Posts Tagged ‘J.リーグ



22
Jul
11

Clock ticking on Petrovic…

Urawa Reds latest bout of underachievement could see them “starting again” again next season…

It wasn’t supposed to have gone like this.

When Zeljko Petrovic arrived at the start of the season he was adamant that his beloved Urawa should not be kicking their heels in the middle-reaches of the table, and insisted that he had arrived to drag them back to the top where they belonged.

“What you see in Saitama is in Manchester or in Munich or in Barcelona, Real Madrid – it’s the same level, Urawa is the same level in Asia,” he said.

“I haven’t come here to be 9th or 7th or 8th, I like to be the best or one of the best.”

And, in a way, he has lived up to that promise, with Reds not finding themselves in any of those league positions so far. Sadly though, they have not been anywhere near being one of the best either, and the side are yet to move out of the bottom half of the table.

Despite experiencing their customary slow-start things seemed to be looking up when they hammered Grampus 3-0 in Saitama in April, and Petrovic reiterated his goal after that game.

“What I want for Urawa Reds is if you play a bad season, a very bad season, you will be in the first four. And if you play a good season you have to be champion. Not ‘good season champion, bad season number 10, 8, 11’.”

They failed to build on this victory though, and after a barren patch without wins in May and June Petrovic’s future was starting to be called into question, with the side heading into a crucial run of four games that could have spelled the end.

Although they didn’t lose any of those matches they can’t be said to have come out of them as a better team, and despite beating Avispa, three draws against Grampus, Gamba and Yamagata leave them just outside the relegation zone and suggest that there are still several problems to be overcome.

Aside from Genki Haraguchi, who is finally showing more than just potential, very few players are playing at anywhere near the best of their ability, and the absence of a striker is without doubt the biggest of their concerns at this moment in time.

While the departure of Edmilson has hardly helped matters this was a problem while he was still with the team, and his lumbering presence in the final third was not doing a great deal to improve Reds’ attacking forays.

His countryman Mazola has proved equally inept in front of goal, and his hat-trick of misses against Gamba wonderfully summed up the side’s form in 2011 so far.

Reds fans are now pinning their hopes on new striker Ranko Despotovic, although nobody really knows what to expect of him or how long it will take him to settle with the side – if he does at all – and even Petrovic admitted to being a little in the dark about the Serbia international.

“This is Japan, you need maybe adaptation but I don’t have the time. Normally he’s a finisher; scorer, running, good professional. This is my information, I never saw him play. But I hope he’s also a little bit of a target man because how we play you need somebody there to get the ball and play to the side.”

One player who should be out to the side but hasn’t been very often this year is Naoki Yamada.

Naoki, who is undoubtedly one of the most naturally gifted members of the Urawa squad, has struggled to find a regular place in the team this season, and it seems to me that Petrovic is still unsure about him. After the Gamba game the coach singled Haraguchi and Shunki Takahashi out for praise, but suggested that Naoki was not quite there yet. 

“I’m so proud of Genki. I know that when I started he was totally different. When I started with Shunki he was totally different. Naoki is coming. All young players are much, much better. One makes maybe faster progression than other ones but this is normal.”

Normal it may be, but, as Petrovic himself said, time is one thing he doesn’t have much of, and while he will surely see out the rest of this season it might not be long before we are re-setting the timer for yet another new coach in Saitama.

08
Jul
11

The Mixed Zone with… Yuji Ono

Here is the second installment of my column for the J. League website, The Mixed Zone with…

This month I caught up with Yokohama F. Marinos’ young forward Yuji Ono,and you can read it here.

08
Jul
11

The only way is up

The 2012 season will see the final promotion place from J2 decided by an English Championship-esque play-off, and as the level of the league continues to improve I think it’s a very good idea.

 

The J.League recently announced plans to introduce a play-off system in J2 from the 2012 season, meaning that the teams finishing third to sixth would all be in with a chance of moving up to the top-flight.

While opinion is fairly divided on this – with some asking how the sixth-placed side is likely to fare in J1 when considering the abysmal top-flight form of Avispa Fukuoka, who came third in J2 in 2010 – I am all for it and think that anything which adds to the competitiveness of the second tier is good for the Japanese game.

