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December 2011

Minutecast: Rampant Barcelona take world title as Kashiwa miss out on bronze

19 Dec 2011(Mon)

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



FC Barcelona lived up to their billing as one of the greatest sides ever to have graced the world of football by crushing Santos 4-0 to lift the FIFA Club World Cup in Yokohama, but Japanese champions Kashiwa Reysol missed out on the medal ceremonies after defeat to Al-Sadd of Qatar in the third-place playoff.


The two Asian sides had required penalties to separate them following a goalless stalemate in Sunday’s warm-up act, but the Catalans wasted little time in proving that they and Lionel Messi – not Neymar and his fellow Brazilians – were the main attraction. Goals from Messi, Xavi, and Cesc Fabregas opened up a daunting 3-0 lead by the interval, before the Argentine struck gold again late on to cap a Golden Ball-winning performance.


A bright, open start to the match soon gave way to the now-customary Barcelona dominance as the champions of Spain and Europe passed the ball around at will and pressurised the Santos goal in numbers. On 17 minutes, the crowd at the Yokohama International Stadium rose to its feet when Xavi stretched a heel behind him to perfectly control and bring down an airborne pass, before sending a precision through ball for Messi to loft delicately over the onrushing Rafael Cabral.


Xavi shared the acclaim and found the net himself seven minutes later – seizing the ball inside the penalty area after a cutback from Dani Alves had just evaded Durval and Bruno Rodrigo, and smashing a low shot past the goalkeeper.


With Neymar struggling to get a look in, it was Borges who had the first real chance for Santos, hitting a low shot from a tight angle into the arms of Victor Valdes. But the waves of Barcelona attacks were simply relentless and perhaps best embodied by the manner of the third goal shortly before half time.


Messi just about managed to keep his footing as he evaded a desperate challenge in the penalty area, allowing Alves to get in a cross which Cabral did well to punch away. But Thiago Alcântara was immediately on hand to head the ball back towards goal, and even though Cabral recovered his position to save again, he was helpless to prevent Fabregas from netting the final rebound.


The fourth goal was perhaps the most special. With the Santos defence stretched, Messi appeared to have taken a heavy first touch from Alves’s low pass, but just as the ’keeper looked set to collect, the Argentine reached out a leg and stabbed the ball into the ground with his studs, sending it bouncing beyond his opponent and allowing him to recover his balance to slot home.



In jubilant mood after adding the Club World Cup to the Supercopa de España and European Super Cup collected soon after his summer arrival from Arsenal, Fabregas stopped to speak to the Minutecast after the final. (Click here for the full interview.)


It’s a very good day for this football club. It’s been very difficult to get here because you have to win the Champions League, then you have to win the semi-final game and the final against teams that maybe we are not used to because they come from other countries and different places in the world.


He added, “If you say that it’s easy, it’s because we played a very serious game – very professional and disciplined – and that made it look easy. But it wasn’t easy at all.


We’re always relaxed. I think this team loves pressure; this team loves these kinds of games, and that’s why they won as much as they did already in these last four seasons. I think they don’t have to prove anything to anyone anymore, and all we have to do is keep believing that we can do more.”




In the playoff for third place, Kashiwa gave a strong account of themselves against a Qatari side crowned as continental champions last month but were repeatedly thwarted by goalkeeper Mohamed Saqr throughout the 90 minutes and, decisively, in the penalty shootout.


With Al-Sadd once again sitting deep, the game began slowly before Junya Tanaka went close to scoring twice within a matter of moments midway through the first half. The forward’s low shot from the right-hand side of the penalty area struck the near post, while a second effort soon afterwards from Koki Mizuno’s determined cutback was somehow kept out at close range by Saqr.


The man between the posts stood firm to deny a number of other hopeful Kashiwa efforts, including a Hideaki Kitajima header and a long-range strike from Jorge Wagner, while opposite number Takanori Sugeno also demonstrated fine form in keeping out powerful efforts by Kader Keita and Ibrahim Abdulmajed.


The game went straight into a shootout after 90 goalless minutes, and in a cruel twist of irony, it was Ryohei Hayashi – who struck the winning penalty in Kashiwa’s quarter-final with Monterrey – who was denied on this occasion by the dive of Saqr. Nadir Belhadj then slotted home Al-Sadd’s fifth penalty from five to clinch third place and the bronze medals.


Reysol manager Nelsinho Baptista struggled to hide his disappointment during his post-game press conference, but was keen to stress how far the side had come just two weeks after clinching their first J. League title – and a year after promotion from J2.


Quoted by FIFA.com, the Brazilian said: “In my view, Kashiwa were the only team who tried to win during the 90 minutes. If you look at shots on goal and possession of the ball, I am sure we would be ahead of Al-Sadd in these respects. But once again, as it was against Santos, we were unable to take our chances. We must learn that, in tough games like these, we cannot afford to waste so many opportunities.


“But the status of this club has changed through competing in this tournament and we are able to hold our heads high because we have competed proudly.”



FIFA Club World Cup final result

Santos (BRA) 0-4 Barcelona (ESP)


FIFA Club World Cup third-place playoff result

Kashiwa Reysol (JPN) 0-0 Al-Sadd (QAT) (after 90 minutes; Al-Sadd win 5-3 on penalties)

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Club World Cup final special – Interview with Cesc Fabregas

18 Dec 2011(Sun)

FC Barcelona left no room to question their title of best on the planet with a crushing 4-0 victory over South American champions Santos in the final of the FIFA Club World Cup on Sunday evening. Football Japan spoke with the scorer of the Catalans’ third goal, former Arsenal midfielder Cesc Fabregas, after the match.



How does it feel now that you are officially crowned as the best team in the world?

It’s good. It’s a very good day for this football club. It’s been very difficult to get here because you have to win the Champions League, then you have to win the semi-final game and the final against teams that maybe we are not used to because they come from other countries and different places in the world. So I think we have to be very proud of what we achieved today.


