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Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2005

J. WALKING

Rehak's Czech mates breathe new life into sinking Vissel


When Pavel Rehak became Vissel Kobe's third manager of the season in June, he had only one target: to be the last.

Jeremy Walker

So far so good.

The 41-year-old Czech is still in a job, and a healthy return of seven points from three games since the resumption of J1 on Aug. 20 has given Vissel every hope of avoiding relegation.

Rehak's Vissel is hardly recognizable from the team that started the season, as several new players have joined in recent weeks in a last throw of the transfer dice by billionaire owner Hiroshi Mikitani.

And with the captain's armband passing from one Miura to another -- Kazuyoshi (now at Yokohama FC) to Atsuhiro -- following a dressing room vote, there is a fresh urgency about the place and renewed team spirit.

"The new players who have come into the team are all intelligent. They know football very well, so there has been no problem with them settling in," Rehak said, following a 2-2 draw with Urawa Reds at Komaba Stadium last Wednesday.

"We just have to take things step by step, match by match. There's no need to set a points target for the season, because you don't know what will happen with the other teams.

"First we must catch the team immediately above us, and then the next. That's how we are approaching things."

Those seven points, from home wins over Nagoya Grampus Eight and Oita Trinita and the away draw with Urawa, has moved Vissel on to 19 points from 21 games. Although Rehak's men still occupy last place in the 18-team table, they are behind Oita only on goal difference. The bottom two are automatically relegated.

Vissel began the season with Hideki Matsunaga as manager but he lasted only six games.

His replacement, Emerson Leao, fared even worse, and was in charge for only four league games before returning to Brazil. Noted for his strict, disciplinarian approach, not even Leao could turn Vissel around, and the prospects of survival looked bleak when Rehak was promoted from coach to manager.

His brief from Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles founder Mikitani was simple.

"He said we must remain in J1," said Rehak.

"I think some of the problems were about the mentality of the players, but only a bit. The most important thing was to play well and to think about the game.

"I'm the third manager this season, and I hope I will be the last."

Vissel's new signings include two imports, both from the Czech Republic, to join left-footed compatriot Pavel Horvath.

Martin Muller is the archetypal Czech central defender: tall, lean and mean, and he can play a bit, too. At 34, he has the experience to guide the younger Japanese defenders alongside him.

Up front, Ivo Ulich, 30, has been signed from Borussia Monchengladbach in Germany. He holds the ball well and has brought composure and craft to Vissel's attack.

The new Japanese players include another defender, Seiji Kaneko, from Kashima Antlers, and the wily attacking midfielder Akihiro Endo, from Yokohama F. Marinos, who is full of running.

The new captain, however, is leading by example. In his first season with Vissel following his winter transfer from Verdy, Atsuhiro Miura has moved from left back to attacking midfield, and has scored with sublime right-footed free-kicks in the last two games, against Urawa from all of 35 meters.

Behind the goal into which Miura planted that free-kick at Komaba was a Vissel banner reading "We shall overcome," and it's beginning to look like the players are believing it.

On the subject of Seiji Kaneko, he was tipped for great things by Zico's predecessor as national coach, Philippe Troussier -- and it was all down to "the birthday cake incident."

Troussier was holding a training camp at the J. Village in Fukushima for the national Under-20 team ahead of the FIFA World Youth Championship in Nigeria in 1999.

During the camp, one of the players, Yasuhito Endo (now at Gamba), was celebrating his birthday. Troussier told how all the players were gathered for dinner, the cake was delivered and then . . . silence -- until Kaneko took it upon himself to make a short speech and conduct the birthday song.

Troussier had been in Japan only a few months at this point, and said it was the first time he had seen a player use any initiative and make a decision on his own. He had Kaneko marked down as a future captain because of this incident, but it all went wrong when the defender suffered a terrible knee injury at another training camp in Burkina Faso a few weeks later.

Needing a replacement for Kaneko on the left side of his three-man defense, Troussier switched Koji Nakata from midfield, and the rest is history.

Nakata, a Troussier disciple, went on to play at the 2002 World Cup, and last season followed the French coach to Marseille.

Kaneko, meanwhile, blighted by injury, could not break into the Antlers first team.

At 25, the former Higashi Fukuoka High School standout has played only 48 J1 games, three of them for Vissel Kobe, where, at last, he has the opportunity to fulfill that early promise.

The grass is not always greener on the other side, even in Europe.

Japan's captain, Tsuneyasu Miyamoto, is the latest J. Leaguer to reject an offer from Italy.

Treviso wanted to sign him on a one-year loan deal, and offered Gamba $450,000 for the defender's services. But Miyamoto, after discussions with the Osaka club and with national coach Zico, declined the offer, and preferred to stay in Japan.

Miyamoto said there were two main reasons for his decision. The first was that he wanted to win the championship with Gamba, currently in second place, just a point behind Kashima Antlers; the second was that he wanted stability in the season before the World Cup.

Although Miyamoto has been keen to move abroad for several seasons, he felt this offer from Treviso was too late, as he wanted to lead Japan's preparations for Germany next summer.

The last thing he needed was to be sitting on the bench in Italy, while defenders back home caught the eye of Zico and put the captain's position in doubt.

It's a good move by Miyamoto, who could still secure a transfer to Europe next summer in the shop window of the World Cup.

Player of the Week: Vissel Kobe captain Atsuhiro Miura, who is leading his team's survival push with some stunning free-kicks that even David Beckham would be proud of.

Quote of the Week: "I want both of them to have the right impact at the right time and I do not want everyone moaning that they don't look enough for the Premiership. That is what you get if you put them in too early. People make early and quick judgments in this game and they write people off before the players are given a proper chance."

-- Bolton Wanderers' manager, Sam Allardyce, referring to new signings Hidetoshi Nakata and Mexican forward Jared Borgetti.



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