Posts Tagged ‘Manchester United

08
Jun
12

Zaccheroni works to keep Samurai Blue tightly focused

Japan got off to a terrific start in the final round of World Cup Qualifiers with a 3-0 win against Oman on Sunday.

After that game and at training this week I gathered the thoughts of manager Alberto Zaccheroni and some of his players on their next match, which is against Jordan at Saitama Stadium tonight.

23
May
12

Hopeless

When all’s lost, there’s always hope. Why? Why can’t there just be nothing…

As the cliché goes, it’s the hope that kills you.

Bearing that in mind, as a Manchester United fan I had done my best not to have any; I was hopeless, you could say.

Even when United were eight points clear with just six games to go I refused to say that it was over – that the twentieth title was in the bag.

I remember a Japanese friend laughing at my hesitancy, and deep down I have to admit that it felt as good as done.

But as good as done is not good enough, and with each subsequent game things started to slowly unravel.

Defeat to Wigan was a hiccup, but Sir Alex would surely give the team a kick up the arse and have them back in gear again for the next game.

And that he did, they beat Villa and were then at home to Everton. 4-2 up with seven minutes to go, it looked like another step towards an improbable triumph – don’t forget, United themselves had made up a five-point gap on their “noisy neighbours” Manchester City to establish their lead on the final straight.

But again they messed up, and two goals conceded in three minutes turned a vital three points into one and, in my opinion (and that of Patrice Evra), cost them the title.

As I so often touch upon when discussing the J.League, the psychological aspects of football are absolutely crucial, and that slip-up undoubtedly threw the players off their concentration and introduced nervousness at the worst possible time.

Next came the derby with City, and with their expensively-assembled squad sensing blood the unthinkable came true and they ground out the win that took them back to the top of the table.

But, don’t forget, there’s always hope. Goddammit, there’s always hope.

Both teams won their next games meaning it would all be decided on the final day of the season.

Thankfully City were at home to QPR though, so it was inevitable they’d win and take the title. I didn’t have to get my hopes up.

Things progressed as expected and they took a first half lead through their Argentinean full-back Pablo Zabaleta. Still, with United also leading against Sunderland, just one goal would send the trophy to the red half of Manchester instead.

There it was again, like those annoying and unavoidable Japanese politicians who drive down your street repeating nothing but their name over and over again; always in the background.

And just after half-time somebody decided to turn the volume up. Djibril Cisse equalised for QPR and United went top. I refused to celebrate or be tricked into anything though, knowing full well that Mark Hughes’ side wouldn’t be able to hold on for the best part of 40 minutes.

My heart-rate was helped a little by Joey Barton a few minutes later, bless him, when he did what he does best and acted like an absolute bell-end to get himself sent off before trying to start a fight with half of the city of Manchester as he left the pitch.

“Ok, just as I thought, there’s no chance. The title’s City’s.”

Then the car stopped right outside my apartment. The noise was deafening and it was all but impossible to ignore: Jamie Mackie had put QPR ahead. City needed two goals.

By this point I don’t mind admitting I was in quite a state. I couldn’t sit still but had nowhere to go. Time couldn’t move quickly enough. In fact, I felt sure it wasn’t moving at all.

All I knew was that I couldn’t do it. Whatever it took I wasn’t to think about it. It was impossible. City were going to win.

But 90 minutes were up. It was still 2-1 to QPR and I did it, I gave in to hope. And that was it. A couple of minutes, a couple of goals and everything was snatched away.

I said that the draw with Everton was what cost the title but I can’t help but feel I’m also partly to blame. I was seduced and – to return to my laboured metaphor – I returned a wave to that irritant and his incessantly-smiling cronies in their white gloves, and I paid the price.

I certainly won’t let it happen again.

I hope.

16
Nov
11

Difference between Dwight and wrong

Sometimes, if nothing else is working, bringing in a new coach and some fresh ideas can be just what the doctor ordered. All too often these days football clubs jump to this last resort a little too quickly though…

Sir Alex Ferguson, probably the most successful manager ever, has just celebrated his 25th anniversary in charge of Manchester United.

He has been on the bench for over 1,400 matches, and, despite a difficult start at the club, things clicked into place in his fourth season when United won the FA Cup in 1990.

Three years later, his seventh as manager, United finally won the league and, in his quarter of a century at the helm to-date, 37 trophies have been won – including 12 Premier League titles.

