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Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2005

J. WALKING

Injury-prone Ono is a World Cup worry for Zico's Japan


A precocious talent at the 1998 World Cup in France. A mature and influential midfielder on home turf at the 2002 World Cup. But what does 2006 hold for Japan's most gifted player, Shinji Ono?

Jeremy Walker

Injury, once again, has sidelined the former Urawa Reds captain, and Zico must be wondering how big a part -- if any -- Ono will be able to play in Japan's World Cup buildup.

A fully-fit and match-sharp Ono would walk into Japan's starting lineup, of course, as he has developed into a natural leader and a reassuring presence in the center of midfield, both for Japan and for Feyenoord.

But he has missed so many games for club and country in the past couple of seasons with a string of injuries that his World Cup future must be in doubt.

Surely this is the reason why Ono is still playing in Holland, a second-tier European league despite the presence of Ajax, PSV and Ono's own club Feyenoord.

Had he stayed fit and kept playing after Feyenoord's 2002 UEFA Cup success, Rotterdam would have been a bridge between Japan and a major, more glamorous European league, such as Spain, Italy or England.

But Ono is still with Feyenoord, and the chances of a move to a bigger league are fading with every setback.

Possibly the biggest injury blow of all to Ono happened in the summer of 1999, when Japan played the Philippines in a qualifying match for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.

With nothing at stake and victory certain against such a minnow, Ono was scythed down from behind by the rival center forward and suffered a serious knee injury. Philippe Troussier, head coach of the Olympic team and national team at the time, told Ono it would take him two years to fully recover, yet he was back in action for Urawa before the year was out.

Ono watchers would say that he was never the same player again, the injury having robbed him of the physical speed to match his quick footballing brain.

So the dashing playmaker became a more defense-minded midfielder, staying deep to work in the "engine room" rather than racing forward and using his extravagant skills to both score and create goals.

When Ono turns out for Japan these days, he is a very different kind of player to the one who burst on to the scene in 1998.

At the moment, though, he is not turning out at all, and Zico must surely be thinking of a Plan B in Germany next summer -- a team without its most naturally-talented, but injury-prone, player.

* * *

Another player in the news for the wrong reasons is Junichi Inamoto.

Or, rather, he's not in the news, so he thinks it might be time to move on again.

"Ina," if you remember, is still with West Bromwich Albion, although manager Bryan Robson does not appear to be a big fan of his Japanese midfielder.

In fact he's off the radar at the Hawthorns, and Ina needs to be playing regularly if he is to secure a place in Japan's World Cup squad next summer.

So a step down, or maybe even back to Gamba Osaka, looks to be in order when the European transfer window opens in January.

Like Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, Inamoto has tried hard and patiently to make the grade in Europe.

Eventually, Kawaguchi had to face facts, and returned to Japan, to Jubilo Iwata, to keep himself in the World Cup picture.

Inamoto, too, must accept that he is not going to make it in the English Premier League, despite the occasional memorable moment for Fulham.

His agents must start looking around, and find him a club in a league where he is going to play regularly, such as Holland or Belgium.

While Ono has the quality to make it at the highest grade, Inamoto is not at the same level.

Even when he was in the team at Fulham, he seemed to be struggling with the pace of the English game, not so much physically but mentally. There isn't much time to think when Roy Keane is breathing down your neck, eyes burning brightly at the thought of another crunching tackle.

For Ina it was all a bit fast, and his play looked labored in such a high tempo.

So much so that, if he were ever going to make it in the Premier League, a switch from midfield to right back might have been a better option. A naturally defensive player, Inamoto has the physical attributes to do well in that position. He would also have more time on the ball to think about the options in front of him, and it would not stop him embarking on a characteristically swashbuckling run, this time down the right flank rather than through the middle.

At 26, Inamoto's best years are going to waste, and a strategic move backward seems the only course of action.

* * *

In a recent column, Yokohama F. Marinos' Dutch goalkeeping coach, Dido Havenaar, was suggesting the reasons why the United States produces so many top-class keepers, such as Brad Friedel, Kasey Keller and Tim Howard. Hand-ball coordination, and plenty of sports in the States to hone these skills, was Dido's assessment.

This article prompted a response from reader Matthew Shows, who describes himself as "the lone Yank Sheffield Wednesday fan in New York City."

You may be surprised, Matthew, as the Owls are known to have built up a loyal following over the decades/centuries, although not recently it must be admitted.

"There's another Yank keeper you'll probably be seeing in the Premiership next season if his team keeps playing like it currently is in the Championship," he writes.

"It's Marcus Hahnemann of Reading, which is currently second from the top (nearly the opposite of my Owls, who are flirting with the bottom of the table presently).

"Marcus gets calls up to the U.S. national side as a substitute to Keller fairly regularly as well. I only mention him as you noted that you'd heard there were more U.S. keepers where Keller and company had come from.

"Coincidentally, Reading also has another Yank on its squad -- Bobby Convey, who also plays for the national side at times."

Interesting stuff, Matthew, and thanks also for the recommendation to check out the Web site www.yanks-abroad.com.

An Internet search for Hahnemann produces a fan Web site (www.baldyank.com) and several others worth reading, such as www.sams-army.com and ussoccerplayers.com.

* * *

Player of the Week: Andy -- make that Andrew -- Cole. The day after his 34th birthday, the prolific Manchester City striker netted two more goals in the 2-1 victory over West Ham United. Goal King Cole just keeps singing the same old tune.

Quote of the Week: "I share the pain of the supporters. We didn't want their fans celebrating like that in our ground. That shows what it means to them to beat us now."

-- Birmingham City manager Steve Bruce, following his team's 1-0 home defeat by Aston Villa in the Midlands derby on Sunday.



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