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December 2010

FIFA Club World Cup 2010 final report

20 Dec 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.)

 

 

Internazionale (Italy) 3-0 TP Mazembe (DR Congo)

Goals: Pandev 13, Eto’o 17, Biabiany 86

 

 

Internazionale beat TP Mazembe 3-0 on Sunday evening to add the FIFA Club World Cup to the trio of titles won last season under former boss Jose Mourinho and relieve some of the pressure on his successor, Rafa Benitez, in the process.

 

Early goals from Goran Pandev and Samuel Eto’o gave the Italians an advantage they never looked like surrendering, and despite a determined response from Mazembe – the first ever team from outside Europe and South America to reach a Club World Cup final – glory was secured when Jonathan Biabiany added a third goal near the end.

 

Benitez made two changes to the eleven that started in Wednesday’s 3-0 semi-final win over Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma, keeping faith with Thiago Motta as a replacement for the hamstrung Wesley Sneijder, and moving Javier Zanetti into midfield at the expense of Dejan Stankovic, with the Brazilian Maicon coming in at right-back.

 

Mazembe coach Lamine N’Diaye unsurprisingly retained the same side that made history by beating Internacional of Brazil 2-0 last Tuesday.

 

Despite a confident start by the Africans, it took only 13 minutes for Inter to stamp their footprint on the final. Cameroonian Eto’o flicked the ball over the Mazembe back four, and when captain Kazembe Mihayo missed with an acrobatic attempt at a clearance, Pandev took advantage to slot the ball home low to the goalkeeper’s right.

 

The advantage was then doubled just four minutes later. Esteban Cambiasso fed the overlapping Zanetti on the right-hand flank, and though Pandev failed to control the 37-year-old skipper’s cutback, Eto’o was on hand to roll a low shot agonisingly past Muteba Kidiaba’s dive and inside his right-hand post.

 

To their credit, Mazembe showed few signs of losing either nerve or discipline, but despite some clever wide play from Joel Kimwaki and Mulota Kabangu, their attempts on goal were generally restricted to speculative pot shots from distance. The best chances of the remainder of the half fell to Inter, as Diego Milito was twice put clean through on goal only to be denied on each occasion by Kidiaba, the hero of the semi-final.

 

N’Diaye brought on forward Mukok Kanda for Ngandu Kasongo at the start of the second half in an attempt to change the flow of the game, but his side were again forced to shoot from distance as Inter looked content with their two-goal advantage.

 

The game finally opened up a little more for Mazembe in the final quarter of an hour, after Dioko Kaluyituka had a penalty claim for a challenge by Inter ‘keeper Julio Cesar turned down by Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura. Kaluyituka then saw his close-range volley parried by Cesar, with the European champions’ defence just about managing to clear before Amia Ekanga could net the rebound.

 

With five minutes left on the clock, young Frenchman Biabiany sealed a well-deserved triumph for Benitez’s men when he expertly controlled a lofted through ball from fellow substitute Stankovic, deceiving Kidiaba to roll the ball into the empty net.

 

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Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma, who saw off J. League clubs Kawasaki Frontale and Gamba Osaka on their way to being crowned champions of Asia in Tokyo last month, were beaten 4-2 by Internacional in the playoff for third place. Jang Suk-Won was sent off in the first half as the Koreans succumbed to goals from Tinga, Alecsandro (2), and Andres D’Alessandro before Mauricio Molina netted two goals in reply late on.

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Pre-season predictions exposed

14 Dec 2010(Tue)

Following my Scrooge-like moan yesterday, I would like to sign off for Christmas on a lighter note by exposing the accuracy of my own pre-season predictions.

 

I like to think that this year’s attempt represents a significant improvement on last season, with the overall trend line at least only really being hit by the unexpectedly contrasting fortunes of Cerezo Osaka and FC Tokyo.

 

Meanwhile, a belated word of acknowledgement for Omiya Ardija – a club apparently so unfashionable that they can enjoy a Kanto home, J1 status, and yet still be routinely ignored by the nation’s sporting press. A pre-season survey of 34 pundits for a Japanese football magazine had the Squirrels as second favourites for relegation. I disagreed, but still only had them in 14th. Ultimately, their final league position of 12th was a joint club record, and only two places below celebrated local rivals Urawa Reds. Does this mean the two Saitama clubs will be getting similar levels of media attention next year? No, thought not. But well done anyway.

 

Below are the final J1 standings for 2010, together with my pre-season forecasts in brackets. Merry Christmas to you all – I will be back with the odd Minutecast update before Japan’s AFC Asian Cup campaign begins early in the New Year.

