2015 AFC Asian Cup. Yay.

Nasser Al Shamrani ponders where he will go out tonight in Melbourne.

Happy New Year, Maya Yoshida. That’s a sweet victory against Arsenal, wasn’t it? You did good job in blocking Alexis Sanchez, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (a hipster favorite), and Theo Walcott for 20 minutes. You’re good to go for Australia 2015.

Asians are so diligent and hardworking, we are doing a major tournament in the first working week of 2015. Making the good use of southern hemisphere summer.

And so let’s see the teams that will compete in Asian Cup 2015.

Australia

When they won the hosting rights in 2011 (without competition), it was too easy. Only Japan could spoil their party. Four years later, everyone could tear down the house. Australia had experienced defeats by Qatar, China, Japan (in 90 minutes in 2013, breaking a 12 years record), and Jordan. They were held by Oman, North Korea, South Africa, and UAE.

As I said, while Australians tell each other that they are on transition, the world does not care. Asia enjoys the agony. [Update: Australia have stopped saying that they are on transition.]

Tim Cahill, still the most reliable goal scorer for the last ten years, survived against pretenders like John Aloisi, Scott McDonald, Brett Holman, and Joshua Kennedy. Now Australia badly need new goalscorers. Thankfully Nathan Burns is on good form, Tomi Juric is at the crossroad (his last goal came in November), while Mat Leckie is doing fine with Ingolstadt, currently topping the 2. Bundesliga.

Australians and me hope that they could be like Germany in 2006 – turning shameful slumps into a glorious, proud summer (the semi final match could be held on Australia Day). Therefore the only permissible way to begin is to win comfortably against Kuwait. If everything goes well (Korea are a major stumbling block), then it’s quarter final against China in Melbourne. That’s dream comes true for broadcasters and organizers, but expect plenty of venom coming from Chinese commentators (since Australians are, uh, Western white men). The other option is no more friendly – Spiranovic vs Al Shamrani II.

Going to semis? Iran. The ideal final, of course, pitches Australia and Japan.

Goalkeeper: Ryan

Defenders: Franjic, Sainsbury, Spiranovic, Davidson

Midfielders: Jedinak, Bresciano, McKay

Forwards: Kruse, Cahill (false 9), Oar/Leckie

Korea

Supposedly, they have put the disaster of 2013-14 behind with the leadership of Uli Stielike, the only German international to fail a penalty shootout. Their recent records are still mixed, however – wins against Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Paraguay, losses to Iran (a bloody one), Costa Rica, and Uruguay. Like Australia, they were on transition but Koreans hardly said that (at least in English).

The match against Australia is the biggest challenge, and I would say it will end in a draw, just like in 2011. A quarter final against North Korea is unlikely (some South Koreans actually fancy the idea), while Korean “netizens” hope for China so they can update Eul-Yong Ta for 2010s.

The semi final will be another heated affair whether as runner ups or group winners – either Iran or Japan. Heck, even in the final they will face either Iran or Japan and things can go nasty. Boy, Koreans do have plenty of issues, don’t they?

Goalkeeper: Kim Seung-gyu

Defenders: Kim Chang-soo, Kwak, Kim Young-gwon, Park Joo-ho

Midfielders: Lee Chung-yong, Ki, Koo

Forwards: Cho Yeung-chol, Lee Keun-ho, Son

Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan, Uzbekistan. Our football team is more famous than Kazakhstan’s. We have Natasha Alam and you Kazakhstan have…you have that volleyball cutie.

No, she won’t care about Asian Cup. Maybe neither is Natasha Alam.

Remember Road to Japan and Korea? A pretty surreal qualification since Japan and Korea were not in and Australia were still in OFC. So if you remove these three nations, the final round of AFC qualification would be full of creepy countries ruled by mad dictators. Group B is a terrible put down. I blame the desert and the northern latitudes. And Stalin.

