Posts Tagged ‘Dragan Stojkovic

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.

16
Mar
12

Piksi and Ossie

This year marks the 20th season of professional football in Japan, so for Soccer Magazine this week I got the opinions of two wise old heads on the development of the game since 1993…

The J.League’s 20th season is now underway, and Japanese football has come a long way since its inception in 1993.

Last week, ahead of the season openers, I was able to get the impressions of two huge names in world football on the league’s progress and where it can go from here.

Dragan Stojkovic, of course, played for Grampus from 1994, and now as the manager of the team he has seen first-hand the steady improvement made over the past two decades.

He was, unsurprisingly, hugely complimentary about the development of football in the country.

“Regarding 20 years ago and today, of course it’s a big difference,” he said. “A big difference in a positive way for Japanese football generally.”

“From 1998 until two years ago they have participated in [all] the World Cups.

“But also, J.League teams in many aspects have shown improvement.”

Ossie Ardiles is back for the celebration, too, as head coach of new J2 side Machida Zelvia.

The Argentinian legend has been in and out of the country since 1996, when he took charge of Shimizu S-Pulse, also having spells in charge of Yokohama F. Marinos and Tokyo Verdy.

He is also impressed with how far the game has come.

“Now it’s established itself in, I would say the second tier,” he said when I asked him how he perceived the Japanese top-flight.

“It’s not elite, it’s not Spain or England. No, this is the next step and this is the most difficult step.”

Piksi agreed with that assessment.

“They are not in the same level. No, there’s huge money there,” he commented.

“Look at Manchester City, Real Madrid, Barcelona. They pay huge money for players. Give me 200 million Euros and you can see which team I can make, no problem.

“This is a big difference. Don’t compare J.League with European leagues, it’s not fair. But the Japanese should be happy which kind of football they have.”

Ardiles didn’t rule out another step up entirely, though, and suggested that it was his job to assist in that aim.

“I always think that [the job of] not only me but all the kantoku here is to improve the football.  I believe that Japanese football has improved tremendously from the moment that the J.League was formed.”

When I asked how to achieve such a lofty target he admitted it was tricky, though.

“Ah! Ah! This is the one million dollar question. The next step, to make Japanese football elite, is the most difficult one,” he said.

“It’s not like you have a magic wand and say, ‘wow we are going to play this way or we are going to copy one style’, say Barcelona or whoever it is,” he continued.

“It’s a lot deeper than that; it has to do with cultural things.”

He used the example of Lionel Messi (“the best ever” in Ossie’s opinion – “Don’t tell Maradona, though!”) to illustrate that point.

“For example, can a Messi be produced in Japan? [That’s] very difficult because for a Messi to be produced not only do you have to be brilliant in terms of skill and so on, but the culture of the country has to help.

“Basically, Messi from the day he was born he was playing football. In Japan that doesn’t happen. Yet.”

Piksi was more content to focus on what Japan does do well – particularly considering the recent violent troubles his family had experienced back home in Serbia.

“What they keep, and what they prove again, is that Japan and Japanese football is the number one league for fair play,” he said.

“This is a very amazing result regarding what happens with hooligans, what happens with other stupid things around football and in football around the world. This is a fantastic achievement for them.”

When also bearing in mind that this past weekend’s round of matches marked one year since the tragedy in Eastern Japan that is perhaps even more important to remember.

“Let’s be happy and enjoy the football,” he continued.

“Let’s deliver the good things and the happy things to the people who come to the stadium. And provide them [with a] safe arrival and safe departure after the game. This is very important.”

08
Mar
12

2012 J.League Preview

The 20th J.League season gets underway on Saturday and my preview is in today’s Daily Yomiuri.

It’s in three parts, the first of which is key info and a prediction for each team. The second is an interview with FC Tokyo’s new coach Ranko Popovic, while the third features comments from Dragan Stojkovic (Nagoya Grampus), Nelsinho (Kashiwa Reysol), Yoshito Okubo (Vissel Kobe), Jorginho (Kashima Antlers), Jose Carlos Serrao (Gamba Osaka), Mihailo Petrovic (Urawa Reds) and Nobuhiro Ishizaki (Consadole Sapporo) on the upcoming season.

03
Dec
11

J.League title race goes to the wire

Today the 2011 J.League season comes to a close with three teams still in with a chance of becoming champions.

One of Kashiwa Reysol, Nagoya Grampus and Gamba Osaka will be celebrating this evening, and my preview explaining all the permutations can be found here.