Were you surprised that it was so easy in the end?

(Smiles) No, it wasn’t easy at all. I think they made it difficult at the beginning but we were fortunate to score quickly and then another one a few minutes later. So if you say that it’s easy, it’s because we played a very serious game – very professional and disciplined – and that made it look easy. But it wasn’t easy at all.


After an intense start to the month with the Clasico and Real Madrid leading La Liga, was it nice to get away from that and come to the other side of the world to relax and just play your football?

We’re always relaxed. I think this team loves pressure; this team loves these kinds of games, and that’s why they won as much as they did already in these last four seasons. I think they don’t have to prove anything to anyone anymore, and all we have to do is keep believing that we can do more.


How long can this team be the best in the world? How good do you think it is?

I don’t know – we are very young players and I still believe that we will keep this hunger. Obviously you cannot win every single year – that’s impossible – but we have to do the best we can to try and do it.


And how much fun is it out on the pitch to be playing with Messi, Xavi, and Iniesta?

Oh, it’s great. I mean, they are the best players in the world and I’m taking advantage as well in my game to have more opportunities because they create so much space and so many chances.


How do you feel personally, having joined from Arsenal in the summer, to win this with Barcelona?

For me, it’s a very, very special day. It’s been a special four months – I’ve won three titles and we are doing very well in the league, in the cup, and in the Champions League as well. So all I want to do is keep going and keep improving; try to win as much as I can and be the best player that I can be.


There was a lot of attention given to Santos before this game and now you’ve destroyed them as well. When are you going to start giving someone else a chance to win?

I don’t know! Every game is different and we always have to go with the same mentality.

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Minutecast: Neymar and company brush aside brave Reysol

16 Dec 2011(Fri)

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


J. League champions Kashiwa Reysol were denied a glamour date with FC Barcelona in the final of the FIFA Club World Cup as spectacular strikes from Neymar, Borges, and Danilo gave Brazilian giants Santos a 3-1 victory in their last four meeting at the Toyota Stadium on Wednesday.


Despite a spirited second half fightback, which saw Hiroki Sakai add to his growing stock with a headed goal that briefly reduced the deficit to one, the Sun Kings will instead have to make do with a playoff for third place against AFC Champions League winners Al-Sadd of Qatar – who were thrashed 4-0 by the Catalans in Yokohama yesterday evening.


Remaining faithful to the same eleven that had begun both of their previous matches in this competition, Kashiwa started the match in confident fashion – clearly buoyed by the occasion and the penalty shootout victory over Mexican side Monterrey in the quarter-finals.


But they were given an early warning of the creative weapons at the South Americans’ disposal when a defensive mix-up allowed Neymar to steal in and hit the post after just five minutes, and it was the 19-year-old wonderboy who soon opened the scoring for Santos in typically extravagant style.


Collecting a pass some 30 yards from goal, Neymar deceived Reysol captain Hidekazu Otani with a clever piece of footwork to switch the ball from his right to left boot, before curling a perfect shot well beyond the reach of Takanori Sugeno and into the top corner of the net.


The action had little time to settle down thereafter before the lead was doubled in no less impressive fashion by Borges. The mid-season arrival from Grêmio, who had a successful spell in Japan with Vegalta Sendai back in 2006, turned inside Kashiwa centre-backs Naoya Kondo and Tatsuya Masushima and created just enough space to bend home a right-footed effort from inside the D.


Kashiwa boss Nelsinho Baptista, who both played for and managed Santos, responded by introducing Hideaki Kitajima for Masato Kudo at half-time. Although the Brazilians appeared to remain in total control at the onset of the second period, the ‘home’ side gained a sudden and unexpected lifeline on 53 minutes.


Jorge Wagner struck a characteristically accurate outswinging corner from the left, and Sakai soared above the opposing defenders to head comfortably past Rafael Cabral.


But their deficit was restored to two just nine minutes later when Ryoichi Kurisawa conceded a free kick 25 yards from goal. This time it was defender Danilo’s turn to show off his skills, expertly sending the ball low around the outside of the wall but turning sharply back to bounce inside the unsighted Sugeno’s left-hand post.


Kashiwa refused to give up the fight, however, and were unfortunate not to score a quarter of an hour from time when Masakatsu Sawa struck the post from a narrow angle. The substitute really ought to have then found the target six minutes later but volleyed over from four yards when a Leandro Domingues cross had left him with an empty net at his mercy.


Nelsinho appeared satisfied with his charges after the match, commenting: “My team became J. League champions just 11 days ago and today was our third match since then, yet we were still able to create a lot of goalscoring opportunities. For us, this tournament has been a very good experience and we still have a match to come to decide third place.


“I think we have shown that Japanese football is really growing and developing, and the young players are especially developing very quickly.”




Despite being repeatedly frustrated by a well-drilled Al-Sadd back line for the opening 25 minutes of their semi-final, European champions Barcelona were able to take advantage of a catastrophic mix-up between goalkeeper Mohamed Saqr and left-back Nadir Belhadj to finally take the lead through Adriano.


The former Sevilla man added a second just before the interval, before second half goals from Seydou Keita and Maxwell completed a comfortable 4-0 victory – which was nonetheless overshadowed by a broken leg for the unfortunate David Villa.


Al-Sadd skipper Abdulla Koni offered his thoughts to Football Japan as his side look to put the defeat behind them and prepare for Sunday’s meeting with Kashiwa.


“Everybody makes mistakes. But today, God said we would make a mistake like this and we would lose like this. Times are good. We want to win and we lost, but for everything God gave you, you have to say thanks. Thanks for my players; they played very hard, they kept our goal safe.


“We will prepare for the (Kashiwa) game like we prepared for today’s game because we respect all of the teams. And if any team doesn’t respect us, it’s their mistake. But we will respect all teams and we will try our best to improve. Because we have some young players, it is good for them to learn and also to enjoy their lives. Also the Japanese team are very good so we will try to do our best and to be on the podium.”



