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November 2008

Contrasts in the Emperor’s Cup

27 Nov 2008(Thu)

The opposing attitudes of the managers of Jubilo Iwata and Gamba Osaka towards their Emperor’s Cup fifth round meeting on Wednesday were clear for all to see. J1 survival is the sole priority for 15th-placed Jubilo this season, and only defender Takayuki Chano of the eleven who started the league game against Kashiwa Reysol on Sunday retained his place amongst a second-string line-up consisting largely of youngsters and veterans. By contrast, cup matches are now the main focus for a Gamba side whose chances of finishing in the top three – let alone as champions – in the league have now vanished, and Akira Nishino is desperate to get his hands on the Emperor’s Cup title and the place in next year’s ACL that goes with it. Jubilo did manage to shock their opponents by taking the lead in the very first minute, but Gamba predictably took control soon afterwards, and ultimately secured their passage to the last eight with a comfortable 3-1 win.

 

From an outsider’s perspective, the format of the Emperor’s Cup is a little counterproductive. It makes sense that most of its matches are concentrated in December after the end of the league season, but due in part to clashes with the ACL and the Club World Cup, the fifth round has now joined the fourth in being brought forward to November, where it is overshadowed entirely by the various battles for titles, survival, and promotions in the league. The league match between Jubilo and Kashiwa was played out in front of 14,766 supporters, but only 2,648 people were at the same Yamaha Stadium for the cup game with Gamba just three days later.

 

Gamba’s fourth round match too was only able to attract 3,694 fans to Banpaku, despite it coming just days after the team’s title glory in the ACL. When one considers that switching the venue to the home of their opponents, Ventforet Kofu, would have undoubtedly raised this figure significantly, the seeding system employed in the Emperor’s Cup does seem a little unhelpful. While predetermined venues may be a necessity due to the competition’s compact schedule, J2 clubs would surely enjoy greater economic benefits and chances of progression if they weren’t always forced to take on J1 opponents away from home. The draw in the English FA Cup is entirely random, but in the Coupe de France, sides from Ligue 2 or below are guaranteed home ties whenever they are drawn against teams from the top division. While lesser sides may not actually go on to win these cups in practice, the ‘romance of the cup’ tends to be forgotten in Japan, and third-tier Honda FC’s run to the quarter-finals last year was very much an exception.

 

Having said that, the distractions of the league campaign have put paid to a number of big clubs’ chances in this year’s Emperor’s Cup, which at least makes it harder than ever to predict a winner. On paper, the winner of the Gamba Osaka-Nagoya Grampus tie should be the strongest team remaining thereafter, but Gamba’s participation in the Club World Cup means that this quarter-final will not be played until just a week before the final, and such a tight schedule will not be an advantage to either. Indeed, the two remaining sides from J2, Sagan Tosu and Sanfrecce Hiroshima, may even be good dark horses to actually win the trophy this year. The strange regional hosting system employed for the latter rounds has presented Sagan with an extremely rare opportunity to take on a J1 side (Yokohama F Marinos) at the Tosu Stadium, while Sanfrecce have been able to devote their energies into the Cup since securing the J2 title and a return to the top flight as early as September, and could cause Kashiwa Reysol real problems when they meet in Okayama.

 

With the ACL attracting greater attention in Japan, it has been suggested by some that winning just five games in the space of little over a month in the Emperor’s Cup ought not to be sufficient to gain qualification for the continental stage. However, the presence of such a carrot means that clubs should continue to take the tournament seriously, and the element of luck required in cup football has the effect of ensuring that the Champions League places are not always dominated by the same teams, as they are in England. The Emperor’s Cup boasts a proud history that dates back as far as 1921, but a format and schedule that promotes more open and intense competition will be vital for its future.

