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Thursday, Sept. 8, 2005

J. WALKING

Omiya boss Miura keeps faith after losing striker Christian


Omiya Ardija's youthful manager, Toshiya Miura, may have lost Christian, but this doesn't mean he's lost the faith.

Jeremy Walker

Miura remains confident his team can stay in the top flight, despite the recent return to Brazil of his six-goal leading scorer, and a slide down the table after such a bright start.

In his short spell in Japan, Christian proved himself to be one of the best headers of a ball in the league.

He may not have been the fastest around the park, but get the ball into the middle and the former Paris Saint-Germain striker would do the rest.

His departure, to Sao Paulo, has left Ardija with a big headache, and Miura acknowledges that he needs more firepower to avoid dropping into the relegation dogfight.

"Our technical director wants to have a new foreign player," Miura says.

"Ideally we need one or two new strikers. If not, we will be in a difficult situation."

The arrival of Yoshiteru Yamashita from Kashiwa Reysol has increased Miura's options up front, where he has often been without his speed merchant, the oft-injured Naoto Sakurai.

Yamashita knows what it's like to be involved in a relegation scrap, as he has already lost two of them, first with Avispa Fukuoka and then with Vegalta Sendai, only to be rescued from J2 by J1 clubs who admired his skills.

Miura is hoping it won't come to that this time, as he feels Ardija collected enough points early on to stay out of trouble.

"We have 28 points now and I think we need more than 40 to be safe," he said.

"But nobody knows who will win the games because the level is almost the same.

"Urawa Reds, Gamba Osaka and Kashima Antlers are three strong teams, but from Sanfrecce Hiroshima in fourth place down to 18th there is no difference."

With 12 games remaining, 18th-place Vissel Kobe and Oita Trinita, in 17th position, occupy the two automatic relegation places with 19 points, nine behind Omiya in 12th place.

But the fact that J. League journeyman Tuto is now Omiya's top scorer with five goals, including three penalties, highlights the lack of finishing power in Miura's team.

There have been encouraging signs in recent weeks that J. League referees are trying to wipe out one of the most damaging plagues in the modern game.

You know the one.

A team is leading narrowly, the clock is running down, and a member of the team holding the slender lead receives the ball on the halfway line.

Instead of heading for the opposition goal, though, he heads for the corner flag.

Defenders move in to try and win the ball, but they are penalized for minor fouls and the player trying to kill the game gets away with murder.

The ball stays in the corner and the game becomes a succession of free-kicks and, ultimately, a farce.

The most memorable incidence of this came at National Stadium in Tokyo a few seasons back.

Kashima Antlers needed a 0-0 draw to win the second-stage title on the last day, but Kashiwa Reysol had to win to overtake them.

The scenario suited Antlers perfectly, particularly their Brazilian playmaker Bismarck, who spent about the last 10 minutes of the match by the left-wing corner flag.

He was there so long he may as well have taken his tent with him, pitched camp and started a fire to cook dinner.

On a couple of occasions in recent weeks, though, it seems that Japanese refs have been taking the law into their own hands, and blowing for non-existent infringements by the player shielding the ball.

A free-kick for obstruction, a goal-kick instead of a corner, the throw-in going to the defending side . . .

Officially, of course, this is not a conscious move by the J. League, although FIFA should applaud it and copy it.

One former J. League manager, Steve Perryman, would be at the forefront of any initiative to give the defenders the advantage and keep the game moving.

During his time with Shimizu S-Pulse and Kashiwa Reysol, the former Tottenham Hotspur captain always championed fair play, and loathed this negative tactic aimed at killing a game to protect a scoreline.

The message it gave, he said, was that the team employing such a tactic was admitting it was not good enough to win the game on merit, so won by foul means instead of fair.

He said refs should have the power to make up an infringement and penalize the "attacking" team, and that no one could feel hard done by under such circumstances.

A few years on, it seems that refs are doing just this -- although the official line from the J. League is that the "attacking" player in the corner is moving away from the ball and into the defender, and therefore a foul is awarded.

It's a rule refs should apply at every opportunity, and no one could blame them for being too harsh on the team trying to kill the game by the corner flag.

Two stages or one?

There's no doubt Gamba Osaka would prefer the latter.

After the 22nd round of the single-stage season on Saturday, Gamba hit the front for the first time in five years, one point ahead of Kashima Antlers.

Many observers feel that Akira Nishino's men are good enough to stay there over the remaining 12 games of the campaign, especially with the dynamic strike force of Araujo, Masashi Oguro and Fernandinho putting the opposition to the sword.

When the season was played in two halves, followed by a championship playoff, there was little room for error in the 15-game sprints.

This always unsettled Gamba, which could never recover from losing a key game after being in a good position to take a stage.

This time, however, it's a 34-game marathon, and that looks to be suiting Gamba down to the ground as one defeat at a crucial time is not the end of the world.

With 21 goals so far, leading scorer Araujo is looking to be the signing of the winter, when he was already here in Japan, with Shimizu S-Pulse.

Player of the Week: Ghana's Michael Essien.

Chelsea's expensive new midfielder led the "Black Stars" to a 2-0 victory over Uganda on Sunday -- and to the brink of World Cup qualification for the first time.

Essien scored the opening goal in the 11th minute to settle his team's nerves in front of an over-capacity crowd of 60,000.

Quote of the Week: "It's a little team. Here, everyone's interested in baseball and American football and many people didn't even know that a soccer match was being played today. So it's easy for them, because they aren't playing under any pressure. My mother, my grandmother or my great grandmother could play in a team like that."

-- Mexico's coach, Ricardo La Volpe, describing the environment in which his team played the United States in a World Cup qualifier in Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday.

The Americans won 2-0.



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