Uzbekistan feature the balanced lineups of players based in Uzbekistan (always a challenge in AFC Champions League, although not big spenders like Bunyodkor used to be). The spread of its foreign-based players is also interesting. Vitaly Denisov and Lutfulla Turaev play for Lokomotiv (spelling it “Locomotive” makes it sounds less communist) Moscow, Anzur Ismailov is with Changchun Yatai, Bahodir Nasimov plays in Iran, and captain Server Djeparov still can eat Seongnam’s best bulgogi. Not to mention those who play in Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

So there’s no reason they cannot ace Group B, above Saudi Arabia and China. A quarter final against Korea will be a friendly derby, and so does semi final against Japan. For a mad dictatorship, it’s surprising that they have no personal problem with anyone.

Saudi Arabia

The ballad of Nasser Al Shamrani. Australians heckled him mercilessly in Melbourne when Saudi Arabia were humiliated 1-4 by Bahrain and in Parramatta, home of Western Sydney Wanderers. They will hunt him again in Brisbane and Melbourne. It’s still unknown if Arab-Australians will stand up for him, especially (or despite) after Al Hilal players described Sydney as the boonies.

China

Thank God you’re here, said the organizer. Otherwise Asian Cup will be devoid of the most important of all East Asians. Will Chinese-Australians care about China? Maybe they hardly care about any sport in the first place. But the Chinese students will persuade their Southeast Asian (and some Australian) friends to support China.

China did plenty of friendlies in preparation of the cup, but none of them was outside China. Why bother going to savage lands where you can invites barbarians such as Kyrgyzs (twice), Palestines, and New Zealanders to enjoy a bit of Chinese hospitality in the world-famous cities of Nanchang, Chenzhou, Shenzhen (Hong Kong’s ugly sister!), and Changsa?

Half-assed friendlies in faraway cities to tire out the visitors, local-based players since no Chinese footballer is good enough to play in Europe (and why bother playing in tiny Mainz where you can enjoy Guangzhou’s nightlife), and equally strong opponents. They won’t make it past the group stage.

North Korea

Scums of the Earth and a total waste of space. But wait, even the Hermit Kingdom has players based in Europe and Japan! Wunderbar! Ryang Yong-gi and Ri Yong-jik are Korean-Japanese who swear allegiance to North Korea. Now the nice Switzerland opens its door to the misunderstood North Koreans, from Kim Jong-un to Cha Jong-hyok and Pak Kwang-ryong, who is loaned by Basel to Vaduz. Hey, Liechtenstein is just like North Korea – the people are smiling, the mountains are beautiful, and the underground vault is shining.

Iran

Look at the champions. Asia’s best. Lack of playing time but they make the best of it, whether against Korea or Iraq. Like in 1997, they can expect full support from Iranian Australians. Their European players are so-so: Keeper Alireza Haghighi keeps picking balls from inside his net with Penafiel in Portugal, Javad Nekounam still proves his worth with four goals with Osasuna, while his team mate Karim Ansarifad is yet to score. But as a team, they can be invincible. Iranians will gleefully see the Princes of Persia slash down those pesky Arabs (they are conveniently group with Qatar, Bahrain, and UAE, who insist that it’s called Arabian Gulf).

Japan

The samurais care less that their daimyo is accused of match fixing back in 2010 – they have a cup to defend. Traditionally Japanese fans will sit on the fence – Aguirre is another foreigner whose main purpose is to lead Nippon. If he won’t resign over the allegation, he will resign over bad results. But he won’t stay forever.

Japanese footballers, the mainstay of Asian football in Europe, are again in dire need of redemption. Shinji Kagawa must be cannot believe his terrible luck, worse than his Manchester United days. Keisuke Honda could not sustain his goal scoring streaks and now Milanistas are singing for Jeremy Menez instead of him. 2015 has arrived and Eiji Kawashima is still thinking about next season – stay or leave? – as he’s sitting on Liege’s bench. His challenger, Shusaku Nishikawa, rue the days he slipped the J. League trophy – and the chance to be Japan’s number 1 – past his hands.