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Six sides of the championship dice

22 Nov 2008(Sat)

Titles are often virtually decided when there are three games to go in one of the major European leagues, and even if not, there are rarely more than two teams still in contention by this point. By contrast, as the 2008 J1 season enters its 32nd weekend, six teams still have realistic hopes of claiming the championship, with mathematical possibilities even stretching down as far as Shimizu S-Pulse in ninth. Contrary to popular logic when the old two-stage system was ditched at the beginning of 2004, competition in the J League is seemingly becoming more intense with each passing year.

 

All eyes this weekend will undoubtedly be on the match between Oita Trinita and Kashima Antlers. Currently in fourth, Oita briefly topped the table on matchday 26 after going 13 league games unbeaten, but, despite a first ever piece of silverware in the Nabisco Cup, have only claimed four points from five matches since then, and suffered an embarrassing Emperor’s Cup exit to J2 side Sagan Tosu. Nevertheless, they remain just two points off the top, and even if Trinita do not win the title themselves, their home matches with Kashima and (on the final day) with Nagoya Grampus will surely go a long way towards determining who will. Aside from the Tosu game, Oita are unbeaten at the Kyushu Oil Dome since losing to Gamba Osaka on 2 April.

 

Leaders Kashima remain very much in the driving seat, and should they come through their match with Oita unscathed, a home game with 16th-placed Jubilo Iwata and a trip to hapless Consadole Sapporo will likely pose few problems. However, Kashima have lost to FC Tokyo and drawn 0-0 with Albirex Niigata in recent weeks, while going down 4-3 in the last minute of extra time in last week’s Emperor’s Cup 5th round match with Shimizu cannot have been enjoyable. Further misfortune on Sunday could yet sow doubts in the minds of the players.

 

Top for much of the season, Nagoya have simply forgotten how to win of late. Despite having comfortably made it through to the last eight of the Emperor’s Cup, their league form has been woeful, with a record of no wins, four draws, and two losses since 23 September. The performances of striker Frode Johnsen – who this week announced he will be leaving Grampus at the end of the season – have mirrored that of his team, with his brace against Omiya Ardija in the cup coming off the back of nine league games in which he only found the net once. Nagoya should at least be able to beat Sapporo in their penultimate fixture whatever happens, but if they cannot convert their cup form into goals in the league, away trips to Kyoto Sanga and to Oita will be an uphill struggle.

 

Urawa Reds followed their ACL disappointment with a penalty shoot-out exit at the hands of Yokohama F Marinos in the Emperor’s Cup last week, but their patchy form has at least meant that they can concentrate solely on the league, and they will surely be thinking of nothing less than three points from their home matches with Shimizu and, in an opportunity for quick revenge, with Yokohama. However, the away trip to Gamba Osaka in between could be a stumbling block. With little chance in the league, Gamba’s focus will now shift towards the Emperor’s and Club World Cups, but in what will be their final home game of the season, they may just be keen to ensure that their fierce rivals end the campaign empty-handed.

 

Meanwhile, Kawasaki Frontale may be currently down in fifth, but with the best prospects of any of the top six of claiming maximum points from their last three games, a late title surge may not be beyond them. Sandwiched between a home game with Gamba on Sunday and a trip to relegation-threatened Tokyo Verdy on the final day, Frontale’s biggest hurdle will probably come in the form of Vissel Kobe, who have won five on the bounce in the league. FC Tokyo are currently level with Kawasaki on 51 points, but with a trip to Kobe to make themselves this Sunday, their subsequent games against Albirex Niigata and JEF United Chiba will likely affect the bottom of the table more than they will the top.

 

Aware as I am that the competitive nature of this league is only likely to prove me entirely wrong, my predictions for the rest of the season are given below.

