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October 2008

First trophy in sight for Chamusca and Oita Trinita

31 Oct 2008(Fri)

The final of the 2008 Yamazaki Nabisco Cup will be played out between Oita Trinita and Shimizu S-Pulse at the National Stadium in Tokyo this Saturday, but as an Englishman with a preference for the Manchester United style of attacking football, I really ought to have little fondness for the former. Trinita have certainly shown their title credentials this season, sitting as they do just two points off the pace in the league, but the main reason for their success has been a defence that is comfortably the meanest in the division.


While Oita have conceded just 23 goals in their 30 league games so far, they have scored just 31 times at the other end – an attacking record even more dismal than that of already-relegated Consadole Sapporo. 21 of their 51 points have, inevitably, been gained through seven 1-0 victories. To put these figures into context, Kawasaki Frontale – level on points with Trinita in third place – have scored 54 goals and conceded 40, meaning that their games bring almost twice as many goals as do Oita’s. The Yokohama F Marinos ‘vintage’ of 2004 scored the fewest goals of any J League champions to date, but even their tally of 47 goals from 30 games is roughly 50% better than the side from Kyushu.


Finally, as a Gamba Osaka supporter, I should also have a number of personal grudges against Trinita. Gamba have lost in all six of their visits to Oita since the latter’s promotion in 2003, while of the four matches I have witnessed in the flesh at Banpaku, the away side have been victorious on three occasions.


However, the fact that I cannot bring myself to dislike Oita Trinita is simply because you just have to respect the achievements of Peracles Chamusca. In the summer of 2005, when I began my first job covering the J League, it seemed as if I would write every week about how another Oita defeat had left them in utter freefall, and after a winless run that ultimately stretched to 13 games across four whole months, manager Hwangbo Kwan was relieved of his duties with Trinita in 17th place. Chamusca was the man flown in to put out this most towering of infernos, but the Brazilian’s effect on the team was stunningly instantaneous. Five wins and a draw were recorded in his first six games as manager, with the side suddenly transformed into one capable of hammering Shimizu 5-0 and winning away at title favourites Gamba. Trinita only had 19 points from the 22 games before his arrival, but their haul of 24 from the remaining 12 matches that year was championship quality, and lifted the team to a final position of 11th. Japan was truly witnessing ‘Chamusca Magic’ at work.


This finish was, at the time, the highest in Trinita’s history, but despite suffering the departure of key striker Magno Alves that winter, Chamusca continued to make improvements in 2006 and ultimately led his side to eighth place in the league. A drop back down to 14th last year saw him face criticism for the first time since his arrival in Japan, but Chamusca typically retained both his confidence and his smile, seizing on this opportunity to work his magic once again. The team have since been given a more defensive focus after shipping 60 goals in the league alone last season, but this number has now been halved without, astonishingly, any significant changes in either formation or defensive personnel (retaining a back three of Taikai Uemoto, Masato Morishige, and Yuki Fukaya; protected by the Brazilian duo of Roberto and Edmilson in midfield). Chamusca’s perseverance and tactical nous have brought Trinita close to glory on two fronts, both in the cup and in the league.


The only issue now is whether or not the side can finish the job. The final straight is often especially tricky for sides lacking experience in cup finals or tense title races, and after going 17 games unbeaten until late September, Oita have won just once and lost three in four games since. Their opponents in the Nabisco Cup final, Shimizu S-Pulse, have by contrast hit real form since a 5-1 win away to FC Tokyo on 4 October, recording victories over title contenders Kawasaki and Gamba in their last two outings. S-Pulse supporters are keen to emphasise the richness of their club’s history in comparison to Trinita, but while it is true that Shimizu did win this competition in 1996 and the Emperor’s Cup in 2001, this Saturday will represent their first visit to the National Stadium in six years since the 2002 Xerox Super Cup. The significance and the future of the Nabisco Cup may remain items for debate, but a final featuring two teams for which such glories are so rare will be something to look forward to, both for their supporters and for neutral fans alike.

