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June 2010

Minutecast World Cup Special 8 – Japan vs. Paraguay last 16 live impressions

30 Jun 2010(Wed)

Ahead of my trip to South Africa this afternoon, today’s podcast is a rather more ad-libbed collection of thoughts recorded throughout what turned out to be an emotional last 16 game between Japan and Paraguay.

 

The Football Japan Minutecast will be back in a few days’ time with the first of a special series of episodes recorded in Johannesburg during the latter stages of the 2010 World Cup.

 

(Subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here)

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Minutecast World Cup Special 7 – Japan vs. Paraguay last 16 preview

29 Jun 2010(Tue)

(This article originally appeared on the Football Japan Minutecast. Listen to the audio version here, or subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.)

 

After securing their first ever wins and qualification from the group stage in a World Cup held away from home soil, the Japanese national team will now seek to go one better when they face Paraguay in Pretoria tomorrow afternoon for a place in the quarter-finals.

 

Confidence is soaring both inside and outside the camp after last Thursday’s convincing 3-1 victory over Denmark sealed second spot in Group E. Takeshi Okada’s ‘best four’ target – which became a major source for mockery among both pundits and supporters as Japan suffered a run of successive losses in the lead-up to the tournament – is suddenly being spoken about in serious terms again, but the manager himself has insisted that this next step will be the most significant.

 

“The hurdle of reaching the last eight has always been in the back of my mind since our opening game,” said Okada yesterday. “Right now, we are concentrating solely on beating Paraguay.”

 

This is a hurdle that Japan have tried and failed to overcome once before, leading some domestic observers to recall the mistakes of the co-hosted World Cup in 2002. Then, Philippe Troussier’s side surrendered meekly during their second round game in Miyagi against Turkey, who went on to beat Senegal in the last eight before losing narrowly to eventual champions Brazil in the semi-finals. Many still see this as a missed opportunity caused by premature satisfaction at simply qualifying from the group stage, and in this respect, popular opinion is beginning to accept that there may have been some logic behind Okada’s lofty aspirations after all.

 

Both current captain Makoto Hasebe and predecessor Yuji Nakazawa have declared that the players do indeed have the hunger to keep on progressing this time around, while Okada and left-back Yuto Nagatomo have also spoken about their desire to fly the flag for Asia after South Korea’s 2-1 defeat to Uruguay on Saturday left Japan as the competition’s only remaining AFC representatives. History would not appear to be on the side of the Samurai Blue, however, as South American teams have won eight of the previous ten encounters between the two continents at World Cups, with solitary group stage draws for North Korea against Chile in 1966 and South Korea against Bolivia in 1994.

 

That said, victory for Paraguay at the Loftus Versfield Stadium would also represent their first ever victory in the knockout stages of a World Cup after falling at the last 16 on three previous occasions. Despite finishing top of a group containing reigning world champions Italy, La Albirroja looked out of sorts in their goalless draw with New Zealand last week and will have to do without defensive midfielder Victor Cáceres through suspension. Coach Gerardo Martino also has to decide whether or not to include defender Antolín Alcaraz and midfielder Jonathan Santana – both of whom returned to training on Saturday after missing the final group game through injury – as Paraguay look for a way of nullifying the Japanese danger at set pieces.

 

“Obviously from what we saw the other day,” said Martino, “we need to try not to concede fouls near the area. When Japan find space they get men forward into attack and this is the most important issue to be careful about.”

 

Japan look certain to keep with the same starting eleven for the fourth game in a row after Marcus Tulio Tanaka announced that he has recovered from a knock picked up against Denmark. The Nagoya Grampus stopper has backed the likes of Keisuke Honda to maintain the side’s prowess at free-kicks, stating “Every goal is so much more precious now in this knockout stage and it is important we try to get our noses in front first. One thing we will have to try and do is vary our set-pieces to surprise the Paraguayans.”

 

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In six previous games between the two countries, Paraguay hold the upper hand with two victories to Japan’s one – including a 4-0 romp in their only competitive meeting at the 1999 Copa America – but Japan are unbeaten in three friendlies played so far this century. The second round match kicks off in Pretoria at 4pm local time (11pm Japanese time), with the winners set to play either Spain or Portugal in the last eight.

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Minutecast World Cup Special 6 – Japan vs. Denmark report

25 Jun 2010(Fri)

(This article originally appeared on the Football Japan Minutecast. Listen to the audio version here, or subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.)

 

Japan put in perhaps their finest ever performance – and certainly one of the most impressive by any team in South Africa thus far – to defeat Denmark 3-1 in Rustenburg last night and seal qualification to the knockout stages of the World Cup for the first time ever on foreign soil.

 

Two superb free kicks in the first half from Keisuke Honda and Yasuhito Endo gave Takeshi Okada’s side a lead they never looked like surrendering, even after a late Danish rally had seen Jon Dahl Tomasson pull a single goal back with nine minutes remaining. Substitute forward Shinji Okazaki added a third in the dying moments of the game to guarantee the win, sparking scenes of jubilation both on the substitutes’ bench and in bars, homes, and streets throughout Japan shortly after 5am local time.

 

Unsurprisingly, Okada continued with the same eleven that had beaten Cameroon in their opening Group E game before losing narrowly to Holland five days previously, but the manager did raise a few eyebrows by pushing Makoto Hasebe forward to support the attack in what therefore became a 4-2-3-1 formation. Denmark coach Morten Olsen made two changes to his side, restoring Thomas Kahlenberg to the midfield in place of Jesper Grønkjær, while Per Krøldrup deputised for the suspended Simon Kjær in central defence.

 

The return to the formation that had worked in Asian qualification but rarely since handed the early initiative to Denmark – who needed a win to seal their place in the last 16 – as left-back Simon Poulsen found space to surge forward and combine with Tomasson in attacking positions. Okada quickly instructed Hasebe to step back and restore the 4-1-2-2-1 system of the previous two matches, but if observers feared this signalled an intention to play for the draw that would secure Japan’s progression, their worries were allayed when Daisuke Matsui and Hasebe both went close to scoring within a matter of seconds.

