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May 2010

Minutecast special: BBC radio interview (Japan vs. England)

30 May 2010(Sun)

On Saturday night, I gave an interview to Stuart Linnell of BBC Radio Coventry & Warwickshire in the UK ahead of Japan’s friendly match with England later on Sunday. Stuart’s show can be listened to again in its entirety on BBC iPlayer for the next seven days, but the full interview is also now available as a special Football Japan Minutecast:



(Interview audio is copyright of the BBC)


Japan versus England kicks off in Graz, Austria at 9.15pm on Sunday, Japanese Standard Time (1.15pm British Summer Time).

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17 days to kick-off – JAPAN VS. ENGLAND

25 May 2010(Tue)

Hours after Japan’s final warm-up match on home soil ended in a disappointing 2-0 defeat to East Asian rivals South Korea, England enjoyed a straightforward – if not entirely convincing – 3-1 win over Mexico at Wembley. The two sides will now continue their World Cup preparations by facing each other for only the third time ever in Graz, Austria this Sunday.


How are Japan looking ahead of their penultimate pre-tournament friendly?


The loss to South Korea wasn’t quite as disastrous as the embarrassment against Serbia’s ‘B’ team last month, but it wasn’t far off either. One could only feel sorry for Shinji Okazaki, given his chance at centre-forward in the absence of Keiji Tamada, and Keisuke Honda, who had either taken on a free role or was simply forced to run all over the place anyway just to see the ball. The CSKA Moscow midfielder was singled out on television after the match for playing with his back to goal too often, but this was just a symptom and not the real problem. Quite cleverly, Japan’s front four all managed to appear isolated at the same time. Against athletic opponents, the ‘defensive’ midfield pairing of Yasuhito Endo and Makoto Hasebe was simply pressed out of sight.


Despite the reservations of a naïve media, the superior status associated with England makes Sunday’s game an ideal chance for Takeshi Okada to experiment with a true volante. The merits of bringing in Junichi Inamoto (or possibly Yuki Abe) at the expense of Yoshito Okubo have been discussed in this column before, and while pundits may bemoan a reduced presence up front, less would surely be more if Japan could hold onto the ball long enough to develop attacks in the first place. Whether the manager has the balls or nous to implement such a system, however, is another matter.


What about England?


In a reversal of Japan’s situation, Fabio Capello is already reasonably happy with most of his first eleven but needs this friendly – England’s last before facing the United States in Rustenburg on 12 June – to determine which of the backups make the final 23. This suggests that the Italian will rotate his line-up, with recalls for the Chelsea contingent rested last night after their FA Cup final exploits and perhaps the chance to take a look at players like Darren Bent, Michael Dawson, and Stephen Warnock.


The one major outstanding issue as far as the World Cup starting places are concerned is who fills Gareth Barry’s boots should the Manchester City midfielder fail to recover from his ankle ligament injury. With Michael Carrick fluffing his audition against Mexico, next in line for a run-out is West Ham United’s Scott Parker or – whisper it – a return to the perennially underachieving partnership of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.


What approach should Japan adopt in Graz?


First of all, Japan do not need to win this game – a draw would be an excellent result and even a one-goal defeat should bring more positives than negatives if Okada’s men can at least get onto the scoresheet.


Capello is certainly one of football’s truly world-class managers but his formation and the shape of his midfield with England is not especially complicated. Bringing more numbers into the centre of the park could enable Japan to play their game – certainly, to a better degree than against South Korea – as the English search for balance amongst the remaining alternatives in their squad. The ‘Samurai Blue’ should also look to test the returning John Terry – whose form with Chelsea this season has been questionable – with pace, while there may also be opportunities to expose either or both full-backs if Okada’s attacking players can function as a unit.


How might England damage Japan’s confidence even further?


By contrast, England will come into this friendly both aiming and expecting to win, and will have observed that Japan in their current 4-2-3-1 formation are easily exploited through pressing and physical football in general. They could use either the strength of Emile Heskey or the speed of Jermain Defoe to expose Yuji Nakazawa’s weaknesses in central defence – the Japan captain may have missed regular partner Marcus Tulio Tanaka yesterday, but his pace is an increasing problem and he was caught out of position for Park Ji-Sung’s well-taken opener. Finally, much will also depend on where Capello’s midfield priorities lie two days before the final World Cup squads need to be submitted to FIFA.


Predicting the final score?


For Japan’s sake hopefully not, but England to win 2-0 – and possibly by more if goals come early and the players on the pitch are sufficiently motivated by uncertainty over places in the 23 or starting XI.