04
Nov
11

Raising the stakes

Three teams are neck and neck as we head towards the final straight of the 2011 J.League season. With Kashiwa Reysol, Gamba Osaka and Nagoya Grampus matching wins with wins it looks like being a case of who blinks first…

Here we go again. The climax of the J.League season is upon us and as is almost always the case (last year excepted) it is looking like going right down to the wire.

Heading into the last four games things are perfectly poised with three teams neck and neck for the title.

Kashiwa Reysol have the narrowest of advantages in pole position, but with Gamba Osaka two points behind and Nagoya Grampus just one further back the slightest slip-up by anybody could prove fatal.

All three teams have proven they have the ability – never losing two games in a row, recording the most victories in the division, and, along with free-scoring, free-conceding Cerezo Osaka, scoring the most goals – but now it comes down to more than that.

When the chips are down, guts are crucial.

In the last round Grampus showed they have the stomach for a fight, and after their victory over Omiya Ardija Dragan Stojkovic was particularly pleased with his players’ ability to keep going.

“For us the most important thing is that we found the energy, we found our belief to give us the result and to bring three points home,” an exhausted Pixi said after watching his side go from 1-0 up to 2-1 down before eventually triumphing 3-2.

“I really wanted to play with all the cards on the table, nothing in my pocket and everything on the table. I think this tactic and this idea gave us the result.”

Reysol didn’t fold under pressure either and managed to keep their noses just in front, refusing to panic after their old-boy Tadanari Lee gave Sanfrecce a second half lead in Hiroshima and coming back to win 3-1.

That was the sixth time this season that the Sun Kings had recorded a victory after conceding first, and when I spoke to Hiroki Sakai a couple of days before the match he mentioned how important that ability had been to the side.

“If you compare it with last year we didn’t get many wins from losing positions,” he said. “This year, even if we are losing I still feel as though we can win the game though, and this gives confidence to the players.”

After their comprehensive 4-1 defeat to Grampus in Round 29 Gamba faced a tricky fixture against Montedio – a team fighting for their J1 place and which Akira Nishino’s men hadn’t beaten on either of their previous trips to Yamagata.

Their confidence and composure showed no signs of having been dented though – even without their ace, Yasuhito Endo – and their emphatic 5-0 win upped the ante in the title race.

Grampus may have been forced to go all in against Ardija, but when you have their strength-in-depth – the double change that turned things in their favour saw Kensuke Nagai and Mu Kanazaki introduced – that was not particularly risky.

Utilising the fullness of their impressive squad was key to Nagoya being crowned champions last season, and the fact that they were able to last the pace then should serve them will this time around.

Reysol also secured a championship last season though, so can see Grampus in that respect.

However, both teams wrapped their titles up with games to spare so the action wasn’t quite as intense last year as it is right now.

Gamba, too, are more than used to being in and around the top table come the final stages, and have only finished outside of the top three once in the past seven seasons.

Impressive as this is, they have claimed the jackpot just once.

Furthermore, while they held their nerve impressively amongst five hopefuls in 2005, that title was effectively sealed by a last-gasp Yasuyuki Konno goal for FC Tokyo against Cerezo who were on the cusp of the championship themselves.

So, it really is nigh-on impossible to choose a favourite and we are set for a gripping ride all the way to the finish.

My tip to claim the pot? Well, I have a sneaking suspicion about one of them but as my dark-horse (Omiya) and top-scorer (Carlao) predictions go to show, I think it’s probably best for all concerned that I don’t show my hand this time.

15
Sep
11

Size isn’t important…

… it’s what you do with it that counts.

I would like to start this week’s column with a question: can anybody tell me, without looking it up, how tall Yasuhito Endo is? How about Yuichi Komano?

I doubt whether many of you knew either of those answers (Endo is 178cm and Komano just 172 – yes, I had to check) but I’m fairly certain that most people could tell me the height of Japan’s newest striker, to give him his full name, “194 senchi Mike Havenaar.”

I know that Havenaar is tall, you can tell that by looking at him. I am also aware of the fact that his height is fairly unusual in Japan and, in certain circumstances, would be a useful nugget of information to pass on.

Quite why television commentators feel the need to tell us nigh-on every time they mention his name is beyond me, though.

Fortunately I was at Saitama Stadium when he made his debut so I was spared during the North Korea game, but watching the Uzbekistan match on TV I lost count of the number of times “194 senchi Mike Havenaar” was referred to.

It reminded me a little of England’s Peter Crouch who we were frequently told “had good feet for a big man”. The assumption that being tall instantly means you should be rubbish with your feet is about as incorrect as the one which states that short players are not strong enough, or indeed that tall players are inherently better at heading.