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The bigger they are, the harder they fall

21 Oct 2008(Tue)

Consadole Sapporo’s relegation was confirmed on Sunday with a home defeat at the hands of Kashiwa Reysol, but 24 hours earlier, one of Japan’s biggest names suffered a major blow as they try to preserve their own top flight status. Jubilo Iwata never did look likely to beat an increasingly dominant Gamba Osaka despite opening the scoring, but having somehow kept the scores level until the 89th minute, the timing of Gamba’s winner was typical of the luck that tends to desert those in danger of the drop. Jubilo may be the most historically successful Japanese side ever to find themselves in such a perilous position, but as their own coach, Hans Ooft, said after the match, ‘no team is ever too good to go down’.


Even so, it would still mark a massive fall from grace if Jubilo were to line up in J2 next season. The seven seasons to 2003 saw a fantastic golden era in Iwata, with six stage titles, three overall championships, and further single successes in the Nabisco Cup, Emperor’s Cup, and Asian Club Championship. The team has not challenged for titles since 2004 but did not finish outside of the top six until last year – Jubilo’s worst ever – but even then, they were never in danger of relegation and still ended up with a top half finish in ninth place. Supporters were unhappy that their side had been overtaken by local rivals Shimizu S-Pulse, but the idea of the Shizuoka derby disappearing altogether with Iwata’s relegation would have been utterly unthinkable.


One big name to have suffered the shame of the drop is Tokyo Verdy, but their decline was somewhat more gradual. Although they had won the first two league and Xerox Super Cup titles, as well as the first three Nabisco Cups, while still based in Kawasaki, not even a move to the capital city could stem a slump in fortunes that culminated in relegation in 2005. Verdy could only finish seventh in their first season in J2, but returned to J1 at the second attempt last year. Of course, Urawa Reds – now surely the biggest team in the country – also tasted the embarrassment of J2 football for a year in 2000, but this was back when Shinji Ono was just 20 and the club had never won a title of any sort, let alone the crowns of Japan and Asia they have since secured in their fabulous Saitama Stadium.


However, just because Verdy and Urawa made it quickly back to J1, status is no guarantee of a similarly instant return if Jubilo were to be relegated. Cerezo Osaka went down just a year after missing out on the 2005 J1 title at the very death, but their hopes of bouncing back immediately were damaged with three straight defeats at the start of last season, and a current position of sixth would suggest that their spell in J2 is likely to be extended to three years at the least. One of their rivals for promotion, Shonan Bellmare, ushered in their own golden era in 1994 with Emperor’s Cup victory and a runner-up finish in the second stage championship, before the likes of Hidetoshi Nakata, Wagner Lopes, and Hong Myung-Bo helped them lift the Asian Cup Winners’ Cup in 1996. Bellmare were relegated just three years later and are now in their ninth season in the second division, but this is the first year that they have actually challenged for a return.


Big clubs like Jubilo Iwata are naturally associated with big players, but a look at their line-up on the Banpaku scoreboard on Saturday underlined how the stars are now conspicuous only by their absence. When Jubilo joined the J League, their calculated and strategic development policies contributed greatly to what, at the time, were unparalleled levels of success. Strengthening the team initially by bringing in top foreign players such as Dunga and Salvatore Schillaci, Jubilo then sought to build a side around the Japanese players, like Toshiya Fujita and Hiroshi Nanami, who had grown up and developed under these mentors from a young age. However, people like Nanami and Masashi Nakayama have grown old, names like Fujita and Takashi Fukunishi have left the club, and this development policy has not been enough to continue the success into a new generation. In an increasingly competitive league, not even the famous clubs can take their survival for granted any longer.

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Gamba vs. Urawa – Mixed emotions

14 Oct 2008(Tue)

The break for World Cup qualifiers will have come at just the right time for the players of Gamba Osaka and Urawa Reds following their efforts in the first leg of their AFC Champions League semi final last Wednesday, but with the dust now having settled, it is Urawa that remain clear favourites to progress. The Reds cannot have enjoyed being dominated by a greatly rejuvenated Gamba side throughout the second half, nor to have lost the goal lead they had somehow defended until the 81st minute to a Yasuhito Endo penalty kick, while Gert Engels has hardly been helped by the fact that three of his players will miss the second leg through suspensions for yellow cards. However, Gamba were once again unable to convert their chances into goals, and though they were saved by the penalty on this occasion, they will have desperately wanted to turn their momentum into a win to take into the second leg in Saitama on October 22.


