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Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2007

SOCCER SCENE

Osim needs to change attitude; players need to take shots


HANOI — In the second part of a two-part column, Soccer Scene attempts to give some answers to questions raised on the future of the Japan national team under coach Ivica Osim, in light of the disappointing fourth-place finish at the recent Asian Cup finals:

James Mulligan

Why is Ivica Osim so prickly with the press?

It would be interesting to read Osim's contract with the Japan Football Association. Is there something in the small print about him dealing with the media in a professional manner that he hasn't seen?

Or does he believe his responsibilities as coach begin and end on the training pitch? And what does the JFA think about it all?

Osim continued his cat-and-mouse game with the media throughout the Asian Cup finals, alternately giving cryptic answers, answering a question with another question or simply refusing to answer. News conferences descended into a near farce on a number of occasions.

Admittedly it is sometimes funny — and the media focus on his sideshow does a great job of protecting the players — but a lot of the time it appears as though there is a shocking lack of respect being shown to Japanese journalists.

If this is Osim's style, then so be it. But prior to the finals, at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo, Osim held court for an hour and a half and was extremely candid when answering questions.

His guard may have been down, but at least we know he can give a straight answer when he wants to.

His media dealings at the finals need only be compared to Saudi coach Helio Anjos or Australia's Graham Arnold.

Anjos gave in depth answers to all questions — both sensible and inane — posed by Japanese and other journalists prior to the semifinal against Japan.

Minutes after seeing his side bow out on penalties against Japan, Arnold gave a dignified performance in the post-match press conference, gamely answering searching questions from the Australian press and somewhat awkward tactical questions from the Japanese press. Why can't Osim do this?

Osim appears to find some lines of questioning from the vernacular press particularly frustrating. Indeed, there are a finite number of times any coach can answer, "what is the condition of your players?" before he starts to pull his hair out.

But if this is the case — that ultimately it comes down to Osim believing a lot of soccer writers don't really have a clue about the game — then the Bosnian coach, with all his years of experience, would do well to soften his stance toward the reporters and try to educate them more, instead of continuing to cultivate this standoff that does him no favors when the time comes for the press to evaluate his performance. Like when he's just led Japan to a fourth-place finish at a tournament the team was expected to win.

Why won't Japan shoot?

The age-old question. Not "can't," but "won't." Most of the teams at the finals sat back against the Japanese, inviting them to shoot from distance. It was most evident in the semifinal against the Saudis, who were content to let Japan pass the ball around in front of their area for much of the match. But it was only in the last 10 minutes — in desperation — that Japan started to shoot from distance: first Naotake Hanyu, then Yuichi Komano, then Shunsuke Nakamura.

Of course, the unwillingness to shoot is a combination of the players' desire to "pass the ball into the net" and also the desire to pass the buck when on the attack. Some players simply looked afraid to shoot.

Nakamura, in fact, was as guilty as any in not taking a risk and shooting: unforgivable for one with such talent at scoring from distance. Yasuhito Endo was another serial offender in not shooting when the chance presented itself.

As Osim said on his return to Tokyo on Monday when talking of the pathological inability to take the initiative in creating and scoring chances, "It is the time for them to become good players themselves, not to pretend to play these roles."

How can Osim further use the strengths of Keita Suzuki to enhance the national team?

Without a doubt, Urawa Reds midfielder Suzuki is the main man of the Japanese team and should be Osim's first name on the team sheet. Suzuki is an imperious presence and the only one of the current midfield who appears to have the engine and strength for international soccer.

He's also efficient in his distribution of the ball and has enough pace to cope at the rnational level. In fact, his role as defensive midfielder is perhaps underplaying his strengths at this level.

Indeed, if Shunsuke Nakamura was moved to a more rigid position on the left (as suggested yesterday) and Suzuki was given a more prominent role as Japan's main central midfielder, then another defensive-minded player (perhaps Yuki Abe when central defender Marcus Tulio Tanaka returns) could fill Suzuki's role.

The team would look a lot less lightweight in the middle, although a midfielder with a little more creativity than Suzuki would perhaps need to play alongside him.

Who is missing from the national team first XI?

As Osim said after the South Korea game: "Some of my players made mistakes against the Saudis (in the semifinals), but I thought I'd give them another chance. They probably won't get a third."

Ominous words, but who is ready to step up or step back in to the national team starting XI?

For starters, there is Alex Santos of FC Red Bull Salzburg. The left wing back is the best replacement if Yuichi Komano is switched to the right (as suggested yesterday), with Japan then possessing equally potent overlapping threats on either wing.

Alternatives in the center of midfield are Koji Yamase, enjoying an Indian summer at Yokohama F. Marinos but always susceptible to injuries and loss of form, and Mitsuo Ogasawara, who recently returned to Kashima Antlers from Italian side Messina.

It also will be interesting to see the impact Junichi Inamoto makes at Eintracht Frankfurt alongside Naohiro Takahara.

Shimizu S-Pulse's attacking midfielder Jungo Fujimoto, 23, is perhaps the most exciting player deserving a sustained run on the national team starting XI.



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