Posts Tagged ‘Kawasaki Frontale

23
Mar
12

Groundhog J

March brings spring, cherry blossoms and a brand new J.League season. Things didn’t feel particulalry fresh after the first round of matches in J1 though… 

The start of a new season brings fresh hope, and there is always plenty of talk of the positive changes that have taken place which will improve teams over the coming months.

This year was no different, and with eight managerial changes having occurred over the off-season period there was, if anything, even more discussion of ‘new eras’ than usual.

Then the games took place and it seemed as if we’d never been away.

The televised game in Round 1 pitted the two J1 sides most affected by the March 11th tragedy against each other, and Vegalta and Kashima played out a tense encounter that was decided by Taikai Uemoto’s goal. Sendai defending ruggedly and Antlers underperforming; as you were, then.

In the other 2 o’clock kick-offs there was a similar feeling of patterns continuing from the 2011 season.

Nagoya won 1-0. Their goal was scored by Josh Kennedy. When I saw that the Australian had given them the lead against Shimizu I tweeted, tongue-in-cheek: “Kennedy puts Grampus head against S-Pulse. Header or penalty?” Then NHK showed the highlight. Ah, it was a penalty.

Meanwhile, two of the newly-promoted sides, Consadole and Sagan, were making steady starts by earning their first points in J1 – against Jubilo and Cerezo, who clocked up 18 draws between them last time around.

Urawa Reds, too, had been expecting an upturn in fortunes but just as on the first day of the 2011 season their hopes were dashed with a 1-0 away defeat.

There was even a feeling of déjà vu with the new man in the dugout; a guy called Petrovic getting off to a disappointing start despite the positivity he had brought with him. Have I seen this before?

My opening question to Petrovic 2.0 at the recent Kick Off Conference was, “Last year Reds’ new coach was called Petrovic, this year too. How is this one going to be different?”

He laughed and said, “I know! Do you think the same things will happen?”

I didn’t then but there was an eerie similarity to their opening game defeat.

As there was in Omiya, where Ardija got off to a terrific start in their apparent quest to be the best hosts in the division by going down 1-0 to FC Tokyo.

Jun Suzuki’s side battered the 2011 J2 champions for the opening half-an-hour, but obliged their guests by failing to score and then conceding the only goal of the game after an hour.

Frontale’s 1-0 win over Albirex was slightly incongruous to the way that games between those two sides have gone in recent years though, and the remaining two fixtures also threw up some surprises.

Or did they?

This year’s souped-up Vissel Kobe did come out on top in their Kansai derby with Gamba, and Yoshito Okubo did manage to find the net twice and complete a game without a caution.

However, Yosuke Fujigaya was as clumsy as ever between the sticks for Gamba, and despite being far the poorer side they still managed to score two goals.

The arrival of Yasuyuki Konno to shore-up one of the leakiest defences in the game doesn’t seem to be paying off just yet, and as long as Gamba have a Brazilian or two around to notch at the other end it appears as if they’ll always be a threat.

(Assuming that the usual patterns will continue, that will only be until they head to the Middle East in the summer, of course.)

Aha, but the last – and best – game of the weekend was surely something new?

Kashiwa Reysol drew only three times on their way to the title in 2011 – just once at home – so their 3-3 draw with a new-and-improved Yokohama F. Marinos was a little unexpected.

Marinos’ quick-passing and aggressive attacking was also a refreshing change, and it looks as though I may have to retract their ‘Tsu-Marinos’ moniker if things continue.

But wait a minute.

Jorge Wagner claimed two assists and Leandro Domingues scored a beauty? I’ve heard that before.

And, come to think of it, didn’t Marinos also earn an impressive draw away to the reigning champions at the start of last season…

Does anybody else feel like this is Groundhog J?

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.

14
Feb
12

Scout doubts

J.League clubs are allowed four foreign players on their books – three from anywhere around the globe, plus one from an AFC-affiliated country.  Sadly, existing relationships result in these berths being filled very unimaginatively…  

It is always interesting to look at the new squads as they take shape ahead of the season kick-off, and this year is no exception.

Some clubs have recruited very well, and Vissel Kobe signing Takuya Nozawa, Hideo Hashimoto, Yuzo Tashiro and Masahiko Inoha looks like particularly good business.

Some individual transfers stand out too. Shoki Hirai’s loan move to Albirex Niigata could well reignite a promising career that has stalled of late, and the returns of Tomoaki Makino and Yuki Abe to Japan with Urawa Reds also whet the appetite.

One thing which I am less than thrilled about, though, is the depressingly formulaic way in which the majority of clubs have gone about filling their four available foreigner slots.