Now, of course, Sir Alex is a freak and it would be ridiculous to compare the fate of 99% of the world’s other managers with him.

However, his record and the patience with which he was treated in his early days at United do raise an interesting question: was he given time because those in charge sensed success, or did the achievements come about because he was given time?

Football has changed in many ways since Sir Alex took the reins at a struggling United in 1986. The increasing effect of money on the sport and the consequent – and ridiculous – expectations of sponsors and supporters mean that it would be very difficult to display such loyalty in the modern era.

However, constantly chopping and changing the guy in charge does not mean you will enjoy success, as two of the J.League’s biggest clubs have recently demonstrated.

Urawa Reds have struggled since they won the Asian Champions League in 2007. This has been by far their worst season in recent years, and they had little choice but to fire Zeljko Petrovic after their former player led them into the heart of the relegation battle (and particularly after he announced to the media his decision to quit at the end of the season before informing his bosses).

That does mean they have had four head coaches in as many years since they became kings of the continent though, and you can’t help but wonder how much better off they’d have been if they’d given one of their German coaches another season or two to build a team.

A more bizarre example is provided by JEF United who, the day after Petrovic was sacked, announced that their coach Dwight Lodeweges was also on his way.

At the time, despite having lost two games in a row, JEF were just three points away from a place in J1.

They may have been disappointed not to be more certain of a return to the top-flight, but even before the season had started Dwight had told me that promotion to J1 was not being taken for granted.

“I do want promotion, absolutely. I’ve got no idea how real that is, I mean, can we?” he said. “I’m more or less busy with putting a foundation underneath this team and building from there. I’m not really looking at J1, I’m looking at how do I get the team better. And if that is enough to get promotion, yeah, beautiful. If not, maybe it’ll take another year.”

He also touched upon the club’s fall from grace prior to his arrival, suggesting that perhaps those in the front office had not made the best decisions.

“You’ve got to wonder, you’ve got to analyse what has happened there. Not from me because I wasn’t here in the past, but I think if you’re the club.”

Those at the top may have been far from enthralled with the style of football, but to replace him with technical director Sugao Kanbe at such a crucial point of the season was bewildering. And it didn’t work.

The three games they played after giving Lodeweges the boot yielded just two points and one goal, effectively condemning JEF to the second division for a third straight season.

In an earlier column on promotion from J2 I quoted Dwight who had said, “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.” Never has that seemed a more fitting observation.

Both Reds and JEF, with their trigger-happy approaches to recruitment, should provide a lesson to other aspiring clubs.

While it is important to keep things fresh and avoid stagnation, consistency is often key. Sometimes change is not for the best.

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.

15
Apr
11

Gotta catch ’em all…

Suits say the funniest things…

A couple of weeks ago so much of what I hate about the English Premier League was summed up by one man in a suit. Gavin Law is his name and he is the group head of corporate affairs of Standard Chartered – the bank that this year became Liverpool FC’s shirt sponsor in the most expensive deal ever (20 million pounds per season).

The combination of the words ‘corporate’ and ‘football’ instantly sends a shiver down my spine but Mr. Law’s recent comments – when he suggested that the bank would like Liverpool to sign some Asian players for commercial gain – annoyed me, even by the standards I usually set for the bilge spouted by people in his profession.

He was quoted by The Independent and Liverpool Echo as saying:

“We would love the club to have players of nationalities from the markets in which we operate. They are not going to get them from all 75 but if they could sign some – if they could get a Korean, Indian, Chinese player – look what Park [Ji-sung] has done for [Manchester] United in terms of coverage in Korea.

Oh no…

“Liverpool are more aware than most other clubs we’ve spoken to of the commercial opportunity for them. If they can sell a million shirts with another Mr. Park on the back, why wouldn’t you?” 

Mr. Law, please stop before you say something really stupid…

“The markets in Asia and the Middle East are so nationalistic, they are very proud about their countries. One appearance from a player, say from Dubai in the Premier League, and you’d have the whole of Dubai watching it.”

Ah, like that.

“The Kenny magic is all around the world, everybody believes Kenny can take the club (forward) and that means they stay focused and that means they stay in the newspapers around the world… we are looking for brand awareness.”

Let’s leave it there shall we?

Ok, the problems with these comments are fairly obvious, but let’s take a second to dissect them a little.

