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October 2010

I searched in three countries for a Ghana away shirt with A. GYAN 3 on the back, but is he really better than Diego Milito?

26 Oct 2010(Tue)

A press release issued by FIFA earlier today revealed the 23 names in contention for the first FIFA Ballon d’Or, to be presented at an undoubtedly lavish ceremony in Zurich just as the AFC Asian Cup is trying to get the rest of the world looking its way on 10 January 2011. The new prize is a sensible merger – agreed in Johannesburg this July – of the old FIFA World Player of the Year awarded since 1991, and the historically more prestigious Ballon d’Or, which dates back as far as 1956. Originally presented by France Football magazine to the year’s most outstanding European footballer, the latter award evolved in 1995 to cover players of any nationality plying their trade in Europe, and ultimately to compete directly with FIFA’s trophy under the same, fully global conditions in 2007. The nominees for the top star of 2010 are listed below.

 

Xabi Alonso (Spain), Daniel Alves (Brazil), Iker Casillas (Spain), Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal), Didier Drogba (Côte d’Ivoire), Samuel Eto’o (Cameroon), Cesc Fabregas (Spain), Diego Forlán (Uruguay), Asamoah Gyan (Ghana), Andrés Iniesta (Spain), Júlio César (Brazil), Miroslav Klose (Germany), Philipp Lahm (Germany), Maicon (Brazil), Lionel Messi (Argentina), Thomas Müller (Germany), Mesut Özil (Germany), Carles Puyol (Spain), Arjen Robben (Netherlands), Bastian Schweinsteiger (Germany), Wesley Sneijder (Netherlands), David Villa (Spain) and Xavi (Spain).

 

There are few, if any, surprise names in the selection, but the omission of Inter Milan forward Diego Milito is absolutely astonishing. After averaging better than a goal every two games over five and a half seasons out of the spotlight with Genoa and Real Zaragoza – culminating in a 26-goal haul in 34 appearances during a single year back with the rossoblu in 2008-09 – the Argentinean was finally given his opportunity with a truly big club at the age of 30 when Massimo Moratti came calling. Samuel Eto’o had been widely expected to lead Jose Mourinho’s attack after the swap deal that saw Zlatan Ibrahimović depart for an ill-fated spell at Barcelona, but Milito made the central striking berth his own in a 4-2-1-3 system that asked Eto’o and Goran Pandev to take one for the team on the flanks. 30 goals, and a treble of Serie A, Coppa Italia, and Champions League titles later, he was crowned with a trio of personal honours from the European governing body UEFA – Man of the Match in the Champions League final, UEFA Club Forward of the Year, and UEFA Club Footballer of the Year.

 

A cynic might suggest that the absence of Milito is indicative of an effort by FIFA to stamp its own authority on the sport’s top individual prize. Even while international football has become gradually overshadowed by the European club scene, performances at the World Cup have always held a heavy influence over the end-of-year honours, and Milito certainly suffers for managing a total of just 91 minutes in South Africa as second fiddle to Lionel Messi and Carlos Tévez. But while Asamoah Gyan was undeniably one of the stories of the summer for his performances leading the line as Ghana so nearly became Africa’s first ever semi-finalists – not to mention the sheer balls he showed in that fateful penalty shootout against Uruguay – to suggest that the Sunderland bench-warmer is more deserving than the Inter number 22 implies gross overemphasis on the competitions that FIFA themselves have control over. It is also perhaps worth highlighting that the list on the press release stated only the countries represented by the Ballon d’Or nominees, and not the clubs.

 

This argument does not account for the inclusion of Didier Drogba, who famously broke his arm against Japan and managed just a late consolation header against Brazil as the Ivory Coast succumbed to the group of death; or Cristiano Ronaldo, whose somewhat fortuitous strike in Portugal’s 7-0 thrashing of hapless North Korea was the only real highlight of a frustrating World Cup for the 2008 Ballon d’Or (and FIFA World Player of the Year) winner. Both players have, however, enjoyed spectacular starts to the 2010/11 European club season. Milito is currently sidelined with a thigh strain – also picked up, ironically, against Japan – and might therefore have been penalised for shining for five months from January to May before FIFA shook hands with France Football, rather than in the two months of club action played since.

 

From a Japanese perspective, had Keisuke Honda followed his marvellous two weeks in South Africa with the kind of two months that Shinji Kagawa has just enjoyed in a top European league – or, indeed, vice versa – one can only wonder if this wouldn’t have matched the new nominations criteria perfectly.

