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December 2009

Six things we learned from the final weekend of the J. League season

7 Dec 2009(Mon)

(1) Quite simply, Kashima Antlers have championship quality

Their Jenson Button-esque stumble over the finishing line (42 points from the first 17 games, followed by just 24 in the last 17), their playing style, and their attitude may not always win them many friends, but there is little doubt that Kashima Antlers are deserving champions yet again this year. After blowing a 10-point lead with five straight defeats in autumn, Kashima recovered their form to go back on top two weeks ago, but the visit of third-placed Gamba Osaka and a trip to Urawa Reds was just about the hardest conclusion they could have asked for. While everyone around them were losing their heads, Oswaldo de Oliveira’s side once again kept theirs.


(2) Marcus Tulio Tanaka remains a difficult customer both on and off the pitch

One man who didn’t enjoy the Antlers’ scenes of celebrations in Saitama was Marcus Tulio Tanaka, whose six-year Urawa Reds career ended in defeat on Saturday. As well as expressing his bitterness over Kashima’s title win, Tanaka’s final appearance in red was notable for his refusing to shake hands with Reds chairman Mitsuo Hashimoto, whom he accused of forcing him out of ‘his’ club. Wigan Athletic have been mentioned amongst his potential suitors, but while Tanaka would surely strengthen a defence that has conceded 38 goals in 16 games this season, one wonders how much a player who clearly fancies himself as a born winner would enjoy a Premier League relegation battle.


(3) Ryuji Bando is truly a man of the people...

No league goals and just 421 minutes of action all year meant the announcement of Ryuji Bando’s departure from Gamba Osaka came as little surprise, even if one of the two goals he did manage this season was a dramatic last-ditch winner against Urawa. Nevertheless, while some may have criticised his recent performances, the fans at Banpaku will always hold a special place in their hearts for the former Japanese international forward. Not content with the traditional bows and farewell speeches after Gamba’s 2-0 win over JEF United Chiba on Saturday, Bando decided instead to climb the wall into the stand behind the goal for a properly personal goodbye. Now you don’t see that in the cash-flushed Premier League.


(4) ...but giving someone the bumps on a packed terrace is not really a good idea

As part of the hardcore at the front of Banpaku’s Curva Nord, I was right in the thick of things when Bando came up to lead an impromptu song or two, which was brilliant until someone had the smart idea of giving him the bumps there and then. Thrown off-balance by some overenthusiastic supporters on the opposite side to me, our number 11’s flailing elbow cracked me square on the face – leaving me bruised, bloody, and scrabbling around on the floor for my glasses before they got even more trampled out of shape. Still, at least I can say that Bando genuinely did leave a lasting impression on me.


(5) If Japan want to make the last four next year, they’ll have to do it the hard way

Tweeting on the World Cup draw as part of the Guardian’s fans’ network, it grew progressively harder to remain positive about Japan’s chances of realising their dreams in South Africa next year. In order just to make it out of Group E, they will most likely have to beat either Cameroon or Denmark, not lose to the other, and then just keep their fingers crossed and see what happens. The physical strength of each of Japan’s opponents is little help either, and while Takeshi Okada’s side may win a midfield battle against the Danes on technical merit, one fears for the chances of his famously indecisive strikers against a defence that conceded just five goals in qualifying.


(6) TV pundits should really just be honest

Aside from their general end-of-season cheer, the dozens of Japanese fans I spoke to over the weekend all had two things in common – a dismissive attitude towards the national team’s chances of making the last 16, and a sense of anger towards Takeshi Okada and the national media for repeating Japan’s objective of a place in the semis. Certainly, it is hard to imagine the press in any other country remaining quite so supportive – or, more likely, scared of being contradictory – about a target as outlandishly optimistic as this. I don’t know if this column counts as ‘punditry’ but, just for the record, I’ll say it anyway – miracles aside, Japan have no chance of making the last four in South Africa, and it will be a massive achievement just to get through their group.


* This column will now take a short break until the New Year, during which time it will be extolling the virtues of Japanese football to the good people of Somerset, England. In spite of what it just said at the end of point number six.

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Football Japan on Twitter

2 Dec 2009(Wed)

You can now use Twitter to follow me, the Football Japan Minutecast, and other columns and contents from Football Japan. Visit www.twitter.com/BenMabley, or go to the Minutecast website at minutecast.footballjapan.jp and click the ‘Follow Me on Twitter’ icon on the right hand side of the page.