 

The opening goal then duly arrived on 17 minutes. Honda lined up a free-kick fully 30 yards from goal near the right-hand touchline, before firing a wickedly powerful shot with very little spin that Denmark goalkeeper Thomas Sørensen struggled to read before the ball eventually flew in past his outstretched right hand. With Japan now firmly in the ascendancy, it took only until the half-hour mark for Endo to double the lead from another set piece, this time with more conventional right-footed curl to take the ball around the wall from just outside the penalty area.

 

Olsen immediately reacted by sending on midfielder Jakob Poulsen for the disappointing Martin Jørgensen, but Japan continued to surge forwards and could have added a bizarre third shortly after the interval when Endo’s looping free-kick was spilled onto the post by Sørensen. Denmark finally found some momentum thereafter when Eiji Kawashima saved at the feet of Tomasson, before substitute Søren Larsen hit the crossbar with a cracking volley from 20 yards. The breakthrough eventually came when Hasebe was harshly penalised for a push on Daniel Agger inside the Japanese penalty area, though Tomasson needed two attempts to score after his weak spot kick was parried back to him by Kawashima.

 

Japan remained entirely unfazed, and put the icing on the cake of their finest ever achievement on 87 minutes when Honda danced past Dennis Rommedahl, before drawing Sørensen and squaring for Okazaki to slot home the easiest of finishes.

 

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The victory was, once again, a triumph for a manager who had endured fierce criticism in the months leading to the tournament for his lack of results and ideas in Japan’s warm-up matches. Okada admitted after the game that his tactical switch after just ten minutes had been necessary to restore stability, and praised his players for “fighting not as individuals but together, and proving conclusively that football is above all a team sport”.

 

Perhaps the most revealing comments as regards Japan’s upturn in fortunes came from man-of-the-match Honda. “I’m pleased,” said the CSKA Moscow midfielder, “but then not as much as I thought I would be. We’re still a long way from fulfilling our goals in this competition, and we need to show that nothing is impossible in the next game as well now. Until then, we can’t be satisfied”.

 

Japan will now take on Group F winners Paraguay in their second round match in Pretoria next Tuesday afternoon, after Gerardo Martino’s side secured qualification with a goalless draw against New Zealand. Holland sealed top spot in Group E thanks to a 2-1 victory over already-eliminated Cameroon, and will face Slovakia in the last 16 after their shock 3-2 win to knock out defending champions Italy.

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Minutecast World Cup Special 5 – Japan vs. Denmark preview

24 Jun 2010(Thu)

(This article originally appeared on the Football Japan Minutecast. Listen to the audio version here, or subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.)

 

Japan go into their final Group E game with Denmark in Rustenburg on Thursday evening knowing a draw will be good enough to clinch their place in the World Cup knockout stages for only the second time ever – and the first on foreign soil.

 

A 2-1 victory for the Danes over Cameroon last Saturday was enough to maintain their hopes of qualifying for the last sixteen – a feat they have managed in each of their previous three Finals appearances – but the slender goal difference advantage enjoyed by Japan after a tense 1-0 defeat to Holland means that Morten Olsen’s side will require all three points to progress.

 

Merely to stand on the brink of history represents a significant achievement in itself for Takeshi Okada and his players after a dismal build up to the World Cup in South Africa had seen the team booed by their own fans and fiercely castigated in the domestic media. A widely criticised tactical switch to a more pragmatic 4-1-2-2-1 system during Japan’s pre-tournament training camp bore instant fruits with a 1-0 win in their opening group match against Cameroon – sparking a complete U-turn in media and supporter opinion which has remained highly optimistic even in spite of the narrow loss to the Dutch.

 

The situation is certainly far more promising than four years ago in Germany, when Japan needed both to rely on events elsewhere and to beat defending champions Brazil by at least two goals – despite taking a first-half lead, Zico’s side were ultimately demolished by the manager’s compatriots in the second half to lose 4-1. On home soil in 2002, Philippe Troussier’s Japan were able to go one better than the required draw in beating Tunisia 2-0 to finish top of their first round group, but Okada’s previous experience at France ’98 saw the team eliminated even before their final match against Jamaica following defeats to both Argentina and Croatia.

 

Despite Japan’s unexpectedly fine showing so far in this year’s World Cup having being built upon a solid defence, the manager has once again emphasised the dangers of playing for a draw and insisted that victory is the main objective against Denmark. In unusually relaxed mood during his press conference in Rustenburg on Wednesday, Okada joked that he hoped his side could ‘win 10-0 and take the pressure off’, but admitted that it was rather more likely ‘to be a very close, fierce match’.

 

With no new injury worries, Okada appears certain to remain loyal both to the formation and to the players that have started Japan’s two games so far, meaning that Keisuke Honda will continue up front and Yuki Abe will resume his highly successful destructive role in defensive midfield. Eiji Kawashima, who has not received the same level of criticism back home as in much of the international press for his fumble against Holland, is expected to keep his place in goal ahead of Seigo Narazaki.

 

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Denmark are also free of injuries, but Palermo defender Simon Kjær will miss the game with Japan after picking up yellow cards against both Holland and Cameroon. Per Krøldrup of Fiorentina is likely to deputise, while midfielder Daniel Jensen could be in line for his first start of the competition after replacing the disappointing Martin Jørgensen at half-time on Saturday.

 

Thursday’s match at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium kicks off at 8.30pm local time (3.30am on Friday Japanese time). The only previous meeting between the two sides came in a friendly back in 1971, when Japan were beaten 3-2 in Copenhagen despite a brace from legendary forward Kunishige Kamamoto.

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Minutecast World Cup Special 4 – Japan vs. Holland report

20 Jun 2010(Sun)

(This article originally appeared on the Football Japan Minutecast. Listen to the audio version here, or subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.)

