first team or being sent out on loan to a lower league club to try and prove their worth.

That daily grind serves to produce tougher, more resolute personalities, and after the Three Lions guaranteed progression as Group A winners after beating hosts South Korea 1-0 last Friday the Chelsea centre-back Fikayo Tomori offered an insight into the psychology of the team.

South Korea v. England, Suwon, 26th May 2017

“Some of us have played in stadiums with 20,000 or 30,000 people but today was 35,000 or 40,000 or something like that and being against the home nation it was a different sort of experience for us,” the 19-year-old, who made his Chelsea debut on the last day of the 2015-16 Premier League season and then spent the second half of last season on loan at Championship side Brighton and Hove Albion, said. “Obviously no-one (in the stadium) really wanted us to win and I think we dealt with it well.”

The relish with which the England players embraced the challenge set before them by the 35,279 Red Devils fans in Suwon contrasted against Japan’s tentative approach in their games, and Tomori’s Chelsea teammate Dominic Solanke added some further insight into the determination bred by developing in such a high-pressure environment.

“A lot of other teams (at the U20 World Cup) will have confidence as well (as a result of) playing in their home countries, and some of the (national) teams train together quite a lot more than we do, but it definitely helps us getting that experience with the men back in England.”

‘The men’ was a revealing choice of words. The players currently competing in South Korea are still ‘boys’, and the challenge for all of them is to develop into men as quickly as possible in order to be able to shoulder the expectations of their nations’ fans over the coming years.

These are the players Japan will be competing against at Asian Cups and World Cups for the next decade or so, and in order to go toe-to-toe with them it is vital that more Japanese players further their development in the same environments as their rivals – and that means looking to move overseas as early as possible.

“We can’t gain anything from going into games against any sides thinking we will lose, and if you have that mentality then you won’t win games,” Tomiyasu, currently a regular under former Japan captain Masami Ihara at J2’s Avispa Fukuoka, said. “I want for us and for Japanese football to always be challenging to win.”

That mentality has to be backed up with action. Japan showed they have at least as much, if not more, natural ability than their Italian opponents at the weekend, and the country’s next generation of players now need to take themselves out of their comfort zone if they are to keep pace with, and then outdo, their counterparts around the world over the coming years.


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.


Moriwaki incident provokes pause for thought

The recent incident involving Urawa Reds’ Ryota Moriwaki and Kashima Antlers’ Leo Silva and Mitsuo Ogasawara was all rather unpleasant, but hopefully having the debate played out so publicly can help increase understanding of the impact words and actions can have on others…  (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 11th May, 2017

It has been a busy few weeks for the J.League’s disciplinary panel, with all manner of on and off the pitch incidents making negative headlines for the division.

Some of these problems – Tokushima Vortis’ Kazuaki Mawatari being sent off for an altercation with a ball-boy in his side’s game away to JEF United on 29 April, for instance, or a handful of Urawa Reds fans reacting to their 1-0 loss away to Omiya Ardija in the Saitama derby the following day by picking a fight with a dividing fence – can merely be put down to poor decision making and stupidity, respectively.

Others, such as the scandal swirling around Urawa defender Ryota Moriwaki, however, require closer, more considered inspection, as they demonstrate a lack of awareness of the affect of words and actions on others.

Moriwaki was given a two-match suspension on Tuesday after being accused by Kashima Antlers captain Mitsuo Ogasawara of abusing Antlers’ Brazilian midfielder Leo Silva during the sides’ game in Saitama on 4 May.

Ogasawara was clearly incensed by something during an altercation in the 78th minute of the match, having to be restrained by Reds goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa, and straight after the game the 38-year-old stopped of his own accord to address the media, alleging that Moriwaki had said ‘you stink’ to Leo Silva during the spat.

“After the game I spoke to Leo Silva and he said, ‘Moriwaki always says those things’,” Ogasawara said.