 

 

1. Nagoya Grampus (my prediction: 2nd)

2. Gamba Osaka (5th)

3. Cerezo Osaka (12th)

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4. Kashima Antlers (3rd)

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5. Kawasaki Frontale (1st - champions)

6. Shimizu S-Pulse (4th)

7. Sanfrecce Hiroshima (9th)

8. Yokohama F Marinos (8th)

9. Albirex Niigata (11th)

10. Urawa Reds (7th)

11. Jubilo Iwata (10th)

12. Omiya Ardija (14th)

13. Montedio Yamagata (17th – relegated)

14. Vegalta Sendai (13th)

15. Vissel Kobe (15th)

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16. FC Tokyo (6th)

17. Kyoto Sanga (16th – relegated)

18. Shonan Bellmare (18th – relegated)

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Where’s your festive cheer?

13 Dec 2010(Mon)

Unless covering representatives of their own country against another, sports journalists are generally supposed to be neutral, but it is unrealistic to expect anyone to follow something like football with genuine passion and yet not develop personal sympathies. ITV commentator Clive Tyldesley once told me that the relationships he and former commentary partner Ron Atkinson had built up with the squad and staff of Manchester United in press conferences, mixed zones, and private conversations during their late 1990s Champions League forays ensured that the emotion in their voices was very real indeed when ‘that night in Munich’ reached its dramatic conclusion. He also freely admitted that United’s success had been good for his career (coming as it did in Tyldesley’s first season after replacing Brian Moore as the network’s leading commentator), and the same was surely true for Liverpool’s European crown in 2005 and the various other continental cup runs enjoyed by English sides in the latter half of the last decade.

 

This is no bad thing. In fact, the increased depth of information that can be procured through such relationships is usually most beneficial both to the journalists’ employers, and to their end readers, listeners, or viewers. A national newspaper or 24-hour sports news channel will often have correspondents and columnists stationed in various key locations throughout the country. The reporter based in Manchester, for example, will attend matches and news conferences at Eastlands and Old Trafford, and develop contacts that bring him or her closer to the inner workings of City and United (and, perhaps, other local clubs like Blackburn Rovers and Bolton Wanderers as well). Much of this individual reporter’s volume of work may end up with a rather narrow focus as a result, but the idea is that the sports pages always have a go-to guy with the right inside information no matter whereabouts in the country the latest news is breaking.

 

However, this is only either effective or indeed acceptable if the producers and newspaper editors themselves remain impartial, and determine an appropriate balance of coverage to portray the day’s events of interest to the audience as a whole.

 

Having made similar complaints before, I shall try to be succinct in summary. Kashima Antlers may have been the outgoing three-in-a-row champions, have the Zico connection, and be closer as the crow flies to Tokyo, but their slipping out of the automatic Asian Champions League (ACL) places on the final day of this season was NOT a bigger story than Gamba Osaka clinching second. It certainly wasn’t anywhere near as big a story as Cerezo Osaka qualifying for the ACL in their first year back in the top flight after three seasons in the J2 wilderness. So why – as sadly predictable as it was – did the achievements of the two clubs from this city get so roundly ignored by the Japanese ‘national’ press over the past week or so?

 

Worse still has been the constant obsession with FC Tokyo since their relegation was confirmed with that dismal defeat at Kyoto Sanga last week. They’re not even a big club, for God’s sake! Fine, they’re based in the capital and have a lot of name players, but they’ve never once finished in the J. League’s top three and – as discussed last time – played so poorly all season that the drop down to J2 is richly deserved. So how about a shout for Vissel Kobe – another small club but one that went unbeaten in seven and won 4-0 at Urawa Reds to ensure their survival at the last? No, of course not. If we’re going to mention that game, then the story is obviously that the Kanto team lost.

 

Seriously, come on. Urawa haven’t won a trophy for three years now, they wholly deserved to be hammered by Kobe, and a final position of tenth is an accurate reflection of the current side’s ability. They are, of course, a big club and perhaps even Japan’s biggest. A significant proportion of the close season coverage will be devoted to their attempts to rebuild (which have begun already with the managerial appointment of Željko Petrović, and the signings of Marcio Richardes and Mitsuru Nagata from Albirex Niigata), and perhaps justifiably so. But where there is real achievement to be celebrated, it is in the public interest that the national media does so.

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The good, the bad, and the ugly

6 Dec 2010(Mon)

So it is warm congratulations to Dragan Stojković and Nagoya Grampus, champions of Japan for the first time ever after a near-flawless pursuit of glory – keeping pace throughout the first half of the campaign before simply motoring away from the rest in the second. The final winning margin of ten points is a J. League record, and represents the most dominant single-year performance since Jubilo Iwata obtained a combined 16 more points than any other club over the two stages of the 2002 season.

