Posts Tagged ‘Hiroki Sakai

13
Jul
12

Reality check / Nadeshiko fuel expectations, men’s U-23 deflate hopes in pre-Olympic friendlies

Japan’s men’s and women’s teams both played send-off matches at Tokyo National Stadium this week ahead of their respective campaigns at the London Olympics.

After Nadeshiko Japan’s game v. Australia and the Under-23’s match with New Zealand I gathered reaction from the coaches and players of all four sides involved for The Daily Yomiuri.

27
Jun
12

Sakai’s on the ball

Hiroki Sakai only played a quarter of his club’s matches in J2 in 2010, but two years on he’s on his way to Europe and has his sights set on a regular berth in the full national team…

On Sunday 7th March, 2010 I was at Hitachi Stadium with just over 7,500 other people to see Kashiwa Reysol beat Oita Trinita 2-1. 

Both teams were getting their seasons underway in J2 after being relegated in 2009, and each handed out seven J2 debuts as they looked to rebuild.

Hiroki Sakai was not among those making his first appearance in the second division – in fact he was still yet to appear at all in the J.League and would only go on to play in nine of Reysol’s 36 games as they romped to the title and an instant return to the top flight.

Two years later, however, and the explosive right-back has a J1 winner’s medal, has impressed at the Club World Cup, appeared for the full national team, and now earned a move to Europe.

I interviewed him towards the end of last season, and while he admitted that a transfer overseas would be hard to turn down, he didn’t seem sure that he was good enough.

“I want to aim for the highest level. If there was a chance I would of course want to go but I am not yet at that level,” he said.

“The team is good now so maybe that’s why I am able to perform well. During tough times I also want to see how much I can help and pull the team through. This I don’t know yet.”

His displays for a struggling Reysol team at the start of this season demonstrated that he can still perform when things aren’t going to plan, convincing Bundesliga side Hannover to part with €1 million for his services.

While Sakai may not have rated himself that highly, the Santos head coach Muricy Ramalho was clearly impressed after the semi-final of last year’s Club World Cup.

“Reysol were very good on the right flank,” he said after Sakai had capped another strong performance with a goal against the Copa Libertadores champions.

“Sakai was prowling that side so I had to adjust a few things,” Ramalho continued.

“He is a young player, very intelligent. This is, I think, his first season. I am sure he is learning a lot of things and if he can be patient he can do very well in the future.”

I spoke to Jorge Wagner about Sakai’s transfer after Reysol’s recent 4-2 win over Omiya Ardija, and he feels the 22-year-old’s move will be a huge loss for the Sun Kings.

“We have [Daisuke] Nasu and [Tatsuya] Masushima who can play at right-back, but Sakai has a very good understanding with Leandro [Domingues] so we will miss that combination,” he said.

While concerned for Reysol without Sakai, Wagner is convinced his teammate will be successful in Germany.

“He’s a very strong player – like a Brazilian full-back.”

This is perhaps not surprising, with Sakai having spent a period on loan in Sao Paolo with Mogi Mirim.

As well as improving on the pitch, Sakai told me last October how he used that opportunity to mature.

“I felt I had to get integrated into Brazilian culture. I had to forget and shed my Japanese culture and mix into the culture of Brazil,” he explained.

“When I went to Brazil if I didn’t try to integrate and just focussed on playing then in other situations away from training I would feel stress.

“By jumping straight in and trying to integrate that meant I didn’t feel stress when I was playing as well. That way I could concentrate on playing at a consistent level.”

I mentioned recently the pitfalls of not embracing your new surroundings after a move abroad, and Sakai’s understanding of this should stand him in good stead in Germany.

Next on his to-do list is the Olympics, after which he will surely be focusing on taking Atsuto Uchida’s right-back spot for the Samurai Blue.

When I asked him to compare himself to Uchida he highlighted the Schalke player’s experience overseas.

“I feel that he can play well against foreign players because of the fact that he plays abroad,” he said.

Sakai now does that, too, and judging by his success over the past two years it is hard not to see him making the position his own sooner rather than later.

14
Jun
12

Steady play from Honda has Japan sitting pretty

Japan will be happy with their start to the final round of qualifying for the Brazil 2014 World Cup after picking up two home wins and earning a draw away to Australia.