Avispa have certainly struggled – and nothing short of a miracle will keep them from relegation this year – but prior to them the only side to have moved up to J1 from the final promotion place and been relegated straight away is Shonan Bellmare.

Before this season 11 other teams, including Shonan, had come up in the last available spot and four of them – Reds, Omiya, Kobe and Yamagata – are still there. Four  more – Sendai, Cerezo, Sanfrecce and Kofu – went back down but are now re-established in the top-flight, while the final two sides are last year’s relegated pair of FC Tokyo and Kyoto Sanga – the former of whom are strong favourites to make a return next season.

Although they have recovered slightly from their far from impressive start to life back in the second division, Tokyo’s promotion is definitely not a foregone conclusion though, and the growing competitiveness of J2 was demonstrated by JEF’s failure to gain an instant return last year.

JEF’s head coach Dwight Lodeweges is well aware of the difficulty in gaining promotion, and insisted before the season that just being a big club is not enough to secure a spot in the top-flight.

“It’s not just a name that brings you back or does well or keeps you in J1. We have to do the right things. What I’m trying to do now is to build a foundation but it just doesn’t happen like that, it’s not just like pushing a button and there you go. We have to do the right things and make the right choices.”

Alongside JEF and FC Tokyo this year’s J2 also features two more giants of the Japanese game who could be revitalized by a return to the top table, in Tokyo Verdy and Yokohama FC – although both sides are admittedly shadows of their former selves at this moment in time.

Add to these the likes of Tochigi, Sagan Tosu, Tokushima Vortis and Roasso Kumamoto and you have almost half a division who have either the tradition or ability – or both – to make a go of it in J1.

Indeed, the introduction of a play-off system as opposed to three automatic promotion spots may actually help sides with the ambition of gaining promotion.

While, of course, it would be foolish to claim that any team had ever achieved promotion by accident, it could be suggested that some teams have made the step-up after a season of over-achievement – which they had perhaps not fully anticipated before the first ball was kicked. 

If teams know that there are twice as many berths available with the potential to take them to J1 though, then they may be able to better equip themselves for life in the top tier if and when they get there.

The instant success enjoyed by Cerezo, Sanfrecce and, so far, Reysol after re-joining J1 backs up this argument, with each team having had promotion as their realistic target throughout their season in the second tier. 

Just as importantly, if not more so, play-offs would also add to the excitement in the division by ensuring that more teams actually have something to play for as the season nears its climax. (Relegation, something else that I believe urgently needs to be introduced, would also serve this aim).

Furthermore, just because the sixth-placed team is in with a chance of gaining promotion to J1 it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will take it, and they’ll still have to beat two of the teams above them to earn the right.

And, anyway, even if they do they can’t really do any worse than Avispa, can they?

16
Jun
11

The Back Post – Global man Ghotbi forgives

Shimizu S-Pulse’s Iranian-American head coach Afshin Ghotbi has had to put up with a fair amount of discrimination in his lifetime.

The constant of football has not only helped him deal with and overcome these problems, but also to try and leave a positive mark on the world around him.

16
Jun
11

Ono confident of success for Marinos

Last week I visited Yokohama F. Marinos training ground and interviewed their young striker Yuji Ono.

Despite being just 18 he has his head very much screwed on and has high hopes for this season and beyond.

16
Jun
11

Timing key for Kawashima

Eiji Kawashima understandably wants to move up a level after an impressive season with Lierse SK in the Belgian First Division. As a ‘keeper being Number 1 at a lesser club is usually preferable to being Number 2 at a bigger one though…

During the Kirin Cup I attended several Japan training sessions and while everyone else was busying themselves with notes on 3-4-3 and Zac’s stop-start efforts to get the players to understand the tricky new formation, my gaze was drawn to the other end of the pitch where the goalkeepers were being put through their paces by Maurizio Guido.

It wasn’t only Signor Guido’s enthusiastic motivational cries that drew me to his session though, with Japan’s No. 1 Eiji Kawashima giving as good as he got.

Something I have noticed in Japan is the relative lack of verbal communication on the pitch. There may be the odd call here and there but the players generally move about almost silently, seemingly relying on little more than telepathic understanding or by following the routines practiced in training to the letter.

The former Kawasaki Frontale stopper was flinging himself about his six-yard box, yelling with every step, dive and catch though, and the concentration on his face was no different to that seen during matches.