The Football Japan Minutecast’s Ben Mabley tells the story of Japanese club football through eight previous thrilling title races in Issue Three of The Blizzard. Visit www.theblizzard.co.uk for details.

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Minutecast: Japanese champions Kashiwa reach last four of Club World Cup

12 Dec 2011(Mon)

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



Eight days after sealing their historic first J. League championship, Kashiwa Reysol proudly flew the flag for Japan by edging Monterrey of Mexico in a dramatic penalty shootout to set up a FIFA Club World Cup semi-final date with Brazilian giants Santos.


After 120 minutes of highly entertaining football had ended with the sides still level at 1-1 – Leandro Domingues’s opener for Kashiwa in the second half of normal time having been quickly cancelled out by Humberto Suazo – Takanori Sugeno denied Monterrey captain Lucho Pérez at the first kick of the shootout to immediately put the host nation representatives in the driving seat.


Both teams missed with their fourth penalties, but substitute forward Ryohei Hayashi made no mistake with Reysol’s fifth to spark yet more celebrations for the men in yellow.


Kashiwa had eased into the competition with a 2-0 victory over Oceania champions Auckland City of New Zealand in Thursday’s opening match, and coach Nelsinho Baptista saw no need to make changes to a team that was at full strength bar the absent backup defender Park Dong-Hyuk – whose end-of-season departure was confirmed last week.


In the opening stages it looked as if their first ever international adventure would be a short one, however, as Monterrey dominated the first quarter with pace and numbers in attack. Chilean forward Suazo was a constant menace, striking the foot of the opposite post from César Delgado’s pinpoint cross before sending a direct free kick curling narrowly wide moments later.


But having weathered the early storm, Kashiwa began to settle into the contest and created their first two good chances either side of half time. Junya Tanaka could only head a deep cross from Hiroki Sakai into the side netting, while strike partner Masato Kudo hit a difficult left-footed volley over the crossbar three minutes after the restart.


The first goal soon arrived on 53 minutes. After Leandro had lost possession on the edge of the area, Tanaka was quick to pounce on the loose ball and cut a cross back for the Brazilian near the penalty spot. The J. League’s Most Valuable Player was able to adjust his position to fire a spectacular volley into the far corner beyond the dive of Jonathan Orozco.


Their lead was short-lived, however, as Monterrey quickly regrouped to hit Reysol on the counter five minutes later. Delgado beat the offside trap to collect a long pass played down the right-hand flank and send in another perfect cross for Suazo, who made no mistake this time as his outstretched left boot stabbed the ball past Sugeno at the far post.


Kashiwa recovered from the disappointment to regain control and were comfortably the most threatening thereafter, with Orozco forced into two smart saves from Tanaka headers, but the game steadily settled into a stalemate situation as the end of first normal time, then extra time approached.


The home crowd enjoyed the perfect start to the penalty competition when Sugeno superbly kept out Pérez, and Reysol were on the brink of glory when Orozco struck the post with the CONCACAF champions already 3-2 behind.


Monterrey’s goalkeeper partially redeemed himself by saving from Tanaka immediately afterwards, but Hayashi held his nerve with Kashiwa’s fifth to secure that glamour tie against Santos in Toyota this Wednesday.




Goalscorer Leandro Domingues spoke to Football Japan after the quarter-final win that capped a momentous week for Kashiwa.


“We were thrust into this tournament after winning the J. League just last Saturday, and this was already our second game. By contrast our opponents had had plenty of time to rest, thus we started off at a real disadvantage.


“Monterrey were a really high-quality team and it was a very close contest. But we had found our rhythm and were passing the ball around well in the lead up to our goal; and I was happy with my finish. It was just a shame that we then made a mistake and conceded the equaliser so soon afterwards.


“But we won in the end to seal our progression and that is the most important thing. It is a dream for any footballer to play in the Club World Cup – I was delighted to score and am thankful to all of my team mates.


“Santos are a world-class team, just like Barcelona. So that will be a very tough game, but I think we can surprise them.”




- AFC Champions League winners Al-Sadd beat Espérance of Tunisia 2-1 in the other Club World Cup quarter-final thanks to goals from Khalfan Ibrahim and Abdulla Koni. The Qataris will now face European champions FC Barcelona in Yokohama this Thursday.

- A J. League board meeting held this afternoon officially approved the promotion to J2 of JFL sides Matsumoto Yamaga and Machida Zelvia. The latter beat Kamatamare Sanuki 2-0 yesterday to seal the required top four finish.



The Football Japan Minutecast’s Ben Mabley tells the story of Japanese club football through eight previous thrilling title races in Issue Three of The Blizzard. Visit www.theblizzard.co.uk for details.

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2011 pre-season predictions revisited

9 Dec 2011(Fri)

One of the great whimsical joys of pre-season is testing out our Nostradamus credentials by trying to predict exactly what is going to happen over the coming year. While some may then seek to sweep their once-solid convictions quietly under the carpet when reality unfolds quite differently, it only stands to reason that any and all forecasts should later be returned to and exposed for what they really were. That is, after all, part of the fun.


With one or two notable exceptions, I like to think that I did considerably better than last year. The league table I envisaged back on 5 March correctly nominated all three of the clubs that would be relegated to J2 come December, and two of the three automatic qualifiers for the AFC Champions League. The only glaring inaccuracy as far as the really decisive positions were concerned was the identity of the champions. I was convinced by the case put forward by Nagoya Grampus for a second straight crown, but they ultimately finished a point behind the remarkable J2-J1 title double winners, Kashiwa Reysol. I had them down in 11th... but then, nobody expected them to do anything as like as well as they did.


The greatest source of frustration looking back is that I have been let down by conservatism. The logic behind my prediction that “Cerezo (Osaka) drop to ninth – and possibly lower if Vegalta Sendai and Kashiwa Reysol hit the ground running – as their slim squad battles on multiple fronts” was proven to be spot on, but I ought to have been bolder in my faith for both sets of men in yellow as Vegalta ended up in fourth, not tenth, while Cerezo sank to 12th.