Integral to that success was the side’s new number four, Keisuke Honda, who was in commanding form throughout the qualifiers. I considered his importance to the Samurai Blue – and a few other talking points – for The Daily Yomiuri.

31
Jan
12

Should I stay or should I go?

Scouts from overseas are incresingly looking to recruit Japanese players, for whom the lure of foreign football is hard to resist. Sometimes though, staying put could be the best thing to do…

Since the 2010 World Cup finals Japanese players have become – rather like Luis Vuitton handbags for the nation’s women – a must-have accessory for many European clubs.

Inter Milan, Bayern Munich and Arsenal are three of the biggest sides to have picked up bargains, in Yuto Nagatomo, Takashi Usami and Ryo Miyaichi. Others, including Shinji Kagawa and Atsuto Uchida, have developed into regulars at their new teams, and enjoyed great success in their domestic divisions and the Champions League.

While several have been able to make the step-up with relative ease, however, many more have seen their progress grind to something of a halt overseas.

Among those whose stories have been far from idyllic are Eiji Kawashima, who is languishing near the bottom of the Belgian First Division for the second consecutive season with Lierse, Kisho Yano, who struggled for minutes at Freiburg and is desperately seeking a transfer, and Tomoaki Makino (Koln), Yuki Abe (Leicester City) and Masahiko Inoha (Hajduk Split), all three of whom have already moved on – the former pair back to Japan with Urawa.

The reality of living and working overseas is not the same as the idea of it – particularly for Japanese players.

Japan, like England, is an island country and thus fairly inward-looking. Foreign travel is far from the norm here – and when people do venture abroad it is usually as part of carefully planned, all-Japanese tour groups – and the level of English is among the worst in the world.

When players who are used to being wrapped in cotton wool back home are suddenly thrust into a completely alien environment, then, it can be difficult.

Further to this, with the level of the J.League constantly increasing, a move to a different country may not always be the best option.

I spoke to Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s winger Mihael Mikic shortly after Inoha had sealed his move to Hajduk Split last July, and the Croatian couldn’t believe the Japan international had made such a choice.

“I cannot understand that Inoha from Kashima Antlers is going to go to Hajduk Split in Croatia. This I cannot understand,” he said.

“You know the Croatian League has only one good team; that is Dinamo Zagreb. Dinamo Zagreb for the last six years is the champion. All the other teams are not a high level, you know? But maybe he’s thinking something. Somebody from Europe will see him,” he continued.

“But I think now, in this moment, he has a better chance if he stays and then goes to a team in Germany or Italy or Holland.”

The apparent desperation of players to head overseas in an anywhere-will-do style can come off and provide a great life-experience, but playing-wise it can backfire, and such a plunge should not be taken lightly.

“[They] must make the choice of a good league; Bundesliga, Serie A, Spanish league, England or Italy,” Mikic went on to explain.

“These five leagues, or France or Holland – that is also ok. In Russia the fight for the six top teams is also good, but now another country in Europe? That is not a good choice. That is my opinion.” 

His words came to ring true in the case of Inoha, and as well as placing his national team spot in jeopardy the 26-year-old must also now think very carefully about his next step.

He most likely does not want to swallow his pride and come back to Japan at this point, but will another European team be willing to give him a chance?

If he had heeded Mikic’s advice and continued to establish himself at Antlers then a side in a bigger league may well have been convinced by his undoubted ability and come in with an offer, either now or perhaps in the summer.

That is something that the likes of Hiroki Sakai, Genki Haraguchi and Hiroshi Kiyotake must certainly bear in mind, with the next 12 months almost certain to bring speculation and offers for their services from overseas.

All three of those players have the potential to become the next Kagawa or Uchida, but they need the right club to facilitate that progression – and for the time being that may well be their current employer.

17
Dec
11

Club World Cup semis set up Barca-Santos final

It was the game everybody wanted to see before the tournament began, and after victories over Kashiwa Reysol and Al-Sadd, respectively, Santos and Barcelona are set to square off in the Club World Cup final on Sunday.

I was at both games and gathered reaction from the key players in Toyota (Reysol-Santos) and Yokohama (Al-Sadd-Barca) ahead of the final.

06
Dec
11

My Team of the Year

Last night was the J.League’s annual awards ceremony, where the official word was had on the best of the 2011 season. For this week’s Soccer Magazine I decided to pick my Best XI (and a substitutes bench, just to cover my back a little).

