Archive Page 2


East is least

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

Football Channel, 12th December, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Football Channel, Wednesday 12th December, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Frontale finally get their hands on some silverware

Kawasaki Frontale finally shook off their tag as the perennial bridesmaids of the J.League on the final day of the 2017 J1 season, as they lifted the first division title.

Soccerphile, 6th December, 2017

I provided a summary of the dramatic finale for Soccerphile.


Diamonds shining bright again as Asian champions

Urawa Reds are back on the throne as kings of Asia, and looking back at their 2017 ACL campaign as a whole they certainly deserve to be there… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, 28th November, 2017

The ACL final wasn’t a classic by any means, but Urawa Reds held their nerve admirably and deserved their late moment of jubilation when Rafael Silva slammed home his winner with an effort eerily similar to that despatched by Yuichiro Nagai 10 years earlier when the club won its first Asian crown.

Reds had struggled to play as they would have liked in either leg against Al Hilal, with several players commenting after Saturday’s second leg that they wanted to pose more of an attacking threat.

Their opponents played the neater, more confident football for long spells, and you have to feel some sympathy for the Saudis, who were tasting defeat in the final for the second time in four years after being edged 1-0 on aggregate by Western Sydney Wanderers in 2014.

Ultimately, though, what matters in finals is winning them, and it is rare to see one in which both teams are able to give true accounts of themselves. There are nerves, expectation, and, above all, the fear of a year’s hard work going to waste. More so than technical aspects, on these occasions mental strength is key, and in that respect Urawa deserve huge praise.

In the first leg away in Riyadh on 18 November Takafumi Hori’s side were incredibly lucky to escape with a 1-1 draw, after a combination of sloppy finishing, superb goalkeeping, and luck prevented Al Hilal from converting more than just one of their 20 attempts on goal.

Speaking to the Reds players ahead of the second leg they were confident and relaxed though, knowing not only what that they had to do but also, vitally, that they were more than capable of doing it.

Heading into the final the team had beaten every opponent they’d faced in this year’s competition, winning all six of their home fixtures, and there appeared little fear in the camp that that run would be coming to an end on the club’s biggest night for a decade.

The team started brightly, too, almost opening the scoring after just 30 seconds when Kazuki Nagasawa had a half-sight at goal, and it was clear they were targeting a repeat of their previous three ACL games, in which they found the net early in the first half and were then able to relax into their passing game.

Al Hilal proved a different prospect to any of their previous opponents though, with Zlatan Ljubijankic describing them as the best team Reds had come up against in this year’s tournament.

That, of course, is unsurprising for a final, and some of the visitors’ combination play – not to mention individual tricks and flicks under pressure – was wonderful to see.

Whereas in previous years Reds may have crumbled in the face of such quality, however, the team is now made of sterner stuff and for all of Hilal’s possession and tidy football they only managed to muster one shot on target all game – four less than Reds.

That confidence was built up over the course of a truly magnificent campaign, and few could argue that Reds weren’t deserving of the title after looking back over the tournament as a whole.

In the group stage they were at their free-flowing, goal-scoring best – especially at home, where they found the net 12 times in their three games – before running their fans through the mill in a dramatic knockout stage with a couple of sensational comebacks.

Football Channel, Tuesday 28th November, 2017

First of all Ryota Moriwaki rounded off a remarkable recovery with a 114th-minute winner in the Round of 16 second leg against Jeju United – making it 3-0 to send Reds through after they had lost the first leg 2-0 in South Korea – before a scarcely-believable all-J.League encounter with Kawasaki Frontale in which they came from 4-1 down on aggregate to progress to the semi-finals after goals from Shinzo Koroki, Zlatan, Rafael Silva, and, with just four minutes to play, Toshiyuki Takagi.

It is in this respect that Reds’ achievement should be commended, and accordingly the contributions of everyone involved deserve praise.

The likes of Moriwaki and Takagi, for instance, have faded a little from the first XI, while the work of Mihailo Petrovic should also not be forgotten. The 60-year-old first led the club into the competition after finishing top of the overall J1 rankings with a record points tally last year, and then steered them into the quarter-finals, from where Hori has done a masterful job of tweaking things to deliver glory.