 

A blunder by goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima allowed Wesley Sneijder to clinch a 1-0 victory for Holland on Saturday as another strong defensive performance from Japan went unrewarded.

 

After a goalless first half, Sneijder latched onto a pass from Robin van Persie – who may have controlled the ball with his hand – to fire a speculative right-footed shot from just outside the Japanese penalty area on 52 minutes. Diving to his right, Kawashima looked to have the powerful effort covered but failed to get both hands to it and watched in horror as the ball deflected off his left glove into the net behind him.

 

Despite speculation that Japan might adopt a more attacking formation after their tense 1-0 win over Cameroon last Monday, coach Takeshi Okada went with an unchanged line-up that saw Keisuke Honda once again positioned as a lone forward, with Yoshito Okubo and Daisuke Matsui manning the flanks and Yuki Abe providing defensive cover in midfield. Opposite number Bert van Marwijk also remained loyal to the eleven that had beaten Denmark 2-0 at Soccer City, with Rafael van der Vaart retaining his place at left wing in the continued absence of Arjen Robben.

 

The Japanese system had effectively neutralised the threat of Samuel Eto’o and Pierre Webo during the opening group fixture, and after a testing start looked to be paying similar dividends against the group favourites too as Abe in particular continued to block the Dutch path through to danger man Sneijder. With eight or nine white shirts behind the ball whenever Holland ventured forwards, Japan grew in confidence as they frustrated their opponents throughout the opening 45 minutes, and even managed to create the half’s best two chances on the counter. Left-back Yuto Nagatomo fired a low shot wide of Maarten Stekelenburg’s left-hand post, while Matsui tested the goalkeeper with a dipping volley late on.

 

Sneijder’s goal early in the second period meant that Japan had to adopt a more ambitious approach thereafter, but despite taking hold of the game as the uncharacteristically influent Dutch sat back on their lead, Okada’s men struggled to create genuine opportunities to equalise. Van Persie sliced the ball over his own crossbar with 20 minutes remaining as Shunsuke Nakamura, Shinji Okazaki, and Keiji Tamada were all sent on to provide greater numbers going forward.

 

The match truly opened up in a frantic final five minutes as Eljero Elia – who managed two assists on his international debut against Japan last year – fed fellow substitute Ibrahim Afellay only to be denied by Kawashima, who then continued his redemption with another save from the PSV Eindhoven winger moments later. The stops might have been crucial as Marcus Tulio Tanaka put Okazaki through on goal in stoppage time, but the Shimizu S-Pulse forward fired over from eight yards to end Japan’s hopes of stealing a point.

 

Speaking on Japanese television moments after the final whistle as the relieved Dutch players celebrated on the pitch, a visibly drained Takeshi Okada said he was “frustrated” with the result. “It’s a shame because we tried hard to get an equaliser. The players worked well as a team both in defence and in attack. We don’t know what will happen in the group’s other matches but we will of course do our best to beat Denmark.”

 

Captain Makoto Hasebe stressed the need to take the positives from what was an impressive performance overall despite Japan’s lack of potency in front of goal. “Every player gave 100%. Our defence was well organised and we managed to get forward more effectively too, so we now have to carry this into our third game as well.”

 

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Denmark recovered from an early Samuel Eto’o opener in the other Group E game to beat Cameroon 2-1 thanks to goals from Nicklas Bendtner and Dennis Rommedahl. The result means that Cameroon are the first nation to be eliminated from this year’s World Cup, while Japan will only need a draw to ensure their place in the last 16 when they face the Danes in Rustenburg this Thursday.

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Minutecast World Cup Special 3 – Japan vs. Holland preview

18 Jun 2010(Fri)

(This article originally appeared on the Football Japan Minutecast. Listen to the audio version here, or subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.)

 

Neither Japan nor Holland may have been able to enjoy their scheduled training sessions at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban today due to heavy rain, but the mood in the former camp remains highly positive after Monday’s 1-0 win over Cameroon left the Samurai Blue in an excellent position to qualify for the knockout stages of a World Cup for only the second time ever.

 

Victory tomorrow against the Dutch – who beat Denmark 2-0 in their opener – will ensure Japan’s passage to the last 16 with a game to spare unless the Danes beat Cameroon later, while even defeat will still leave Takeshi Okada’s men in charge of their own destiny going into the group’s final fixtures next Thursday.

 

The manager could, therefore, be excused for viewing any points gained from Bert van Marwijk’s men as a bonus and adopting a similarly defensive strategy as against Cameroon, but has instead vowed to attack 35-year-old Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s perceived lack of pace at left-back in order to get behind the Holland defence.

 

“We are not a side that approaches any game looking for a draw,” said Okada in a press conference on Thursday. “From the start, we will be going there to win.”

 

A series of similarly upbeat comments from the coaching staff and squad this week have sparked much speculation within the Japanese media about further changes in tactics. A mooted shift to 4-4-2 was quickly dismissed by Okada, but several news sources have predicted a return to the starting eleven for Shinji Okazaki – partly in light of the revelation that the Shimizu S-Pulse striker was among a trio of players to have struggled with the altitude in Bloemfontein and at the team’s pre-tournament training camp in Switzerland.

 

Okazaki was brought on in a straight swap for Yoshito Okubo to play the final 22 minutes against Cameroon on the left wing. Should the 24-year-old be fielded from the start at sea level in Durban, either Okubo or Daisuke Matsui would appear likeliest to miss out, depending on whether or not Monday’s hero Keisuke Honda continues as a lone forward or drops back to his more familiar position in attacking midfield.

 

Any rethink concerning the protective cushion of three at the base of midfield would be a surprise, considering how much more cohesive Japan have looked since abandoning their previous 4-2-3-1 system following a 2-0 defeat to South Korea in their final home warm-up last month. Anchorman Yuki Abe could, however, be rested tomorrow to avoid the risk of a second yellow card ahead of the crucial third match against Denmark, with Junichi Inamoto of Kawasaki Frontale favourite to deputise.

