Friday, 14 June 2019

Copa America 2019: Japan (Preview)

A year into his reign as national team coach, Hajime Moriyasu switches focus ahead of a new cycle of World Cup qualification, to consider the small matter of national pride in their warm up to hosting the Olympics in 12 months’ time. While the Copa America represents a worthy continental prize to the South Americans taking part, as one of the two invited teams in this year’s tournament, Japan will distinctly be travelling with different measures of success being attached to their plans.

The last month has borne witness to a myriad of squad announcements, most of which have conflicting restrictions and briefs; Japan’s U20 side travelled to the World Cup in Poland, an U22 selection travelled to France to play in the annual Toulon youth tournament, a more recognisable senior outfit was selected for two international friendlies at the long laboured Kirin Cup, while a mixture of all three was selected in a predominantly Olympic games focussed squad travelling to Brazil for the Copa America.

There’ll undoubtedly be a few Japanese players out there feeling hard done to, as every man and his dog seemed to be called up to one squad or another. An interesting personal example to highlight the stretched resources over the last month sees Hamburg midfielder Tatsuya Ito having to feature in the Toulon final on Saturday night (ironically against Brazil), before travelling half way across the world to South America, ahead of Japan’s Copa America opener against Chile on Monday evening. This month like no other has pulled the national team picture quite literally across the world.

This squad, aside from its internally forced age parameters feels typically Olympic in its experimental nature; the overage players include two outgoing sages in Eiji Kawashima and Shinji Okazaki, while still missing some of the more credible U22 players of this cohort; the likes of Ritsu Doan were called up for senior duty, while Ao Tanaka travelled to France for Toulon. The squad of 23 boasts only seven players with previous national team experience (there will be no official warmup matches either), two of whom have over 88 caps. The disparity is stark, as is the case with most Olympic selections, marking expectations as a clearer unknown than usual.

Tactically, Japan continue to shift between the 4231/4221 system that saw them progress to the Asian Cup final back in February, and the 3421-system used predominantly over Moriyasu’s managerial career to date, most recently reintroduced in Japan’s Kirin Cup friendlies and in both other youth team tournament appearances this summer. Despite this, the Copa America squad doesn’t exactly provide the essential wingbacks or central defenders to fully excel in this system, instead a plethora of support attackers, many a Samurai Blue fan will no doubt be salivating at the thought of.

Top of that pile is the hottest property in Asian football, if not the World. Takefusa Kubo’s rise to prominence seems to have peaked perfectly for his 18th birthday at the start of the month, which effectively pitted him as the most exciting free agent around, going into the Copa America. On the eve of the tournament it was announced he would be signing for Real Madrid, further intensifying the scrutiny he’s likely to face in Brazil after a stellar start to the season back in Japan with J1 table toppers FC Tokyo.

While Kubo offers the raw unpredictability, the building blocks of a new Japanese senior team will truly be under the spotlight, not least in defence. Eiji Kawashima, ridiculed for a failed World Cup last year in Russia, will either look to bow out on a high or play mentor to up and coming Sanfrecce Hiroshima keeper Keisuke Osako, with Moriyasu keen to plug one of his most problematic positions to date. In front of them, Naomichi Ueda’s progress since moving to Belgium will be assessed, next to the growing stature of Takehiro Tomiyasu who particularly stood out at January’s Asian Cup.

Japan’s development under Moriyasu has been understatedly fruitful so far. With a daunting task of leading a transitioning Japan to an Asian Cup upon arrival, through World Cup qualifying simultaneously juggling reputational pressure with a home Olympics looming. The tough schedule and increasingly polarised demands have understandably left the Copa America way down the list in terms of priorities, which should regrettably affect the product on the pitch in Brazil.

That product has widely divided Daihyo fans, but whether you agree with the style implemented by Moriyasu or not, the change in tact is quite recognisably evolved over time. From the creative and possession focussed approached of Alberto Zaccheroni and Javier Aguirre, Moriyasu (and Akira Nishino before him) like it or not have clearly been affected by Vahid Halilhodzic’s more functional and reactive philosophy during his tenure over the last World Cup qualifying cycle.

While Halilhodzic quite openly focussed on developing a quicker, more direct approach with a focus on hardening the mentality of Japanese footballers in general, Nishino, and in particular Moriyasu have attempted to bring back the guile, in particular of those in behind the attacker. Too often at the Asian Cup however, we saw Japan relinquish possession easily and take a back seat in proceedings. Last week’s Kirin Cup struggles only added to this; a draw against Trinidad & Tabago and an unimpressive win against El Salvador do little to suggest Moriyasu has upped the charm offensive.

