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Wednesday, July 20, 2005

J. WALKING

Patience a virtue for FC Tokyo as Gasmen finally spark


Clubs around the world can be in too much of a hurry to sack their manager these days, when patience can be a virtue.

Jeremy Walker

In Brazil, for example, clubs have been known to change their trainer after just one match, two if he is charmed -- and that's before the season has even started.

But in Japan it takes a little longer, especially when the coach in question has had success in the not too distant past.

Take the case of FC Tokyo.

A few weeks ago, Hiromi Hara looked to be in big trouble as FC Tokyo plummeted down the J. League first division table.

After a bright start to the new campaign, with 10 points from the first four matches, FC Tokyo then lost six in a row and collected only four points from a possible 33.

But the club stayed loyal to Hara, who steered FC Tokyo to the Nabisco Cup last season, and the results are starting to show.

Not only have the "Gasmen" turned the corner, they've gone around it quicker than Michael Schumacher and are now in a position to motor up the table.

A 1-0 victory away to Shimizu S-Pulse on July 13 stopped the winless rot at 11 games, and gave FC Tokyo three points from one match for the first time in three months, as opposed to three points from one month of matches.

This morale-boosting victory was then followed by the 4-0 demolition of Yokohama F. Marinos at Ajinomoto Stadium on Sunday, a result which lifted FC Tokyo into 13th place in the 18-team table with 20 points.

The biggest mystery, of course, is why the Gasmen -- the club has its roots in the former Tokyo Gas team -- were down there in the first place, as their squad is packed with talent and experience.

Goalkeeper Yoichi Doi is one of the best in the business in Japan. He's the third choice national team keeper behind Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi and Seigo Narazaki, but there are many observers within the game who feel he should be given a chance between the sticks in the near future.

The back four of Akira Kaji, Jean Witte, Teruyuki Moniwa and Jo Kanazawa is among the meanest -- or should be -- in the top flight.

Kaji has established himself on the right side of Japan's defense/midfield with a series of solid, energetic displays for the national team, most recently in the Confederations Cup in Germany.

Jean is one of the most consistent, yet under-rated, imports in Japan. He knows when to play the ball out of defense and when to simply welly it down field or into the stands -- a choice that many Japanese defenders still get wrong.

He does not take risks in dangerous areas of the pitch, tackles hard and is strong in the air in both penalty areas. In short, any Japanese youngster wanting to study the art of central defense -- and maybe even self-defense, as he certainly knows how to look after himself -- should take a 90-minute lesson from Jean for the price of an admission ticket to an FC Tokyo game.

One of those students must be Moniwa, who has a similar, combative-style to Jean. Moniwa was a late call-up for Japan's Confederations Cup, and can expect more chances in the coming months.

Kanazawa brings balance on the left flank, and is one of the few naturally left-footed players in the league. A squad member at Jubilo Iwata, Kanazawa has been a smart signing for Tokyo, and is effective going forward and in defense.

With a base like this to build on, Tokyo should not be in trouble, especially when the players in front of them include two of the most talented in the league.

Athens Olympians Yasuyuki Konno and Naohiro Ishikawa have been criminally overlooked by Zico in recent months, as the national coach has stuck with more experienced players who are clearly not capable of stepping up from the domestic level to the international stage.

Konno is a dynamo in central midfield, the new Junichi Inamoto but possibly even better than "Ina" already because he plays more games and is more effective from box to box.

Ishikawa, on the other hand, is a real flyer on the right wing, and a buzz goes around the Tokyo fans every time he receives the ball.

Ishikawa's chances for selection were dealt a setback, however, after he was injured in Sunday's victory.

The rest of the FC Tokyo squad is a mixture of youth and experience, but Hara is never short of selection options and never afraid to give a young player a chance.

FC Tokyo's next match, the last before yet another lengthy break in the J. League schedule, is against Vissel Kobe at National Stadium on Saturday. This is the perfect opportunity to keep climbing the table, and repaying the faith shown in manager Hara.

* * *

On the subject of Brazil, a third entry for FIFA's revamped Club World Championship is now known.

Sao Paulo won the Libertadores Cup last week -- South America's equivalent of the UEFA Champions League/European Cup -- to book a place in the six-team event in Japan in December.

Sao Paulo will join Liverpool and Sydney United, managed by German Pierre Littbarski, and leaving the organizers to wait for the champion clubs of Africa, CONCACAF and Asia to complete the field.

Sao Paulo's keeper and captain, Rogerio Ceni, is regarded as the new Jose Luis Chilavert of South American soccer, as famous for his goals at one end as for his saves at the other.

Like the now-retired Chilavert, Ceni just can't resist lumbering forward to have a crack at goal from a free-kick or penalty, and was Sao Paulo's joint-top scorer with five goals during the successful Libertadores Cup campaign.

With Liverpool's global appeal, the Japanese connections (JEF United as a player, Yokohama FC as a manager) of Littbarski, and now an extrovert goalkeeper the Japanese fans seem to idolize (see Chilavert, Jose Luis, above), the tournament is beginning to take shape.

In the absence of a Japanese club, however, the organizers will be hoping Qatar's Al Sadd can win the Asian Champions League, meaning a swift and interesting return to Japan for Emerson just a few months after walking out on Urawa Reds.

Any chance of rescheduling Al Sadd's games to Saitama Stadium?

When Choi Tae Uk scored an injury-time equalizer for Shimizu S-Pulse on Sunday night, the Gamba Osaka fans were probably not that surprised. Shattered, but not surprised.

They must have been half-expecting it, in fact, as Gamba's ability to disappoint and deflate does not diminish from one season to the next.

Gamba had a wonderful opportunity to close the gap on leader Kashima Antlers to two points, and had the three points in the bag leading 3-2 deep into injury time, at home in front of a near full house of 17,000 at Banpaku in Suita City.

But when the chance presented itself, Gamba stumbled in spectacular style, and ended up with just a point from a 3-3 draw.

The gap between Kashima (36) and Gamba (32) remains at four points after 17 games, the halfway stage of the new-look 18-team, single-stage season.

Akira Nishino's men may never have won a J. League trophy, but they are the undisputed choking champions.

* * *

Player of the Week: Sao Paulo goalkeeper Rogerio Ceni.

His efforts at both ends of the pitch played a major part in the Brazilian club's third Libertadores Cup triumph, beating Atletico Paranaense in the final.

Quote of the Week: "At a time when the football authorities are collectively striving to improve behavior at all levels of the game, some of those views expressed by Mourinho are unnecessary, unhelpful, bad for the image of the game and inaccurate."

-- A statement from the whiter-than-white English Football Association chastising Chelsea's outspoken manager, Jose Mourinho, for suggesting Arsenal received preferential treatment because the Gunners' vice chairman, David Dein, was on the F.A. board.



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