Being so vocal is an absolutely vital aspect of goalkeeping, something that the Chelsea and Czech Republic goalkeeper Petr Cech made clear after his side’s clash with the Samurai Blue at Nissan Stadium.

“You need to communicate with everybody around,” he said, “because a big part of goalkeeping is to be able to organize people in front of you.”

Kawashima can certainly do this, and even in training he is anything but easy on those in front of him, constantly barking orders to get his defence in line and hassling Akihiro Ienaga for being too far forward in his new role as a defensive-midfielder.

The 28-year-old’s rapid progression over the past 12 months has unsurprisingly led to rumours of a switch to a bigger European league, with West Bromwich Albion of the Premier League his most likely destination.

Whereas outfield players can usually play in a couple of positions and be broken in gradually with substitute appearances though, this is not an option for goalkeepers. The only way they can retain their sharpness, and confidence, is by being between the posts every week.

Cech, again, had wise words to say on the matter, pointing out that a reserve goalkeeper’s chances are not only determined by their form, but also that of their rival for the jersey.

“I think it’s always better when you start as Number 1 and then you can take it from there and keep your position in the goal. If you start as Number 2 then obviously it’s more difficult, it doesn’t all really depend only on you it depends on the other goalkeeper as well.”

While a certain amount of time adapting can be afforded, too long sitting on the bench will not only harm his form but may also call his place in the national team into question, then, and Alberto Zaccheroni will certainly have a keen interest in his goalkeeper’s next move, with Eiji having been an integral part of the Italian’s unbeaten start at the helm of the national team.

The man himself is more than aware of this, but concedes that if he wants to play at the highest level he may have to take a little bit of a gamble.

“For me, always, it’s really important to play. Always,” he said after the Czech game. “Of course, I know the Premier League is a really higher level than the others, but I think I can try.”

“It depends on the situation. Even if I’m the second goalkeeper if there is a possibility to become the first, of course I can try.”

Cech agrees that a lot can be learned on the training pitch too, but maintains that too long away from the pitch can be detrimental to a goalkeeper’s career.

“It will be another experience, already being there and working every day with a team which plays Premier League.”

“You can learn always by watching as well but, as I said, if you hope to be always playing for the national team, of course it’s better when you play.”

Eiji must be careful then, and must make sure that he chooses the right club at the right time.

08
Jun
11

Ghotbi calls for unity, not division

Shimizu S-Pulse’s head coach Afshin Ghotbi was the target of a ridiculous banner at the recent Shizuoka derby, but the  Iranian-American refused to get angry with the perpetrators, instead taking the high-road.

I have spoken several times about my desire to see more passion in Japanese football stadiums, and at Nihondaira for the Shizuoka derby I got it.

While the catalyst was a reprehensible banner that nobody with an ounce of intelligence would condone, the reaction by the Shimizu supporters, and that of the Jubilo fans in response, served to create an electric atmosphere.

As news and pictures began to appear online of the S-Pulse fans storming the away end and attempting to remove the banner in question I would be lying if I said that I didn’t find the scenes exciting.

The Shimizu fans were quite rightly enraged by the offensive message on display, and immediately set about removing it from the stand. The Jubilo fans, meanwhile – many of whom were doubtless unaware what the banner said, and may have reacted differently if they had – also assumed the defensive and stood their ground.

As a result a new chapter has been added to this famous fixture.

Afshin Ghotbi himself, while unaware at the time what was happening, admitted to being moved by his fans’ actions, telling me that, “I think that the reaction is in a way very honorable. They really love their club so much, they love their manager so much that they stood up for him and tried to defend him. Not so much the fight, but the fact that they actually went and tried to remove the banner.”

His thoughts on the individuals responsible for the banner – two teenage Jubilo supporters – differ from mine slightly though.

I would personally like to see them banned from attending J.League games again. I appreciate that they are young (and stupid) but can’t help but feel that there is more to their actions than just an act of immaturity.

If they had just shouted something out in the heat of the moment in a misguided attempt to stand out and/or impress those around them then they could just be dismissed as naïve (and stupid). But to take the time and effort to gather the materials and make a banner suggests that they may actually believe that Mr. Ghotbi is somehow a justifiable recipient of such abuse.