A 4-1-2-2-1 (ish) formation best suited the players I went for – although I did have to crowbar a couple into slightly unfamiliar positions – and I tried my best to take into account players’ individual achievements rather than those of their club as a whole.

Anyway, enough excuses, here’s my team.

Goalkeeper: Takuto Hayashi (Vegalta Sendai): Ever-present in the league and a fantastic presence between the posts. Kept clean sheets in nearly half of his matches and provided a great base for the side to build from and enjoy their best ever season.

Right Back: Hiroki Sakai (Kashiwa Reysol): A constant threat when his side is attacking and supplements his aggressive and direct approach play with fantastic crossing ability. Doesn’t shirk at the back either, and is the model of the modern full-back.

Centre Back: Makoto Kakuda (Vegalta Sendai): Strong in the tackle, a good organiser and, like his goalkeeper, has been integral to Vegalta’s success. Has also chipped in with a couple of goals and assists and isn’t afraid of the physical side of the game at either end of the pitch.

Centre Back: Marcus Tulio Tanaka (Nagoya Grampus): Still an intimidating presence at the heart of the Grampus defence. Not the quickest and, yes, he does get too much respect from referees and opponents alike, but his attitude has helped to build that persona and his performances invariably back it up.

Left Back: Jorge Wagner (Kashiwa Reysol): OK, he’s not really a left-back but that’s where he started the season and it’s where he’d play in my team. Always uses the ball intelligently and rarely loses possession. On top of that his goal tally is in the double figures.

Defensive Midfield: Yasuhito Endo (Gamba Osaka): Yet again he has been the conductor in the Gamba midfield. Always composed and totally controls the pace of the game, as well as popping up with numerous defence-splitting passes and timely goals. Pure class.

Central Midfield: Takuya Nozawa (Kashima Antlers): Usually lines up wider and further forward but, in this hypothetical team, I would use him more centrally. Another calm-and-collected player who is always thinking two or three passes ahead. Scored or set up nearly half of Antlers’ goals.

Central Midfield: Leandro Domingues (Kashiwa Reysol): Like Nozawa and Endo, Domingues is responsible for controlling the speed at which his team plays. Comfortable when collecting the ball from his defenders or in the final third and deadly in front of goal.

Right Midfield: Genki Haraguchi (Urawa Reds): A coach at Reds suggested to me earlier in the season that without Genki Urawa would already be in J2. At the time that seemed a little bit of an exaggeration but if it weren’t for his guts and goals then just think where the side would be…

Left Midfield: Ryang Yong-gi (Vegalta Sendai): Yet another great leader – can you have too many? – who plays with fantastic poise. His set-pieces provide a constant threat but he can do it in play too. Never flustered in possession and knows exactly when to release the ball and when to delay the pass.

Striker: Mike Havenaar (Ventforet Kofu): Other players perhaps have better all-round play, but his scoring record for a side at the bottom of the table is an incredible achievement. Has struck a wide variety of goals, and is about much more than his height. 

Subs: Hiroki Iikura (Yokohama F. Marinos), Naoya Kondo (Kashiwa Reysol), Wataru Hashimoto (Kashiwa Reysol); Shingo Hyodo (Yokohama F. Marinos), Hiroki Yamada (Jubilo Iwata); Josh Kennedy (Nagoya Grampus), Lee Keun-ho (Jubilo Iwata)

That’s my team, and I’m sure that you’ll have spotted many ridiculous inclusions and glaring omissions. Please feel free to point them out and tell me who you’d have in your side, either below the line or on Twitter @seankyaroru.

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.

04
Nov
11

The Mixed Zone with…Hiroki Sakai

Last season’s J2 champions Kashiwa Reysol are still on course to complete incredible back-to-back league championships.

A couple of weeks ago I spoke to the side’s young right back, Hiroki Sakai, as part of my series for the J.League website, The Mixed Zone with… 

21
Oct
11

Sakai aims to make history with Reysol

This season a new name is vying to add itself to the J.League roll of honour, with last season’s J2 champions Kashiwa Reysol well in the hunt with a handful of games remaining.

Recently I caught up with Hiroki Sakai, one of the team’s star performers in 2011, to find out the key to the team’s success, and just how highly he rated their chances of back-to-back titles.




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