As per-usual the bulk of these places are taken up by Brazilians or Koreans – plus a handful of Australians – with existing relationships and a lack of imagination preventing anything more adventurous taking place.

Freddie Ljungberg, Mihael Mikic, Calvin Jong-a-pin, Danilson and Ranko Despotovic are the only foreign players not to come from the usual places, and at a time when more and more Japanese players are heading off to Europe I struggle to understand why traffic isn’t coming the other way.

 I frequently ask officials at J.League clubs why efforts aren’t made to bring in English, Spanish, Italian, German or French players – either youngsters looking to develop or veterans to pass on some experience – and am repeatedly told that money is the issue.

Sorry, but I’m not buying that (no pun intended).

Sure, top Premier League or La Liga players (or even crap ones) are never going to be viable options, but picking up a decent centre back from Serie B or a seasoned striker from Ligue 1 is surely not beyond the realms of possibility?

Don’t get me wrong, there have been – and still are, Leandro Domingues and Jorge Wagner were sensational for champions Reysol last year – some excellent Brazilian players in the J.League, while there is also an impressive list of Koreans who have enjoyed great success here.

However, remember Carlao? Or Max? How about Tartar? Anderson? Rogerinho? Hugo? Roger?

All of them were on the books at J1 clubs last season. All of them achieved as much as I did on a J.League pitch last season (some of them managing as many minutes out there as I did).

Are you seriously telling me that a player from the Championship in England or the Dutch Eredivisie would constitute more of a gamble? Of course they wouldn’t. The problem they do have, though, is that they are not represented by the agents who appear to have a fairly cosy monopoly over transfers into the J.League.

Last year I watched one match and genuinely laughed out loud at the appearance of one Brazilian on the pitch. I honestly doubted whether he was a footballer, and couldn’t believe he was in possession of a pair of boots, let alone a professional contract.

Having asked around a little I discovered his arrival in Japan had been facilitated as part of a deal involving another of his countrymen: a buy-one-get-one-free (or one-and-a-half-free, he was a big lad), if you like. Such a set-up between clubs and agents is only healthy for one party, and that is certainly not the club.

A prime example comes with the rapid return of Juninho to the J.League, a matter of weeks after it looked like he had bade farewell.

The 34-year-old enjoyed a fantastic nine years with Kawasaki Frontale and seems to genuinely have an affinity with Japan (although I did feel he should have stuck around for the Emperor’s Cup before he left).

Last season he was a shadow of his former self though, with injuries and age taking their unfortunate toll on his game. It looked like his time was up.

Then, all of a sudden, he was back. And with one of the biggest clubs, too. The re-arrival of Marquinhos is similarly surprising.

Are clubs’ scouting networks really so poor that they can’t find anybody better than a couple of journeyman?

Sadly, perhaps yes, they are. Or perhaps club officials are just not strong enough to say no to those who are offering the players.

27
Oct
11

Miss-demeanour

There are very few places in the world where a player has their name sung for missing an open goal. Except Japan, that is…

Several of my initial impressions of Japanese football have changed as my knowledge and understanding of the sport and the country develop.

One thing that I am still bemused by is the reaction of supporters in the stadium when one of their players messes up though.

The first time I noticed this odd custom was at Ajinomoto Stadium not long after I’d arrived in Japan. FC Tokyo were playing Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Tokyo’s striker, Cabore, was the only man forward for his side, closely marked on the halfway line facing his own goal.

The ball was played up to him and rather than controlling it he performed a late shimmy, completely confusing the defender, and let the ball zip into the space behind them.

As he turned to fruitlessly chase it down (the ball was now 30 or 40 yards away) the covering centre-back simply strode across and cleared his lines. 

The fans were delighted by the trickery though and burst into applause for his completely unsuccessful piece of skill. Then a chant of his name began to ring around.

Attempts at something out of the ordinary and near-misses are – and should be – celebrated in football, if they are well-executed and have the potential to positively impact on the game. Useless showboating should not be rewarded, though.

Likewise, a player should never have his name sung for missing an open goal from one yard.

However, that is exactly what happened at Todoroki Stadium after Junichi Inamoto somehow managed to miss a gaping net against Albirex Niigata.

I’m all for supporting your team and also think that booing those you’re supposed to be getting behind is unproductive nine times out of ten. However, missing an open goal when under no pressure is not something that warrants adoration.

He didn’t miss on purpose, of course. He’s trying his best and merely lost concentration at the critical moment so you don’t need to boo him, but why on earth cheer?