Crouch dwarfs Havenaar, standing at 201cm, but he’s actually pretty rubbish in the air, and his poor timing and lack of control over his gangly frame mean he usually ends up fouling his marker or heading off target – if he makes contact with the ball at all.

Mike is not that bad, but of his 11 goals in the league prior to his national team call-up seven had been slotted home with his feet (primarily his left).

Of course, his aerial presence, like that of Nagoya Grampus’ Josh Kennedy, has also been a useful weapon for his club side in their fight to stay in J1, but he, like Kennedy, is about more than that – something that Grampus head coach Dragan Stojkovic referred to after Havenaar inspired Kofu to victory against his side earlier in the season.

“Mike played very well today, the best example for my strikers,” he said in the wake of the 3-1 defeat, in which Havenaar scored (with his left foot). “How one striker should move and fight. It’s very difficult to stop a striker who is always moving, not easy to mark.”

His technical abilities, as well as his stature, do provide an alternative option for Zac Japan, and after coming on in both of the recent qualifiers he did mix things up and cause problems for the opposing defences.

This was particularly useful considering the absence of Keisuke Honda, whose capacity to look after the ball and ease the pressure on the defence is so important for the national team, and was referred to ahead of the North Korea game by Shinji Okazaki.

“Honda has a great talent for holding the ball up and all of the players know that if we are in trouble we can pass to Keisuke; he is the safety ball,” the Stuttgart forward said. “If he is absent then we lose that option.”

Without that out-ball on offer Japan had to rethink slightly, and having struggled with their short, quick passing game the introduction of Havenaar from the bench did provide a more direct alternative.

The 24-year-old very nearly made a dream impact, striking a right-footed effort onto the bar shortly after coming on, and when I spoke to him after the game he seemed comfortable with the expectations that come with his height (although he doesn’t have to listen to the commentators while he’s playing, does he).

“The last five minutes we started to kick long balls to me but the plan was to work from the side and to get crosses in,” he explained. “I knew we were going to win but I hope that I could have scored.”

And if his performances this season are anything to go by he surely will. But not because he is 194cm, so please stop telling us.

29
Aug
11

The Back Post – Different approaches to same goal

As two surprise teams led the way in J1 I considered their alternative approaches to the game for The Daily Yomiuri..

Kashiwa Reysol play with boundless enthusiasm while Yokohama F. Marinos are a lot more reserved, and I discussed which, if either, was best suited to an authentic title challenge.

04
Jun
11

Pixy’s players in need of a pick-me-up

Keeping rich and successful players motivated is a challenge that many of the best managers in the world have struggled with. Nagoya Grampus’ Dragan Stojkovic  – frequently linked with the Japanese national team job, and even succeeding Arsene Wenger at Arsenal – will need to earn his stripes this season, with several of his players  seemingly living off past glories…

Last week I wrote about the positive improvement in the mental attitude of Atsuto Uchida over the past12 months.

While Ucchi and several of his Samurai Blue teammates continue to grow overseas though there is something of a problem back home in the J.League

After seven rounds of matches (although they do have one game in hand) Nagoya Grampus – such a force last season and champions by a margin of 10 points – sat level with Ventforet Kofu in the league; already themselves 10 points behind the league-leaders Kashiwa Reysol.

Of course, it is still very early in the season and there is plenty of time for them to pick up and for the early pacesetters to fall away.

However, they have three problems which need to be overcome quickly if they are to replicate their fantastic achievement of 2010.

The first of these problems is not mental it is actual; the number of injuries in the squad.

Pixy insists that the team’s training methods have not changed and so there is, in truth, not so much that can be done to remedy the situation except for making sure that players are not rushed back and that when they are all fit the squad is rotated sensibly and everyone is kept as fresh as possible.

In the meantime the coach has to earn his yen by getting the best out of the players at his disposal.

The second issue – and one which seems to have affected Kashima and Cerezo as well, although interestingly not Gamba – is the ACL and ‘tiredness’.

Now, I’m sorry, I know that travelling can have an affect on physical condition but considering the break that the J.League took and the fact that they have rarely had to play two games a week this season I am not buying this excuse.

Instead of being physically drained I would suggest that some, not all, of the players have mentally convinced themselves that they are tired.

Going into a game in Kofu less than four days after playing in UAE, for instance, sounds tough doesn’t it? And, to an extent it is.

If you keep telling yourself it is then you go into the game with a weight on your shoulders, though. If you put such thoughts out of your mind and concentrate on the game at hand it is unlikely you will struggle so much.

Pixy expressed similar concerns over the psychological approach of his players, dismissing the impact of the continental competition on his side’s defeat to Kofu and challenging his players to rise above such excuses.