For some others, this is the moment of truth. Yasuhito Endo can’t believe his fairy tale story. At 34 going 35, he resurrected a disgraced team to win a Triple and is still Japan’s best holding midfielder for one and half decade. Without ever playing in Europe. Shinji Okazaki wants to match his club performance with national team performance, especially if he wants to move a bigger (and better paying) club next August. Yoshinori Muto will be thrilled to think which European scouts are watching him.

Japan will face nemeses Jordan and Iraq and have to put up with the crowds and the world who will support Palestine. They will get the job done and will face one of the Gulf nations. Then it’s Uzbekistan, who defeated them twice on the Road to Brazil. Then a final showdown against Australia or less likely, Iran.

Goalkeeper: Kawashima (my choice is as tricky as Aguerre’s. Higashiguchi can handle Palestine but first impression is everything)

Defenders: Sakai, Konno, Yoshida, Nagatomo

Midfielders: Endo, Hasebe, Kiyotake, Kagawa, Honda

Forward: Okazaki

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All Right in the East…and West

Who said Twitter campaign doesn't work?

Who said Twitter campaign doesn’t work?

Last week I thought things were fine in Asia. This was when the scoreboards were Mouscron-Peruwelz (gah) 5 Standard Liege 2 and MK Dons 4 Manchester United 0 (plus a concussion). But suddenly things look up.

Start with the East, like the movement of sun is. K-League (Classic) continues its tradition of making into the semi finals of AFC Champions League, and the fancier Seoul defeat the unfancied (less fancied?) Pohang. Pohang’s indie rustic charm is something to admire – like Borussia Dortmund or Udinese. But somehow I just prefer Seoul’s cosmopolitanism. They have the only professional Spanish-Japanese footballer on Earth, after all (who is not that good). Homegrown players and local flavor must be something to be desired in modern club football everywhere (especially in Europe), but I’m bit worried that the “all-local” trend growing in Japan and Korea is more about racial purity than about pure football.

A Korean will be surely playing in the Champions League final, provided he is not injured – Kwak Tae-hwi from Al Hilal or Lee Myeong-ju (who was in Pohang last semester) from Al Ain. A defender and an aggressive midfielder – the proverbial Chinese duel of shield against sword.

And I’ve surprised myself by coming long way – cheering for an Australian team that has no player from East Asian heritage. Western Sydney’s starting eleven consisted of three Australians from ex-Yugoslavian background (Serbs, Croatians, Slovenians etc.), an Italian, a Croat, an Albanian, a half Mauritian-half German Australian, three Anglo-Irish Australians, and an African-Australian. Versus eight Chinese, a Brazilian, and two Italians.

So why didn’t I support the Chinese? Because I dislike their football – the Chinese defend and pass, the foreigners score. Evergrande go a long way in China and Asia (and even the world) with this tactic, but it does not any good for the Chinese national team. Because I dislike the bad sport of Chinese footballers. Because I dislike how working in CSL corrupts foreign players and managers. Because I dislike Evergrande’s supporters heavy handed tactics to intimidate Western Sydney. It’s more than anger against Vitor Saba’s acting. It’s pure racist hatred against the white Australians who dared to defeat Evergrande. I’m not sure about how they will treat Korean visitors, but Japanese visitors might be subjected to same, or even worse bullying. We don’t need that kind of trouble on the next stage (Evergrande will return next year).

An Italian approaches an Arab. A Croat and Chinese stay away.

An Italian approaches an Arab. A Croat and Chinese stay away.

I think I’d be neutral on the semi finals between Seoul and Western Sydney. It’s easy to go for Seoul, but I also fancy the fairy tale story of Western Sydney becoming the first A-League team to become the Champions of Asia. Just as I want Australia to win the AFC Asian Cup, despite Japan and Korea.