Players always drum out the platitudes about it being ‘great to have the fans behind you’ and insist that the ceaseless drumming/singing/clapping motivates them on the pitch but if your name is going to be sung regardless of your performance then perhaps, sub-consciously, you are slightly less focused out there.

I’ve recently started to watch Premier League football again and after a brief period away from the English game I have been struck by the difference in atmosphere at stadiums back in the UK and J.League venues.

In England fans react to the game. Their involvement in, enjoyment of and frustration at what is happening on the pitch are all tied up with the action that unfolds.

Sometimes this results in the ground being fairly silent, but it also means that when something noteworthy happens the decibel level raises and the mood of the game, the fans and the spectacle shifts accordingly.

Compare this to the constant drone of singing in the J.League.

Fans have their routines the world over and I am fully aware that there is no ‘right way’ to support a football club. In fact, that is part of my argument.

I enjoy speaking with supporters before matches but on more than one occasion have had my conversation abruptly called to a halt because it is time to start cheering the team.

At these times the person I am talking to has also seemed hesitant to stop but has withdrawn seemingly out of duty.

When you are in the stadium you are not at work. You are free and have chosen to spend your leisure time watching and supporting your club.

Therefore, if you want to grumble about a miss or take a break from jumping up and down you should be free to.

If the support from the terraces ebbed and flowed with the game then the efforts of the supporters could truly have a part to play on proceedings. A sudden burst of noise, for example, could provide the players with that adrenaline rush to fuel one last push for that crucial goal.

If they are just treated to the same hypnotic displays that they’ve been hearing since Round 1 though, then the level of tension and excitement befitting the end of the season is not quite the same.

03
Sep
11

All for One

After the tragedy in March the J.League acted swiftly and en masse to help the situation. Further to the official recovery efforts the side closest to the disaster hit region, Vegalta Sendai, embarked upon a fantastic run of results that saw the usual minnows vying at the top of the table.

I spoke to several Vegalta fans to find out just how much of an impact the side’s efforts had had in the area for No. 1 Shimbun.

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.

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

02
Dec
10

The back post – Pixie’s planning pays off

Last month Nagoya Grampus won the J.League for the first time, ending Kashima Antlers’ recent dominance over the division. I considered the key reasons behind this success in my column for the Daily Yomiuri, ‘The Back Post’.

Nagoya Grampus sealed its first ever J.League championship at the weekend, and head coach Dragan “Pixie” Stojkovic should be congratulated on a job very well done.

It is easy to dismiss the Red Whales’ achievement as a direct result of the club’s financial clout, but winning a domestic title is no mean feat, regardless of the budget you are operating on.

There are a host of teams around the world who have tried and failed to buy success, and while many clubs get carried away with the funds available to them often overloading on attacking players Nagoya has taken a slightly more measured approach.

In short, Stojkovic has opted to build a team rather than a bloated collection of individuals. After finishing in ninth place in 2009, sixteen points behind champions Kashima Antlers, seasoned Urawa Reds centerback Marcus Tulio Tanaka, 21-year-old Mu Kanazaki from relegated Oita Trinita and Consadole Sapporo’s Guatemalan enforcer Danilson were all brought in to boost the squad, with Stojkovic suggesting at the start of the season that such acquisitions were vital if the side were to triumph in the league.

The Serb, speaking at the J.League’s “Kick-off Conference” in January, was adamant that success not only comes from having the best players, but also by virtue of having the most options.

“Football is now about the squad and that is why I feel that the team this year is better equipped for success,” he said. “Now we have much more strength-in-depth.”

The wealth of backups available has been invaluable throughout the season, and as their title rivals slowly fell away Nagoya was able to use the full extent of its resources and keep ploughing on.

The first elevens of Shimizu S-Pulse and Gamba Osaka, for example, are both capable of matching Grampus’ first choice lineup, but once injuries and suspensions came into play and these teams lost key players they did not have others of the same calibre to bring in and replace them.

Clubs who would have benefited from experienced squad players such as Igor Burzanovic and Alessandro Santos have not only been handicapped by injuries this season, but the increasing number of J.League players earning moves abroad has also proved a hindrance, with important players moving on and not being replaced.

Kashima lost half of their back four when Atsuto Uchida and Lee Jung Soo departed for pastures new, while perennial runnersup Kawasaki Frontale had the spine ripped from their team when Eiji Kawashima and Chong Tae Se headed to Europe on the back of their impressive World Cup campaigns.

Nagoya, on the other hand, remained intact, and when they did have to deal with injuries they coped with a minimum of fuss. Both Tulio and Kanazaki have been unavailable for selection in recent weeks, for instance, but Mitsuru Chiyotanda and Yoshizumi Ogawa have slotted into the team effortlessly in their absence.