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The Stojković project

19 Oct 2010(Tue)

The J. League isn’t supposed to be like this. While positions two down to about ten retain the sense of crushing tightness that has continued to characterise Japan’s top division even since the Latin American two-stage season format was ditched in 2005, Nagoya Grampus went into Sunday’s match at Albirex Niigata knowing a win would extend their lead at the top to 11 points with just eight games remaining. They failed – in fact, they were hammered 4-1 – but even then, it didn’t really matter. Japan defender Marcus Tulio Tanaka, who has clearly lost none of the charm that so endeared him to rival fans while at previous club Urawa Reds, was quite straightforward. “It was a match we could afford to lose, and we did. What’s the big deal?”

 

Grampus remain one of the better-known Japanese clubs in the UK by virtue of being the final port of call in Gary Lineker’s playing career and the unlikely location from which Arsenal recruited Arsène ‘Who?’ Wenger, but their trophy cabinet is adorned only with two Emperor’s Cups won back in the 1990s. The team’s current prominence has been carefully crafted through a mid-term project occasioned by the managerial appointment of another of its former European stars, Dragan Stojković, in 2008.

 

Despite flirtation with relegation in 2005 and an uninspiring 11th place finish in 2007, the return of ‘Pixie’ to Nagoya brought an immediate title challenge. Spurred by a dozen goals from Norwegian forward Frode Johnsen and a dozen assists from J. League Rookie of the Year Yoshizumi Ogawa, Grampus led the way for much of the season before fading late on to finish third, conceding the championship to Kashima Antlers on the final day. The following year was slightly more complicated – Brazilian striker Davi was brought in to replace Johnsen after netting 16 times for a Consadole Sapporo side so bad it had finished fully 20 points adrift of safety, but fled for the Qatari riyal after just six months, while the side as a whole embodied the struggle many before them had endured in combining domestic affairs with the AFC Champions League. Stojković’s men ended trophyless – reaching the last four in Asia, the final of the Emperor’s Cup, and slipping to ninth in the league – but better educated for the experience. Australian international Joshua Kennedy arrived from Karlsruhe that summer, and a steady succession of sensible acquisitions continued in the winter close season with the likes of Tulio and 21-year-old winger Mu Kanazaki.

 

A much closer fit to the Johnsen role than the individualistic Davi, Kennedy appeared to settle in immediately with 12 goals in 24 appearances in his first half-season, and currently leads the J1 scoring charts with 15 league strikes so far this year. Even Keiji Tamada, whose 11-year J. League career had only previously brought 53 goals and double figures on just two occasions, has scored ten times from 20 starts. Yet despite an attacking intent from back to front that is undoubtedly pleasing on the eye, the only thing truly spectacular about Grampus is their consistency. 17 wins this season (four more than any other J1 side) have included ten by just a solitary goal, and only one – that 5-1 demolition of Shimizu S-Pulse last month – by a margin of more than two. Heavy defeats like the 4-1 in Niigata happen with surprising regularity, but the two previous occasions on which Nagoya conceded four goals (a 4-1 home loss to Kashima just before the World Cup and a 4-0 reverse at Kawasaki in August) were each followed by hauls of 16 points from their subsequent six matches.

 

Big leads have, of course, been frequently overcome before. Kashima raced into a 10-point advantage in the first single-stage season in 2005 before being overhauled in just two months by Gamba Osaka, who then saw local rivals Cerezo recover from 13 points back only to blow it again right at the very end. Urawa surrendered an eight-point gap over Kashima in the final four games of 2007, and though the Antlers recomposed themselves to clinch last season’s crown despite five consecutive defeats in autumn, this was not before their supremacy had been threatened by Shimizu and Gamba – respectively 17 and 19 points adrift at the halfway mark.

 

However, with Nagoya seemingly the sole steady hand as those around them suffer the traditional title race wobbles, this year more than any appears the leaders’ championship to lose. Second-placed Kashima have won only two of their last ten league games and have drawn each of their last three, while Cerezo Osaka’s tremendous return to the top flight has been tempered by just five points in as many games since the start of September. Perhaps the side best placed to make a late challenge are Gamba, who spent much of the first half of the campaign in the bottom half of the table, but even five wins from the last six have rather been achieved despite themselves.

 

The crucial fixtures will come when Grampus host Cerezo on 30 October, before visiting the defending champions a week later. Interestingly, although losing 4-1 to the latter in May followed similar home thrashings last year (3-0) and in 2008 (4-0), Stojković’s side did respond by winning at Kashima Stadium on both previous occasions. After three years of Antlers dominance, a first ever J. League crown for the Nagoya club would be a popular success, but neutrals would enjoy it even more if they were made to sweat for it.