 

Right-back Atsuto Uchida and goalkeeper Seigo Narazaki are the other two players thought to have suffered at altitude, but while Uchida will resume a three-way battle for a starting berth with Yuichi Komano and the now fully fit Yasuyuki Konno, Eiji Kawashima looks to have cemented his place between the sticks following another assured performance against Cameroon.

 

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With a previously critical Japanese press having seemingly recovered their faith in Okada and his players, much of the media attention has now switched to avenging the only previous meeting between Japan and Holland just nine months ago. The friendly match in Enschede was a particularly chastening experience for Keisuke Honda, then of Eredivisie side VVV Venlo, who was introduced after a scoreless first half only to see goals from Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder, and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar give the Dutch a comfortable 3-0 win.

 

Eljero Elia of Hamburg marked his debut that day with two assists – also as a half-time substitute – and could be in line for a start tomorrow after coming off the bench to set up a goal for Dirk Kuijt against Denmark. Rafael van der Vaart had started at left wing on Monday in place of injured regular Arjen Robben, who will undergo a late fitness test on a hamstring strain to determine if he can play any part against Japan.

 

The match kicks off at 1.30pm local time (8.30pm Japanese time).

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Minutecast World Cup Special 2 – Japan vs. Cameroon report

15 Jun 2010(Tue)

(This article originally appeared on the Football Japan Minutecast. Listen to the audio version here, or subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.)

 

After all the trials and tribulations of the past few months, Japan’s World Cup campaign in South Africa got off to the perfect start yesterday at the Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein as Keisuke Honda’s first half strike sealed a 1-0 victory over Group E rivals Cameroon.

 

Playing as a centre-forward for the first time ever in a competitive match, Honda coolly slotted past goalkeeper Hamidou Souleymanou at the far post on 38 minutes after Daisuke Matsui’s deep cross from the right-hand flank had evaded the leaps of Cameroon defenders Nicolas N’Koulou and Stephane Mbia.

 

The pre-match rumours over Takeshi Okada’s latest tactical evolutions had proved correct when Honda was named at the head of an attacking trio alongside Yoshito Okubo and the recalled Matsui, with Shunsuke Nakamura paying for his loss of form with a place on the bench despite recovering from an ankle injury. The only other change from the recent series of friendlies was a place for Yuichi Komano at right back; preferred to Atsuto Uchida after Yasuyuki Konno’s knee problem was deemed not worth risking.

 

Without a single recognised striker on the pitch, Japan began the game in cautious fashion as Honda frequently dropped back into midfield, while Yuki Abe’s presence ahead of the back four helped break up the few attacks that a surprisingly lacklustre Cameroon forward line could muster. After a dour opening quarter that unfortunately reflected much of the football on show in South Africa thus far, Okada’s side began to grow in confidence as they controlled more of the possession, before Honda’s goal provided a crucial advantage to take into half time.

 

Samuel Eto’o had looked frustrated on the right of a forward three for much of the opening period, but his intervention created the first good chance for the Indomitable Lions three minutes after the interval as the Inter Milan star beat three Japan defenders, only for Maxim Choupo-Moting to fire over the crossbar. Shinji Okazaki was introduced in a straight swap for Okubo on the left flank to add extra energy to the Japan attack, and came closest to doubling the lead with ten minutes remaining when hitting the post after Makoto Hasebe’s initial effort had been parried by Souleymanou.

 

Despite little else to excite the neutrals up to this point, Cameroon finally discovered some attacking rhythm in the closing moments as Japan began to invite more pressure in a manner eerily similar to their opening World Cup game against Australia in 2006. Then, three late goals had given the Socceroos a dramatic 3-1 victory, but Japan were spared a repeat this time as Mbia’s 30-yard effort crashed off the crossbar with five minutes remaining, before Eiji Kawashima saved brilliantly from substitute Mohammadou Idrissou in stoppage time.

 

The win was a triumph for Japan boss Okada, who has been under enormous pressure this year from a domestic media unhappy with both results and the recent switch in formation. On this occasion, the surprise deployment of Honda as a forward in the new 4-1-2-2-1 system paid dividends, but the manager was quick to pass credit to his players, saying that they had ‘worked together as a team to clinch a good victory’.

 

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Japan will now move on to the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban for Saturday’s meeting against group favourites Holland, who kicked off with a 2-0 victory over Denmark at Soccer City yesterday thanks to a Daniel Agger own goal and a late second from Dirk Kuijt.

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Minutecast World Cup Special 1 - Japan vs. Cameroon preview

14 Jun 2010(Mon)

(This article originally appeared on the Football Japan Minutecast. Listen to the audio version here, or subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.)

 

Tactics have continued to dominate the headlines in the build-up to Japan’s opening Group E match against Cameroon in Bloemfontein tonight as coach Takeshi Okada looks to fine tune his belated pre-World Cup switch to 4-1-2-2-1 from the 4-2-3-1 system favoured throughout qualification.

 

Central to the new formation is attacking midfielder Keisuke Honda, who turned 24 yesterday, but the CSKA Moscow star looks set to be given an unfamiliar centre-forward role after playing up front during training this week and in a hastily-arranged practice match against Zimbabwe last Thursday.

 

The recent change in approach came about after a series of poor friendly performances – including comprehensive home defeats to South Korea and Serbia’s B team – in which the midfield pairing of Yasuhito Endo and Makoto Hasebe struggled against their opponents’ heavy pressing. Yuki Abe has since been deployed in a purely defensive midfield capacity to bring greater solidity and balance during narrow warm-up losses against England and the Ivory Coast.

 

Goalscoring, however, remains a problem, with Shinji Okazaki in particular struggling to bring the form that saw him score 15 international goals last year into matches against stronger opposition. The idea floated this week is that Honda’s strength and creativity will allow other attacking players to be brought into the game more effectively if fielded up front in the Shimizu S-Pulse hitman’s stead.