Firstly, there is the suggestion that the club could collect nationalities from Asia and the Middle-East, rather like Pokemon. Footballing ability appears to be a secondary concern, as long as they can catch them all (although Mr. Law seems a bit put-out that limits on squad size would prevent this becoming a reality).

Then the example of Park Ji-sung; a player who’s popularity in Korea – and Manchester – is such because he is a key member of Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad. He was not signed because of how many t-shirts the club can sell in Korea – or Manchester – (they sold plenty without him), but because of what he brings on the pitch.

To assume that “Kenny” would gladly sign any old “Mr. Park” to increase shirt sales implies that Mr. Law is not as close a confidante of the Liverpool caretaker-manager as his casual first-name-terms approach would suggest.

Next up, the declaration that “the markets” – I guess in non-corporate-speak you could refer to them as “people” – “in Asia and the Middle East are so nationalistic”.

Mr. Law, let’s call him Gavin, not only suggests here that he is more than willing to exploit the fans in this part of the world, but he is also foolish enough to declare it publicly.

Furthermore, while supporters here are perhaps slightly more enthusiastic consumers than elsewhere, they are also becoming more cynical of the European clubs’ motivations – because of idiotic statements like those made by Gavin – and tend now to wait until a player achieves success before they get too excited.

Unfortunately, comments like these from people with no understanding of the game can only hinder the steady progression of Asian players’ in Europe. Just as the likes of Shinji Kagawa and Yuto Nagatomo begin to establish themselves in the top leagues, attention has been rediverted to their commercial potential.

Rather than opening the door to the likes of Keisuke Honda – who is reportedly angling for a move to the Premier League – I would advise such players to perhaps take these views into account before deciding their next move, and to maybe join a club which exhibits a genuine interest in their abilities on the pitch rather than the impact they can have on the profits off it.

17
Jan
11

Cup of Kings

There may no longer be a huge amount of prestige attached to winning the English FA Cup – largely because there is no real benefit of winning the tournament – but the winners of the football association cup in Japan certainly have an extra incentive.

Although many see the Emperor’s Cup as little more than a consolation prize, I am happy that the winners get Japan’s fourth and final Asian Champions League spot. As far as I’m concerned, winning a trophy is more of an achievement than finishing fourth in the league and the ‘Champions’ league should be contested by champions.

Speaking after Kashima defeated Shimizu on New Year’s Day, Oswaldo Oliveira was delighted to have won the competition for the second time and his comments highlighted the importance of adding the extra incentive of a Champions League spot to the competition.

“I was worrying about this (qualifying for the Champions League) because it will be our fourth time to play in the tournament since 2008. If we missed out on 2011, I would feel very sad.”

“I couldn’t allow myself to end the year without winning a title so this victory means a lot to me.”

Match-winner Takuya Nozawa also reflected on the value of the victory, commenting that, “We really wanted to qualify for the Asian Champions League and we got it done. Although we weren’t able to win four straight J.League titles I feel that in part we made up for it by winning the Emperor’s Cup.”

This hits the nail on the head, and while a strong league finish demonstrates consistency over the course of the season it does not bring with it the same thrills and tensions as a cup run. Players should want to be winning trophies rather than finishing in third place in the league.

Last weekend was the third round of the famous English FA Cup – the tournament on which the Emperor’s Cup is based. Despite the history and tradition attached to this trophy however, very few of England’s big teams are really too concerned with the competition any more, with fourth place in the Premier League offering more financial gain and the chance of Champions League football. The FA Cup does not currently provide a gateway to that continental competition.

In last year’s third round – when Premier League teams enter the draw – Manchester United lost at home to Leeds United, who are now playing in the third tier of English football, while Liverpool fell to defeat against Championship side Reading at Anfield; both teams had bigger fish to fry.

This lack of interest in the cup was then contrasted by the depressingly over-the-top celebrations by Tottenham Hotspur when they beat Manchester City to secure fourth-place in the Premier League.

Champagne corks were popping and the manager, Harry Redknapp, was showered by a bucket of iced water as the players celebrated their achievement.

Redknapp, who had won the FA Cup with his former side Portsmouth in 2008, made it abundantly clear which success he valued more greatly, exclaiming that.

“It’s even better than winning the Cup. The Cup you can win with some lucky draws. You all know that if you can get some nice draws, three or four wins and you are there. But I think this a better achievement.”