There were, of course, a couple of other big mistakes. Bar the bottom two, the lower half of the table was so tight that positions were quickly interchangeable, but my expectation that Vissel Kobe would struggle appears rather rejected by their ninth place finish. Neither Sanfrecce Hiroshima nor Kawasaki Frontale contended for the ACL places as I had thought, while Yokohama F Marinos showed a far greater improvement than I felt them capable of even allowing for the late-season slump that cost them fourth.


And then there’s Urawa. After their disastrous end to 2010, I thought their quick work in rebuilding with several new arrivals would be the start of a real recovery for Japan’s most popular club. I was wrong. And how.



My 2011 J1 table predictions (actual positions in brackets)

1. Nagoya Grampus (2nd – ACL)

2. Kashima Antlers (6th)

3. Gamba Osaka (3rd – ACL)


4. Sanfrecce Hiroshima (7th)


5. Urawa Reds (15th)

6. Kawasaki Frontale (11th)

7. Yokohama F. Marinos (5th)

8. Shimizu S-Pulse (10th)

9. Cerezo Osaka (12th)

10. Vegalta Sendai (4th)

11. Kashiwa Reysol (1st – champions)

12. Albirex Niigata (14th)

13. Jubilo Iwata (8th)

14. Omiya Ardija (13th)

15. Vissel Kobe (9th)


16. Ventforet Kofu (16th – relegated)

17. Montedio Yamagata (18th – relegated)

18. Avispa Fukuoka (17th – relegated)



(This column will now go on a short hiatus until the New Year. In the meantime, look out for news on Kashiwa’s progress in the FIFA Club World Cup and on the latter stages of the Emperor’s Cup with our English-language podcast, the Football Japan Minutecast. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all.)

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Ninth Bell – The 2011 J. League at In Bed With Maradona

8 Dec 2011(Thu)

As an accompaniment to Ben Mabley’s Eight Bells feature on thrilling J. League climaxes for Issue Three of The Blizzard, the award-winning football website In Bed With Maradona has generously carried an additional piece by the same writer summarising the story behind Kashiwa Reysol’s incredible J1 title win in 2011.



Never more than 3 points away: A Blizzard companion piece


The original article in The Blizzard tells the history of Japanese club football through similar summaries of eight previous title races – including Kunishige Kamamoto and Yanmar Diesel in 1974, the advent of the professional era with Zico and Kashima Antlers against Kazuyoshi Miura and Verdy Kawasaki in 1993, and the momentous final day in 2005 when the two Osaka clubs headed a list of five teams battling for the championship until the closing seconds.



The Blizzard contains a wealth of fascinating, in-depth pieces by world-class writers such as Jonathan Wilson, Gabriele Marcotti, and Iain Macintosh. It is available through a pay-what-you-like scheme online, with a minimum price of £6 and a recommended retail price of £12 for the luxuriously beautiful hard copy, or a minimum price of £0.01 and recommended retail price of £3 for the digital alternative (Kindle, iPad, iPhone, Sony Reader, etc).


Many thanks indeed to In Bed With Maradona for their kind cooperation – be sure to check out a terrific variety of other fascinating football tales at inbedwithmaradona.com.

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The secret of Kashiwa’s success

6 Dec 2011(Tue)

The achievements of Nelsinho Baptista and his Kashiwa Reysol squad will fittingly live on in the annals of Japanese football history. Though each J. League season kicks off with half a dozen or more realistic title contenders and two previous sides – Sanfrecce Hiroshima in 2009 and Cerezo Osaka last term – had previously achieved AFC Champions League (ACL) qualification in their first year after promotion from the second division, nobody had ever before threatened to clinch a unique J2-J1 title double. Even when Kashiwa burst away from the rest with 22 points from a possible 27 in their first nine fixtures, virtually everyone still believed it was just a matter of time before they began to run out of breath and were overhauled by – among others – the reigning champions, Nagoya Grampus.


The first evidence of a wobble came with the 3-0 home defeat to Jubilo Iwata on 15 June, which was soon followed by further big losses to both Osaka clubs. The rescheduling necessitated by the 11 March disaster had left Kashiwa with a really tough three or four months bookended by a relatively easy season opening and run-in, while a small squad might understandably have been stretched by the need to play two games a week throughout the hot summer. But a look at their result patterns around this time reveals the real secret to their success. With uncanny similarity to the 2010 vintage at Nagoya, when things went badly for Reysol, they went really badly – either in the form of heavy losses or upsets against relegation strugglers – but the rest of the time, they just won.


Their tricky patch between that Iwata game and a second reverse at the hands of Gamba Osaka on 24 August brought six of Kashiwa’s eventual eight defeats, but the other eight matches in that 14-game spell yielded 22 of a possible 24 points. This ensured that they were able to come out the other side of that long summer still very much in the championship picture; dropping to fourth, but never more than three points behind the leaders. Exciting comeback victories against Kawasaki Frontale and Nagoya put them on track for a terrific autumn in which they showed few signs of blinking or inexperience at the very top. Indeed, a record of nine wins, one draw, and a solitary defeat in the final 11 matchdays was even more impressive than their explosive start to the season.


The qualities of Kashiwa’s well-balanced squad and highly intelligent manager were considered by this column in the final-day preview last Friday, but above all, this brilliant combination has once again proven the importance of turning one point into three (indeed, only three league matches were drawn all season). They will be highly popular representatives for Japanese fans to cheer on as the FIFA Club World Cup gets under way in Toyota this Thursday.