 

Such a move would nonetheless represent a major gamble. Honda has never played as a forward before, and failed to trouble the Zimbabwe goalkeeper during a goalless practice game played over three 30-minute periods. Takayuki Morimoto of Catania took the lone striking role in the second period on Thursday and remains another option despite enjoying little playing time under Okada thus far.

 

The other major team news for Japan is that long-serving talisman Shunsuke Nakamura is set to start on the bench despite recovering from the ankle knock that saw him play a reduced role in the recent series of friendlies. The former Celtic and Espanyol star has struggled for form since returning to the J. League with Yokohama F Marinos earlier this year, and the two attacking midfield berths now appear likely to be filled by Yoshito Okubo and Daisuke Matsui.

 

Yasuyuki Konno is close to a full recovery after injuring his right knee against the Ivory Coast ten days ago, and is expected to edge out Atsuto Uchida at right-back.

 

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Cameroon boss Paul Le Guen surprised journalists at his press conference on Saturday by announcing that Arsenal midfielder Alexandre Song and Espanyol goalkeeper Carlos Kameni would be dropped from the starting eleven to face Japan. The Frenchman insisted that Song remains one of his ‘great players’ and seemed to imply that the move was merely temporary, but the prospects for Kameni look less promising after 36-year-old custodian Hamidou Souleymanou was declared as the clear first choice.

 

Kameni appears to have paid the price for a poor showing at January’s Africa Cup of Nations, in which Cameroon were eliminated at the quarter-final stage following a 3-1 extra time loss to eventual winners Egypt. The Indomitable Lions have since drawn with Italy and Slovakia in friendlies, but suffered narrow defeats away to Portugal and Serbia in warm-up matches earlier this month.

 

Tonight’s game will be the fourth time that Japan and Cameroon have met at senior level. Japan have hosted all three previous meetings and are unbeaten with two wins and a draw so far – current regular Marcus Tulio Tanaka opening the scoring last time around in a 2-0 victory in 2007 – but Cameroon are 11/10 favourites with Bet365 to gain revenge tonight.

 

The match kicks off in Bloemfontein at 4pm local time (11pm Japanese time).

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Guardian: Fourth time lucky as Japan look to progress from the group stage

13 Jun 2010(Sun)

An article that I have written on the problems suffered by the Japanese national team since qualifying for the 2010 World Cup twelve months ago can be found on the Guardian website.

 

http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/2010/jun/13/world-cup-fans-network-japan

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1 day to kick-off – Football Japan’s 2010 World Cup predictions (Part 2: The rest)

10 Jun 2010(Thu)

At the time of writing, it is just 36 hours until the 2010 FIFA World Cup finally gets under way in South Africa tomorrow evening. Throughout the tournament, the Football Japan Minutecast will be online several times each week with previews and reports of every single Japan game, plus a series of special features to be broadcast direct from Johannesburg in early July as the knockout stages unfold. Be sure not to miss it!

 

But while the hours and minutes before the opening game are still ticking down, the World Cup wouldn’t be the World Cup without a nice long list of predictions that we can all look back on in a month’s time to see how wrong we were. I chatted last week with legendary Japanese football writer Hiroshi Kagawa – a veteran of nine World Cups and, at 85, the oldest active sportswriter in the country – alongside SIX president Katsumi Honda and fellow Football Japan writer Izumi Nemoto about our hopes and expectations for South Africa 2010.

 

(Click here for Part 1: Japan)

 

 

5. Moving away from just Japan and onto the tournament as a whole – who is going to win the 2010 World Cup?

 

Kagawa: Spain have got a good reputation right now, but I’m yet to actually see them play well at a World Cup! Certainly, they are very strong. They have good forwards, Gerard Pique has added to a solid defence, and it would be no surprise to see them win it. With Italy – perhaps the best team at frustrating and resisting a team like Spain – looking a little weaker this year, I hope the Spanish will take advantage of their opportunity. Otherwise, Brazil obviously have to be ranked as contenders well, but I also hope that England will string a few wins together and at least make the final!

 

Honda: England. Whenever they’ve appeared in a World Cup hosted by an English-speaking country, they’ve always won it.

 

Nemoto: Spain. With a robust defence, great resources in midfield, and a powerful forward pairing, they just have no obvious weaknesses.

 

Mabley: England! No, that was a joke. If neither England nor Japan can win it then I’d rather it be Spain, but their path through the knockout stages is tough and I have a feeling Dunga’s pragmatism will come up trumps for Brazil.

 

6. Which other teams will you be keeping an eye out for?

 

Kagawa: Portugal. Up front, Cristiano Ronaldo needs no introduction, but Nani of Manchester United is very good as well, and depending on how well players like these perform, this team could make a real impact on the World Cup. Even with the Luis Figo generation, Portugal have often tended to play as if the whole world is against them, but if they are less easily riled and can instead use their individual players’ spirit to a more positive end, I think they will be very interesting to watch.

 

Honda: As Japan’s neighbours, I will be supporting South Korea too. It will also be interesting to see how far Spain, as European champions, can go with such an attractive brand of football. Finally, the United States have landed a good draw and have already shown what they can do at last year’s Confederations Cup, so I can see them doing well too.

 

Nemoto: I’ll be looking out for Denmark, and then of course Brazil. The Danish players are all generally a good-looking bunch too – in that sense, I tend to prefer Sweden, but unfortunately they didn’t qualify this time, so I’ll be rooting for their neighbours instead.

 

Mabley: Argentina – purely because of the enigma they have for a manager. I’m essentially hoping that Diego Maradona will explode come the end of June, ignore all further tactical advice from Carlos Bilardo, and field every one of his six forwards – even Martin Palermo – in the quarter final just because he can. Aside from that, Holland, Denmark, and North Korea. It will be interesting to see how Japanese and South Korean observers take to the Chollima.