 

Kashima Antlers (currently 1st, 54 points, goal difference +23)

Game 32: Oita (a) – draw 0-0

Game 33: Iwata (h) – win 1-0

Game 34: Sapporo (a) – win 3-0

 

Urawa Reds (2nd, 53 points, GD +15)

Game 32: Shimizu (h) – win 1-0

Game 33: G Osaka (a) – lose 0-1

Game 34: Yokohama FM (h) – win 1-0

 

Nagoya Grampus (3rd, 52 points, GD +10)

Game 32: Kyoto (a) – draw 1-1

Game 33: Sapporo (h) – win 3-0

Game 34: Oita (a) – lose 0-1

 

Oita Trinita (4th, 52 points, GD +8)

Game 32: Kashima (h) – draw 0-0

Game 33: Kashiwa (a) – draw 1-1

Game 34: Nagoya (h) – win 1-0

 

Kawasaki Frontale (5th, 51 points, GD +13)

Game 32: G Osaka (h) – win 2-1

Game 33: Kobe (h) – draw 1-1

Game 34: Tokyo V (a) – win 2-0

 

FC Tokyo (6th, 51 points, GD +5)

Game 32: Kobe (a) – lose 1-2

Game 33: Niigata (h) – win 1-0

Game 34: Chiba (a) – draw 1-1

 

Final table (top six)

(1) Kashima – 61 points, GD +27

(2) Urawa – 59 points, GD +16

(3) Kawasaki – 58 points, GD +16

(4) Oita – 57 points, GD +9

(5) Nagoya – 56 points, GD +12

(6) FC Tokyo – 55 points, GD +5

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From Asian glory to global ambitions

17 Nov 2008(Mon)

Finals are supposed to be nervous affairs, but any tension Gamba Osaka may have felt going into the second leg of the ACL final was wholly relieved within 15 minutes. Having beaten Adelaide United of Australia 3-0 in the first leg at Banpaku a week previously, Gamba once again overwhelmed their opponents in the away fixture, and when Lucas completed a quick-fire brace to give his side a five-goal lead on aggregate, even the most pessimistic of supporters could start popping the champagne. From those who had made the trip to Hindmarsh Stadium to those watching live on screens at Banpaku or in sports bars in Osaka, it was a curious mixture of overwhelming joy and utter disbelief that enveloped Gamba fans everywhere. Despite all the domestic troubles this season, their side had reached the very summit of Asian football.

 

While manager Akira Nishino’s continental aspirations were stoked by watching Urawa Reds’ success last year, even he was forced to admit after the game that ‘we were only looking to get out of the group when we embarked on this ACL campaign, and to be honest, we never even thought about the final’. However, the football that Gamba have played has been worthy of champions from start to finish. Scrambling to a draw with an injury time leveller against Thai minnows Chonburi may not have been an ideal opening result in a group also containing Melbourne Victory and Chunnam Dragons, but Gamba followed this by scoring 12 goals in four straight wins to ensure qualification for the knockout stages with a game to spare. Come autumn, they continued to move through the gears to record triumphant victories in the quarter- and semi-finals against 2006 runners-up Al-Karamah (Syria) and defending champions Urawa, respectively. Nishino had described Urawa’s more defensive route to glory as ‘the total opposite of what I aim to achieve’, and when his team’s momentum carried over into the final, he was able to reflect on the ‘great joy of winning this title by persisting with the Gamba style of football’.

 

An extra-time victory over J2 side Ventforet Kofu in the 4th round of the Emperor’s Cup, played out in front of just 3,694 spectators, was a somewhat low-key homecoming for Gamba, even if the unlikelihood of a top three league finish means that the Cup may well be their only chance of a repeat appearance in next year’s ACL. However, the AFC Professional League Ad Hoc Committee will meet on 25 November to determine the final framework for the 2009 competition, and it is still possible that it may decide to restore the berth reserved for the reigning champions. It is ironic both that Adelaide United had taken a central role in appealing for such a restoration, and indeed that Gamba only qualified in the first place this year thanks to Urawa’s title in 2007, but in any case, it would be a huge shame if Gamba were not given the opportunity to defend their title as kings of Asia. In 2005, the competition rules for the UEFA Champions League were adjusted and a special entry to the following season’s tournament was given to Liverpool, who, despite being European Champions, had not initially qualified through their league position. With Gamba enjoying a growing profile within Asia and the 2009 ACL final set to be a single-legged fixture at the National Stadium in Tokyo, perhaps Captain Saburo Kawabuchi and the rest of the AFC committee will be tempted to follow the European precedent.

