Posts Tagged ‘Mihael Mikic

16
May
12

All bets are off

When it comes to calling the outcome of games my luck has been well and truly out of late. Then again, is anybody able to predict what will happen in the J.League…? 

I’m tempted to give up.

I always like to try and call the outcome of games with fellow journalists and fans ahead of matches, but in recent weeks almost every single prediction I have made has been wrong.

Perhaps worryingly for somebody in my profession my woeful inaccuracy is actually starting to become something of a defining characteristic.

I have never been one to benefit financially from betting on games, at university I used to buy a weekly “accumulator” – where a couple of pounds could become hundreds if the outcome of a handful of matches was correctly guessed – without ever coming close to striking it lucky.

Granted, I never did quite as badly as a friend who burst into the living room one Saturday afternoon with a list of about 20 matches which would have earned him tens of thousands, only to discover that the first one had already finished unfavourably, but my poor form did continue with my first few Toto attempts in Japan.

I’m now ¥100 a week better off after kicking that habit.

Rather surprisingly considering my lack of form in the field, last season I provided J.League game previews for a sports gambling website, part of which involved me having to guess the result.

After the first two rounds I had a fairly poor record and was reminded that my success rate would have an impact on whether or not I held onto the job.

I usually try my best to take negative feedback on board, but not that time.

I pointed out to my employer that part of the beauty of football – particularly in Japan – is that you never know for sure who is going to come out on top, before adding that the entire betting industry is built upon the premise of people thinking they know what is going to happen when they don’t.

They said they understood and I didn’t receive any more complaints – although, as I said, I no longer have that job. Hmm…

Anyway, thankfully it is not only me who struggles, and J.League players, too, are bemused by the lack of predictability in their division.

I recently interviewed Urawa Reds’ Tomoaki Makino, and he cited the erratic results in J1 as his favourite aspect of the domestic league.

“Compared to other leagues you don’t know which team is going to become champions,” he said.

“In Spain it is Barcelona or Real, Germany is Bayern or Dortmund. Japan is not like that. Every team has a chance to win the league. That’s the best, most interesting thing about football in Japan.”

Makino’s former Sanfrecce teammate Mihael Mikic agrees that the almost random nature of results makes for a fascinating competition.

“It’s unbelievable. At the beginning of this year I was thinking about who can be champions, and I thought it would be maybe from five or six teams,” the Croatian told me after his team’s 4-1 win over Kawasaki Frontale moved them into second place.

“Then I was thinking about who will go to J2. I thought maybe Sapporo, Tosu and, I was thinking third, I don’t know.

“But now Tosu is up and only Sapporo stays [lower down], so I don’t know who will go to J2 next year! It’s unbelievable how this league is so close.”

The three most recent champions – Kashiwa Reysol, Nagoya Grampus, and Kashima Antlers – all found themselves in the bottom half of the division after ten games, while unfancied sides such as Tosu, Shimizu S-Pulse and, of course, early pacesetters Vegalta Sendai are riding high.

It is tempting to suggest that those clubs will of course slip-up at some point soon, and that the natural order will be resumed, but recent seasons suggest that may not be the case.

Nobody expected Reysol to be so consistently good last year (or appalling this), for example, and Mikic feels that psychology is vital.

“I think this year the race will be very, very tight and who keeps their nerve and their confidence will win the league.”

Well, I think it’s fair to say that I’m losing my nerve, and my confidence is shot so perhaps I should give the predictions a rest for a while and just enjoy the games?

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.

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.

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.

27
Oct
10

The Back Post – Sanfrecce’s Seeds of Success

Sanfrecce Hiroshima have had a great couple of years since they returned to the top-flight of Japanese football in 2009.

My latest column for the Daily Yomiuri focuses on some of the reasons behind their success and can be found here




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