“In previous games he has said similar things to Caio and Davi, and seeing as it is something that has been repeated I feel this is enough. It counts as verbal abuse, which could be perceived as discriminatory, and so I would like the media to look into it.

“It is not restricted to just this occasion, and while I don’t know how it can be verified it can’t be tolerated. We have discussions about fair play and I don’t think we should accept verbal abuse.”

Such accusations cannot – and should not – be made lightly, and the story quickly gained traction, in part because of a string of recent events with a similarly unsavoury flavor.

Gamba Osaka were sanctioned for their fans waving a flag bearing an SS-like design during the 16 April derby against Cerezo Osaka, while nine days later a Kawasaki Frontale supporter displayed a naval ensign at the club’s ACL match away to Suwon Bluewings, leading to a 1.7 million fine from the AFC and the possibility of having to play a home game behind closed doors if the offence is repeated.

It wouldn’t appear that either of these incidents were carried out with any kind of political or discriminatory intent, but were instead down to a lack of understanding as to how the images on display could be perceived. This is not solely a problem within football, instead reflecting wider issues in society, but football can take a lead in trying to educate on such matters.

Leo Silva and Ryota Moriwaki (Football Channel / Getty Images)

“Reflecting on it, it sounds like a childish scuffle, but everything I can say is the truth,” Moriwaki said after the game in Saitama, before refuting the claims that he had said anything discriminatory to Leo Silva. Indeed, in his version of events he had not been directing his words at the Brazilian at all, but instead to Ogasawara, whose spit Moriwaki claimed had landed on his face during the altercation.

“I would be really grateful if there had been a tape recorder at the scene to have picked up everything,” he added. “People who really know me understand that I can get wound up and shout childish things like ‘shit!’, but not even once have I gone beyond that and said anything to really insult anybody – whether they be Japanese, Brazilian, or from any country.”

Upon receiving his ban and apologizing for any offence caused Moriwaki reiterated this stance, and, on balance, he deserves to be taken at his word.

“In life many things happen,” Leo Silva said when discussing the incident after the match.

“In the game, in the heat of the moment, all sorts crops up. For me, I accept those things in games – that’s my personality. I’ve played in Japan for quite a long time so I know Japanese people don’t really do that [say insulting things]. With that in mind I can act calmly.”

Moriwaki is the only one who truly knows what intent, if any, lay behind his words, and the most likely explanation is that he acted rashly, aggressively, and, as he himself admitted, childishly to the situation.

This is also a problem though, and the possibility that our behavior may be perceived as offensive to somebody else is something everyone needs to be aware of and to respect.

Such issues cannot be allowed to just be swept under the carpet, and encouraging discussion about them and attempting to prevent them from growing into more serious issues is vital.

“If you leave it now maybe in the future this might end up being a big problem,” Leo Silva continued. “Violence doesn’t only take physical forms but there is verbal violence in society as well, and we need to eradicate those things. Perhaps this kind of thing will happen in football from now on too, but I know it shouldn’t.

“I’m a father as well and wouldn’t want to do this kind of thing to others. If it was me who’d done it I’d be embarrassed. I don’t know if he [Moriwaki] has children, but for children we are heroes and role models to learn from. We have an important role to play in life and I’d like him to keep that in mind.”

Moriwaki has certainly been forced to consider his behaviour, and both he and Leo Silva merit praise for dealing with the fallout in a mature manner. What is important now is that everyone learns from the recent unedifying episodes, and that players and fans pay more consideration to the way in which their behaviour can impact upon others.


S-Pulse struggling for regular rhythm

Away from home Shimizu S-Pulse’s counter-attacking style has reaped rewards so far on their return to J1, but they are struggling to adapt their approach when playing in front of their own fans… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 4th May, 2017

Shimizu S-Pulse have been something of a Jekyll and Hyde team so far in 2017, showing impressive resilience on occasion – as in the recent comebacks against Omiya Ardija and Kawasaki Frontale – but as yet failing to win a single match at home.

