Posts Tagged ‘Asian Champions League

25
Apr
12

A. Crap. League?

It is often said that the thrill is in the chase. The Asian Champions League may seem attractive but, for Japanese clubs, once the target is achieved it usually turns out to be more of a hindrance than a help…

Qualifying for the ACL always seems to me a bit like getting a full-time job.

A lot of time and energy is spent aiming for it, but once the target has been achieved the realisation kicks in that, actually, it’s going to be a bit of a nuisance and will prevent you from spending time concentrating on things you’d much rather be doing.

Before the season if you ask any player or coach from one of the 10 or so teams not anticipating a push for the title or relegation battle what their target is and they will almost certainly spout something about aiming for an ACL place.

It’s the idea of it, perhaps, and the status it appears to endow. Similar to a man going through a mid-life crisis getting a Porsche, an 18-year-old girlfriend, or Fernando Torres.

Once you’re sat in the driver’s seat, wandering around Disneyland or cringing at another missed open goal reality dawns and you feel a bit uncomfortable.

Oswaldo Oliveira frequently bemoaned the scheduling and amount of travel required for his serially-successful Kashima Antlers side, and at the start of this season two coaches of teams in the 2012 edition were equally as unenthusiastic.

Ranko Popovic of FC Tokyo – who was in no way at fault for the club being in the tournament having only taken over after Kiyoshi Okuma guided them to success in the Emperor’s Cup – spoke of the strain the extra games would have on the physical condition of his players.

“I worry about the fitness, how much of an influence it will have on the players. Tired or not tired? How many are tired? How long for?”

He then added the faintest praise for Asia’s take on UEFA’s global phenomenon, sounding in the process rather like a contestant on a television game-show.

“We must first in our heads be ready for this trip and say, “Ok, this is nice, the Champions League,” we must be happy to be in a competition like the ACL, to enjoy it and do our best and see ultimately what we can do.”

He concluded thusly, “And also we must use these games to make us more ready for the championship.”

These comments were almost completely mirrored by Nagoya Grampus’ head coach Dragan Stojkovic.

Physical strain? Check.

“As I said many times of the ACL, it’s a good competition but the travel, the jetlag, this is the main problem,” Piksi said.

“When you’re back from one zone to Japan and two days later you have to play an away game it’s very hard.

“The other team is waiting for you with high motivation, full of power and it’s very difficult to respond. This is the problem of the ACL.”

Ladies and gentlemen, Dragan from Nagoya!

“We will try this year. First of all to win the J.League and secondly, if we have a chance, a space, a possibility, why not the ACL.”

And the main target?

“Everything is possible. Let’s see. But priority number one for us is the J.League.”

My experiences at ACL games have been just as underwhelming as the (lack of) hype around them.

This season I have been at Reysol v. Guangzhou and FC Tokyo v. Beijing, and on both occasions the overriding impression was that everything was a bit half-hearted.

Everybody seemed to just going through the motions and keeping up appearances. Making sure they did the bare minimum to pay the competition lip-service.

Even making a proper run of their uniform was too much of a nuisance for FC Tokyo, who chose instead to run a lottery for a chosen few supporters to win a shirt that would be worn less than ten times.

There are usually a fraction of the fans that attend league games, players are rested and even the stewards – usually the most officious people in the stadium – appear disinterested.

A Beijing fan clambered onto a low railing to raise his scarf as the teams came out for their game with Tokyo, a clear breach of the rules, and a uniformed guy wandered over and signalled for him to get down. When the fan refused the steward just sighed and ambled back to his position.

To me, that wonderfully summed up the ACL. He just couldn’t be bothered.

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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