Of course, it will not have felt like this at the final whistle. The first half was far from the kind of spectacle that either club would have wanted to show to the rest of Asia, and was particularly depressing from the home side’s perspective after they fell behind to a Hajime Hosogai strike after 22 minutes, but the second period saw Gamba produce the kind of attacking football that has eluded them since Bare’s departure in July. An equaliser looked certain, with Tomokazu Myojin coming closest when his shot hit the crossbar via the head of Yuki Abe, and both players and fans alike erupted in joy when the late penalty was finally converted. Akira Nishino deserves much praise for having generated such attacking rhythm despite the loss of key players to injury, but Gamba’s shortage of personnel is obvious when the player called upon as emergency striker is Brazilian defender Mineiro – whose limitations in his actual position have seen him virtually cast aside all season. If only Gamba had more players that could shoot at goal with any confidence, we might have seen a scoreline closer to the 4-0 and 5-2 wins they recorded over the same opposition in two cup matches last season.


Gamba will, however, admittedly have taken plenty of positives from this game, and it will be highly interesting to see how both managers approach their clubs’ respective league games this Saturday. With six matches to play, Gamba are both six places and six points off the top of the table, and may be torn as to their priorities with the title neither looking likely nor yet impossible. At home to relegation-threatened Jubilo Iwata, Nishino will have a number of decisions to make as he ponders whether to rest players or build momentum ahead of the second Urawa game, and indeed how best to handle Michihiro Yasuda and his other players returning from injury.


Engels has similar dilemmas to consider at Urawa, and will need judge whether or not to prepare the players who will replace his suspended trio against Gamba, such as goalkeeper Norihiro Yamagishi, with starting berths against Vissel Kobe. However, in the midst of a tight championship battle as they are, the first priority for Urawa will be to secure a first win for four games and try to close the three-point gap to Kashima Antlers and Nagoya Grampus. Be it through a top three finish or through ACL victory itself, a place on the Asian stage next season is a minimum requirement for both teams, and as we head into the climax of the 2008 season, they each have much to gain, to lose, and to balance.

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Making history: The national derby on the Asian stage

8 Oct 2008(Wed)

Beginning this Wednesday with the first leg at Banpaku, the AFC Champions League (ACL) semi-final between Gamba Osaka and Urawa Reds will, quite simply, represent the biggest pair of matches in Japanese club football history. Back in 2000, Jubilo Iwata did beat Kashima Antlers 1-0 in the group stage of the ACL’s predecessor, the Asian Club Championship, but this will be the first meeting of two Japanese sides since the inauguration of the Champions League, and to its winners will go the right to compete for overall glory and a place in the FIFA Club World Cup. With four J League representatives set to compete in an expanded ACL next season, the potential for similar matchups and perhaps further success will only increase, but for now, Japan has a chance to underline its league’s claim to be the best in Asia.


Meanwhile, the fierce ‘National Derby’ rivalry that simmers between Urawa and Gamba is only likely to bring further intensity to the occasion. A repeat of May’s league meeting, where violence erupted both on the pitch and in the stands, will certainly not be tolerated, but these two teams have the ability to put on a close, thrilling battle for the watching public. In the final game of the J League first stage in 2004, Gamba came from two goals behind to secure a 3-2 win at the expense of Urawa, but both teams showed enough potential that day to suggest they would be future title candidates. As two of the new ‘Big 3’ alongside Kashima Antlers, the pair have fought to the last – at least up to last season – for every single championship since that year’s second stage.


Urawa were crowned champions of Asia last year, and with a sea of red covering almost half the stadium even when the pair meet at Banpaku, the Reds are certainly a bigger club than Gamba in virtually every sense. However, the Osaka side too have had their sights set on a first continental title since the outset of this campaign, and with their chances of regaining the domestic crown looking slim, they are hardly likely to surrender their ACL dreams easily. In Saturday’s match with league leaders Kashima, yet more troubles in front of goal denied them a possible victory, but they will at least have been encouraged by the manner of their play and the steadfastness of their defence. Urawa, meanwhile, are now without a win in three following a 3-2 defeat to 16th-placed JEF United Chiba on Sunday, and it seems that form may be deserting them at the worst possible stage in the season.