A crumb of comfort for Japan is usually they up their game on the road. Away from Asia, away from the expectation in a sense, Japan have confounded expectation and played some of their most expressive football when little has been promised. Last summer’s World Cup took plenty by surprise, especially the near masterful art of coping with Belgium in the knockout phase, whilst going back further their friendly tour of Europe ahead of the 2014 World Cup, or the Confederations Cup the year previous, showed the very best of what Japanese football is all about; expression without restriction.

Commanding a squad made up of retiring pros alongside fresh debutants may prove a clever mix to generate these perfect circumstances. Little to no expectation will be put on any player (Kubo, potentially aside), while Moriyasu will be given his fair due to experiment and rotate where applicable. With that in mind, whilst results aren’t a necessity, the flow of performance and the stylistic tendencies it’ll create should prove interesting viewing, come kick off on Monday night against Chile.

Key Men

Head Coach – Hajime Moriyasu

Former Japanese international turned coach, who worked under Akira Nishino on the run up to and at the World Cup over the summer. Famed for leading Sanfrecce Hiroshima to three titles in four seasons playing an attacking brand of possession football. Started afresh with many new faces after last summer’s World Cup success, but still tinkers between playing styles and formations.

Star Player – Gaku Shibasaki

Becoming the staple of this current Japanese national side, the thread that has run through from the World Cup, to the Asian Cup and now into the Copa America, Shibsaki is the one of only two Samurai Blue regulars to make the trip to Brazil. Confident central midfield pivot who brings together the best defensive and attacking qualities of the team’s play.

Shop Window – Shinji Okazaki

Third in Japan’s all-time goalscoring lists, the diminutive and well-liked striker goes into this tournament a free agent after being released by Leicester City at the end of the season. Even at 33, he has the poacher’s instinct to create goals out of mere half chances, but missed the Asian Cup cut after struggling to pick up minutes domestically.

Young Prospect – Takafusa Kubo

There’ll be no young player receiving as much scrutiny at the Copa America than Takafusa Kubo, after the 18-year-old joined Real Madrid ahead of the tournament. While he’s likely to be phased in by Moriyasu, his ability to explode in small cameo appearances makes him a useful reserve option to have. Small, quick and flexible in his combination play, Kubo will be in a confident mood after his Samurai Blue debut last week against El Salvador.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Copa America 2019: Qatar (Preview)

Qatar stand on the edge of making remarkable history, as they look to back up their Asian Cup crown from February with a second separate continental trophy within a year at this month’s Copa America. In truth, it’s unlikely that this will come to fruition to put it kindly, with few even giving the Maroon a chance of threatening for a point let alone a second successive fairy-tale tournament run to the latter stages.

And while their triumphant course to glory in the UAE was a considerable notch below what would be required in Brazil, it shouldn’t be forgotten how far they’ve come already. This time last year, Qatar were generally seen as a mess, projecting early that a transition to a more home-grown, younger unit would take time to come to fruition, given the average age of the squad coming through (the Asian Cup group averaged just over 24) coupled with modest club experience, which was almost entirely accrued in the domestic league.

Positive friendly results against Iceland and Switzerland in November sparked early curiosity. There was a glimmer of a promise that something might be different about these young players, something that hadn’t been seen before on the continent could potentially live up to its lofty billing. That billing of course, generated by the multi-billion pound Aspire Academy, tasked with producing the next generation of Qatari sport talent, with more than one eye firmly fixed on a competitive showing at the 2022 World Cup. Through the youth ranks they’ve indeed blossomed; qualifying for two of the last three U20 World Cups and making it to the semi-finals at the last two Asian U23 Championships. Their Asian Cup triumph however was the loudest indication that this group were ready to compete on the world stage.

The fallout from such success though has been moderately muted. Post the lavish celebrations (and cake cutting) players returned to their QSL clubs, cruelly missing out on a transfer or two which would’ve naturally occurred if the January window hadn’t yetd closed weeks before. The domestic season was another duopoly fight that didn’t show us any more than we haven’t seen before, while the Qatari clubs in question coasted through their Champions League preliminary groups in second gear. The headlines haven’t kicked on from February, with the big names who stamped their authority in their national colours failing to take the initiative once they returned to their employers. The Qatari youth sides haven’t exactly ridden the coattails of their elders either, finishing winless in recent U20 World Cup and Toulon tournament appearances.