He then continued by claiming that, having secured a qualification spot for the European competition, his team’s final league position didn’t actually matter too much.

“I just wanted to finish fourth but the chairman has just asked me who Arsenal are playing on Sunday and I think he wants to see if we can finish above them. I’m just happy with fourth.”

This is a sad indication of the plight of modern football, with finishing fourth in one competition – not even a medal position in other sports – being deemed of greater value than coming first in another.

Unfortunately, such an attitude is understandable though, and, while it would be great for teams to want to win a trophy for nothing more than prestige and glory, the financial pressures on professional clubs these days mean that is just not realistic.

By having the final ACL position tied up with victory in the Emperor’s Cup, the JFA is doing better than the English FA in keeping its teams interested in its cup competition though, and as long as that bonus is attached to lifting the trophy, J.League teams will have to keep treating the tournament with respect.

01
Dec
10

Oversensitivity

After a year-and-a-half living in Japan I had almost forgotten that football fans could get quite nasty. The recent will-he-won’t he involving Wayne Rooney and the two Manchester clubs reminded me of how high passions can run though, and provided the subject of my column for Weekly Soccer Magazine at the start of November.

A few weeks ago Wayne Rooney shocked football fans the world over by declaring that he wanted to leave Manchester United. He claimed that the club was lacking in ambition and that he felt he needed to move on.

Rumours immediately started that he would be heading to newly-rich neighbours Manchester City and, during United’s Champions League match with Bursaspor of Turkey, fans unfurled a collection of banners expressing their anger with the player’s actions (including one calling him a ‘whore’).

A couple of days later, a gang wearing balaclavas gathered outside the player’s house and made death threats. They (and he) needn’t have worried though, as he decided to stay in the end and was reportedly rewarded with a nice new £180,000 (¥23,000,000) a week contract.

All very exciting, but why am I discussing it in my column on Japanese football? I hear you ask.

Well, this episode and the reaction it sparked in the fans highlighted one of the biggest differences between supporters – and what is acceptable behaviour by them – in England and Japan.

In particular, the fury stirred up by the suggestion that Rooney may follow his ex-strike partner Carlos Tevez across the city and swap the red shirt for a blue one provided an interesting contrast to the way that rivalries are played out in the J.League.

In the past couple of months here, the GM of Urawa Reds has had to issue a formal apology to FC Tokyo after some of the club’s fans displayed a banner mocking their rivals, and Gamba Osaka supporters were reprimanded for raising flags bearing the trophies their club had won as a direct taunt to the visiting Cerezo Osaka fans behind the opposite goal.

Nobody’s life was threatened, no physical contact had occurred but the message was clear; goading of the opposition is not acceptable.

But why? I’m all for safety, fair play and a wholesome, rounded, enjoyable environment in which people of all ages, races and sexes can enjoy the game. Quite how a teasing flag here or cleverly-worded chant there calls this into doubt is a little beyond me though.

At Old Trafford there is a permanent banner featuring a counter of the number of years the blue half of the city have gone without winning a trophy (currently 34). City, meanwhile, shortly after snatching Tevez from United, launched a series of billboard ads to antagonise the Red Devils featuring an image of the striker and reading “Welcome to Manchester”.

Furthermore, a huge percentage of the songs sung in English football stadiums are not in support of a team but instead directed against the opponent (or the referee). While instances such as those mentioned above suggest that the tide is changing a little in Japan, the majority of fans here still focus all of their attention on supporting their team and very little abusing the other ones.

There has, of course, been a lot more time for rivalries to develop in England, and it is not always easy to keep them confined to playful songs or flags. The wave of hooliganism that shamed the game in the 70s and 80s has been almost totally removed though, and the banter in the stadiums is a defining characteristic and vital element of the English game.

In fact, I feel that that is one of the only things missing from the live football experience in Japan.

Instead of the authorities overreacting to the slightest piece of baiting in J.League arenas, the positive impact a little tension can have on the atmosphere in stadiums should be appreciated.

While it is understandable to have concerns about heading down a road towards potential conflict, physical violence is highly unlikely to become a problem in the country, and I actually believe that allowing a little animosity to creep into the atmosphere at the stadium would add to the allure of going to a live match rather than detract from it.     

If such oversensitivity continues though, and supporters continually have their attempts at creating a little bit of hostility stamped down upon, then the league may never be able to truly develop into one of the most exciting in the world.




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