The S-Pulse coach takes a far more tolerant – and, admittedly, productive – stance though, and would welcome the opportunity to share an audience with them.

“It would be an interesting thing to meet with those two fans, face-to-face,” he said. “Just to enlighten them and give them a hug and show them that we’re all the same.

“We were born in different places but in the end we’re human beings. Maybe that experience can show them the right direction, because they’re young – they’re just young people and I think they don’t know any better.”

He does believe that the J.League should exert more control over what messages are displayed in its stadiums though, pointing out that they are symbols of the entire club, not just the people unfurling them.

  

“There should be some guidelines on which banners can go up representing that particular club and they should be checked at the entrance by the leaders of that club.”

Although he is clear that these measures should not be “strict”, he does feel that certain subjects have no business in a football stadium, stating simply that, “Really there’s no place for political statements when it comes to football matches.”

The timing of the attack is also hard to understand, with Japan still in recovery from one of the biggest tragedies in its recent history – and one which has sparked assistance from all over the world.

“We experienced such an enormous, historic tragedy with the tsunami, and those kind of events should unite us more than anything else,” he said.

This is far from being the first time that the Iranian-American has experienced discrimination though, and after a lifetime as what he terms “a global citizen” he refuses to be overly concerned by the event, instead suggesting that it should be used to bring about a positive development in the Japanese game.

“If we do the right things now it can create a moment of growth for all Japanese people and Japanese football.”

One thing that has certainly been heightened is the animosity between Shizuoka’s two clubs, and I am certain that there will be plenty of passion on display the next time the sides meet.

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.

27
May
11

One step Atsu time

Although Atsuto Uchida didn’t make it to the Champions League final this time around, his progression, and that of many other Japanese players, suggests it won’t be long before a member of the Samurai Blue is contesting the biggest game in club football.

This weekend is the Champions League final. While Park Ji-sung’s participation means there will be one former J.League player on the once-hallowed-but-now-just-dangerous Wembley turf, we were tantalizingly close to having the first ever Japanese player in the final this season.

Atsuto Uchida’s Schalke may have been unceremoniously dumped from the competition by Manchester United in the semi-finals thanks to a combination of naïve tactics by their coach Ralph Rangnick (who, it turns out, once attended my University in England and played in the same county football league as me) and a gulf in overall quality between the sides, but the player’s rapid progression should not be underestimated.

Just over 12 months ago I sat down with “Ucchi” after his Kashima Antlers side had beaten Montedio Yamagata 3-1 in the J.League.  The right-back was in a relaxed and friendly mood, and after some small talk about his birthday – he turned 22 that day – we moved onto the prospects that lay ahead for him, about which he was clearly excited. 

He was not able to talk openly about a transfer to Europe at the time, but it was clear that there were possibilities opening up for him, and with the World Cup finals also on the horizon things were looking good.

Although an untimely injury (and the excellent form of first Yasuyuki Konno and then Yuichi Komano when filling in for him) meant he didn’t get on the pitch in South Africa, the move to Europe did materialize, and in July he bade farewell to Kashima and joined the ever-growing exodus of J.League talent moving to the Bundesliga.

While Uchida’s potential was never in doubt I did have my reservations about his lightweight style in the far more aggressive environs of the European game, and these concerns were added to when he displayed an apparent lack of belief in his own abilities when I pressed him on which clubs he fancied signing for.

I reeled off the names of some teams and asked if he would like to play for them, and at the mention of Manchester United he said, “No, I’m not ready for that level yet,” before grinning and following up with, “That’s a typical Japanese answer, huh?!”

And it is. Or at least, it was.

Since moving to Schalke shortly after the World Cup he has become a fixture in the side’s first XI, and no doubt boosted by this he also regained his starting berth for the Samurai Blue and was an integral part of Zac’s Asian Cup winning team in Qatar in January.

Such drastic improvement is becoming a recurring theme of late, and the likes of Shinji Kagawa – not so long ago a J2 player with Cerezo Osaka – and Yuto Nagatomo – last season a member of the ultimately-relegated FC Tokyo side – are also forging impressive reputations in the biggest leagues.

Anyway, we found out if Uchida was “at that level yet” in the semi-final against United and, sadly, it seems that he was right.

