Posts Tagged ‘家永昭博

09
Jan
11

Ienaga gets his chance

The number of Japanese players earning themselves moves to Europe is steadily on the rise so for last week’s Soccer Magazine column I focused on the chances of one of them, Akihiro Ienaga, making the grade at Mallorca in Spain. 

Twelve months after getting relegated from J1 with Oita Trinita, Akihiro Ienaga has completed a remarkable turnaround and, having secured a move to R.C.D Mallorca, will look to become the first Japanese player to really make his mark in Spain’s Primera Liga.

I have a sneaking suspicion he may just do it, although I am certainly not alone in that opinion.

Since 2008 he has helped Oita to a Nabisco Cup triumph and been instrumental in Cerezo Osaka’s spectacular surge into the AFC Champions League, but there was always the fear that he would never fulfil his full potential.

While Ienaga’s talent has never been in doubt, his attitude has sometimes held him back and as the likes of Keisuke Honda – with whom he played for Gamba Osaka junior youth – began to earn reputations for themselves on the pitch, Ienaga found himself out on loan in each of the last three seasons – largely because he didn’t see eye-to-eye with Akira Nishino.

It looked as if a move abroad may be the best solution for him to really make the step up, and last January I visited Plymouth Argyle in England, where Ienaga had spent some time on trial.

Chief Operating Officer of the club, Tony Campbell, remarked on the player’s standout ability amongst the various Japanese players who had visited the club, and suggested that his mentality was perhaps more suited to a European style of play.

“When Ienaga came over he said he really enjoyed training in England because it was different. On one of our training sessions we turned the goals round, so they had to get the ball in behind and score. He’d never done it, but he loved it, because it was different.”

Endo Yasuhito is also a big Ienaga fan, and back in August selected him as his favourite current J.League player.

“Now I like Ienaga, he is a great player with huge potential. I feel he could make it into the national team and also abroad as well.”

Ienaga will now have the opportunity to prove his former teammate right, and at the same time will have the chance to lay to rest the ghosts of previous Japanese players who have tried and failed in Spain.

Shunsuke Nakamura is the most recent to have come up short in the country during his period at Espanyol, where he struggled to adapt with the Spanish style after too long in the inferior SPL. Before him went the likes of Shoji Jo and Yoshito Okubo who were also given chances in the country – the latter interestingly also at Mallorca – but failed to make the grade.

Ienaga is perhaps a different breed of player to his predecessors though, and his openness to new ideas will certainly stand him in good stead in La Liga. His former coach at Oita, Ranko Popovic, is delighted that ‘Aki’ has received this opportunity, referring to the progress he has made since he started working with him two seasons ago.

“Aki had some difficulties at the start with changing some things and I was very strict with him. He learned though and he is a very good player.”

Popovic recalls one instance in particular that underlined the player’s ability.

“I played him volante in one game and he had never played there before. People said I was crazy to force him into this position but he was the Man of the Match.

“I saw big potential in him and now we are seeing the fruits of that. I told him at Oita, ‘You must be the best. I don’t want you in the middle, if you are in the middle you don’t exist to me. You must be the best.’”

Such harsh treatment can go one of two ways, with the player either choosing to rise to the task or give up entirely. Ienaga’s quality is shown in the fact that he did the former, and his decision to take on this latest challenge in Spain could see him grow even more in the next few years.

23
Dec
10

Osaka Nihon

For my column in this week’s Weekly Soccer Magazine I considered the fact that J1 will be without a representative from the capital next season, while another city, Osaka, is further establishing itself as the home of Japanese football. 

FC Tokyo’s relegation made official what we have known for a while: the economic, political and cultural capital is most certainly not the first city of Japanese football.

And a quick glance at the J.League teams appearing in next season’s Asian Champions League means it is not particularly difficult to see where the power really lies.

As Kiyoshi Okuma’s side gear up for the Tokyo derbies next season – when they face Verdy in J2 – Osaka’s two teams, Gamba and Cerezo, will be leading the charge into the ACL.

Nagoya Grampus won their first ever J.League title this season, Montedio Yamagata did fantastically to further establish themselves in the top-flight and, at the bottom of the table, Vissel Kobe seized upon Tokyo’s feeble end to the season and put together a seven-game unbeaten run to remarkably stay in J1.

While the achievements of these sides are impressive though, my team of the year would have to be Cerezo.

The club, like Sanfrecce Hiroshima in 2009, will make their debut in the ACL next season just over a year after they were playing second division football.

Since achieving promotion from J2, the team’s positive and attacking style has been a joy to watch, and, while many were fearful for the side’s chances in the top-flight after the departure of Shinji Kagawa, some of the combination play of Akihiro Ienaga, Takashi Inui and Adriano in the final third has been spectacular.

I saw the team play twice in the middle of their seven-game unbeaten run earlier in the season, first away to Jubilo and then at home FC Tokyo, and the energy and enthusiasm on display was fantastic.

When I played football back in England players would often shout “It’s still 0-0!” when my team scored first (not something that happened very often), in order to ensure that we all stayed focused. During Cerezo games somebody must have been doing likewise, and it looked like the team thought they absolutely must score every time they were in possession.

The speed at which they moved the ball from front to back and created chance after chance gave the impression of a team very much enjoying their football.

As well as causing their opponents many problems when on the offence, Levir Culpi’s side were not the easiest to break down either. Their duo of Brazilian midfield anchors, Amaral and Martinez, provided the perfect platform from which to build and a defence marshalled superbly by Teruyuki Moniwa saw the side finish with the second best goals against record and the best goal difference in the division.

While the demands on the team’s relatively slim squad meant they were unable to provide a real challenge for the title, they excelled when the pressure was really on at the end of the season, winning  five of their last six games – including the last four, during which they scored 14 times.

Cerezo justifiably took a lot of the headlines this season, but the perception of the black and blue half of the city continues to puzzle me.

Gamba have finished outside of the top three just once in the last seven years, have one of the league’s finest managers and this season provided the J.League Young Player of the Year in Takashi Usami.

The club receives very little recognition for all its success though, and this year just one Gamba player made it into the J.League Best Eleven – Yasuhito Endo, who was appearing for a record-breaking eighth consecutive time.

Endo’s relaxed attitude perhaps sums up the understated coverage his team receives. When I asked him why he thought he was always in the team of the year he smiled and replied, “I don’t know,” before adding that, “I want to be in (the Best Eleven) however many times I can – until I retire. I’m not satisfied to be second (in the league) and, of course, I have a strong desire to win.” 

This focus on the future rather than reflecting on past achievements – which Cerezo also epitomised by insisting on pushing on after their promotion – perhaps gives the clearest insight of all as to why it is now Osaka’s clubs that are at the forefront of the Japanese game.




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