Conveniently (if you’re feeling optimistic) the Copa America falls at a crucial juncture to keep brand-Qatar in the footballing public’s eye. A month out from the World Cup qualifying draw, which Qatar will remain part of despite having their hosting spot already guaranteed, it would surely feel like a missed opportunity if one or two of this promising group weren’t able to engineer a move to Europe over the summer.

Injury has held back Asian Cup top scorer and player of the tournament Almoez Ali, while upon his comeback he’s returned to a peripheral role for his club side Al-Duhail who continue to rely on the glitzier foreign talent around him. His partner in crime from the Asian Cup, Akram Afif has continued in trailblazing fashion for Qatari champions Al-Sadd, but while he is clearly a step ahead of anyone domestically, there is little hint his parent club Villareal will be keen on recalling him anytime soon.

Whether these two, or any of a host of promising talents catch the eye in Brazil is debatable. A star studded friendly against the Seleção last week in Brasilia was a close match on the scoring board, but a heavy hit home that the gap in talent is significant ahead of their Copa opener against Paraguay on Sunday.

Qatar, dissimilar to fellow AFC invitees Japan will be at full strength, free from serious injury and in the mindset of making a dent in the contest, a side out to pull a surprise or two rather than merely relying on the tournament for development purposes. With the Confederations Cup taking a back seat for the next cycle, this looks to be the last competitive outing these players will have to truly fight for something and sell their country in a positive light.

That light of course remains flickering. Political divides across the region has seen the modestly sized peninsula annexed from support. Add to this the problematic issues regarding their hosting, through questionable labour standards and corruption allegations, it’s fair to say the Qatari picture isn’t painted too rosy outside their borders at present. Even on a footballing standpoint, the cloud that emerged during the Asian Cup over Almoez Ali & centre back Bassam Al-Rawi’s eligibility for Qatar remains a question unanswered.

In adversity, and through little expectation usually comes a Qatari side fighting. Spanish coach Felix Sanchez, a man who’s been in Qatar for over a decade now has been reinstated as the man to lead the country through to the World Cup, after numerous suggestions that he’d make way for a “bigger name” come tournament time. Far from being merely an excellent youth team coach, Sanchez fully demonstrated his arsenal in tactical play in the UAE, having the nous and patience to know when to pounce, how to counter effectively and to attribute the best players to key roles.

They have the qualities to prove the perfect underdogs, as they did at the Asian Cup on countless occasions. Soaking up possession early in the piece, as they did against South Korea, and to a smaller degree against Japan in the final, they showed their patience to pick holes in stronger teams on the break. Through the pace of Akram Afif, the vision of Hassan Al-Haydos and the bullish pressing of Assim Madibo (which Neymar learnt to his cost last week), the team has its fair share of big game players that can hurt even the most established teams on their day.

When it comes to expectation however, it’s difficult to gauge. A realist, Sanchez has expressed this adventure as a perfect testing ground to develop further as a group and as individuals. Whether his employers will be quite so forgiving if they were to make a show of themselves in the wider public spotlight is another thing. In the end, while the World Cup remains a clear distance off, the Copa America will be assessed as a success for Qatar more by the column inches and media exposure it generates, rather than the results or the development it accrues.

Key Men

Head Coach – Felix Sanchez (ESP)

A Spanish youth development coach, turned Qatari national hero, moulding a distinct group of talent over the last 10 years into continental champions. Riding a wave of enthusiasm his contract was extended to their showpiece 2022 assessment, while talk of a big-name outsider is shelved (for now). Borne out of a typical Spanish form, Sanchez proved he could switch up their usual possession hungry approach and play on the break at the Asian Cup.

Star Player – Almoez Ali

Player of the tournament and record goal scorer at the Asian Cup with 9 goals from 7 appearances, the rangy Sudanese born striker has become an essential focal point to the side’s game plan. Has developed considerably from being used merely as a static leading man, Ali’s movement out wide by necessity at club level has improved his all-round game, which contributes to an effective link up with Al-Haydos and Afif in the Qatari attack.

Shop Window – Akram Afif

Having tried and to a degree failed to break Europe earlier in his career, the last six months has well and truly promised that Akram Afif, the golden child of Qatari football should be given another shot in the big leagues. Quick, direct with a cultured finish to boot, the 22-year-old remains on the books at Spanish side Villareal but will be keen on making a step up even on a temporary basis from his spell with home town club Al-Sadd, where he won the domestic title last month.