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24 days to kick-off – Matters of reality for Okada and Capello

18 May 2010(Tue)

Despite taking the relatively unusual step of announcing his final squad immediately – instead of a preliminary list of up to thirty players – Japan coach Takeshi Okada proved last Monday that predicting the 23 names he would take to the World Cup in South Africa wasn’t all that difficult if you put your mind to it. The greatest surprise was the selection of 116-cap (but currently injured) Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi as third-choice goalkeeper in favour of the inexperienced Shusaku Nishikawa, and while Ryoichi Maeda (seven goals in 11 J. League appearances this season) might have been a more popular backup striker than Kisho Yano (no goals in 12), the latter’s inclusion does make sense if the manager still considers the Keiji Tamada role key to his starting formation. Shinji Kagawa was unlucky to miss out too, but Yoshito Okubo is an Okada favourite and Borussia Dortmund’s new signing is still the most likely of Japan’s seven reserves to be called upon later in case of injury.


A look at the British newspapers over the past seven days, however, would suggest that things have not been quite so straightforward for Fabio Capello and those who are paid to anticipate his every move. Absent – against most predictions – from the initial English thirty were the likes of Bobby Zamora, Owen Hargreaves, Stewart Downing, and Gary Neville. In came Leighton Baines, Stephen Warnock, Michael Dawson, Tom Huddlestone, and Adam Johnson, whose combined international experience at senior level totals just 107 minutes (and 90 of those belong to Baines). Ledley King returns despite chronic knee problems preventing him from pulling on an England shirt since June 2007. 32-year-old Jamie Carragher comes out of his self-imposed, three-year exile from international football.


Certainly, few journalists were quick to praise the Italian – as they suddenly felt the need to remind us he is – for such choices. His squad was ‘worryingly mediocre’, while the man himself had ‘a maverick streak’ and deserved to be roundly and lengthily chastised for his (admittedly untimely) involvement in the Capello Index unveiled 24 hours previously. Even in the normally mild-mannered Observer, Paul Wilson accused the England manager of bringing discord and doubt where there had once been harmony and faith. His colleague, Paul Hayward, wrote on the same day that Capello was ‘the Nick Clegg of international management’, which might be considered a compliment had his sub-headline not served as an instant reminder that Hayward is only recently transferred from the politically right-leaning Daily Mail.


“The England manager brought promises of off-field discipline and rigorous selection policy. He has ditched the lot” (Paul Hayward, The Observer)


It is worth mentioning that equally few writers stated explicitly what proportion of this vitriol had stemmed from the ultimate inaccuracy of their own squad predictions – based, supposedly, on ‘suggestions’ from within the England camp. Certainly, aside from backing a last hurrah for the elder Neville brother, the negative articles have been notable for their lack of alternative proposals. A calmer look at the list of names suggests its composition is actually as uncontroversial as suggested by Owen Gibson in the Observer’s sister paper, The Guardian, soon after its announcement. The inexperienced faces have been justifiably rewarded for their fine club performances with the chance to impress for England before the squad is reduced to a final 23. King’s form in defying injury to help Tottenham Hotspur to fourth place and a potential Champions League spot had excited many about his World Cup prospects already. Even Carragher, the biggest surprise, offers an all-too-rare quality as an England defender in that he has only missed nine of a total 228 Premier League games for Liverpool in the past six seasons. After a welcome dose of reality that followed the Euro 2008 failure into the early part of Capello’s reign, it seems as if the advent of the World Cup has restored a familiar air of hyperbole.


That said, it is undeniable that the Capello blueprint is encountering its first real hiccups at a most inopportune juncture. The tactical intelligence that balanced the respective qualities of Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard to bring eight consecutive victories (including 4-1 and 5-1 thrashings of 2008 tormentors Croatia) in the smoothest of qualifying campaigns has now been threatened by niggling injuries to the former and a worrying lack of form at Liverpool for the latter. Fitness could prevent both Hargreaves and Gareth Barry from being the glue that holds the midfield together. Captain Rio Ferdinand has been a sporadic presence for Manchester United, while disgraced predecessor John Terry is surely in a minority of one when he opines that he has ‘had a great season’. Oh, and we only have one fit right-back and we still don’t know who should play on the right of midfield.


Capello’s list of thirty gives him seven more problems to solve than Okada as their two sets of charges prepare for home friendlies on Monday with Mexico and South Korea, respectively, before meeting for only the third ever England-Japan fixture in Graz the following Sunday. Coming only two days before the squads need to be finalised and 12 before the main event kicks off in South Africa, the game promises to provide important answers to the managers on both benches.

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35 days to kick-off – Who makes the 23?

7 May 2010(Fri)

Whether or not Takeshi Okada agrees with this column’s choice of starting members for the opening World Cup match with Cameroon on 14 July, it is probably at least safe to say that none of those eleven will be disappointed when the Japan coach names his squad of 23 next Monday. In truth, despite the extensive number of players that might have enjoyed call-ups over the past twelve months, there appear to be only three or four spots still open to debate as the clock ticks down toward this final announcement.