 

Of course, the Gamba players and staff will not be overly concerning themselves with such matters at the moment, and as Nishino admits, ‘our target now seems to be moving towards the chance of a match (in the Club World Cup) with Manchester United’. Before this dream semi-final can take place, Gamba must first overcome a quarter-final which, somewhat bizarrely, looks likely to involve a rematch with Adelaide United, but the team is taking things in its stride and appears confident of achieving its next ‘major objective’ of winning at least one game in the FIFA competition. Gamba deserves its day in the sun, and it can only be good for football in this country that such a positive side will be representing Japan and Asia on the global stage.

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Almost there

11 Nov 2008(Tue)

It ended up being far easier than even they could have hoped for. Gamba Osaka took a huge step towards securing a first AFC Champions League title last Wednesday by scoring three times without a single away goal in reply in the first leg of the final against Adelaide United, and if anything, it would have been they and not their opponents to regret that the final scoreline did not entirely reflect the match itself. The moves leading to both of Gamba’s first half goals may have stemmed from Adelaide errors, but the home side outshot their opponents 17 to three, and could easily have won the game by a margin at least five goals. Going into injury time, I joked to my friend that we might still have time for a couple more, but was almost proved right as first Yasuhito Endo’s free kick appeared to have added a fourth – in the excitement behind the goal, no-one noticed the offside flag that had been raised against Roni – and then Masato Yamazaki missed a golden chance moments later.

 

The commentators on Fox Sports in Australia spoke of how Gamba were run on an operating budget of US$47 million (£30 million), while Adelaide had to survive on a turnover of just one tenth of this figure at AUS$7 million (£3 million). The fact that Australian football has made light of the gap in resources to succeed on the Asian stage is proof of its future potential, and even if the J League strengthens its position as the best in the region, Australia will certainly be its most dangerous challengers. However, the performance of Adelaide in this first leg was desperately lacking in substance. The long journey may have taken its toll – and in this sense, playing the first leg at home may be of greater benefit in Asia – but even coach Aurelio Vidmar was at a loss to explain his team’s failings. ‘Whether it was the occasion or nerves that got to us,’ he shrugged, ‘it was just pretty uncharacteristic on our behalf’.

 

The achievement of his opposite number, Akira Nishino, in leading a problem-ridden Gamba side to the brink of continental glory cannot be overemphasised. The league defeat to FC Tokyo on Saturday was excusable after their ACL exploits, but suffering from the impact of injuries, illnesses, and player departures from the very outset, disappointing results have been all too common this season. Gamba won the league in 2005 with a relatively low tally of 60 points, but even though stronger opponents saw them fall to third in both 2006 and 2007, results had actually steadily improved to the extent that they finished with 66 and 67 points respectively. This year, having taken so long to find any rhythm, the team is currently seventh in the table, and will only end up with 56 points even if they win all three of their remaining league matches. The Gamba side of 2008 is by no means a vintage.

 

However, Gamba have found a couple of extra gears for the challenge of the ACL, and throughout the knockout stages in particular, have raised the level of their performance with each passing game. Scoring goals has been the biggest problem domestically since the departure of Bare, but this has not been an issue in the ACL thanks to the form of Lucas and Yamazaki, with the latter appearing especially well suited to Asian competition. Yamazaki has just four goals from 29 league appearances this season, and a meagre seven from 105 when his spells with Yokohama F Marinos and Oita Trinita are added to the total, and yet he is this season’s second highest scorer in the ACL with five strikes to his name. Nishino is not unlike Sir Alex Ferguson in that he has a strong belief in his own judgement and – perhaps as a consequence – can fall out with players from time to time, but for managers like these, results are all that matter. Japanese clubs may be blessed with deeper pockets than most of their regional rivals, but in gearing his players towards the continental crown, Nishino has succeeded where this year’s Urawa Reds and Kashima Antlers could not.

