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June 2009

Pressure at both ends

29 Jun 2009(Mon)

When the J. League schedule was announced back in January, the prospect of an away trip to Oita Trinita in the immediate aftermath of a last sixteen, winner-takes-all battle in the AFC Champions League was so unwelcome a prospect that Kashima Antlers fans must have wondered what the league, the JFA, and the fixtures computer had against them. Come the last weekend in June, and a reversal in fortunes so drastic that Pericles Chamusca’s watertight title challengers of 2008 have amassed just four points and conceded more goals already than they did in total last season, it turns out that the calendar could not, in fact, have been kinder. Even after a spirited start from their hosts at the Kyushu Oil Dome, and the concession of a 54th-minute opener to Hiroshi Kiyotake, the champions could afford to be a long way short of their best and still become the twelfth successive league opposition to put Trinita to the sword, maintaining their points lead over Albirex Niigata at seven and extending a run of consecutive league wins to the same figure as they did so.

 

Nevertheless, the feeling still persists that, in the wake of another huge disappointment in the premier continental competition, the true credentials of Oswaldo de Oliveira’s team are about to be severely tested for the first time this year. Bowing out of the ACL to FC Seoul on penalties may not just have been about the pressure of the occasion – Kashima were unfortunate that the Koreans are currently enjoying their best run of form all year – but after speaking last week about how their cushion at the top of J1 would allow them to focus on that first Asian title as long as they overcame the first hurdle, their failure to do so means an immediate switch of emphasis (and mood) toward protecting what they already have. With back-to-back away fixtures this week against Nagoya Grampus and Kawasaki Frontale, both of whom having safely made it through to the ACL’s last eight and the latter effectively being Kashima’s closest challengers once games in hand are considered, their advantage over second could be down to as little as two points by the time they return to home ground on 11 July.

 

Having labelled the Antlers as currently the best team in Asia just seven days ago (a comment I still stand by), it is certainly premature to talk about the downfall of a side with an eight point lead over Kawasaki that – barring penalties – still remains unbeaten in 18 games stretching back to the middle of March. Fans of rival contenders such as Niigata, Urawa Reds, Frontale and Gamba Osaka would be well advised, though, to look back just four years if they fear an unopposed procession towards a championship three-peat for the men from Ibaraki Prefecture. Kashima began the 2005 season with the momentum of a locomotive, winning seven and drawing one of their first eight games, and after a 2-1 home win over Shimizu S-Pulse on 3 July, held a massive 10-point advantage over second-placed Gamba with 32 points from a possible 39. However, the summer then saw the wheels fall off their train just as spectacularly. The players – most of whom are still featuring regularly for the club today – failed to win even two games on the bounce after 8 May, saw their lead eroded in exactly two months to drop to second on 3 September, and managed to draw seven of their final ten matches to eventually limp home in third.

 

For Oita, meanwhile, a dirty dozen of league defeats could well spell the end for a manager who has brought the club so much success. The hitherto unfamiliar name of Pericles Chamusca was a revelation upon his arrival from Botafogo in September 2005, leading a Trinita side that had gone 13 games without a win to five wins and a draw in his first six, and ultimately to a comfortable 11th-place finish when relegation had seemed inevitable. Eschewing stereotypical flair in favour of solidity, stability, and strategy, the genial Brazilian slowly built his team into a virtually immovable object, winning a first ever trophy in last year’s Nabisco Cup and finishing a best ever fourth in the league with a record of just 33 goals scored and 24 conceded in 34 matches. It is ironic that a run even more disastrous than the one that preceded his arrival looks set to result in his exit, but one hopes that even if the worst should happen, the fans in Kyushu will still remember all that Chamusca has done with real fondness. The highs and lows of the rollercoaster should always trump the tedious inevitability of consistent mediocrity.

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The winner takes it all

22 Jun 2009(Mon)

No sooner has the action in J1 got going again after a four-week early summer break, than the focus moves swiftly back towards the Asian stage. This year’s revamp of the AFC Champions League may have ultimately only added three more teams to the total of 29 that competed last season, but with a greater concentration of quality throughout, the newly-inserted round of 16 is perhaps the most fascinating innovation of all. Whereas it was only the top team in each of last year’s seven groups that survived into the knockout stages – alongside 2007 champions Urawa Reds – the 2009 tournament has offered a second chance to the runners-up as well, but instead of the usual two-legged format, this new round consists of pure, single-match cup ties, all played at the homes of the eight group winners.