Now, to Europe. I’m planning to visit the nearest Puma shop to buy a Borussia Dortmund merchandise, because they’ve become my dream team – a team containing an Australian, a Korean, and a Japanese. Well, Mitch Langerak is on the bench again, Ji Dong-won does not sit there at all, and Kagawa has to prove himself against Milo Jojic and Sven Bender (it’s almost impossible to challenge Marco Reus). And euh, that Armenian guy.

I had the feeling Keisuke Honda would score the first Serie A goal for Milan and he did. Thank you Pippo for believing in him. Too bad Inter abandon the left midfield position so Nagatomo is a sub (unless he can overthrow Dodo, but it seems he’s better to be a left midfielder than a left defender).

Son sadly played only a half as Leverkusen continued its winning run, recently against Hosogai’s Berlin, the 2 against 1 fight between Koo and Okazaki versus Kiyotake ended 0-0, while Osako scored against Stuttgart.

In England, Ki earned a yellow card while Swansea are at number two, above Aston Villa (really), Manchester City, and Liverpool. Yoshida is hitori janai as Schneiderlin and Rodriguez stay in Southampton and his central back position is secured. And I can worry less about Manchester United. I think.

[Update: Southampton just welcomed Belgian central back Toby Alderweireld. Oh Maya.]

 

World Cup Debriefing: Match Day 1

This will be brief so we can get back to practice soon.

Australia

The perpetual optimists, blessed them, look forward to hurt Holland for their upcoming match. Naturally this means two things: a) they will do it and score a draw (any chance Ryan becomes tonight’s Ochoa?) or b) it will get worse. On record, Australia’s worst defeat in World Cup was 0-4 to Germany in 2010, and Australia looked tough for the first five minutes.

Certainly Chile were their best chance to score three points, but by all counts it was impossible (same result achieved by my high-tech analytical machine – EA’s World Cup 2014). The good news is, the perpetual optimists (TM) Australians can now look forward to surprise (or annoy) two teams with serious claims for the trophy (and one with serious need to rebound).

Certainly Australians take sports more seriously than Japanese and Koreans. This nation divided between sports buffs and obese, healthy eating and double crispy bacon, does not have to boringly claim “football is war” and yet they looked sober instead of crushed, considering they were the worst Asian team of the week.

Maybe it’s genetic. They knew they were slower and less skillful (this is relative) compared to European and South American contestants at the World Cup. But they are as big and aggressive as these football veterans. They are absolved from other baggage dragging town Japan and Korea – short, weak, non aggressive, boring, etc.

Maybe it’s also cultural. Australians are new to association football (still called soccer to avoid confusion with Australian Rules Football, makes me wondering why Japan calls it soccer although they don’t have to differentiate it to another code). On one side, Australian media and spectators do not put the hope and pressure as high as they might have on Australian swimmers and rugby players.

On another side, since Germany 2006 football, particularly the World Cup, has united Australian public even more than cricket or rugby international (i.e. Mediterranean and East Asian Australians also pay attention besides Anglo-Irish and South Asian/Pacific Australians). It took Japan’s disastrous meltdown after Tim Cahill’s equalized in June 2006 to put football into the main stream of Australian ads and pub conversation (although it might also started from John Aloisi’s penalty against Uruguay a year earlier).

The difference is, unlike Japanese and especially Koreans, Australians don’t put overtly burden toward its players. Chris Herd is a laugh in some forums, but there is no public condemnation against him, accusing him as selfish or whatever. And so Cahill and Mike “Mile” Jedinak left Arena Pantanal walking tall, felt less stung than Japan did in Recife.

Japan

Throughout Asia, everyone (except Koreans, maybe) equates “fighting spirit” with the Japanese. Numerous Second World War references ensue, and strangely in positive way. They were taken as the strongest Asian side, and certainly the sported names notable enough in both the West and East: Kagawa, Honda, Internazionale’s Nagatomo, and Mainz’ Okazaki.