The other title challengers (and ACL qualifiers)

For Nagoya, it was a case of what might have been as a second consecutive championship was missed by the slender margin of a single point; with a better goal difference to boot. Like the other ACL competitors, they struggled as a result of having to play on in Asia through the domestic hiatus in March and April – in combination with the toll this competition usually takes on league form anyway – languishing down in 12th position after only six points were amassed from as many games by mid-May. But what convinced many – including, quite explicitly, this column – of their ability to recover and win the league regardless was that knack of drawing out three points that they had shown throughout the previous campaign, coupled with the all-round quality of a squad that remains unrivalled in J1. With that in mind, the trophy appeared theirs for the taking when they strung together a run of 16 matches unbeaten to hit the summit in August.


But when fans dissect the campaign to see where they could have found that one extra result to make all the difference, their eyes will naturally be drawn to a four-game spell in late summer/early autumn when eight points were dropped in just four matches – starting with a crucial 2-1 loss in Kashiwa where they had led with 25 minutes remaining. Such an uncharacteristic loss of consistency – perhaps the first, without real extenuating circumstances anyway, of Dragan Stojković’s reign – was ultimately decisive. Grampus were highly impressive in dismissing the theoretical difficulties of their run-in by winning their final six matches, but it mattered little as Reysol held their nerve.


The future remains bright for Nagoya, however, with experience and stability in the playing resources plus few obvious candidates likely to scarper to Europe any time soon. Not unlike Cerezo Osaka (who finished down in twelfth) this year, Kashiwa will have to face the combined challenges of second-season syndrome, a potential looting of their most outstanding players, and a first season of Asian competition; while a host of other potential title challengers face a winter of significant overhaul in both playing and coaching personnel. With Joshua Kennedy taking the top scorer’s accolade outright with 19 goals (having shared the honour with Ryoichi Maeda in 2010) and Keiji Tamada continuing to prove a valuable foil with 14 himself, Grampus will probably again begin the 2012 season as favourites.


One of the teams facing a hurried period of transition is Gamba Osaka, who overcame a number of ups and downs throughout a curious season of constant evolution to eventually finish third, remaining in the title picture until the final day. This goes down as a laudable achievement in light of the mid-season departures of both Adriano and Takashi Usami; as well as the failure to properly rejuvenate the midfield and defence which, in all likelihood, was a key factor behind the strangely-timed announcement (with two games remaining) that manager Akira Nishino would be allowed to leave after ten years at the helm. The winter presents much uncertainty, with a number of experienced players rumoured to be departing and former Japan international Wagner Lopes the surprise favourite to take over as manager. Gamba finished in the top three in all bar two of Nishino’s ten seasons – the next step could either push them on to further successes or undo all that hard work.


The relegated three, and a fourth who deserved to go down

At the bottom, Avispa Fukuoka looked in danger of breaking all sorts of J. League records upon their brief return to J1 as – in total contrast to Kashiwa – they lost each of their opening nine matches and mustered just one point from the first 39 available. But they, and their wonderful fans, deserve great credit for keeping their heads up and recovering some pride thereafter. Indeed, 21 points were recorded from the 21 games after that initial humiliation – a rate of achievement that would have brought them very close to survival had it been maintained all year – and a thumping 5-0 victory at a bad-and-steadily-getting-worse Montedio Yamagata last month ensured they would at least avoid finishing bottom.


Carried by the (largely aerial) goalscoring talents of Mike Havenaar – a Japan striker so unusual to the local media’s eyes that his name seemingly must always be quoted in full with mandatory accompanying reference to his 194cm stature – Ventforet Kofu fleetingly looked headed for safety with a late season run of 13 points from eight games; including hugely impressive wins over both Osaka clubs. They ran out of steam at the end, however, and this was ultimately the sole reason that the biggest flops of all were able to get of jail at the last.


Urawa Reds have, quite simply, been an embarrassment to themselves and their packed masses of followers ever since the opening whistle of the season. For a club that remains easily the best-supported and one of the most well-funded in the country, to remain on the cusp of relegation until the final weeks took a decline that was already unacceptable into new levels of shame and – for rival fans around the country – schadenfreude.


Despite apparently investing well last winter with the arrivals of Marcio Richardes and Mitsuru Nagata – plus manager Željko Petrović, who lasted until October – it soon became clear that there was no coherent strategy to bond the club together; for which the board must take responsibility. In the years since Urawa won the ACL in 2007, one has sensed an arrogant overbelief in the ‘We are Reds’ maxim which forms a natural bedfellow with the old, misplaced idea of being ‘too good to go down’. Like with Kashiwa in 2009 and the similarly underachieving FC Tokyo last year, relegation might have been the best thing ever to happen to the club. As it is, they must quickly take responsibility and realise that a decline which has taken them from sixth to tenth to fifteenth in the past three seasons is no fluke.



2011 J1 final standings


2) Nagoya Grampus 71

3) Gamba Osaka 70


4) Vegalta Sendai 56


5) Yokohama F Marinos 56

6) Kashima Antlers 50

7) Sanfrecce Hiroshima 50

8) Jubilo Iwata 47

9) Vissel Kobe 46

10) Shimizu S-Pulse 45

11) Kawasaki Frontale 44

12) Cerezo Osaka 43

13) Omiya Ardija 42

14) Albirex Niigata 39

15) Urawa Reds 36


16) Ventforet Kofu 33

17) Avispa Fukuoka 22

18) Montedio Yamagata 21

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Imagining the final day of the J. League season... on the PlayStation

3 Dec 2011(Sat)

With mere hours remaining until the last round of this season’s J1 matches kick off and the title race is finally decided, I simply cannot decide what is going to happen. So I decided to let my PlayStation do my predictions for me. Now, strictly speaking, FIFA 12 doesn’t have the rights to the J. League, but a sophisticated customisation feature and the dedication of a community of fans in Japan has enabled us to download all the teams and players we need from the internet. And very authentic they all look, too. In the interests of fairness, I let the computer control both sides in all three crucial games and watched the action from the comfort of my sofa. And so it’s over to the stadiums where our commentators are waiting...