From 4.30pm GMT this Friday evening (1.30am JST, Saturday), I will be tweeting on the Japanese reaction to the draw for the 2010 World Cup Finals as it unfolds in South Africa.


Remember, if you’ve not done so already, you can subscribe to the Football Japan Minutecast via iTunes by clicking here or on the ‘Subscribe with iTunes’ button on the right hand side of the Minutecast website, or by searching for ‘Football Japan Minutecast’ in the ‘Podcasts’ section of the iTunes Store.

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Advantage Kashima, but top spot remains a poisoned chalice

1 Dec 2009(Tue)

The opportunism of their counterattacking was every bit as devastating as its consequences were to the beholders in blue and black at the opposite end of the ground. For 45 minutes on Saturday afternoon, Kashima Antlers rediscovered their mojo in a manner so clinical and ruthless as to reduce Gamba Osaka’s hopes of completing a J. League record 19-point turnaround to rubble, and make the sheer premise of their conception seem little more than one-eyed over-optimism. To Kashima’s long-suffering manager, Oswaldo de Oliveira, it was redemption – the Antlers’ biggest domestic win of the season had arrived with the same perfect timing as each of their five goals, and all the weight of all the troubles of the past four months had, for a little while at least, been lifted.


Not that everything was entirely straightforward. After a goalless first half in which Mitsuo Ogasawara might, on another day, have seen red following an altercation with Hayato Sasaki, Gamba were looking the stronger side until committing defensive suicide twice in as many minutes and then, after Takahiro Futagawa had fired home an instant reply, once more for luck moments later. The hosts had referee Toshimitsu Yoshida – he of Uzbekistan, Bahrain, and the non-retaken penalty fame – to thank for ending the game as a contest with a harsh second yellow for Lucas and denying the visitors a penalty for a tug on Cho Jae-Jin; not to mention Gamba’s attacking persistence for the holes that opened up in time for Yuzo Tashiro and Danilo to add their touches of gloss near the end. Still, de Oliveira, the excellent Shinzo Koroki et al played their hands without flaw. It was, as beaten coach Akira Nishino ruefully admitted afterwards, ‘typical Antlers’.


The title race, then, moves on into the final day – just as it has every season since the single-stage format was adopted in 2005 – with news flashing up on the scoreboard shortly after full time in Kashima that Kawasaki Frontale in second had held on to squeeze a 1-0 victory at home to Albirex Niigata. With four wins in a row and a two point advantage, Kashima remain very much in pole position, while Urawa Reds falling out of ACL contention (ironically, to the advantage of Gamba Osaka) with defeat at Kyoto Sanga has made a tricky-looking visit to Saitama Stadium on the first Saturday of December potentially that bit easier. Kawasaki have a superior goal difference, but must rely on Kashima dropping points while ensuring to take all three from their visit to already-relegated Kashiwa Reysol.


This, though, is a league that everyone seems to do their best not to win, and neither of this year’s contenders are strangers to losing their bottle when it matters most. Having led by ten points at one stage, the only reason that Kashima haven’t been sipping champagne for several weeks already is that they then picked up just nine points in twelve league games – including a club record five consecutive losses – between mid-July and mid-October. This initially allowed Shimizu S-Pulse to overcome a 17-point deficit and go top with six games to play, but having only lost four matches to that point, Kenta Hasegawa’s men have since been beaten five times on the spin and fallen down to seventh. Kawasaki, having ummed and aahed and dropped points themselves during Kashima’s earlier crisis, finally went top on matchday 29, but contrived to surrender their advantage again last week with defeat at bottom club Oita Trinita.


In their bid for an unprecedented third straight J. League crown – a run that began by taking advantage of an Urawa collapse in 2007 – Kashima have seen off one rival, recovered their form, and taken back the driving seat ahead of the final hurdle. If recent history is anything to go by, however, this might just prove to be the worst preparation possible. Meanwhile, despite the overreaction to their players’ antics in the aftermath of defeat in the Nabisco Cup final, one still gets the impression that Kawasaki, perennial runners-up and eternal entertainers, remain the preferred choice of most neutrals.

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