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Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2009

J. LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Jofuku's leadership has FC Tokyo poised to be contender soon


Staff writer

A last-minute loss to Kawasaki Frontale may have checked FC Tokyo's charge up the J. League table last weekend, but it will take more than one defeat to wipe out the steady progress the capital city club has made over the past six months.

Tokyo sits in sixth place as a result of Hiroyuki Taniguchi's late intervention at Todoroki Stadium, and while that position might not differ greatly from the same stage last season, the improvement on the field has been more tangible.

Naohiro Ishikawa has grabbed all the headlines with a string of spectacular goals, but being part of a team more comfortable in its own skin has helped the attacking midfielder as much as his own excellent form.

Tokyo seems to be getting to grips with how manager Hiroshi Jofuku wants the team to play, and the bar has been raised throughout the entire lineup.

Bruno Quadros has returned from injury to form a defensive partnership with Yasuyuki Konno that blends rugged tackling with excellent ball distribution, and midfielder Yohei Kajiyama is playing with more discipline and cutting out the casual carelessness that has often hampered his game.

Even striker Sota Hirayama, who has looked utterly lost since returning to Japan from the Netherlands three years ago, is beginning to show signs of life. In recent years, the one-time prodigy's leaden touch and lack of movement often gave the impression that he was playing each game as if it was his first, but he has worked hard and now provides an important outlet for his teammates to feed off.

Tokyo's level is probably still not quite high enough to make a serious challenge for the title this year, but the team is certainly moving in the right direction.

Jofuku is only midway through his second season as a manager, but he is growing as his team grows up with him. Next year, who knows where that might lead.

* * * * *

One manager not having quite as much success is former national team boss Zico.

The Brazilian's appointment at CSKA Moscow was greeted with unbridled enthusiasm before the start of the Russian season, but a wretched run of form has left the 2005 UEFA Cup winners back in fourth place. The critics have not been slow to pounce.

"Zico the player was incomparable," said one Russian TV pundit. "But a coach of J. League level should not have materialized at CSKA."

Zico's name has no doubt helped him in his post-Japan coaching career, but his stock as a manager now appears to be running low.

Moving to Uzbekistan's Bunyodkor was perhaps not the best way to build on the plaudits he earned in charge of Fenerbahce in Turkey, and dismissal in Moscow would not look good in the eyes of potential future employers.

Zico would not be the first to learn that even the greatest players' reputations ultimately count for nothing in the cut-throat world of management.

* * * * *

South Korean striker Lee Keun Ho seemed slightly apprehensive about the reception he would receive from Jubilo Iwata fans on his return to the Shizuoka club last month. After his summer transfer saga, it is no real surprise.

Lee joined Jubilo in the early stages of the season, only to leave again in June when France's Paris Saint-Germain expressed an interest in signing him.

But when the deal fell through, the striker was forced into an embarrassing about-face, re-signing with Jubilo and risking the wrath of the fans he had left in the lurch.

"I am very pleased to play at Iwata again, although I gave the fans some worries," he said. "I hope you cheer me on."

Lee could certainly have handled the situation better, but anyone quick to label him a "mercenary" should consider the stakes involved. Playing for Jubilo and PSG cannot really be compared, and the striker should not be blamed too much for wanting to try his luck in Europe.

But Jubilo fans are not likely to bear a grudge for too long. If he can continue where he left off after his brilliant first half of the season, the goals will soon ease the pain.

* * * * *

Quotable: ''It was a difficult game, but that's football. You never know what's going to happen until the very end. You must never give up.''

— Oita Trinita manager Ranko Popovic gives his assessment of his side's two last-minute goals to grab an unlikely 2-1 win over Nagoya Grampus on Saturday.

"The result is like a bad dream. It was like a horror movie.''

— Grampus manager Dragan Stojkovic offers a different perspective.



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