 

Of course, the title is not yet in the bag, and the Adelaide performance in the second leg this Wednesday will likely bear little resemblance to that of a week ago. United demonstrated their firepower in front of goal with a 3-0 home win over Bunyodkor in the semi-final last month, and could yet cause Gamba real problems if allowed to dictate the pace of the game. It is certainly in Gamba’s best interests to approach the second game in a similar manner to the first, as just a single away goal in the net of 17-year-old Mark Birighitti (regular goalkeeper Eugene Galekovic is suspended following his late yellow card last week) would surely end any lingering hope that Adelaide may have. The ACL title, a place in the Club World Cup, and potentially a personal dilemma for me, are now within arm’s reach.

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Date with destiny for Gamba, Osaka, and Japan

5 Nov 2008(Wed)

After a weekend of talking points that saw Oita Trinita pick up their first ever trophy, and the footballers of Kokushikan University twice going ahead against J1 leaders Kashima Antlers in the Emperor’s Cup before suffering defeat on penalties, the attention of Japan and indeed Asia will now be drawn to Suita in the suburbs of Osaka. Having defeated fierce rivals Urawa Reds in the first all-Japanese match-up in AFC Champions League history, Gamba Osaka will attempt to move a step closer to the continental crown when they host the first leg of the final this Wednesday. Coming from behind in Saitama to secure a final berth will already have ranked amongst the club’s finest hours, but Gamba now have the chance to underline the J League’s domination of Asia by ensuring that the ACL trophy remains in Japan for a second year.

 

Their opponents in the final will be Adelaide United, whose success is attracting attention in sports coverage throughout the English-speaking world. United were only formed five years ago following the withdrawal of Adelaide City from the now-defunct National Soccer League, but their rapid rise has mirrored that of Australian football as a whole. The inaugural season of the new A-League in 2005-06 coincided with the national team’s first successful qualification for a World Cup in 32 years, and as founding members, United went on to be crowned as the first ‘premiers’ by finishing top in the regular campaign. Since the Football Federation Australia joined the AFC (Asian Football Confederation), Adelaide have qualified for the ACL in two consecutive seasons, and clinched a place in this year’s final after beating both Kashima and Rivaldo’s new Uzbekistani side Bunyodkor.

 

Both teams have reached the ACL final at the second attempt, but neither can expect to return to the competition next year unless they win the thing outright. Gamba set their sights high at the start of the year, targeting a league and ACL double, but injuries and unexpected departures robbed the side both of balance and of goals for much of the campaign. These problems have likely put paid to Gamba’s league title hopes, but since the beginning of autumn, Akira Nishino’s men have rediscovered their attacking rhythm just in time to keep their hopes alive on the Asian stage. Although hardly steeped in history, the club have developed a taste for success in recent years, and followed up the first league title they achieved in 2005 with victory in the Nabisco Cup last year. If Gamba can add the ACL trophy to their cabinet and set up a potential meeting with Manchester United in the Toyota Cup, they will confirm their status as a major footballing player – at least on the field – in this part of the world.

 

Gamba Osaka’s place in the final and the further treats that may lie in store could have great significance not only for Japan, but for football in the Kansai area in particular. The timing of Gamba’s 2005 championship was wretchedly unfortunate in that it was overshadowed entirely by a Central League pennant for the Hanshin Tigers the same year. This season, however, Hanshin’s failures both in the pennant race and in the Climax Series have now cleared the stage for Gamba to restore sporting pride throughout the region. It is a shame that the Japan Series – being contested between two teams from Kanto – will clash with the first leg of the ACL final, but the baseball will at least be all over come the second leg in a week’s time. The team may not yet share Urawa’s nationwide popularity amongst the public and the media, but the day for Osaka and Gamba to be the centre of national sporting attention has been a long time in coming.

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