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Wednesday, May 18, 2005


Sanfrecce Hiroshima boss Ono states his case for the defense

Good teams are built from the back -- and that's exactly what Takeshi Ono is doing at Sanfrecce Hiroshima.

Jeremy Walker

Ono's team of over-achievers is one of the success stories of the season, as the J. League first division enters a six-week break for national team commitments.

With 20 points from 12 games, the "Three Arrows" occupy a lofty second place in the 18-team table, leading the pursuit of Kashima Antlers.

Much of the credit for this eye-catching effort must go to the defense, which has conceded a miserly eight goals, and never more than one in a game.

"Yes, that's very good," says Ono, as proud of the statistic as any coach could be.

"Our goalkeeper and two central defenders have been especially good, but the whole team is aware of the concept of defense."

Goalkeeper Takashi Shimoda is still only 29 and has several seasons left in him yet, while Brazilian import Dininho and J. League journeyman Norio Omura have formed a rugged partnership in the center of the back four.

Ono knows Omura well from their time together with the national team at the France World Cup in 1998.

Ono was the handpicked assistant to head coach Takeshi Okada, and Omura was a squad player, fourth in line for a place in the three-man defense behind captain Masami Ihara, Yutaka Akita and Eisuke Nakanishi.

Now 35 and in his second season with Hiroshima, Omura remains a model professional, according to Ono.

"He's an excellent player," says the coach.

"Not only his play but also his attitude in training and his conditioning. Everything is of a very good standard.

"He is very competitive and always concentrated. Just watch him when the ball's far away. He always takes up the right position to fit into the game. He's a terrific player."

There's another good reason why Omura and Dininho, who was signed from Sao Caetano in the winter, have formed a good understanding.

"Omura speaks Portuguese, not fluently but enough to communicate on the pitch with Dininho," Ono adds.

"This is a big help for the team."

Despite Sanfrecce's fine start to the campaign, the 42-year-old coach appreciates that nothing has been achieved yet with just a third of the season gone.

"Our position is better than I imagined, but I won't enjoy being in second place because there is such a big difference between the top and us.

"Kashima Antlers are nine points ahead, but there's enough time to catch them because the season is very long.

"The leading runner is always going to be tracked, and we know that when the league resumes, Marinos, Reds and Jubilo will all want to beat Kashima."

When Sanfrecce won the first stage of the 1994 championship, manager Stuart Baxter likened it to "Oldham Athletic winning the English Premier League."

If Sanfrecce can do it this time over the long haul, it would be even more absurd. More like Everton winning the Premier League.

One manager keener than most to catch Kashima Antlers is Guido Buchwald, German boss of Urawa Reds.

That's because he needs a new championship ring to replace the silver one he received for winning the second stage last season.

The ring, together with some cash and a PC, were stolen from Buchwald's house during a break-in recently.

"The ring is engraved with my name, so I hope I can get it back," said Buchwald, still visibly distressed by the incident, even in the after-glow of his team's 1-0 win at Yokohama on Sunday afternoon.

"I'm afraid it's happening all over the world now, even in Japan," he said.

Fears within the J. League that attendances might slump due to the abolishment of the two-stage system, with its two championship sprints, have proved to be unfounded.

After 12 rounds of the 34-game season, the average attendance is 19,605, up slightly from last year's mark of 18,965.

This season's J1 average, in fact, is on course to beat the all-time record of 19,598, which was set in 1994, the second year of the J. League.

Attendances on the last weekend of J1 action until July 2 were boosted by over 42,000 for the Osaka derby, the customary 40,000 at Niigata and an unusually high 31,571 for Verdy-Reysol on Saturday.

The biggest crowd of the weekend was at Nissan Stadium, in Yokohama, for Sunday's Marinos-Reds heavyweight bout. Over 53,000 watched this one.

All of which is good news for FIFA, bearing in mind the revamped Club World Championship for the Toyota Cup will be held in Japan in December without a Japanese team representing Asia.

Jubilo Iwata had already been eliminated before last week's Asian Champions League group game, and Marinos joined them on the scrap heap after losing to Shandong Luneng in China.

FIFA, and local organizers, will be hoping that "football fever" in Japan spreads to watching the champion clubs of Africa, Asia, Oceania and CONCACAF in the first round of the Club World Championship, before the European and South American glamour boys join in for the semifinals.

Could be a hard sell.

Player of the Week: Cerezo Osaka striker Akinori Nishizawa.

The Cerezo captain rose to the occasion in the Osaka derby by scoring two scorching goals against Gamba, but it wasn't enough as his team lost a pulsating match 4-2.

Quote of the Week: "I am deeply concerned that such a strong measure may drive them back into their reclusive state."

-- South Korean soccer chief Chung Mong Joon, president of the Korea Football Association, on the harsh World Cup qualifying sanctions imposed on North Korea by FIFA.

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