The introduction of Takuya Aoki and Nagasawa to the first XI by the new man in charge was vital to Reds’ form late on in the tournament, with the former adding a much-needed shield in front of the back four and latter looking like he could develop into a very good player indeed, with quick feet, confidence on the ball, and physical strength in abundance. Tomoaki Makino has also excelled in defence since the switch to a back four, and seems to be relishing his role as the side’s physical presence in the back line.

After the rollercoaster rides against Jeju and Kawasaki Reds were far more regimented in their new set-up in both the semi-final and final, picking up identical results in each with impressive 1-1 draws away to two of the strongest teams in the continent in Shanghai SIPG and Al Hilal, before finishing the job off back at home with 1-0 wins courtesy of Rafael Silva goals.

The Brazilian has been outstanding this season, playing with a real calmness and style as well as adding a ruthless touch in front of goal, and his nine strikes in the competition remarkably came from just 10 shots on target. Yosuke Kashiwagi, meanwhile, picked up the tournament MVP award and consistently rose to the occasion when needed, demonstrating a real maturity as he grows into his role as Urawa’s elder statesman in the centre of the park.

That pair still have plenty to offer Reds over the coming seasons, of course, but their places in the club’s folklore have now been cemented.

I was fortunate to spend a couple of days working with 2007 hero Nagai as part of the official coverage of the final, and it was remarkable to see just how revered the man who scored the decisive goal and was voted as MVP last time Reds won the ACL still was by the club’s fans.

Moments like this truly create history for clubs and players alike, and every member of Reds’ staff deserve praise and congratulations in their moment of glory.


Timely test for Japan tyros

Japan have the rare chance to play some friendlies against truly top opposition this week, and Vahid Halilhodzic is right to use the occasion to try some untested players at this level… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, 10th October, 2017

Most of the headlines ahead of the upcoming friendlies against Brazil and Belgium focused on Vahid Halilhodzic’s decision to leave out Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda, and Shinji Okazaki, with doubts increasingly swirling as to whether the previously untouchable trio could be shock omissions from the World Cup squad next summer.

While the absence of three of Japan’s biggest names is certainly worthy of note, it is probably best to avoid reading too much into Halilhodzic’s team selection for this pair of games though, with the Bosnian already knowing what Kagawa, Honda, and Okazaki can (and can’t) do – especially in the case of the two Shinjis, both of whom are playing well and regularly at the highest level for their clubs.

There is certainly more of a question mark over Honda, with the 31-year-old having played a much less central role for his country over the past year and still settling into the Mexican Liga MX after only fairly recently completing his, rather surprising, move to CF Pachuca.

Again though, Halilhodzic is fully aware of what Honda does and does not bring to the table, and there seems very little point flying him halfway round the world for these games when fringe players can instead be tested against two of the sides tipped to do well in Russia next year.

The Samurai Blue boss recently claimed that only five or six players are certain of their places in the final 23, but if we assume he is bending the truth a little in order to keep his players on their toes then we can probably guess that around half the squad is already in pen in the 65-year-old’s notebook.

Eiji Kawashima, Hiroki Sakai, Maya Yoshida, Yuto Nagatomo, Makoto Hasebe, and Yuya Osako look like certainties, while Gotoku Sakai, Hotaru Yamaguchi, and Genki Haraguchi are also safe enough bets. If we add Kagawa, Honda, and Okazaki that takes us to 12 names (or 11.5; Honda may well be in thick pencil rather than pen), leaving a full 11 spots up for grabs and a huge pool of players competing to fill them.

The standout inclusion in goal this time is of course Shusaku Nishikawa, who is returning to the national team fold for the first time since he was dropped to the bench for the World Cup qualifiers against UAE and Thailand back in March.

Football Channel, 10th November 2017

The 31-year-old has had a difficult campaign marked with some fairly high profile errors, but Halilhodzic has clearly been impressed with his displays as Urawa Reds have progressed to the Asian Champions League final and he will be keen to show he is still the same goalkeeper who was No.1 for the side that completed the second round of Asian qualifiers without conceding a single goal in eight games (Kawashima and Masaaki Higashiguchi also contributed one clean sheet apiece).

In front of him the defence looks three-quarters set, although it is still far from clear who will partner Maya Yoshida at centre-back, with neither Tomoaki Makino or Gen Shoji having been able to install themselves as a must-pick in the absence of Masato Morishige. We should know a lot more about whether either/both have what it takes after testing themselves against the likes of Neymar and Romelu Lukaku.