Unlike Australia, Japan had the chance to defeat Ivory Coast. Yes, this is Drogba’s and now Yaya Toure’s Ivory Coast. Gervinho’s and Bony’s. But African teams have patchy records in 21st century’s World Cups thanks to terrible FAs mismanagement, overrated coaches, disparities between local and European based players, and clash of egos.

Yet it took aged Drogba to motivate the Elephants to spring to life, including changing the misfiring Bony. Sadly, Kagawa played like he did in Manchester United and overall Japan played, like, Japan.

Most news and reports on the match focus on Ivory Coast, because not only they won, but because the Toures and Gervinho have made more impact on the Premier League than Kagawa and Yoshida. Japanese fans naturally focus on criticizing the players and Al Z did the same – fuming why didn’t his players attack on the second half.

So, that 1-2 felt much more hurt than 1-3 (minus the foul plays experienced by Australia, and with several Ivory Coast players leaving the pitch limping). Maybe Japan really did not demonstrate the fighting spirit showed by Australia (Leckie’s rushes vs Yoshida’s dangerous tackles). Maybe Japanese fans worldwide set the standard too high – and the Japanese players set their standard too low. Japan’s fate still hangs on the balance – topping this manageable group or be at the bottom.

First half was fun.

First half was fun.

Iran

I want to care about them but I cannot. Maybe it’s the Eastern bias. Maybe because I can’t see anything interesting from modern Iran. Maybe because Carlos Queiroz had to bring Japan (which he referred as “Iran”) and Korea to angrily defend himself.

 

Korea

Heh, just like Japan in 2010 – terrible warm ups, surprising World Cup result. The difference is, this is the first time Korea failed to win its first World Cup match since 1998 (wow!). And they were close to win it. Can we have Kim Seung-gyu on goal for second match, please? He’s not much better, but still better than Jung.

Londoners, meanwhile, make another joke on Park Chu-young, who completed only 55% of his passes. Of course, the bigger jokes fell on Fabio Capello. Which is a good news – if Russia are England 2014, then the Koreans are USA 2014. 2-2 draw with Belgium and 1-0 victory against Algeria. Yippee.

Global media are obliged to show more pictures of Korean supporters. Don't everyone love Asian women?

Global media are obliged to show more pictures of Korean supporters. Don’t everyone love Asian women?

PS: Meanwhile, the Chinese do their own football in a series of friendlies: back to back against Macedonia and against Mali. Rich and strong China can’t pay Serbia or Tunisia to come, heh.

Er, shorts and cans of beer at midnight are bad for your health

Er, shorts and cans of beer at midnight are bad for your health

 

Dreams and Realities

SY couldn't contain his joy.

SY couldn’t contain his joy.

Ah January. The snow is…piling. Great time to return to the pitch to play some football.

December was pretty a bummer time to watch football. There were only several things around – the FIFA Club World Cup, final stages of Japan’s Emperor’s Cup, a couple of football matches every week during the Christmas holiday, the A-League…that’s all. But comes January, and you have great football playing in Germany and Netherlands, not to mention the unofficial Indonesian league. Yippie, football returns!

And the (English) transfer window news has been characteristically silent, since it’s not 31st January yet. I heard that Japanese tabloids were excited about Keisuke Honda moving to Liverpool or La Liga or Serie A. I’m still conflicted by the moral question of it is ethical to wish that by 1st February he wears a red Warrior shirt.

The biggest problem is, suddenly England seems not to be a great place for East Asian players anymore. And yeah, that’s because of Kagawa factor. He’s not under the scrutiny of Red Devils fans in the way that de Gea, Valencia, Nani, or even Young does. But his return in December did not mean that he’s become Diet Rooney. He passed and created chances, but I think it’s fair to ask him to score goals. Seeing how it’s fashionable especially in the last decade to make fun of English defenders, I’m wondering what makes mid-table English defenders and holding midfielders seem to be tougher than the supposedly bigger German defenders who Kagawa outwitted in the last season.

