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Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2005

J. WALKING

Nelsinho pays the price for Nagoya's midseason slide


From a European perspective, there's no better-known club in Japan than Nagoya Grampus Eight.

Jeremy Walker

Gary Lineker was there at the start of the J. League in 1993; Arsene Wenger left Grampus for a "boring" north London club in 1996 and is still there, and Dragan Stojkovic entertained and infuriated fans around the country in equal measure with his mercurial skills and explosive temperament.

These days, though, there's not a lot happening at Nagoya, except for the firing of another manager.

The latest on the list is Nelsinho, who was sacked following Saturday's 2-0 defeat to relegation-threatened Oita Trinita at Kumamoto Stadium.

Nelsinho had been given two years to try to turn the club around, but after a couple of false dawns the traditional Nagoya Grampus Slide kicked in.

The league table does not lie, and after 24 games Grampus occupied ninth spot with 32 points, 15 off the pace being set by Gamba Osaka.

This is not why Toyota invests several billion yen a year in the club, and Nelsinho was relieved of his duties with 10 league games remaining.

So it's back to square one for the management, and a fresh search is on for the new Wenger.

One former Grampus manager who will have noted Nelsinho's sacking with interest, and possibly a wry smile, is Zdenko Verdenik.

The Slovenian coach was fired midway through the 2003 season to make way for Nelsinho, just when he felt he had built a solid base for the team and was ready to mount a championship challenge in the second stage.

He never got the chance, and a new manager with new ideas undid all the work of his predecessor.

On the eve of that 2003 campaign, Verdenik said he would use the first stage to build his team, develop a style of play and tighten up in all areas of the pitch. With two games of the stage remaining, Grampus still had a chance to win the title, albeit a slim one.

A string of drawn games proved that Grampus had become hard to beat, without exactly setting the league alight, and Verdenik's next step was to turn some of the draws into victories. The management did not quite share Verdenik's view, or show the same amount of patience, and the coach left with the opinion that Nagoya Grampus Eight was run like a Toyota factory, rather than a professional soccer club.

All the Toyota factory has to show for its efforts since the formation of the professional league is two Emperor's Cup titles at the end of the 1995 and 1999 seasons, the first of those under the charismatic Frenchman Wenger.

It was also during Wenger's reign that Grampus rose to the heights of a third-place finish in 1995, and the runnerup spot the following year, behind Kashima Antlers in the first single-stage season, although he had left for Arsenal, very much against Nagoya's wishes, in September of 1996.

The club has appointed assistant coach Hitoshi Nakata as caretaker manager until Nelsinho's replacement is found, and the new manager will inherit a squad packed with potential and experience but one without a winning culture.

Some of the more senior players possess that latter quality in abundance, notably central defender Yutaka Akita and attacking midfielder Toshiya Fujita, but they acquired it at their previous clubs, Kashima Antlers and Jubilo Iwata, respectively, and it has proved difficult to transmit to their new teammates.

Besides, both players are well into their 30s, so the future lies more with defender Makoto Kakuda and the attacking midfielders Naoshi Nakamura and Keisuke Honda.

But success looks a distant dream for Nagoya fans . . . unless the club can identify another Wenger -- someone disillusioned with Europe for the time being and needing a change of scenery to reignite the fire.

Talk about class!

Ruy Ramos had plenty of it as a player, and he's already showing it in his role as assistant coach to manager Hiroshi Hayano at Kashiwa Reysol.

The former national team playmaker took up the post on Sept. 13, and his presence inspired struggling Reysol to a surprise 2-1 victory at home to table-topping Gamba Osaka on Saturday.

Naturally the media focus was on the popular and friendly Ramos, but after the game he refused to comment out of respect for his senior, Hayano.

Sections of the Reysol fans have been calling for Hayano's head during another poor season, and the appointment of Ramos as his assistant seemed to suggest that the writing was on the wall for the manager and a ready-made replacement was already installed.

After all, Reysol had performed a similar, not so subtle, stunt when hiring former Shimizu S-Pulse manager Steve Perryman as assistant to Akira Nishino. To no one's surprise, Nishino was quickly fired and, in unhappy circumstances, Perryman was promoted.

Ramos does not want to give the impression that he is Reysol's manager in waiting, nor comment on team performances when it's Hayano's job, thereby putting pressure on his boss.

His decision not to comment after the Gamba game was the mark of a true sportsman, and a gentleman.

The image of the Urawa Reds No. 10 scoring goals and leading his team to victory is easy to conjure in the mind.

No, not Emerson.

His replacement, Robson Ponte.

Whereas Emerson was fast and flamboyant, breaking down defenses by crashing through the front window, Ponte is more about craft and cunning, patiently picking the lock and sneaking in through the back door.

The former talisman and the new hero could not be more different in style, and the general feeling within the club is that Reds are more of a team these days. Ponte serves as the bridge between midfield and attack, as opposed to being a one-man wrecking crew.

In Sunday's 4-3 victory at Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Ponte scored his fourth goal in six league games since joining Urawa from Bayer Leverkusen to replace Emerson, who walked out on the club to transfer to Al Sadd in Qatar.

Their paths never crossed, but Ponte, who holds Brazilian and Italian citizenship, says he respects and congratulates Emerson for his achievements with Urawa.

"Everyone here says good things about him," says Ponte.

The 28-year-old recruit, however, has no desire to follow Emerson as the next Reds superstar in the No. 10 jersey.

"I cannot think about the past. I am here to do my best and help the team. It's my job," he says modestly.

Player of the Week: Kashiwa Reysol striker Keiji Tamada, who lifted the gloom surrounding Kashiwa Hitachi Stadium by scoring both goals in a confidence-boosting 2-1 victory over first-place Gamba Osaka.

Quote of the Week: "People think you must be crackers if you've got a psychologist, but psychology is part of the building bricks to make a top athlete. Wayne is still a very young man in a position which has a lot of strain and stress."

-- Manchester City and England goalkeeper David James, backing calls for Manchester United's young striker Wayne Rooney to seek professional help to curb his wayward temper. James says counseling has made him a better athlete.



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