Kick-off: Clive Tyldesley is fully aware of the importance of this occasion as he welcomes us to the Saitama Stadium for Urawa Reds v Kashiwa Reysol. “There has been plenty of tension surrounding this one; there is so much to play for.” That’s right, Clive, there is. Kashiwa go into the final day in first place but with only a single-point lead, while Urawa need a draw to make absolutely sure of survival. His co-commentator Andy Townsend, meanwhile, has apparently been looking forward to this one for weeks. That’s the spirit. Martin Tyler and Alan Smith, by contrast, seem a little bit subdued from their commentary positions, although that’s possibly something to do with the fact that they’ve been asked to cover both Albirex Niigata v Nagoya Grampus and Shimizu S-Pulse v Gamba Osaka at once. Football just got four-dimensional, and that’s bound to confuse anybody.


3 minutes: Early chance for Urawa! Tadaaki Hirakawa breaks down the left flank and cuts back to Naoki Yamada, who tries a shot from a tight angle which goalkeeper Takanori Sugeno does well to parry. The ball flies up into the path of Ranko Despotović, but it’s a difficult header and the ball sails harmlessly over. Let off for the league leaders.


10 minutes: Third-placed Gamba Osaka, who have chosen to give Shoki Hirai a rare start alongside Lee Keun-Ho up front in the absence of both Rafinha (suspended) and Shota Kawanishi (broken leg), are the only one of the three contenders to have begun well. Lee, who seems to be one of the few players whose name Tyler has bothered learning, squanders an early opportunity though his own hesitancy. Urawa remain on top in Saitama; clearly determined to ensure there is no way back in the survival battle for Ventforet Kofu. Niigata, meanwhile, are playing as if they are the ones going for the title against a nervy-looking Nagoya. As I say that, however, Joshua Kennedy hits the first real chance of the game just wide.


19 minutes: Hirakawa gets in a terrific last-ditch interception to deny Junya Tanaka! Kashiwa have looked second best so far but they were through on goal and looked certain to score there. Brilliant defending.


21 minutes: And now a chance for another Tanaka... no! He’s put it wide! Atomu Tanaka of Niigata did superbly to dribble past both Naoshi Nakamura and Marcus Tulio Tanaka, but just when he appeared to have done all the hard work, his hurried shot flew past the post with only Seigo Narazaki to beat. Grampus really ought to be behind.


23 minutes: GOAL! The first goal of the afternoon so far and it’s come at Nihondaira, where Yasuhito Endo has given Gamba Osaka the lead! Hirai carried the ball along the left-hand side of the Shimizu penalty area before passing to Endo, who turned inside Eddy Bosnar with a clever change of pace and fired a low shot across Kaito Yamamoto. It’s early days yet, but that strike puts them on top of the provisional table. Shimizu S-Pulse 0-1 Gamba Osaka


33 minutes: As if stung into action by the news from Shimizu, Kashiwa are starting to get into their game after being second best for the first quarter. A beautiful four-man passing move almost sets up a chance for top scorer Leandro Domingues, but Shunki Takahashi just about gets to the ball first and clears desperately. In Niigata, Atomu Tanaka looks to have picked up a knock from that earlier opportunity on goal.


35 minutes: Naohiro Takahara evades Hiroki Fujiharu’s attempted tackle and fires in a quick shot that Gamba custodian Yosuke Fujigaya does well to push behind. First real chance for a Shimizu equaliser.


HALF-TIME: Gamba retain their composure to see out the half despite some good late pressure from S-Pulse. Still goalless in the other two games, but Kashiwa have recovered to gain control after a shaky opening. Nagoya, meanwhile, look out of sorts in the face of a really excellent 45 minutes of football from Niigata, for whom the only criticism can be their failure to turn territory into shots. Provisional table: 1) Gamba 70 (+26), 2) Kashiwa 70 (+21), 3) Nagoya 69 (+30)


Second half: Albirex’s Tanaka is indeed struggling and he hasn’t returned for the second half; Yuta Mikado is his replacement. Kashiwa look to step things up a gear with the introduction of old hero Hideaki Kitajima for Masato Kudo. No changes at Nihondaira, but Gamba are quickly out of the blocks and create two decent chances in the opening five minutes of the half; both thanks to good work on the right flank by Takahiro Futagawa. Unfortunately neither Lee nor Kim (Seung-Yong), another generic Korean name that Tyler seems to be familiar with, are able to get the ball onto their stronger feet and two almost identically tame shots are comfortably collected by Yamamoto.


47 minutes: Ooh... perhaps let’s call that a three-quarters chance for Kitajima just minutes after coming on. The 33-year-old did brilliantly to turn his marker, Mitsuru Nagata, but in doing so he loses balance and screws his shot just wide. Positive start from Reysol nonetheless.


51 minutes: PENALTY TO URAWA! What was I saying?! The home side break down to the other end, Genki Haraguchi collects the ball from Despotović and flicks it past the last defender, Hiroki Sakai. The Japan U22 teammates collide... but on a second look it’s a clear trip from Sakai and he’s probably fortunate to avoid a red card. Referee spot on with the decision and Marcio Richardes is spot on with the penalty... GOAL! Hard, low, and central. The J2 champions suddenly have a mountain to climb. Urawa Reds 1-0 Kashiwa Reysol


55 minutes: Kashiwa have clearly decided that, if they’re going to have to score twice in 40 minutes, they’d better make a move on. Brilliant skill from Leandro Domingues only rewarded with a corner, which comes to nought as Nagata rises highest to clear. Two minutes later, Tanaka bursts through but shoots just wide of Nobuhiro Kato’s left-hand post. Tyldesley and Townsend are absolutely loving this.