Young Prospect – Tarek Salman

A flexible, multi-faceted midfielder turned centre back, who encapsulates the spirit of much of this new Qatari team. Not the most physical (but on occasion petulant), nor quickest of defenders, Salman does however have the right head to succeed in the modern game, having the awareness and skill set to defuse and launch attacks in a blink of an eye. Formed an impressive centre back partnership with Bassam Al-Rawi in the UAE, despite both players only being 21 and having only brief experience outside of Qatar.

Thursday, 23 May 2019

AFC Champions League Round Review (Group Stage)

The culmination of the AFC Champions League group stage is finally upon us. Even if (at the time of writing) the postponed Zob Ahan v Al-Nassr match is yet to be played the outcome is certain; we know our final 16 set to face off in June.

For all the build-up that this was the West’s “year” the quality of football and performance in general has backed this up. The greatest performers have hailed from the Middle East, namely Qatari duo Al Sadd and Al-Duhail, Saudi giants Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr as well as perennial overachievers Zob Ahan. The supporting cast saw a step up in quality also; Al-Zawra’a on debut flew the Iraqi flag proudly (only for their fans to let them down on occasion), while Pakhtakor made a decent fist of escaping a daunting group stage draw.

The East in comparison has been laboured, if thankfully open. Amidst heavy rotation and sluggish form, the big guns progressed as expected, but it remains difficult to pick an out right favourite, from a crowd that looks at a pain to make this competition a priority. The most in form side, current K-League table toppers Ulsan Hyundai muted expectations by losing 5-0 on the final matchday, to finish top with a negative goal difference. It summed up the East perfectly.

There was still magic, drama and emotion still on offer across the continent, and with that here’s a quick rundown of the winners and question marks from the first half of the Asian domestic calendar.

The Player

Backing up a Champions League title win is a difficult ask on any continent, but to do so alongside one of the most competitive leagues around, navigating a ludicrously long domestic schedule and doing so reacting to crucial injuries, and Kashima Antlers’ plight was already looking like a daunting one. But the 2018 champions continue unabated, far from the devastating style they illustrated last term but instead in effective production, relying on individual bursts to see them through to the knockout stages of the ACL on the final matchday.

Given how even things have been in the East, moments of quality have mattered more than consistent waves of performance, and Kashima have indeed benefited from that. Their final day reversal of Group E pacesetters Shandong Luneng tipped them over the progression threshold, in no small part thanks to their goalscorer in chief for this year – one Sho Ito.

On the run up to the 2019 season, few would’ve suggested Ito would become the focal point he has materialised as (even though he was my “cover star” for my ACL preview, I wasn’t expecting it either). Last season’s attack of Yuma Suzuki, Hiroki Abe and Serginho was an eye-catching blend that spearheaded their continental glory. Through injury, lack of form and rotation, the baton has been thrust towards 30-year-old Ito to shoulder the expectation. An electric start to the season both domestically and in Asia (scoring three in their first two ACL matches), Ito has himself struggled for consistency since, but has provided when it mattered.

His double on the final day to force the final three points home stood testament to Ito’s impact this year. Coming alive to a melee in the box following a corner to equalise Marouane Fellaini’s opener, Ito went on to strike the winner, delicately chipping the onrushing keeper with the iciest of nerves. You’d expect Shandong should know better, after all Ito demonstrated the same poise in the reverse fixture two months back.

Ito is an interesting case in general. Never a player that has been considered Samurai Blue material, but his physical attributes alone, both in stature and speed makes him a sought after forward. The clamour for him to receive his first national team callup may seem to be falling on deaf ears at present, but while influential striker Yuya Suzuki remains laid up with the same hamstring injury that curtailed his ACL final appearance against Persepolis last November, Ito is providing the next best option, a player who has kept Kashima right in the reckoning for another extended Asian run.

The Team

Domestic champions for the first time in six seasons, Al Sadd are looking to go one step further than last year’s semi-final run in Asia and have a shot at replicating their ACL triumph a decade ago. In a tough group stage campaign, the Doha club recovered from a weak start to qualify for the knockouts with a game to spare. With question marks in the dugout as well as on the pitch to look at over the summer break, can they emulate Qatar’s national team to succeed continentally in 2019?