 

The new system has already produced some shock results. With the competition still divided into west and east sections until the quarter-finals, the four West Asian last 16 matches were played in May before the international break, and only one of the region’s group winners were able to turn home advantage and a better past record into a place in the last eight. Al-Hilal of Saudi Arabia had won four and drawn two of their six Group A matches to finish on 14 points, a tally second only to Gamba Osaka’s 15 in Group F, but after a 0-0 draw with Group C runners-up Umm-Salal in Riyadh, it was the Qatari side that eventually won through on penalties. Another Saudi outfit, Al-Ettifaq, went down at home to Pakhtakor of Uzbekistan, whose Tashkent neighbours Bunyodkor travelled to Iran and successfully eliminated Group B winners Persepolis. Al-Ittihad are the sole remaining group winners from the west, having navigated their way past fellow Saudi opponents Al-Shabab.

 

The proximity to the end of the international break adds a further element of intrigue to the four last 16 matches in the East Asia section to be played this Wednesday. A surprise 2-0 defeat at home to Pohang Steelers in their final first round match meant that Kawasaki Frontale were the only J. League representatives not to finish on top of their respective groups, and set up a visit to Gamba Osaka that neither team will have wanted. Gamba may have cruised through the group stage with five successive wins, but their domestic form has been rather less consistent. With leading scorer Leandro and Japan star Yasuhito Endo on the sidelines, and both Akira Kaji and Takahiro Futagawa feeling their way back from injuries of their own, an insipid performance against Albirex Niigata on Saturday was Gamba’s third successive home defeat in all competitions. Frontale were able to ease back into action by beating bottom club Oita Trinita 2-0, and having found their away form with good wins at Urawa and FC Tokyo before the break, Takashi Sekizuka’s side may fancy their chances of improving on a record at Banpaku that reads three losses and a draw since their return to J1 in 2005.

 

A 1-0 defeat at home to struggling JEF United Chiba on Saturday was hardly ideal preparation for Nagoya Grampus ahead of the arrival of Korean champions Suwon Samsung Bluewings, who thrashed Kashima Antlers 4-1 in their opening ACL match this year, but currently languish in 11th place in the 15-team K-League after a disastrous start to the 2009 campaign. Kashima did, of course, gain revenge with a 3-0 victory in the return meeting, but their clash with FC Seoul this week is a real date with destiny for the Antlers when their recent history is considered. Two consecutive domestic titles have been overshadowed by continental success for other Japanese teams – denying Kashima the right to play in the FIFA Club World Cup in the process – and as Gamba enjoyed three straight wins over Adelaide United last autumn, fans in Ibaraki Prefecture will have been scratching their heads as to how their side could have possibly fallen to the Australians in the ACL quarter-finals.

 

This year, the cushion that Kashima have built up at home allows them to shift greater focus towards that elusive first title in Asia. Current form suggests they may already be the region’s finest, but the winner-takes-all pressure of the last 16 could yet prove the toughest hurdle they have to overcome.

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Measures of joy and success

12 Jun 2009(Fri)

The old analogy about two buses coming along at once doesn’t work quite as effectively in Japan, what with public transport tending to actually run on time and everything, but since most of the world’s club football is on hiatus at the moment, it’s only right that I should follow last week’s article on the international game with another. Specifically, I would like to follow up on a couple of interesting points raised in an anonymous comment posted on the Japanese version of this column the other day, in response to my suggestion that Japan’s national team was now ‘good, but not great’:

 

‘Surely this level is just right for us now? We can be happy just seeing how far we’ve come. Countries like England can only be happy if they win the whole thing…’

 

It is, of course, impossible to overemphasise just how staggering an amount of progress has been made in Japanese football over the last 15-20 years to lift it up to the level it enjoys today. This usually goes unrecognised in Europe; largely (and probably understandably) because we are obsessed with our own, more ‘celebrated’ domestic and continental competitions, but perhaps also to extent because Japan’s economic strength and technological influence have made it seem only normal for the country to take its place on any world stage. Now that the national team qualify for the World Cup every time, it is easy to forget that they had not appeared at a single Finals before France ’98. English eyes did briefly focus on the J. League amidst the razzmatazz of its inauguration and Gary Lineker’s arrival at Nagoya Grampus in 1992, but having been a fascinated observer myself ever since then, it is great to see that its growth is showing no signs of stopping almost two decades later. This is a debate for another time, but one could now easily make the case that the J. League is the strongest domestic competition anywhere outside Europe and Latin America.