60 minutes: PENALTY TO GAMBA! Silly, silly play from Kosuke Ota as he throws out an arm to meet Kim’s cross before Lee can get a head to it. S-Pulse try to play mind games by immediately introducing Fredrik Ljungberg, who Tyler has most definitely heard of, for Alex Brosque. Using the rather unsporting interlude for a bit of discussion, Hirai takes the ball from earlier goalscorer Endo. The striker has had a season to forget but he’s clearly determined to at least go out with a bang. And he does! GOAL! Sweetly struck low to Yamamoto’s left. Half an hour left, and Gamba are very much in the driving seat – both in this game, and in terms of the table. Shimizu S-Pulse 0-2 Gamba Osaka


62 minutes: GOAL! Or are they?! Out of absolutely nowhere, Nagoya string together their first passing move of the game and they are ahead. It was both started and finished by Danilson, who continued his run forward from deep to receive the ball from Kennedy and smash home a really impressive effort from inside the Niigata D. Alan Smith would have been proud of that one. So he says. Either way, it is now Grampus who go on top by a point over Gamba. Albirex Niigata 0-1 Nagoya Grampus


65 minutes: Shimizu’s best chance for some time as Genki Omae’s crossed free kick is headed well over by Calvin Jong-a-Pin. In Niigata, the hosts win a corner as they look to hit back immediately, but Naoya Kikuchi can’t connect cleanly with his header. Kashiwa, meanwhile, remain in hot pursuit of an equaliser, with Jorge Wagner causing all sorts of problems down the left wing but his teasing cross is headed away well by Nagata.


68 minutes: Another corner for Niigata. Another headed opportunity goes begging.


75 minutes: Gamba are passing the ball around for fun, prompting a delighted succession of olés from the away end. They are well on top, with Ljungberg utterly anonymous were it not for the constant name checks he receives from Tyler. The three points are in the bag, you would have thought, but the Osaka side are still reliant on an equaliser for Albirex, who are dominant but Bruno Lopes’s skills are still not turning into genuine chances.


77 minutes: GOAL! Don’t count Reysol out of this race just yet! Sakai and Tanaka combine skilfully on the right flank to win a corner off Mizuki Hamada. Leandro Domingues sends in an absolute pearler for that man Kitajima to beat his marker and head past Kato at the near post. Game on – one more goal for Kashiwa will seal the title regardless of the other two results. Urawa Reds 1-1 Kashiwa Reysol


83 minutes: It’s a familiar story at the Big Swan Stadium as Niigata get forwards in wide areas yet again but Cho Young-Cheol can’t quite get a solid header to a left-footed cross from the industrious Mikado. In Saitama, Kashiwa are piling men forwards but their attacks are encountering a similar problem – plenty of nice passing but no end result. Wagner, Leandro, and Hidekazu Otani all take turns to pass from promising positions before Kitajima decides that if you want a job done, it’s best to do it yourself. It’s saved, though, by Kato.


86 minutes: Rare bit of possession for Shimizu, only to all end badly when Omae and Jong-a-Pin fall over one another in comical fashion. Pretty well sums up their afternoon. Meanwhile, Nagoya look to buy a bit of time by replacing goalscorer Danilson with Kensuke Nagai, but it’s still all Niigata.


90 minutes: Virtually everyone in the Urawa half as Kashiwa search desperately for that goal that will seal their historic championship. But disaster! Wagner concedes possession and Urawa are quite happy to play a bit of keep-ball, moving slowly forwards but with all the intent of that easy blue I managed to bounce out of the jaws of one central pocket and across the table into the other while playing snooker on Thursday. Three minutes of added time there, two in Niigata, and only one in Shimizu.


91 minutes: Full-time at Nihondaira, but this one’s been over for a long time. The Gamba players celebrate and salute their fans, who cheer back enthusiastically but the atmosphere remains tinged with tension and, dare we say, resignation as they pray for a miracle in Niigata.


92 minutes: GOAL! IN NIIGATA!!! But... don’t get too excited if you’re a Gamba supporter. Incredibly, and completely against the run of play, it’s gone the way of Grampus. After all that Albirex attacking, Kennedy managed to break away on the counter and hit a low shot that Hideaki Ozawa can only palm behind. Then, in the home defenders’ haste to clear away the resulting corner, the ball strikes Yusuke Murakami on the forearm and the referee points to the spot. Niigata can’t believe it and rightly so. That’s a ridiculously harsh decision from the officials and, while it probably won’t have changed the overall outcome, a real shame that such a tense encounter should end in real controversy. Kennedy doesn’t care – he smashes the ball down the middle to secure the golden boot – and perhaps the title? – with his 20th league goal of the campaign. Full time. Albirex Niigata 0-2 Nagoya Grampus


93 minutes: Frustration upon frustration for Kashiwa as they simply cannot win the ball back. Urawa are protecting their point and Yosuke Kashiwagi carries the ball to the corner, eventually winning a corner kick for his troubles. There’s even a late chance for the hosts as a result as Takahashi beats Naoya Kondo to force a fine save out of Sugeno, but the men in yellow look shattered. It’s all over. NAGOYA GRAMPUS ARE THE CHAMPIONS!



The Danilson (in white, shooting from the D) goal that set Nagoya on their way


So there we have it. According to FIFA 12, Nagoya Grampus and Gamba Osaka will both achieve 2-0 wins while Kashiwa Reysol are held in Saitama, meaning a second straight title for Dragan Stojković’s side after trailing behind in the standings for most of the season and, indeed, the final day. Their victory in Niigata may have been overwhelmingly against the run of play, but they took their chances when they arrived and, in doing so, finally demonstrated the cutting edge that made them comfortable champions in 2010. The final standings: 1) Nagoya 71 (+32), 2) Gamba 70 (+27), 3) Kashiwa 70 (+21)


Of course, real life rarely provides the same levels of drama as a computer game. Fortunately, in Japan it usually offers even more...

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Another terrifically Japanese climax

2 Dec 2011(Fri)

Any European football fan disillusioned with the growing lack of competition and unpredictability at the Premier League or La Liga summit would be well advised to cast their eyes eastwards tomorrow morning. For the sixth time in seven years since its Latin American-inspired twin-stage calendar was abandoned in favour of a more conventional single league campaign, the J. League championship race is set for a thrilling climax on the final day of the season; with not two, but three teams duelling it out for the title of Japan’s finest.


