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Thursday, July 23, 2009

SOCCER SCENE

Forward thinking can ease Stojkovic's second-season blues


Dragan Stojkovic worked miracles leading Nagoya Grampus into the Asian Champions League in his first season as a manager, but he is now learning that achieving success and keeping hold of it are two very different things.

Andrew McKirdy

Stojkovic last year returned to the club where he made his mark as one of the J. League's greatest-ever players, and his leadership on the field and experience from spells as president of the Yugoslav F.A. and Red Star Belgrade meant it was not long before his transition to the dugout bore fruit.

Nagoya flew out of the blocks with six wins and a draw from its opening seven games, and although there were a few hiccups along the way, a third-place finish was no mean feat for a club that had limped home in 11th the season before with largely the same group of players.

Stojkovic was bullish when assessing his team's chances ahead of the current campaign, and even if a repeat of last year's title challenge looked slightly out of reach, there seemed no reason why Grampus could not consolidate its place among the league's upper echelons.

The season started promisingly enough, but since the start of May the wheels have well and truly fallen off. Nagoya has taken just six points from its last nine games, leaving the club four points off the relegation zone with only JEF United Chiba and Oita Trinita having scored less goals.

Even more ominously, the man responsible for half of that tally of 20, Brazilian striker Davi, has now left the club in a lucrative transfer to Qatar's Umm-Salal. Stojkovic's honeymoon period, it is fair to say, is over.

Last week's 5-1 Nabisco Cup mauling at the hands of FC Tokyo suggests a desperate future for Nagoya, but the situation is far from being a lost cause.

Fittingly enough, salvation may come in the form of man whose appearance has earned him the nickname "Jesus." Australian striker Josh Kennedy made his debut in last weekend's 1-1 draw with Kyoto Sanga, and announced his arrival with a well-taken goal.

At 194 cm, the former Karlsruhe player offers significantly different options to the more explosive, powerful Davi, and Kennedy's height and link-up play could be just what Nagoya needs after cutting ties with Norwegian striker Frode Johnsen at the end of last season.

Davi is an exceptional talent, but he needs to be given complete freedom to make the most of his skills. That goes against the grain of Stojkovic's team ethos, and while the results can be spectacular, it is risky to rely so heavily on such a temperamental player.

Johnsen's height was an obvious asset during his 2 1/2 years at the club, but his intelligence and subtlety were just as important in coaxing the best out of partner Keiji Tamada. The national team striker has not enjoyed the same understanding with Davi, and it will be interesting to see if Kennedy can help him recover the impressive form he showed at the end of last season.

Of course Nagoya's current malaise runs deeper than just its forward line. More can be expected of last season's revelation, midfielder Yoshizumi Ogawa, and the defense has also looked out of sorts in recent weeks.

But if Grampus really wants to turn things around, scoring goals is a good place to start.



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