Al-Sadd have one of the most terrifying attacks in West Asia, coupling Algerian colossus Baghdad Bounedjah (39 goals from 22 QSL matches last term) with Asian Cup final MVP Akram Afif (26 from 22), teed up by the likes of Spanish legends Xavi and Gabi, Korean international Jung Woo-young and Qatari captain Hassan Al-Haydos. The big names have all stood up at key times in the group stage; Bounedjah’s last minute winner and equaliser against Persepolis and Pakhtakor early on, Xavi’s emphatic double out in Tashkent and Akram Afif’s winner against Al-Ahli, all in their own way demonstrable of the side’s sizeable might in goalscoring positions.

While they have the stars, they can also count on a solid core made up of the bulk of Qatar’s Asian Cup squad. Keeper Saad Al-Sheeb marshals in effect four of the five that performed admirably against Japan in February, giving Al-Sadd the perfect foundations to build off. All signs point to a long and fruitful run towards the finals, but as we reach the off-season break, question marks are starting to be posed of the QSL champs.

Primarily their opponents for the Round of 16 – Qatari rivals Al-Duhail. While Al-Sadd came out on top of the end of the season ladder, recent form suggests a shifting balance; with Al-Sadd having only overcome Al-Duhail once in their last six encounters. After a month of shaky transition, Rui Faria is starting to find his feet in management, and with the return from injury of Almoez Ali, to dovetail perfectly with the growing in stature Edmilson Junior, Al-Duhail can warrant a claim of having as strong a squad, if not stronger than their rivals.

Al-Sadd will indeed have to adapt accordingly after Xavi retired from football upon the group stage completion, coinciding with the exit of the coach that brought their title success Jesualdo Ferreira. While it looks highly likely Xavi will make the transition into management with Al-Sadd, a debut for either himself, or any interim coach against Al-Duhail in June is a daunting task. Whatever transpires, the all Qatari Round of 16 matchup looks to be one of the hottest clashes of the season.

The Talking Point

An injury time goal, that’s all that stood in the way of Pakhtakor making it through one of the most enticing groups in the ACL’s first round. However, for Abdulrahman Ghareeb’s winner for Al-Ahli, Tashkent’s primary club will see out a decade without progression to the continental knockout phase and stretching the country’s record to three years since Lokomotiv’s unlikely run in 2016. In a manner typical of much about Uzbek football of late, there are positives and there are negatives, leading many to ask whether it promises hope of progress in the future, or that they’ve missed their best opportunity yet?

Despite feeling handicapped slightly by the fact they hadn’t kicked a ball over the winter months, come the start of the new ACL season Pakhtakor started like a rocket. Showing no sign of rustiness or incoherence, given their extended layoff compared to their opponents and broadly a newly assembled squad, their form at a well-attended Markaziy Stadium became the bedrock to their campaign. Introducing some of the best Uzbek talent around, in Odiljon Hamrobekov, who joined from Nasaf Qarshi, Javokhir Sidikov from Kokand and welcoming back Dostonbek Khamdamov from Russia, Pakhtakor took what youthful inspiration had been gleamed from a moderately successful Asian Cup campaign internationally and ran with it.

The attacking duo of Serbian giant Dragan Ceran and returning poacher Marat Bikmaev provided the dividends early on. Ceran strikes the opposition as an archetypal target man, but with the link up play and spatial awareness to blossom in behind a frontman, while Bikmaev started where he left off in seasons gone by, scoring in each of the club’s first four continental matches of the season. Half way through they topped the charts; beating Al-Ahli, drawing with Al-Sadd, whilst notching a point away in the Azadi. The early signs were positive.

Their run in however cut them short. Narrow defeats to Al-Sadd in Doha and Al-Ahli in Jeddah (both to late winners) were both critical blows to their progression hopes. A point in either would have seen them through, but the away hoodoo that seems to plague Uzbek clubs in Asia continues unabated. Combining Pakhtakor’s and Lokomotiv’s ACL results this term, 14 points were accrued from a possible 18 at home, while a mere 2 points were picked up away.

The crumbling centre was plainly on display in the dying embers of the Al-Ahli encounter. Neither side were great, but Pakhtakor were able to force an equaliser with minutes to spare. Instead of offering a resolute spell going into added on time, Pakhtakor crumbled and succumbed to the winning spirit of a side who have barely gotten out of second gear during the group stage. As January’s Asian Cup attested, Uzbek football is brimming with promise, but many a talented generation are let down by mentality, something that needs to be ironed out in the coming years if we are to see a return to Uzbek success in Asia.