 

7. Who will win the Golden Boot?

 

Kagawa: If England are going to progress through the latter stages, then they will surely be relying on Rooney for goals. Portugal will be most entertaining if Cristiano Ronaldo can go on the rampage. But perhaps Didier Drogba, even if his team don’t make it very far. He is the kind of player who can finish as top scorer by hitting four goals in one game against weaker opposition early on.

 

Honda: Either Wayne Rooney or Robin van Persie.

 

Nemoto: Either David Villa or Luis Fabiano.

 

Mabley: I fancy Villa to rattle in a few during the group stage and that could be enough to see him through.

 

8. Are there any other players we should be watching?

 

Kagawa: From a footballing perspective, critics around the world all tend to converge on Spain, but I am looking forward to seeing if any of the six African representatives can exploit their ‘African power’ and the physical strength of their individual players. This is why I mentioned Drogba before – Samuel Eto’o is a little too rounded for my liking. Aside from that, the South Koreans always seem to find another level when they play Japan, but it would be nice to see them adopt a similar approach no matter who the opponent.

 

Honda: Keisuke Honda, Yoshito Okubo, and Takayuki Morimoto. These three simply have to perform if Japan are going to make any progress. Okubo needs to be careful not to rise to any provocation and pick up silly yellow cards.

 

Nemoto: Morimoto, and whoever plays in goal out of Seigo Narazaki and Eiji Kawashima. Their performances are absolutely essential to Japan’s success. Otherwise, Juan Sebastian Veron – the sexiest footballer in the entire tournament. In my opinion, anyway.

 

Mabley: Keisuke Honda is absolutely the key man for Japan, and I really hope that he will be given the freedom and the opportunity to cap his meteoric rise over the past two years with a starring role at this World Cup. And, continuing the North Korean theme, Jong Tae-Se. Despite ending up in the Group of Death, he reckons he’s going to convert his J. League form into one goal a game in South Africa.

 

9. Which team or player might not quite live up to everybody’s expectations?

 

Kagawa: First of all, I think that South Africa will be spurred on sufficiently by their local support to ensure that they are no disappointment. But while journalists often like to talk up Argentina because of Lionel Messi – and I happen to like Argentinean football myself as well – Messi gets away with having a rather dainty and luxurious touch because Barcelona are just such a good club team. With teammates at Argentina who are a little rougher around the edges, you wonder if he will have things quite as easy. Of course, he is the best player in the world, so it would be great to see him performing in the latter stages, but his coach this time is the one and only Diego Maradona. Having two such geniuses in charge and central to the team could be quite difficult to manage for Argentina, but then again, it is going to be very interesting for the rest of us in all sorts of ways.

 

Honda: Cristiano Ronaldo.

 

Mabley: Continuing on from what Kagawa-san said, I think that Messi, Ronaldo, and Rooney could all suffer from having national sides that are nothing like as fluent as their respective clubs. As far as teams are concerned, a big flop could come from Group A but it won’t be the hosts – it’ll be France.

 

10. Finally, what are you most looking forward to about the 2010 World Cup in South Africa?

 

Kagawa: Over the years, football has continued to evolve. Individuals work harder than ever, and the game is very ‘busy’ these days. Some people might not like it, but it is this evolution that has brought us teams like the Barcelona of today. The countries that have come to succeed in football are generally those that have learned from such progress, taken players with their own different skills and got them to work harder, and sought to make this sport more interesting than it was before.

 Along these same lines, Africa is thought to be the place where mankind first originated and learned to walk on two feet. Without learning to walk on two feet, we would never have created football. I think it is an enormous occasion within the entire history of football that the World Cup is coming here, to Africa, for the first time. I’m looking forward to seeing the ways in which this World Cup will prove that football has evolved to the next level – in terms of the national teams, anyway – and any new kinds of organised play that might be on show. I genuinely hope the football will be a step ahead of what we have seen before, and that the teams from Africa – the origin of mankind – will play a major part in this.

 

Honda: The performances of the three players I mentioned before – Honda, Okubo, and Morimoto.

 

Nemoto: First of all, I hope the tournament is a real success. Aside from that, I’m looking forward to the words and deeds of Maradona, and the pretty Brazilian girls in the stands!

 

Mabley: On a personal note, this will be the second World Cup I’ve covered but the first that I’ve actually been to in the flesh. I agree with Kagawa-san that it’s great for these tournaments to be taken to be taken to different countries – of course, we have Euro 2012 in Poland/Ukraine and then Brazil 2014 to come as well – and I can’t wait to see the South African take on football’s biggest party for myself. I really hope it will be a competition that shuts the pessimists up for good.

 

 

(Click here for Part 1: Japan)

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2 days to kick-off – Football Japan’s 2010 World Cup predictions (Part 1: Japan)

9 Jun 2010(Wed)

It is now just two days until the 2010 FIFA World Cup finally gets under way in South Africa on Friday evening. Throughout the tournament, the Football Japan Minutecast will be online several times each week with previews and reports of every single Japan game, plus a series of special features to be broadcast direct from Johannesburg in early July as the knockout stages unfold. Be sure not to miss it!

 

But while the hours and minutes before the opening game are still ticking down, the World Cup wouldn’t be the World Cup without a nice long list of predictions that we can all look back on in a month’s time to see how wrong we were. I chatted last week with legendary Japanese football writer Hiroshi Kagawa – a veteran of nine World Cups and, at 85, the oldest active sportswriter in the country – alongside SIX president Katsumi Honda and fellow Football Japan writer Izumi Nemoto about our hopes and expectations for South Africa 2010.

 

(Click here for Part 2: The rest)

 

 

1. Japan’s first match is on Sunday against Cameroon. How are things looking for Takeshi Okada and his players?

 

Honda: Well, unfortunately, you can’t really say it’s going too well...

