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Wednesday, April 6, 2005

J. WALKING

Antlers manager Toninho Cerezo building for the future


As a member of Brazil's "golden quartet" midfield at the 1982 World Cup -- alongside Zico, Falcao and Socrates -- you would expect Toninho Cerezo to settle for nothing but the best.

Jeremy Walker

Far from it.

The Kashima Antlers manager is simply relishing his role as team-builder and coaching professor, as the pride of Ibaraki Prefecture attempts to bring back the glory days.

"This is the reason why I am still here," Toninho said, shortly after watching his team sound a title warning with an emphatic 3-1 victory at Kashiwa Reysol on Saturday.

"The philosophy of this club is not to go out and buy the best Japanese players and put them straight into the team.

"It is to discover young talent around the country and turn them into players who can represent Kashima.

"You have the chance to make something new, and it's a pleasure, as the head coach, to watch these players mature and do well in the J. League."

The evidence was there for all to see in Kashima's ruthless demolition of the previously unbeaten Reysol at Kashiwanoha.

A stylish opening goal by Brazilian midfielder Fernando after only six minutes gave Antlers the perfect start, and a second by new recruit Alex Mineiro 10 minutes later merely confirmed Kashima's dominance.

It looked like the points were in the bag when Antlers still led 2-0 at halftime, but Reysol came out fighting after the break and pulled one back quickly through Tatsuya Yazawa.

Now it was time for Antlers to dig in and graft, and they did just that.

In fact they did more, as Alex Mineiro netted a third 10 minutes from time, turning Reysol defender Yukio Tsuchiya inside out before finding the far corner with a cool strike.

Tsuchiya is one of the best and hardest tacklers in the J. League, but he resembled a corkscrew as the Brazilian twisted him this way and that.

With seven points from three games, the 3,000 or so traveling Antlers fans behind the goal must have been thinking that 2005 would be their year, four seasons after the last of the club's four league titles.

But Toninho thinks it's far too early to judge.

"The players are still young, but every day you can see them growing up," he said.

"You cannot compare this team with our previous championship-winning teams, because those players had a lot more experience and that made a big difference.

"Now, the average age is about 24, and I expect them to become a lot stronger."

One of the young players Toninho admires is central defender Daiki Iwamasa. Although he is already 23, this is only his second season as a pro after graduating from Tokyo Gakugei University as a mathematics teacher.

No wonder he looks to have it all figured out at the back.

Further forward, Alex Mineiro admits he is just getting started, with three goals in three league outings.

"Honestly, I haven't been thinking too much about my own game," said the 30-year-old striker, who joined the club in the winter.

"My first priority has been to learn the names of all my teammates. It's difficult coming to a new country, so just being able to call out the right person's name makes a big difference.

"Now I'm learning how to tell them where to put the ball."

Judging by Saturday's two-goal display from Alex Mineiro and their 3-1 victory, there's no doubt Kashima Antlers are a force again.

Well, the experts were right.

With two teams from Saitama Prefecture in the top flight this season, everyone was predicting that one would be challenging for the title, and the other would be scrapping for points at the bottom -- and that's just what's happening.

But few thought it would be newly promoted Omiya Ardija setting the pace as one of three clubs with seven points, and the mighty Urawa Reds in disarray in 17th place with only one point and more player suspensions looming.

Ardija manager Toshiya Miura is not getting carried away by his team's impressive start.

"We are defending well as a team, we have good team spirit and everyone is working hard, but individually our level is not really good enough," he admits.

"We've been playing in J2 for the past six years against the likes of Tosu and Mito, so everything is new. We don't know the exact level of J1 at the moment because we haven't played teams like Marinos and Jubilo."

Miura, however, is delighted with the early-season form of his new Brazilian striker Christian, who notched the only goal of the game in a 1-0 victory at home to Cerezo Osaka on Saturday.

"He had a knee operation in September, so he couldn't train with us for much of the preseason, but he's getting better and better.

"He's not like Emerson at Urawa or Edmilson at Niigata, because Christian can score only when he's in the box. But his strike partner, Tuto, runs a lot and is a good dribbler, so they complement each other well."

How Reds manager Guido Buchwald must envy Omiya's controversy-free, solid start to the season.

Interesting to see that the talented American forward Landon Donovan has returned home to the States, from Bayer Leverkusen in Germany to the Los Angeles Galaxy.

Did any J. League clubs notice this?

Probably not, as most of them are interested in -- and brainwashed by -- only one brand of import: Brazilian.

Major League Soccer must be packed with value-for-money players, who would give their best in Japan as representatives of a game back home which receives little respect or attention in the mainstream media.

Yokohama F. Marinos goalkeeper coach, Dido Havenaar, studied for his coaching badges in America, and was so impressed with the quality of the players he saw there that he recommended his boss, Takeshi Okada, take a scouting trip himself.

Don't expect a new wave of signings in the near future, but at least some clubs could start showing some imagination in the samba-saturated transfer market.

Player of the Week: Shimizu S-Pulse captain Ryuzo Morioka.

His magnificent, curling free-kick against Jubilo Iwata was good enough to win any match, but Jubilo spoiled the orange party by scoring a late equalizer to salvage some pride for the light-blue half of Shizuoka Prefecture.

Quote of the Week: "They don't have much international experience of controlling crowds. It will be dangerous to hold the Japan match there unless we advise security personnel and they take responsibility."

-- FIFA's match commissioner, Sunil Senaweera, looking ahead to the North Korea-Japan World Cup qualifier in Pyongyang on June 8, after the North Korea-Iran match last Wednesday had ended in crowd trouble.



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