This semi-final is also one of the most significant games in the history of the ACL. The 2006 champions, Jeonbuk Motors, defeated Ulsan Horang-i in an all-Korean semi-final that year, but you have to go back to the Asian Club Championship for another meeting between two sides from the same country. Meanwhile, in addition to the 2006 title, K League sides were victorious in five of the last seven Asian Club Championships between 1996 and 2002, and alongside Saudi Arabia, have dominated Asian club football in recent years. Both Jeonbuk and Ulsan were also able to record victories over Japanese opposition in 2006, which resulted in group stage exits for Gamba Osaka and Tokyo Verdy, respectively. However, Urawa turned the tide by beating the Korean side Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma on penalties in the last four twelve months ago, and the winner of their tie with Gamba will now have the chance to usher in a new era of Japanese supremacy in continental club football.


Clubs with deeper financial resources in the Middle East and Uzbekistan (notably FC Bunyodkor, who have managed to attract Brazilian legends Zico, as manager, and Rivaldo to their club) will undoubtedly present a threat in future, but amidst all the anticipation and tension, Gamba and Urawa must for now focus all their energies towards kick-off on Wednesday. The Reds were praised by the Asian Football Confederation for having taken the ACL to a new level after 60,000 fans celebrated their title last season, but with all of Asia now focused on Japan, it is vital that the incidents of May are forgotten and that this match makes headlines for all the right reasons. For each of the teams, it is a stage to show what both they and their league are capable of.

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No letting up at top or bottom

4 Oct 2008(Sat)

Playing everyone else once at home and once away is easily the fairest and most balanced manner of league competition, but though I was strongly in favour of the J League’s adoption of this system in 2005, part of me was still a little sad to lose the South American style two-stage format. The first season I saw in Japan was the 2003 second stage, when the destiny of the title changed hands between three different teams in the final minutes of the final day, while a relatively brief burst of form the following year saw my team, Gamba Osaka, transformed into unlikely title contenders. A move away from the shorter, four-month stages appeared likely to make the congested league tables of 2003 a thing of the past, while Gamba’s inconsistency suggested that prolonging a title assault over an entire year might be asking too much.


How wrong I was. 2005 saw a five-way title race go down to the final day of the season, with Gamba taking the championship in the very last minute. Urawa Reds clinched their first title in 2006 in a final day shootout with Gamba, before dramatically surrendering their crown to Kashima Antlers last year after a shock December defeat to hapless bottom club Yokohama FC. The tension this year, meanwhile, continues to rise to new heights.


A look at the current J1 league table reveals that a gap of six points has now opened up between Gamba in seventh place and Shimizu S-Pulse in eighth, but it is within this gap that the boundary line between the title and relegation battles is drawn. With the exception of Consadole Sapporo, who are already virtually certain to drop back to J2, every single team in the division remains deeply embroiled in either of the contests at the top and bottom. Ahead of the 28th round of matches this weekend, a run of poor results this autumn could yet see even Shimizu and ninth-placed Kyoto Sanga in danger of relegation, despite the pair having still been considered title outsiders mere weeks ago. With the top seven sides separated by just six points, and a gap of just eight points between eighth and the automatic relegation spot of 17th, every single point earned could be vital for any of the teams, while few matches now will have little significant impact on the league table.


The front page of Friday’s El Golazo newspaper carries Sunday’s match between JEF United Chiba (30 points), currently heading for a relegation/promotion playoff in 16th place, and Urawa Reds in fourth (47 points) as its lead story, but two of the matches kicking off at 3pm this Saturday will have major implications for the title chances of each of their respective contestants. Both fifth-placed Kawasaki Frontale (45 points) and third-placed Oita Trinita (47 points) are aiming for their first ever pieces of silverware, but while the winner of their meeting at Todoroki will be galvanised ahead of the remainder of the campaign, defeat for either could represent a fatal blow. Meanwhile, Gamba Osaka (43 points) will surely lose any remaining chance of title glory themselves should they fail to extend their current winning streak of five games against leaders Kashima (49 points) at Banpaku.


While Gamba’s results have at least recovered after the team went ten games without victory following Bare’s departure, their level of performance will need to be improved dramatically if they are to stand a chance of beating a team of Kashima’s stature. Despite a two-goal and one-man advantage in Wednesday night’s home match with Kashiwa Reysol, the team grew highly cautious and defensive in the second half, and although a 2-1 victory was ultimately secured, this was a missed opportunity to return to their famous attacking play and generate some much needed impetus. Gamba’s league campaign now depends entirely on whether or not they are able to steal both momentum and three points away from the defending champions.

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