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Honda vs. Kagawa

6 Oct 2010(Wed)

As befitting a three-day weekend occasioned by the ‘Health and Sports Day’ holiday next Monday, Friday’s friendly match between Japan and Argentina in Saitama will serve as the curtain-raiser to a mammoth few days of action within the Japanese sporting calendar. Saturday sees both the close of the regular season and the start of the play-offs in what, for now, probably remains this country’s most popular team sport; with Seibu Lions opening their best-of-three Climax Series tie with Lotte Marines in Nippon Professional Baseball’s Pacific League hours before the parallel Central League completes the last of its rain-delayed fixtures. Attention (both domestic and global) will then shift to Suzuka Circuit in Mie Prefecture for the 16th round of the Formula One World Championship, before Japanese eyes return to the baseball and finally – once the minor hurdle of the first day back at work has been overcome – to the Blue Samurai’s trip to fierce local rivals South Korea on Tuesday.

 

Though it remains hard for many to draw a line under a successful World Cup that still feels like yesterday, the pair of international football matches at the outer extremes of this extended weekend’s symmetry should properly jumpstart the national team into its post-South Africa era. Following the state of limbo that persisted throughout last month’s friendlies with Paraguay and Guatemala under the caretaker charge of Hiromi Hara, these two fixtures represent both the first for new manager Alberto Zaccheroni and the last before Japan jet off to Qatar for the Asian Cup in January. Tactically, the Italian must decide whether to respect the strength of the opposition with a 4-3-3 (or 4-1-2-2-1) similar to that latterly employed by Takeshi Okada, or to boldly test the limits of his newly-acquainted charges in the 4-2-3-1 that looks likely to be his system of choice against most continental sides in the next three years. Whichever way he goes, however, Zaccheroni will also be forced to serve as adjudicator over a fascinating battle for supremacy that has suddenly emerged over the past eight weeks.

 

When long-time key man Shunsuke Nakamura stepped out of his Celtic comfort zone at the age of 31 to receive a rude awakening at Espanyol, Keisuke Honda didn’t so much seize the initiative as brutally beat the last breaths out of his sempai’s Japan career with it. 16 goals in a promotion-winning campaign with VVV Venlo were immediately followed by a first international strike against Chile in May 2009, six more goals in the Dutch top flight, and a sensible move up to a CSKA Moscow side offering first-team football in the Champions League. A couple more spectacular free kicks (against Anzhi Makhachkala and Sevilla) and an assured showing against Internazionale later, few remained unconvinced that the confident Osakan should be the driving force around which the World Cup eleven were built. Even then, it was still remarkable just how well he thrived on the challenge – bringing not only crucial goals but excellent all-round play in an unfamiliar role as a Wilsonian ‘false nine’.

 

In doing so, however, Honda’s ever ongoing quest for self-improvement seems to have hit a plateau. Despite precious little opportunity for rest over the preceding 12 months, the CSKA number seven flew straight back to Moscow after the World Cup to resume the Russian domestic season with a cup derby against Torpedo. He will stay for the remainder of the year to try and help his team win the title – CSKA are currently third, albeit fully eight points behind unbeaten leaders Zenit St. Petersburg – but it is clearly apparent that his feet are growing itchier for a big-league challenge by the day. Whether through form, fitness, or coach Leonid Slutsky’s recent tendency to force him back into defensive midfield, Honda is now without a goal in 15 matches. Worse still, his status as the headline-maker among Japanese players in Europe has suddenly been usurped.

 

The impact made by Shinji Kagawa since transferring to Bundesliga giants Borussia Dortmund is surely only enhanced by his local reputation as ‘that bloke who was playing in the Japanese second division six months ago’. But even to those of us around to witness him prove – with 50 goals in two-and-a-third seasons from midfield – that he was always destined for greater things, the 21-year-old’s progress has been astonishing. After the disappointment of only travelling to South Africa as 24th man, Kagawa settled into Germany immediately with a brace against FK Qarabağ in the Europa League, before returning to Japan to score the only goal against Paraguay. He then followed this up with another strike on his home league debut against Wolfsburg, two in the Ruhr derby at Atsuto Uchida’s Schalke 04, and yet another a week later at St. Pauli. While much of his success at Cerezo Osaka came from the left of the attack, Dortmund manager Jürgen Klopp has entrusted him with a central role behind the main striker. Like Honda, Kagawa has made little secret of his desire to make the position his own.

 

The competition can only be good for the national team. With Takayuki Morimoto struggling to get games at Catania, Honda may well resume his World Cup role this weekend with Kagawa on the left, but the cherished central berth remains up for grabs if Zaccheroni opts to field them both behind a specialist forward. In an ideal world, there will be a happy ending for everyone. Instilling the attacking fluidity that characterises the best exponents of the modern 4-2-3-1 requires time and patience, but once successful, would allow both of Japan’s new stars to shine ever more brightly.

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