The other three new faces in the squad are the players who seem to have been called up in place of Kagawa, Honda, and Okazaki.

Ryota Morioka, Kazuki Nagasawa, and Shinzo Koroki have all been playing well for their clubs of late, and it is far more beneficial to see if they can replicate that form in games against some of the best teams in the world rather than, for instance, calling them up for last month’s disappointing showings against New Zealand and Haiti.

Morioka has seven goals and eight assists in 14 league games as an ever-present for Waasland-Beveren of the Belgian first division, while Nagasawa has shone since being given more starting opportunities at Urawa after Takafumi Hori took over from Mihailo Petrovic – especially in the Champions League, where his experience of playing two years in Germany has been especially evident and he has looked perfectly at home physically and technically.

His Urawa teammate Koroki has also stood out yet again in J1 this year, making it to double figures for the sixth straight season and scoring 20 times in the league for the first time in his career, despite the fact that Reds are hovering around in mid-table and clearly now focusing the bulk of their energy on continental success.

All three are certainly options for Russia next year, but if they can’t hold their own against the likes of Brazil and Belgium then there is very little point giving them seats on the plane, as that is the level Japan will be up against next summer.

If they are able to perform, however, then Halilhodzic will have further options up his sleeve – although only he will know for sure if that is instead of or as well as Kagawa, Honda, and Okazaki.


Cerezo beat Frontale to first big title

My report from the 2017 Levain Cup final, where Cerezo Osaka beat Kawasaki Frontale to a first major title…

The Japan News, 5th November, 2017

SAITAMA – Goals at the very beginning and very end of a closely fought Levain Cup final delivered a first major honor for Cerezo Osaka on Saturday, as they beat Kawasaki Frontale 2-0 at Saitama Stadium.

Kenyu Sugimoto got the ball rolling for Cerezo after just 47 seconds – capitalizing on a mistake by Kawasaki defender Eduardo before beating Jung Sung Ryong – and Brazilian Souza added the gloss in stoppage time, rounding Jung and nudging home from close range.

While Kawasaki reacted well to going behind so early and had the bulk of possession over the 90 minutes they struggled to penetrate Cerezo’s well-drilled defense and made few clear chances.

“We managed to win this title without losing a single game, and I want to thank my players for such an outstanding achievement,” manager Yoon Jong Hwan said of Cerezo’s 13-game unbeaten run to the trophy.

“Today we created new history for Cerezo. The players know what they have to do to keep sailing smoothly forwards. If we are able to do that we can become a team to be feared.”

Neither Cerezo or Kawasaki had picked up any silverware as top flight clubs since the J.League began in 1993, but Sugimoto wasted no time drawing first blood for his side in front of 53,452 fans.

Yoichiro Kakitani flicked on a Yusuke Maruhashi throw-in from the left, which it looked like Kawasaki centerback Eduardo would have no problem clearing to safety.

However, the Brazilian got his footwork all wrong, miscuing completely and allowing the ball to bounce through for Sugimoto to coolly convert from inside the area.

The Japan News, Sunday 5th November, 2017

The Japan striker’s goal against his former side meant Cerezo were then under no obligation to force the issue, and while Kawasaki built attacks tidily they found clear chances hard to come by.

Koji Miyoshi was positive on the left wing and kept Cerezo fullback Riku Matsuda on his toes, but all too often found himself crowded out once in or around the penalty area.

Meanwhile, Shogo Taniguchi had a half chance in the 40th minute but headed over from inside the six yard box, and Kengo Nakamura was similarly inaccurate from close range two minutes later as he screwed an effort wide of Kim Jin Hyeon’s right-hand upright.

The flow of the game was largely unchanged after the break with Kawasaki almost constantly in possession but unable to break Cerezo down, although Yu Kobayashi drew some oohs from the crowd in the 56th minute as he acrobatically volleyed an Akihiro Ienaga cross off target.

Substitute Tatsuya Hasegawa curled an effort wide from 25 yards just past the hour mark as Kawasaki began to throw greater caution to the wind, but Hiroyuki Abe sent their final effort high and wide from outside the area in the 87th minute.

Five minutes later Souza wrapped up the win in style for Cerezo, rounding off a quick counter after an unselfish assist from Kota Mizunuma.