 

Every previous title race since the J. League adopted a single-stage programme in 2005 had gone down to the final day (and often still involving three or more clubs); Grampus had their crown tied up with three matches to spare, another all-time record. 72 points was an equal best ever tally from 34 games. They were spectacular mainly for their mental strength and sheer ability to win – 16 of their 23 league victories came by a one-goal margin – but in Joshua Kennedy possessed a goalscorer that suited their style perfectly, contributing 17 goals to share the J1 golden boot with last year’s winner, Ryoichi Maeda of Jubilo Iwata. Goalkeeper and captain Seigo Narazaki was a deserving recipient of the J. League’s MVP award.

 

Gamba Osaka will be delighted to have finished second despite a difficult year overall. A terrible start saw them languishing near the foot of the table in early spring, before breakthrough performances from Shoki Hirai, Takashi Usami, and even 31-year-old defensive midfielder-cum-goalscorer Hideo Hashimoto kickstarted the recovery following elimination from the AFC Champions League (ACL) and the break for the World Cup. However, a lot of the wins in the latter third of the campaign disguised performances that suggested that this Gamba team is rapidly reaching the end of an era. While J. League Young Player of the Year Usami will play more of a key role next year, winter reinforcements will be more vital than ever.

 

In finishing third and securing automatic ACL qualification in their first season back up from J2, the pound-for-pound achievements of Levir Culpi’s Cerezo Osaka outweigh even anything accomplished in Nagoya. This year was supposed to be about reaping enough points before Shinji Kagawa’s inevitable departure to ensure survival; instead, they thrived more as a team without their undoubted star to climb five places from eighth in his absence. Cerezo boasted neither the best attack nor defence, but a goal difference of +26 was comfortably the best in the division (despite still being zero after matchday 12, the last of the Kagawa era). This was a team that could draw 0-0 with three of the eventual bottom five, but win 5-0 at Sanfrecce Hiroshima and record a 9-2 aggregate score against Jubilo Iwata. The only worry is that success may have arrived too soon – Cerezo’s squad is far thinner than most to have tried and failed to combine J. League and continental football thus far, and losing Brazilian marksman Adriano would exacerbate this problem significantly.

 

For deposed champions Kashima Antlers, the rot probably set in when they lost five games on the bounce in autumn 2009 (even if they did just about recover sufficiently then to hold onto their title), and not unlike Gamba, they must deal with an aging squad infused with young players who are not quite ready to replace the old heroes. My title tips, Kawasaki Frontale, coped well a pre-season managerial change to start the season strongly, only to have their side decimated by injuries and the post-World Cup departures of several key players. Shimizu S-Pulse started so well that they actually led at the halfway stage, but in an eerie parallel to last year, self-destructed when it mattered to lose nine of their last 17 and slip down to sixth – a sad end to Kenta Hasegawa’s reign in charge.

 

At the bottom, it was little surprise to see Kyoto Sanga and Shonan Bellmare drop a division, but it was astonishing that they were both quite that bad. Neither achieved even half the points tally that would have kept them up, while Shonan’s record of 16 points and a goal difference of minus 51 (with an staggering 82 goals conceded) is worse even than the atrocious Yokohama FC side of 2007.

 

FC Tokyo, however, must take the wooden spoon as J1’s biggest failures of 2010. Having finished fifth (just three points adrift of the ACL places) and won the Yamazaki Nabisco Cup last season, this was supposed to be the year that they made a proper title push. Instead, they simply never got going, and the punishment for their ‘too good to go down’ syndrome was accepted in suitably pathetic manner with a 2-0 defeat to ten-man Kyoto Sanga – yes, that Kyoto Sanga – on the final day. Yuto Nagatomo deserved his big opportunity in Serie A with Cesena after the World Cup, but one wonders what will now become of the various current and former Japan internationals who were unable to halt the decline. While Masashi Oguro was unlucky to suffer relegation with a second Tokyo club, Sota Hirayama is surely running out of chances. If only for the entertainment they provided in going seven games unbeaten to snatch survival at the last, Vissel Kobe will be far worthier of their top flight place next year.

 

 

2010 J1 final standings

1. Nagoya Grampus - 72

2. Gamba Osaka - 62

3. Cerezo Osaka - 61

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4. Kashima Antlers - 60

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5. Kawasaki Frontale - 54

6. Shimizu S-Pulse - 54

7. Sanfrecce Hiroshima - 51

8. Yokohama F Marinos - 51

9. Albirex Niigata - 49

10. Urawa Reds - 48

11. Jubilo Iwata - 44

12. Omiya Ardija - 42

13. Montedio Yamagata - 42

14. Vegalta Sendai - 39

15. Vissel Kobe - 38

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16. FC Tokyo - 36

17. Kyoto Sanga - 19

18. Shonan Bellmare - 16

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