Keiji Tamada of Nagoya Grampus may well still be Okada’s number one choice at centre forward, while starting berths are not an unrealistic target for midfielders Yuki Abe of Urawa Reds and – now that he is fit and playing again – Kengo Nakamura of Kawasaki Frontale either. Daisuke Matsui of Grenoble in France offers a different option in attacking midfield, and is the third of Japan’s overseas-based players (alongside Makoto Hasebe and Keisuke Honda) to have been told his place is the squad is ‘not borderline’.


As back-up to starting goalkeeper Seigo Narazaki, Eiji Kawashima of Kawasaki Frontale is surely the sixteenth dead cert on the list, but a succession of injuries look set to have cost Urawa’s Ryota Tsuzuki his place at the worst possible time. Shusaku Nishikawa of Sanfrecce Hiroshima just about stands out among several remaining candidates for third-choice custodian.


Defensive cover has traditionally been provided by the versatile Yuichi Komano of Jubilo Iwata and Yasuyuki Konno of FC Tokyo, and there seems little reason or possibility that this situation should change now. Choosing the squad’s seventh defender is slightly harder – Tokyo right-back Yuhei Tokunaga appears first in line at present, but either Daiki Iwamasa of Kashima Antlers or Yuzo Kurihara of Yokohama F Marinos could be given the chance to add to the two caps they have each accumulated to date if Okada feels he is short of out-and-out centre backs.


As ever, it is the more attacking berths that present the widest array of alternatives and, therefore, the greatest scope for differing opinions. My choice of back-up striker, Takayuki Morimoto (who turns 22 today), has only recently come into the national team reckoning but his form in Serie A has been praised highly by the likes of Fabio Cannavaro and Alexandre Pato. The Catania youngster would certainly be a more inspired inclusion than either Kisho Yano or Shinzo Koroki, both of whom struggled to impress in the recent debacle against Serbia. Shinji Kagawa of Cerezo Osaka is another on the fringes, but after leading J2 with an incredible 27 goals from midfield last season, he has taken to the Japanese top flight like a duck to water – netting six times in ten appearances already – and should be rewarded with a ticket to South Africa next month.


So, who gets the 23rd and last spot? Midfielders Koji Yamase and Naohiro Ishikawa look to be outside bets, while forward Sota Hirayama rarely comes close to justifying the hype that has surrounded his career thus far. With overseas experience and 46 caps (including nine appearances in qualifying), Yoshito Okubo of Vissel Kobe appears the likeliest candidate, but his spells with Real Mallorca and VfL Wolfsburg were disappointing and I have always struggled to see what compels Okada to select him over last season’s J. League Player of the Year, Mitsuo Ogasawara.


That said, Japan already have sufficient cover in each of the midfield roles the versatile Ogasawara might take, and the 31-year-old is therefore likely to be disappointed once again. Even if starting with just one up front, a fourth striker in the squad is an absolute must, and my pick would be Ryoichi Maeda of Jubilo Iwata. Five caps in almost three years suggests the man who matters may not agree, but last year’s top marksman in J1 has proven again so far this campaign that – when fit – he just keeps on scoring goals.



Below is the squad that might be announced on Monday if I were the one sitting next to Mr. Okada as he did so:


Goalkeepers (3):

Seigo Narazaki (Nagoya Grampus), Eiji Kawashima (Kawasaki Frontale), Shusaku Nishikawa (Sanfrecce Hiroshima)


Defenders (7):

Marcus Tulio Tanaka (Nagoya Grampus), Yuji Nakazawa (Yokohama F Marinos), Atsuto Uchida, Daiki Iwamasa (both Kashima Antlers), Yuto Nagatomo, Yasuyuki Konno (both FC Tokyo), Yuichi Komano (Jubilo Iwata)


Midfielders (9):

Shunsuke Nakamura (Yokohama F Marinos), Yasuhito Endo (Gamba Osaka), Keisuke Honda (CSKA Moscow), Makoto Hasebe (VfL Wolfsburg), Junichi Inamoto, Kengo Nakamura (both Kawasaki Frontale), Yuki Abe (Urawa Reds), Daisuke Matsui (Grenoble), Shinji Kagawa (Cerezo Osaka)


Forwards (4):

Shinji Okazaki (Shimizu S-Pulse), Keiji Tamada (Nagoya Grampus), Takayuki Morimoto (Catania), Ryoichi Maeda (Jubilo Iwata)


First reserves:

Yuhei Tokunaga (FC Tokyo), Mitsuo Ogasawara (Kashima Antlers)

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