“I’m sorry, but this is not an excuse. As a professional you need give your best for 90 minutes. Tired or not tired, hot or not hot. You have to prepare yourself; you are a professional, you have to give your best.”

And ‘giving your best’ brings us onto the final, and most worrying, concern.

Grampus’ success last season was built upon a tremendous togetherness and a work-ethic and defiance that drove them on to become champions.

That grit is lacking this season, and Pixy has hinted at fears that some members of the squad are merely coasting.

“My players, they have to forget everything that happened last year if they want to make a good result this year. They have to forget absolutely everything from last year,” he emphasized. “We are champions, but we are champions of 2010, not 2011.”

“This is a completely different story, a completely different championship, so only if we think like that can we can expect a good result. If we, or some of them, are satisfied with the result from last year then it will be very, very hard.”

One of the best in the world at motivating successful players is Sir Alex Ferguson, about whom David Beckham once said the following. 

“The good thing about [Sir Alex is that] he makes you move on. As soon as you have won a medal he does not stop there, he makes you want more.” 

Ensuring such a response is something that the coach must bring about, then, and if Pixy’s players do not have that drive themselves it is something he must instill in them as quickly as possible.

19
Mar
11

The mark of champions

After the first round of J.League matches had concluded it was easy to see why it is likely to be the same teams chasing the title in 2011.

None of the title contenders have had an easy start to the J.League season, but while they have not had everything their own way they have shown exactly why they are the teams who will be challenging for the championship come December.

Gamba, for instance, had a difficult opening match against local rivals Cerezo – which came soon after both teams had been in ACL action in midweek – but they demonstrated tremendous resilience to recover not just from that rarest of thing – a missed Yasuhito Endo penalty – but also to re-take the lead almost instantly after Cerezo had got themselves back in the game.

Such recoveries were also on display in both Kashima and Nagoya, with the league’s other two heavyweights being frustrated on their own patches by the resilient and adventurous Omiya Ardija and Yokohama F. Marinos.

While defeats looked to be on the cards for both teams as the clock ran down, they both managed to salvage crucial points at the death though. These last-gasp goals not only ensured the sides didn’t start the season with a loss, but they will also have served as psychological boosts which will benefit the teams in two ways.

Firstly, they themselves will take great confidence from their refusal to give up, and the realization that they always have a goal in them will serve them well as the season progresses.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, opponents will always have lingering doubts in the backs of their minds about the possibility of securing a win against either side.

Omiya had the lead three times against Antlers, and Marinos were beating Nagoya until the fifth minute of injury time but both teams took just a point back home with them instead of three.

This is no coincidence, and the results came about largely because the best teams always know how to adjust to their current set of circumstances.

Before the season kicked off Daiki Iwamasa and Oswaldo Oliveira were both asked if it was strange to come into the season not as defending champions. Their answers demonstrated the resolve that drove Kashima to three successive championships.

Iwamasa put a positive spin on the situation, saying, “In one respect it’s good that we can start the season as a challenger. We’re at a point where we have to be modest and humble about ourselves so it’s good.”

Oliveira, meanwhile, made it clear that his side must now react to the position they find themselves in, “(It’s) not strange. It really was a disappointment, but we have to know how to deal with this situation.
 


He then continued by exhibiting the enjoyment he gets out of having to adapt in this manner. “I love to prepare football teams, I love to see players growing and doing their best. This is what keeps me motivated.”

In a sense he approaches each season as if it were a puzzle, and relishes each new challenge as he looks to rearrange and fit the pieces accordingly to achieve success.

He pays fantastic attention to detail, and on the rare occasion that the pieces don’t fall into place, he does his utmost to work out why and how best to remedy the situation.

“We can see numbers of the last J.League (season): our defence was the best, we were the team who lost the least number of games, (but) we drew 12 matches – at least 6 of them we should win. So I think this made the difference for us. What you have to do now is try to identify the points and work on it.”

Dragan Stojkovic displayed a similar flexibility last season, and was rightfully proud of the fact that his team never lost back-to-back matches in the league in 2010.

Of course, a home draw on the opening day of the season would not have been what Oliveira was after before the game with Omiya – as his frustration after full time showed.

Teams from lower down the division will always cause the odd upset though, and after a little time to cool off he will almost certainly see this point as one gained rather than two lost, and make his next move accordingly.

Such sense of purpose is what sets the best apart from the rest.

04
Mar
11

J.League 2011 Season Preview

On Saturday the 2011 J.League season kicks off so this week I provided a preview for The Daily Yomiuri, which can be found by following the links below.

http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/dy/sports/T110228004857.htm

http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/dy/sports/T110228004904.htm

http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/dy/sports/T110228003025.htm




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