The Frontale game on 21 April appeared to demonstrate that this year’s S-Pulse are a far tougher side to beat than that which slumped to the club’s first ever relegation in 2015, with Shinji Kobayashi’s men not losing heart despite surrendering the lead given to them by Shota Kaneko’s 14th minute strike to find themselves 2-1 down with full time approaching.

Recent signing Thiago Alves was once again the hero at Todoroki, following up on his assist for Ryohei Shirasaki’s late strike in the 1-1 against Omiya the previous week with a dramatic 95th minute goal of his own to make it 2-2 with the very last kick of the game.

“It was the same in the last match too, we came from a losing position to get a draw,” Alves said of the team’s efforts. “It only looks like one point right now, but I think considering it over the longer term those points will be very important.”

His fellow striker Chong Tese was of a similar opinion.

“I think this point is important – very important,” the 33-year-old said. “If we’d dropped this game then you lose confidence looking ahead, but it means a lot that we weren’t defeated.

“Teams that were winning but lose go down [the table]; teams that are losing but draw move up; teams that are drawing but win go even higher. With that in mind I think we really gained something here.

“Our strength is in sticking together as a unit and defending solidly then breaking out, as we have a lot of good attacking players,” he said. “Today we scored two goals and we’ve done that fairly regularly this season.”

His striker partner Kaneko further explained the manner in which the Shizuoka side are approaching games back in the first tier.

“Initially as a team and individually we come into the games with a focus on defence,” the 21-year-old said. “From there we then want to build up to scoring more goals. Today we went for the second goal and got it, but before that it was a difficult game.”

The contributions of substitutes are often vital in deciding a game one way or another, and while Alves’ late finish was the most obvious example against Kawasaki his fellow subs Kazuya Murata and Mitchell Duke also added extra energy to the side going forwards as the final whistle drew near.

Chong Tese, Football Channel:Getty

“It’s a lot tighter (in J1) and when it is those tight contests, 1-1s, even at 1-0 down, you look to your subs to come on and try and change the game, which I think all three of us did and luckily enough we got the point,” Duke observed post match.

“I feel like we’ve had a pretty strong start to our campaign this year. We’re aiming high, we want to finish in the top half of the table, that’s our main aim, and anything extra is a bonus.”

Tese, meanwhile, is taking things one step at a time.

“For me personally [the aim is] to avoid relegation,” he said. “Of course we’ll see how things go, and I actually think we are capable of going higher than that, but today I really felt the difference in strength between the teams.”

It was clear to see why he was cautious to get carried away in the side’s next game, as they slumped to defeat against Vegalta to leave S-Pulse with just one point from their four games at Nihondaira so far, compared with 10 on the road.

“It was the same last year,” Tese said of the early season struggles in front of their own fans.

“If we win once at home then I think we’ll be fine. I feel like we’re a little stiff at home. Playing away we’ve made a promise within the team to do what we can to keep a clean sheet, but at home we have to come out and attack more and maybe that disrupts our ability to play the football we want to.”

Duke has also sensed a difficulty in that respect.

“I don’t know if the players mentally feel a bit more pressure at home – feel like they definitely need to get the points and put pressure on themselves,” he said.

“To be fair, I think it’s really good that we’re getting the points away, it’s usually the harder thing to do. Hopefully we can add the home games and get the three points there too, I think that will be really important for us.”

Last weekend’s game against Vegalta – who had conceded 16 goals in their previous four league matches – looked like being the ideal opportunity to do just that, but Shimizu froze once again and went down 3-0.

They will need to put things right sooner rather than later as, as Duke pointed out, it is not easy to keep picking up points on the road and home form could be the difference between survival and being drawn into the relegation scrap.


Sanfrecce’s slump

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

Football Channel, 15th April, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Football Channel / Getty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Halil holding his nerve

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

Football Channel, 10th March, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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