 

Kagawa: Things have been pretty bad for a while, haven’t they? The biggest worry is that Japan haven’t made any progress since securing qualification last year. If anything, we’ve become a little worse. Yasuhito Endo looks tired and is clearly suffering from all his exertions over the past two seasons. Shunsuke Nakamura, meanwhile, is edging ever closer to his sell-by date. Of course, he is nearly 32 now, so it is only normal, but his age is really beginning to show – not least in the amount of injuries he is getting. These are the best two passers in the country, so for them both to be on the wane is a real problem.

 

Nemoto: I’m worried about Nakamura’s condition as well. At least Yuji Nakazawa seems to have recovered his form again somewhat after the Serbia game.

 

Mabley: After coming through Asian qualification more than a year ago, Okada’s side have often resembled a second division team who vowed to remain loyal to their attacking principles upon getting promoted, but came unstuck when up against the big boys. The manager is finally starting to make changes, but bizarrely, seems under great pressure not to from a somewhat naïve domestic media.

 

2. After Cameroon, Japan will also be facing Holland and Denmark in Group E. What will be the key to making it through to the knockout stages?

 

Kagawa: Obviously, Japan will want to beat Cameroon. But at the very least, it is important that they don’t lose, first of all. Like most of the African teams, Cameroon have a lot of highly gifted individuals, but even a side as good as them can make mistakes at the back. What we need to do is make sure that we’re positioned to take advantage of this.

In the recent friendly with England, Japan showed excellent rhythm in their play to force the corner kick that led to the opening goal. Endo then pulled the ball across quite cleverly, but even before he did so, Yuki Abe made a run to the near post to allow Marcus Tulio Tanaka to follow in behind. Tulio has great attacking sense, and it was this moment before the shot that created the chance to score.

Japan’s style is highly ‘rhythmical’ – both at corner kicks and in our general play as well. In this case, England’s defenders perhaps weren’t concentrating as well as they might have been, but that is something that can and does happen in every game of football. If it happens with Cameroon, and if Japan can take advantage, then we might just win 2-1 or 1-0. But at worst, if we can draw, then there is still a decent chance going onwards.

 

Honda: The Cameroon game is important, but whatever happens there, Japan need to ensure they go into the next game with plenty of confidence. Even if we lose, there is no need to get overly depressed about the whole situation.

 

Nemoto: I agree. The first game is always important. But we all – including the press – need to make sure that we don’t start thinking ‘well, that’s it then’ like we did in 2006 if, unfortunately, Japan do actually lose. The performances of our goalkeepers will be key as well.

 

Mabley: The physical nature of their three opponents makes this a far from ideal group for Japan, but ever since the draw was made, I’ve felt that the midfield battles will be vital. Okada simply has to convince himself that a 4-1-2-2-1 (with Abe or Junichi Inamoto) that keeps the ball is a far better option against stronger sides than a 4-2-3-1 that does not. Then, it’s a case of how best to exploit Keisuke Honda’s talents in attacking areas.

 

3. Okada has (in)famously set a target of reaching the last four. Is this at all realistic? If not, what would be a more sensible objective?

 

Kagawa: If you think about it logically, South Korea showed in our recent friendly that they are a stronger side than Japan, but even their odds of actually winning the World Cup are something like 200-1. And that’s a pretty fair assessment. But in football, sometimes even weaker sides have a chance of beating more fancied opponents. For sure, most people probably think the whole ‘last four’ idea is pretty ridiculous, but no manager will ever go into a tournament with the intention of losing. So I think this is a reasonably justified objective.

Once you reach the last four and it becomes a matter of determining the actual champions, I think at this point the true depth of football within each remaining country certainly does start to speak volumes. But until then, in a short knockout competition, even the South Koreans in 2002 and the Japan side at the 1968 Olympics managed to reach the semi-finals. It might look like wishful thinking, and obviously Japan would have no chance of competing if it were something like – say – the English Premier League, but then this is what makes sport so interesting. Of course, most Japanese pundits just want to criticise...

 

Honda: Japan have already won games at the World Cup and made it out of their group in the past, so as a next milestone, I don’t see anything wrong with targeting the semi-finals either. I’ll never forget how, in 2002, we just capitulated against Turkey in the last 16 once we’d achieved the ‘main target’ of qualifying from the group.

 

Nemoto: Well, I wouldn’t say there’s zero chance of it happening... but perhaps a more realistic possibility would be making it through the group?

 

Mabley: I don’t know whose fault this is, but I think the whole ‘last four’ thing has been allowed to get out of control to the point where it is now a real millstone around the players’ necks. It’s all well and good aiming high in private, but a little more discretion is required in public so that the supporters and media remain realistic and behind their team. It would be a terrific achievement to get past the group stage.

 

4. Ideals and objectives aside, how far will Japan really make it this year?

 

Kagawa: It would be a cause for true celebration if we could just make it past the first round, since even at the earliest stage, Japan will only be able to win or even draw these matches if we really play to our best. But unless Nakamura and Endo can recover some form, I’m not sure it will happen...

 

Honda: Looking at it objectively, we’ll probably be knocked out in the group phase. But each of our three opponents will likely be thinking that they absolutely have to beat Japan, and this mindset could prove to be our opportunity.

 

Nemoto: The last 16! I’m not giving up hope!

 

Mabley: Japan will need four points from the games with Cameroon and Denmark, and then a certain amount of luck to reach the second round. I don’t think they will disgrace themselves, but Okada’s tactical changes have probably come too late to get them through.

 

 

(Click here for Part 2: The rest)

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Guardian/Observer World Cup preview

6 Jun 2010(Sun)

My preview of Japan’s chances at World Cup 2010 can be found in today’s Observer and on the Guardian football website.