However, while he struggled – along with his teammates, including the esteemed Raul – to cope with United’s vast experience in the competition, his mental approach to the game certainly seemed to have improved and he was far more self-assured and confident in his ability.

Speaking to Kyodo ahead of the first leg, for instance, he declared, “I’m a professional footballer just like they (Manchester United’s players) are. I can’t allow myself to be intimidated if I want to do my job.”

Such spirit was a far cry from the self-effacing response at Kashima Stadium a year earlier, and this was evident again in his comments after the second leg at Old Trafford, when he dismissed claims that to get to the Best 4 was a great achievement in itself.

“I wanted to win,” he said. “It was only the people around who were saying that to get to the semi-final was good enough. The players all wanted to win.” 

He may still be a little short of the elite in world football, then, but if his perception of himself continues to grow and he carries on maturing as he has over the past year then another graduation is surely not beyond him.

19
May
11

Tochigi top of the tree

I didn’t plan my trip properly but was very impressed on my visit to Tochigi; a club that seems to have a much greater sense of direction than I do…

 

My old P.E. teacher always used to say, “Fail to prepare and prepare to fail”, and it turns out I really should have listened more in school. 

Last Sunday morning I was up bright and early to go and check out the surprise early leaders of J2, Tochigi SC.

Having initially intended to go to the game with a friend (who cancelled the night before) I hadn’t done anything in the way of planning, and set off half-asleep for Tochigi station.

The more eagle-eyed among you will have noticed my error: Tochigi, of course, play nowhere near Tochigi station, they actually play close to (well, a fairly substantial bus journey from) Utsunomiya station.

Anyhow, while sleep-walking my way to Shinnakano I was blissfully unaware of this. As I got closer to my destination I did start to wonder why there weren’t many people on the train (except for an Indonesian guy who chatted me up and asked for my number on the way to Itakuratoyodaimae), but seeing as it was still a good few hours before kick-off I wasn’t too worried.

My first attempts to research where the team played only came after I’d got off at Tochigi, and a quick check online and a plea on twitter soon had me on my way.

Thankfully, despite my error, I still made it to the wonderful Tochigi Green Stadium before kick-off, and was even honoured with a personal escort to the press entrance (who radio-ed through that there was a “gaijin free-writer” trying to get in. I nearly joked that I was actually a gaikokujin but didn’t know how long I’d have to be walking with him so resisted the urge).

Although I’d aimed to arrive an hour-and-a-half earlier I still had a little time to soak up the atmosphere, and enjoyed a bit of banter with the fans behind the goal in the home end before bumping into (a hot and sweaty) Kazu as he came off after the warm-up.

I also had a chat with my friend from Yokohama FC who said he was there because the team hadn’t been doing so well lately and that he might be needed after the game to apologise to and appease the fans if they lost again.

Thankfully there were no major problems, although within seconds of me taking my seat things didn’t look too promising for him, as young centre-back Park Tae-hong headed a cross from the right-wing past a stranded Kentaro Seki and into his own net.  

The goalkeeper at the other end, Hiroyuki Takeda, had a much better start to the afternoon, and reacted well on several occasions to keep the home side in front.

The last time I had seen Tochigi in action was back in 2009 when they were in a completely different situation and were rooted to the bottom of J2. I was impressed with the energy and positive play of the rejuvenated side, with them looking to break as soon as they were in possession. Their enthusiasm to get forward did mean that decisions were often rushed though, and there was a fairly high turnover of possession.

On occasion it would have made sense for them to just keep the ball and slow down the pace a little, although for the neutral such a gung-ho approach made for a far more exciting game.

Their vulnerability on the counter-attack was eventually taken advantage of when Yokohama sub Yosuke Nozaki won the away side a penalty after a great run down the left wing shortly after coming on at half-time.

The injection of his creativity certainly livened up a fairly ordinary Yokohama side, but Tochigi continued to buzz around the pitch and their winner, a Hirofumi Watanabe header in the 74th minute, was richly deserved.

It is still very early in the season and as injuries come into play and teams become familiar with Tochigi’s style they will certainly have to improve to make a real push for J1.

If they can maintain this level of performance they do have the potential to mount a serious challenge though, and they certainly have a clear idea of where they are aiming for. Which is a lot more than can be said for me.




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