Nagoya’s talismanic front-man and top-scorer Josh Kennedy is well aware of the importance of having top players in reserve, and after a hard-fought win over Jubilo Iwata in March he was effusive in his praise of the squad.

“I think this year that the one thing we do have, we have a really good bench and we should benefit from that. The guys who come on should also be starting; theyd probably start in any other J.League team, so it’s a a big plus for us to have those options.”

Also, while initially appearing to be a disappointment, Kennedy suggested the team’s failure to qualify for the 2010 Asian Champions League may actually have been a blessing in disguise.

“We’ve got a little bit more depth, whereas last season we were stretched with the Champions League and Emperor’s Cup, which took a lot out of us. We didn’t really have the players to back up the starting eleven players and replace people.”

That depth has proved invaluable this time around and, as their closest contenders stumbled along the way, Stojkovic’s careful planning ensured Nagoya was able to stay fresh and focused all the way to the finish line.

01
Dec
10

The best is yet to come

Although they dramatically lost to Jubilo Iwata in the Nabisco Cup Final, Sanfrecce Hiroshima are without doubt one of the most vibrant and enjoyable teams to watch in the J.League. I discussed the reasons for this and what the future may hold for the club in my recent column in Weekly Soccer Magazine. 

Sanfrecce Hiroshima may have suffered heartbreak in last month’s Nabisco Cup Final, but their progress since returning to the top-flight of Japanese football should not be underestimated.

As well as making it to National Stadium for their epic clash with Jubilo Iwata, the Purple Archers have also made their first appearance in the Asian Champions League – qualifying immediately after returning to the top-tier.

Consistency has been the key to this success, with coach Mihailo Petrovic just concluding his fifth year in charge of the club. The Serbian has been given plenty of time to construct his own team, and he has done this intelligently, enabling his players to build an incredibly strong relationship.

It is no surprise that a squad comprising of ten academy graduates have such a close understanding out on the pitch, and the club’s philosophy is unlikely to change in the near future after their youth team were victorious in the Prince Takamado Cup in October.

As well as not being afraid of giving the club’s youngsters opportunities, Petrovic has been intelligent with the players brought in to add to the mix, ensuring that they not only have the relevant qualities to blend with their teammates, but also are able to assist in their education.

The impressive acclimatisation by Sanfrecce is not entirely unique. In the ten years since movement between J1 and J2 was made possible, twenty three teams have been promoted to the top-flight, with just four of them dropping straight back down the next season (although it looks as if Shonan Bellmare will be making it five from twenty six fairly soon).

What is especially refreshing about the achievements of Sanfrecce – and, this year, Cerezo Osaka – though is the fact that they have not abandoned the styles that initially earned them seats at the top table.

Sanfrecce scored 99 goals in the season that led to their promotion back to the top-flight – while Cerezo went one better, securing a century of strikes last year – and both sides still adopt an enthusiastic and adventurous approach in J1.

It could be argued that it is actually these aggressive styles which have caused the two sides to fall away in the league in the latter part of the season though, preventing even more sensational success.

Sanfrecce managed to keep pace for the first three-quarters of last season but when it came to the final straight the players began to tire, with the size of their squad not quite big enough to fully compete with the biggest teams in J1.

After they experienced that almighty collapse at Todoroki at this stage last season – when Frontale defeated them 7-0 and all but ended their title chances – Croatian wide-man Mihael Mikic referred to the demands placed on such a small squad.

“The season is very difficult; the whole team is always running. It’s a non-stop season – you start with training in January and now it’s November. One year non-stop and the summer in Japan is very, very difficult. When it’s the end of the season we don’t have many players in the squad as we always play the same guys and that is very difficult.”

“We are a team who cannot stop and just say, ‘OK, 1-0 or 2-0.’ We go, go, go! Every game we play football. Against Kawasaki or Kashima, Omiya, Oita, we always play the same. At 5-0 Hisato (Sato) said, “Go, we go!”, and I said, “Hisa, easy!” and he says “No, we go!

Such an enthusiastic – if slightly naive – approach was also their undoing against Jubilo. Having been just one minute away from their first piece of silverware when Ryoichi Maeda scored his first goal, the team capitulated in extra time, conceding a further three goals and managing just one of their own in reply.

While they have come up just short again this year – with the demands of the ACL and Nabisco run taking their toll – the team do have time on their side, and if Petrovic can keep the bulk of the squad together it would be very surprising if they are not celebrating a victory of their own very soon.




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