Whatever happens after the last nine matches kick off simultaneously at 3.30pm local time (6.30am UK time), the real story of the 2011 Japanese season will undoubtedly be Kashiwa Reysol, who hold a precarious one-point advantage after 33 games of 34. Having spent most of the past decade languishing in the lower reaches of J1 or, latterly, yo-yoing between the two professional divisions, the Sun Kings won promotion as J2 champions twelve months ago and thus stand on the brink of a unique title double.


The brains behind this sudden rise to glory is the Brazilian Nelsinho Baptista, a man so tactically in tune that he frequently gets referenced by Jonathan Wilson. The former Corinthians and Sport Recife manager has largely remained faithful to the same core of players that cruised through the second division, moulding them into a side with such nous and – crucially – the tenacious ability to turn one point into three that Kashiwa have confounded just about everyone to remain top or thereabouts since the opening day. Astonishingly, not one member of the well-balanced squad can be considered a regular international, although exciting right-back Hiroki Sakai is a mainstay of the Japan Olympic side and fellow breakthrough star Junya Tanaka, a forward with 13 league strikes to his name this season, recently earned a first call-up to the full national team. Flair arrives in the form of two more Brazilians, 15-goal attacking midfielder Leandro Domingues and the veteran left-winger Jorge Wagner; this year’s one key acquisition from São Paulo and a master at set pieces.


Three things standing in the way of Reysol’s historic achievement are a tricky away trip to Urawa Reds, Japan’s most popular club but still needing a point to ensure survival after a rotten campaign; the weakest goal difference of the three contenders; and the fact that breathing down their necks are the reigning J1 champions, Nagoya Grampus. Perhaps still the best known J. League club to British fans thanks to spells at the club enjoyed by Arsène Wenger and endured by Gary Lineker in the mid-1990s, Grampus have been on a steady upward curve since 2008 following the return of another former star – legendary midfielder turned manager, Dragan Stojković.


Third place in the Serbian’s first season in charge was followed up by an Emperor’s Cup final and Asian Champions League semi-final appearance in 2010, before the long-awaited first league title was clinched by a trend-breaking ten points when the final pieces were fitted into the Nagoya jigsaw last term. Stojković’s canny ability to read a game has served him well both on the sidelines and in the transfer market where he has built up a squad with quality and depth in each position – from erstwhile Japan goalkeeper Seigo Narazaki and talismanic sweeper Marcus Tulio Tanaka at the back, to Jungo Fujimoto in midfield and the Australian Joshua Kennedy (top scorer in J1 with 19 goals so far) up front.


Injuries and a tough continental schedule robbed Grampus of their usual consistency in the first half of the season, but five wins on the bounce is testament to their steady hands over the closing weeks. A visit to Albirex Niigata represents an easier final day fixture than either of their two rivals on paper, but as supporters of the northern club on the Sea of Japan are quick to point out, Albirex do tend to raise their game in the colder months and against stronger opposition – which was indeed evidenced during their 2-2 draw with third-placed Gamba Osaka a fortnight ago.


Two points behind Kashiwa, Gamba require both of their fellow contenders to drop points and must themselves find a win at Shimizu S-Pulse – the latest destination in Fredrik Ljungberg’s nomadic late-career adventures. The Kansai side have just about stayed in contention throughout an up-and-down campaign that has seen them lose star forwards Adriano (to Qatari oil money) and Takashi Usami (to Bayern Munich) and neglect to rejuvenate an aging midfield and creaky defence – failings for which long-time manager Akira Nishino will pay with his job at the end of the year.


Their matches are usually entertaining, with 5-3 and 6-3 scorelines once again par for the course at a club that failed to keep a single clean sheet until after the halfway point of the season but boast the best goals-for column by a comfortable margin. A key factor in Gamba’s favour ahead of the final reckoning is the experience of Japan midfielder Yasuhito Endo and several other core players who were part of the side that pipped local rivals Cerezo Osaka to the J1 crown in the final minute of the 2005 season (one of eight previous Japanese title races detailed in the latest issue of The Blizzard) and have only once fallen out of the top three since.

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J. League finishes at The Blizzard

1 Dec 2011(Thu)

On sale just ahead of the climax to the 2011 J. League season this weekend, Issue Three of The Blizzard contains an ‘Eight Bells’ piece penned by Ben Mabley on eight previous incredible finishes to the Japanese football season.


The Blizzard contains a wealth of fascinating, in-depth pieces by world-class writers such as Jonathan Wilson, Gabriele Marcotti, and Iain Macintosh. It is available through a pay-what-you-like scheme online, with a minimum price of £6 and a recommended retail price of £12 for the luxuriously beautiful hard copy, or a minimum price of £0.01 and recommended retail price of £3 for the digital alternative (Kindle, iPad, iPhone, Sony Reader, etc).


The eight seasons covered in this article are as follows:


1. 1993 J. League (Kashima Antlers, Verdy Kawasaki)

2. 1974 Japan Soccer League (Yanmar Diesel)

3. 1995 J. League (Verdy Kawasaki, Yokohama Marinos)

4. 1998 Emperor’s Cup (Yokohama Flügels)

5. 2003 J. League second stage (Yokohama F Marinos, Jubilo Iwata, Kashima Antlers)

6. 2005 J. League (Gamba Osaka, Cerezo Osaka)

7. 2007 J. League (Urawa Reds, Kashima Antlers)

8. 2008 J. League (Kashima Antlers, Nagoya Grampus et al)



JSoccer Magazine


The second issue of JSoccer Magazine, the only English-language publication to focus purely on Japanese football, is also still on sale. This issue includes a centrefold feature by Ben Mabley on the tactics of the Japan national team under Alberto Zaccheroni, as well as an interview with Hajime Hosogai.



Click here to purchase your copy for just 600 yen (+P&P), and here to visit JSoccer.com.

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