For Frontale manager Toru Oniki – a player in the first of Frontale’s three previous League Cup final defeats in 2000 – there was more regret as Kawasaki yet again finished as the bridesmaid.

“In the beginning we conceded after a mistake but after that I feel we controlled the game well,” he said.

“However, we continued to make passing mistakes and so on and never quite solved the problem of how to break through.”


Two horse race

The J.League title race is back on, with Kawasaki Frontale  having the bit between their teeth and looking set to push reigning champions Kashima Antlers  all the way… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, 27th October, 2017

A month ago the J.League title race appeared done and dusted as Kawasaki Frontale stumbled to a 0-0 draw away to Vissel Kobe and Kashima Antlers moved eight points clear at the summit after Naomichi Ueda’s 92nd-minute winner against Gamba Osaka.

Frontale have bounced back in some style though, wiping the floor with fellow high-flyers – and upcoming Levain Cup final opponents Cerezo Osaka – 5-1 the following week, and then completing a sensational comeback with three late goals in the space of five minutes to beat Vegalta Sendai 3-2.

In the meantime Kashima had offered a little encouragement with a 1-0 defeat to Sagan Tosu, and after Kawasaki cruised 3-0 past Sanfrecce Hiroshima this past weekend Antlers went down 3-2 away to Yokohama F.Marinos to blow the race back open with just four games to play.

The Kashima players were still talking a good game after that loss, despite the fact the gap is now down to just two points and they can’t afford any more slip-ups.

“I think we have the advantage; everything is dependent upon our results,” Kento Misao said.

“All the league games are down to us and I just want to focus on winning and not pay too much attention to that. If Kawasaki win every game and we win every game we will be champions so we don’t need to worry about it too much.”

That determination to win every match could be said to have been their undoing at Nissan Stadium, and if they had opted to sit a little tighter after coming from two goals down to make it 2-2 they could well have left with a share of the spoils instead of being caught on the counter late on and leaving empty handed.

Shoma Doi, however, insisted that was never an option.

“No, no, no; we weren’t looking at anything other than three points,” the team’s tricky forward said.

“The (fact we knew the) Kawasaki result didn’t have anything to do with that. If we don’t keep collecting wins then we can’t win the league. With hindsight of course you can say that 2-2 would be better, but it wouldn’t have been a surprise if we’d won 3-2 either.”

Be that as it may, two defeats in three games means the destination of the championship is far less clear now than it was a few rounds ago, and Doi thinks conceding first was the key cause of each loss.

“Both defeats were away, and letting in the first goal away from home is not good; it’s a big risk.”

Football Channel, Friday 27th October 2017

Misao agreed, and thinks Antlers need to start taking control of games themselves if they want to claim a ninth J.League shield.

“We have conceded quite a lot at the start of games, and have to overcome that together,” the 21-year-old, who has been an ever-present when available since Go Oiwa took over from Masatada Ishii in June, said.

“I think we’re the kind of team who play well with a cushion after opening the scoring, so it’s important we try to get the first goal and avoid conceding first in order to be able to continue well in games.

“We have a lot of players with experience (of winning the league), so at this time especially we need to all come together with them playing a key role.”

Daigo Nishi also feels Antlers’ title-winning pedigree gives the reigning champions the edge.

“I think it will definitely play a part,” he said. “We are in the race for titles every year and have developed within that pressure. I don’t know if you’d call that a gap (between us and Kawasaki), but we have confidence.”

The win for Marinos, meanwhile, moved them up into third place and while that still leaves them nine points adrift of Antlers David Babunski insists they too are intent on picking up all 12 points in the run in, and don’t want to let the chance of an ACL spot get away from them.

“I think we have a wonderful opportunity to win every match that’s remaining until the end of the season and stay in that third position,” the Macedonia international said.

“The good thing is that we depend on ourselves and it would be bad if we missed this opportunity.”

The Barcelona youth product was unable to pick a favourite for the title, but conceded that Kashima and Kawasaki are essentially now set for a two horse race – although he couldn’t resist a wry warning for the pair.

“Both have a lot of quality, they have fantastic players and styles of playing, and I think it will be very interesting and tight until the last match of the J.League – for them, and we are there behind them. They shouldn’t relax because we will be biting…”

A Marinos triumph would certainly represent one of the biggest shocks in the J.League’s 25-year history, but even without that it looks like once again the battle to become J1 champions will be going right to the wire.