 

http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/2010/jun/06/japan-world-cup-2010-fans-preview

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10 days to kick-off - Preparation means nothing

1 Jun 2010(Tue)

Despite a vastly improved showing against England – thanks largely to Takeshi Okada’s decision to finally bring in a proper defensive midfielder and switch to 4-1-2-2-1two late own goals mean that Japan have now lost four of their last five World Cup warm-up matches. But then again, just how important is good preparation anyway? Football Japan takes a look at five national teams for which pre-tournament turmoil was no barrier to success.

 

1. Italy, World Cup winners 2006

We only have to look back four years to see how Italy’s bid for a first world title since 1982 (see below) was almost undermined and overshadowed by the biggest footballing scandal of the 21st century so far. In May 2006, Juventus general manager Luciano Moggi followed the rest of his club’s board, plus the president and vice-president of the FIGC (Italian Football Federation), in resigning following allegations that a number of top Serie A clubs had attempted to fix domestic matches by effectively choosing their own referees.

 

On 4 July – hours before an Italy squad containing 13 players from the four teams implicated would face hosts Germany in a World Cup semi-final – the prosecutor in the Calciopoli affair announced his recommendation that Juventus be relegated to Serie C1, with Milan, Lazio, and Fiorentina all sent down to the second tier. Unfazed, however, Marcello Lippi’s national side scored twice in the dying moments of extra time that evening, before going on to beat France on penalties and be crowned as champions of the world for the fourth time five days later. The clubs’ punishments were later reduced on appeal.

 

2. Paolo Rossi and Italy (again), World Cup winners 1982

Having scored 60 goals in three seasons for Vicenza and starred during Italy’s unusually free-spirited run to fourth place in Argentina ’78, Paolo Rossi had the world at his feet when he joined Perugia in 1979, before losing it all when implication in the following year’s Totonero betting scandal saw the striker banned from all football for three years. Rossi protested his innocence, and though the suspension was eventually cut short in time for him to appear at España ’82, the long absence seemed to have cost him his spark as Italy only edged out Cameroon in the first group stage on goals scored.

 

But Enzo Bearzot kept his faith, and Rossi rewarded his manager in stunning fashion with a magnificent hat-trick against the Brazil of Sócrates and Zico in one of the World Cup’s all-time great matches; a feat he then followed with a brace against Poland in the last four and the opener against West Germany in the final. Italy won 3-1, and a vindicated Paolo Rossi ended 1982 as a world champion and the winner of the Ballon d’Or, World Soccer Player of the Year, and the World Cup’s Golden Shoe and Golden Ball awards.

 

3. Brazil, World Cup winners 2002

There may have been no scandal to label with Italian italics and Brazil may have stood out as the best team in Japan and Korea by some way, but it’s often forgotten that this century’s first world champions were in real disarray not long beforehand. Former Jubilo Iwata boss Luiz Felipe Scolari took over from future Vissel Kobe manager Emerson Leão in June 2001, with the Seleção outside the South American qualification places after 12 matches of a total 18.

 

Though Brazil did just about scrape through their worst ever qualifying campaign with nine points from the final six games, few gave Scolari’s side much chance of matching favourites France and Argentina; especially when captain Emerson dislocated his shoulder in training (while fooling around as a goalkeeper) and caused their entire tactical blueprint to be rewritten. No fear – the three Rs of Ronaldo, Rivaldo, and Ronaldinho scored 15 goals between them as Brazil’s famous yellow jersey earned its fifth star, while both France and Argentina fell at the first hurdle.

 

4. England, semi-finalists, Euro ’96

Sadly, there was no happy ending at Wembley, but even this most quintessentially English of glorious failures was an unlikely triumph given what had gone before. Having failed to qualify for USA ’94, England’s opening game as European Championship hosts against Switzerland in 1996 was their first competitive fixture in 31 months since a goal in the ninth second by Davide Gualtieri of San Marino had given us Graham Taylor’s last ever ‘do I not like that’. The friendly results under successor Terry Venables had been unspectacular too, with ten wins in 20 games capped by a farcical 1-0 ‘success’ over the Hong Kong Golden Select XI that was marred by tales of ‘dentist’s chair’ drinking binges and smashed up Cathay Pacific cabins.

 

England could only manage a 1-1 draw with the Swiss, but Alan Shearer’s opener broke a 12-game, 21-month goalscoring drought, and when Paul Gascoigne combined inspirational genius with self-parody to seal a 2-0 win over Scotland, football suddenly – for 11 glorious days – came home. Before those pesky Germans had to go and spoil everything, Shearer scored four more to finish as the tournament’s top scorer, the Dutch were demolished 4-1, and England won a penalty shootout for as yet the only time ever.

 

5. Denmark, European champions, 1992

Perhaps the most famous unlikely heroes of all, but while everyone knows about how an out-of-shape Denmark squad were only invited to replace war-torn Yugoslavia two weeks before the 1992 European Championship finals began, their story actually goes back much further than that. A genuinely great Danish Dynamite side had dazzled the world at the 1984 tournament and at Mexico ’86 with their explosive attacking and carefree style (not to mention a wonderfully kitsch World Cup song), but by the time Italia ’90 kicked off without them, inspirational coach Sepp Piontek had followed star names like Allan Simonsen, Søren Lerby, Morten and Jesper Olsen, Frank Arnesen, and Preben Elkjær Larsen out of the exit door.

 

Piontek’s successor, Richard Møller Nielsen, proved a hugely unpopular appointment at first, as the team’s best two outfield players – the Laudrup brothers, Michael and Brian – quit amidst wide-scale revolt against his underwhelming tactics and results. The tragic circumstances in the Balkans provided a reprieve not only for Denmark, but for Møller Nielsen and the younger Laudrup as well, and while Peter Schmeichel and Henrik Larsen inspired a succession of unlikely wins over France, Holland, and Germany, there was even time to revive the spirit of the Eighties when the Danes flocked en masse to a Swedish McDonald’s just two days before their semi-final.

 

(For more details on Danish Dynamite, read this superb feature from the Guardian, and then purchase the film Og Det Var Danmark, whose DVD does have Engelske undertekster.)

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