 

The point I was trying to make last time, though, was illustrated perfectly last weekend. Japan – along with South Korea and Australia – were, as predicted, able to clinch one of Asia’s 4.5 World Cup spots with two of their eight final qualifying round matches still to play, and indeed more than a year remaining before the tournament kicks off in Johannesburg. Perhaps I would have been too paranoid to count chickens as well had it been ‘my’ team, but in reality, it was always going to take a failure of reasonably epic proportions to prevent Takeshi Okada’s side from booking their place in South Africa. It is brilliant that Japan are now good enough to make such an easy job of qualification, but as far as I am concerned, it is only now that this country’s national team can embark on its first genuinely exciting challenge since the Asian Cup semi-final exit to Saudi Arabia in July 2007.

 

In England, meanwhile, we may all be prone to pronounce our footballers as world-beaters one minute and hopeless losers the next, but having not appeared in a single international final since 1966, we probably have little right to expect them to bring back trophies. Steve McClaren’s brief era of spectacular underachievement has probably made us a little more realistic anyway, but as (generally speaking) one of the best six to ten national teams in the world, being knocked out in the quarter-finals is par for the course. The rare occasion that England go just one step further, as in Italia ’90 and Euro ’96, will always evoke a euphoric excitement that unites the entire nation. With non-qualification for the 8-team Euro ’84 preceding last eight appearances at Mexico ’86 and Euro ’88, Sir Bobby Robson’s average needed that semi-final with West Germany in Turin, but the joy of this one birdie will live far longer in the memory than the three par scores in a row managed by Sven-Göran Eriksson between 2002 and 2006.

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Kirin Cup victories just the tonic

1 Jun 2009(Mon)

It’s taken me nearly a year of writing this column to get around to doing a single article on the Japanese national team. It’s not as if I don’t enjoy their games – if you can appreciate watching Taunton Town’s travails in the lower reaches of eighth tier football in England, you can probably appreciate anything – and the fact that I unconsciously jump out of my chair whenever I see them score suggests to me that being foreign has little to do with it either. The main problem, I think, is that the level that Japan has now reached within the world game – good, but not great – has had unfortunate side-effects in terms of the continental calendar’s ability to capture the imagination.

 

Put simply, Japan – and South Korea, and probably Australia too now they’ve moved to the AFC and raised their game – are too good not to qualify for the World Cup. Saudi Arabia always make it as well, despite seemingly growing progressively weaker since Saeed Al-Owairan’s wonder strike and a last 16 appearance at USA ’94. The 46 nations in the Asian confederation may only have four or five places in the finals to compete over, but unless the likes of Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Bahrain, and Uzbekistan can make things a little more of a challenge, qualification itself is no longer the success to rejoice in that it once was. Switching the Asian Cup to be played every four years from 2007 (rather than 2008) was undoubtedly a good idea in terms of avoiding the clash with the Olympic Games and European Championships and carrying over the rhythm from the World Cup, but everything inevitably becomes distinctly quiet immediately afterwards. One can hardly blame the players – let alone the fans – of the Japanese national team for failing to feel the tension as they wait seven whole months for their next ‘competitive’ fixture against India, Oman, or whichever other minnows have made it through to a World Cup qualifying first group stage in which you only have to finish in the top two anyway.

 

But the good thing, of course, is that we are now entering the exciting part of the cycle. Last week’s Kirin Cup was billed as an opportunity for Takeshi Okada to ready his side for the three forthcoming World Cup qualification matches, but with the 1-0 win over Bahrain in March leaving Japan just two points from a guaranteed place in South Africa, the mini-tournament could instead be seen as the beginning of the road towards the finals themselves. The squads of both of this year’s guests, Chile and Belgium, may have been weakened by club commitments (and, in the case of the latter, a post-season title playoff between Standard Liege and Anderlecht), but perhaps all the more because of this, Japan’s players were clearly under pressure to perform. Two 4-0 victories was an emphatic way to answer any questions posed of them.

 

Shinji Okazaki of Shimizu S-Pulse has rightly received much acclaim for the three goals he contributed, which took his tally to six in seven internationals this year and surely makes him first choice forward for the forthcoming qualifiers, but there were also two major positives that stood out for me in terms of the team as a whole. Whereas, in the past, profligate strikers have forced Japan to look for goals from midfield, almost every player from front to back in the current side now looks capable of either creating something or scoring themselves. Okada, meanwhile, was able to try out a number of different options, with Keisuke Honda continuing to show excellent progress, and steady debuts for defender Satoshi Yamaguchi and midfielder Naoki Yamada (who, at 31 and 18 years old respectively, had entirely different reasons to be surprised at their call-ups). The manager’s hopes of making the semi-finals next year may be a touch optimistic, but the pool of talent available to him is now deep and broad enough to make selecting the 23 – let alone the eleven – a real potential headache. There is still a long way to go until the summer of 2010, but Japan look to have made a pretty good start.

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