Kobe coasting again

All eyes were on Vissel Kobe after a strong start to 2017 and the signing of Lucas Podolski, but as always they have flattered to deceive and ended up coasting through mid-table…

Football Channel, 20th October, 2017

The J.League is often praised for being an open and engaging competition in which almost any team from the top flight can become champions or, alternatively, suffer relegation.

Nine different clubs have won the title in the first 24 seasons of professional football in Japan, while of the 10 founding members only two have never been relegated (Yokohama F.Marinos and Kashima Antlers – who are far and away the most successful side, with eight league titles (possibly soon-to-be nine) to their name).

Within that open field, however, Vissel Kobe have quite impressively marked themselves out as the epitome of mediocre.

Since first gaining promotion to the top flight in 1997 the Kansai club have managed to finish in the top half of J1 just twice – coming ninth in 2011 and seventh overall in 2016 – and last year was the first time since 2008 they managed to end a campaign with a positive goal difference.

Their 20 years as a J.League outfit have produced two relegations, but on both occasions they bounced immediately back up and settled straight back into their unexceptional stride, finishing 10th and 11th on their returns to the first division.

An impressive end to last season – during which they put together a run of eight wins and only one defeat in their last 10 games – saw them finish just six points behind Urawa Reds as runners-up in the second stage, though, and it looked like this year they might finally be ready to mount the serious title challenge their spending over the years has demanded.

Rumours about the signing of Lucas Podolski (who ultimately joined mid-season from Galatasaray) added to the expectations on Nelsinho’s side heading into the 2017 campaign, and they seemed fully justified as they won their first four matches.

Defeat at home to Urawa on April Fools’ Day brought that bright start to an end though, and after that 3-1 reverse Vissel won just five of their next 17 matches – losing 10 of them, including the 1-0 away to FC Tokyo on 13 August that preceded Nelsinho’s sacking.

Results have picked up a little since then, and the side have lost just once in their seven games under the Brazilian’s replacement Takayuki Yoshida. Last weekend’s draw away to Urawa leaves them unbeaten in five league games, during which the starting eleven has been unchanged except for Kentaro Omori coming in for Junya Tanaka on a couple of occasions, including last Saturday.

Football Channel, Friday 20th October 2017

Even so, the end result looks like being the same as ever. After 29 games last season Vissel were ninth in the overall table on 43 points, having won 12, lost 10, scored 45, and conceded 39. This year after 29 games they are eighth on 41 points, have won 12, lost 12, scored 33 and conceded 33. Mid-table again with win/loss and goal differences of zero: averageness personified.

The recent 1-1 against Reds was typically unexceptional, and while they had slightly more possession (54%) and made more passes (638 to 562) they rarely posed any real threat to an opponent going through the motions ahead of their AFC Champions League semi-final second leg against Shanghai SIPG, mustering just seven shots to Reds’ 15, only four of which were on target.

Indeed, finding the net has been a big problem for the team this campaign, and they scored as many times in their 17 second stage games last year as they have in their 29 games so far this.

All that is despite the acquisition of Podolski, who announced himself with a brace on his debut against Omiya Ardija on 29 July but has found the net just twice since and frequently cut a frustrated figure.

The Germany legend has unsurprisingly been tasked with the role of key creator, and almost half of Kobe’s attacks were built down the right flank where he spent most of the game in Saitama.

However, despite the 32-year-old putting in a similar shift to that of Urawa’s main forward Shinzo Koroki – running 10.38km to Koroki’s 10.4 – and outdoing him with almost four times as many passes (63 to 17), the former Arsenal man was unable to make a telling contribution and it often seemed as though his teammates were struggling to find the same wavelength as the World Cup winner.

“I think we can do better; we can beat Urawa and other teams,” he said after the game.

“But don’t forget, it is now six or seven matches we didn’t lose (including the Emperor’s Cup), so I think we are the (form) team at the moment in the J.League. So it’s not everything bad like everyone thinks.”

That is fair enough, but ‘can do’ has been a constant refrain from Vissel over the years. With owners Rakuten really starting to flex their muscles in the global sporting arena the team need to turn the talk into titles soon; although this season will have to be written off as another one coasting through no-man’s land.

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