Are EPL defenders are simply not English? Are they faster, smarter, quicker and more disciplined? Are the goalkeepers swifter and have better reactions? After several occasions starting behind van Persie or manning the wing, tonight he returns to the bench. So does van Persie, but certainly, he is still an expendable player.

My worry about Kagawa is influenced by three Koreans. First is Ki Sung-yong/Sung-yueng. He fits in as Swansea’s center and saw them into the League Cup Final. But yeah, he’s too slow. Both Ki and Kagawa make great passes and you can see them trying hard to avoid mistakes. But here – when it comes to Team Korea and Team Japan, who will score? Who will penetrate the box and leave the defenders behind?

The second Korean is Park Ji-sung. He also returned in December and as you can see tonight, QPR is also in deep crisis. And throughout this season he’s been a disappointment as an EPL veteran, it’s an uproar that cable channel Arirang put him as one of 2012 Newsmakers just so they could put in Park Jong-woo (Korean footballer who should be mentioned, of course, was Jung Sung-ryong).

Third Korean is Ji Dong-won. He’s quit England and is now helping Augsburg in Germany trying to avoid relegation, playing with Koo Ja-cheol. The hero of Asian Cup and Olympics failed to fit in England.

And the Japanese is Ryo Miyaichi. Heck, even one can also put in Tadanari Lee.

Compared to them, Shinji Kagawa still makes it in England. And now ironically so does Maya Yoshida. But as I’m watching various Japanese players in Bundesliga and Eredivisie, I’m less optimistic that they could play in England, and wondering if Germany is the best spot they could achieve. Actually the most promising one is Takashi Inui. With his five goals for Frankfurt, now the supposedly plucky team are fighting for a 2013-14 UCL spot. Hajime Hosogai is also okay at Leverkusen, although he’s also cannot compete in the EPL at this level.

2013 is already marked with an irony – the supposed setting of J. League is countered with the abundance of Japanese players in Bundesliga (Kim Bo-kyung, one of the best midfielders in English Championship, is also a J. League graduate), while the supposed rise of Chinese Super League still doesn’t mean anything for Chinese footballers. It even doesn’t mean anything for both Drogba and Anelka.

The Tigers and the Hello Kitty

We’re so 2014, Godzilla is so 1990 and late

2012 season is over for Japan and Korea.

Wah.

So, how did they go? The easy answer is of course – so-so. Still, Olympics semi-finalists and still the big boys on the block. But the feeling can be more complicated if you are an Australian supporter. With the failure to qualify for Brazil 14 still a good possibility (Japan, however, are there to give a hand), Australia will still relish tonight’s victory over a K-League Korean team, with the scorer, Rukavytsya and Cornthwaite (yep, needed some effort to spell their names) are under 30 years old. It’s been a very tough year for them, having failed to qualify for the Olympics and coping with life after…um…Harry Kewell and John Aloisi?

And Japan was close to get another bad verdict from me. First, was quite in bad mood after all chance to get a 2010-11 Japan jersey (the one worn by Honda in Qatar and Sawa in Germany) was closed. Should I order that gorgeous blue pajamas, although with it Japan failed to win an Olympic gold? Why it’s so hard to find Adidas stuff related to Blue Samurai around? And of course, Japan looked horrible in the second half away match against Oman – Yoshida played as bad as he is in Southampton these days and Honda seemed too tired to direct any build up.

Add that with the typical minimalist presentation by ESPN Asia/Star Sports – a pair of British with bland and pointless (as in having a point can offend anyone and they are told not to do that) comments and I have no chance to see them during half time and full time. As if I was watching an illegal video streaming or watching a pirated DVD – no extra and no perk of cover sheets.

So, Yasuhito Endo, 32 years old, 122 games for Japan (Steven Gerrard. Meh), leaped and aligned the ball toward the center, passing Ali al Habsi who anticipated his shot. Okazaki drove it home and for the next three minutes the stadium went silent. Cheerful Japanese girls lifted up a Hello Kitty float. Hello Kitty! Where else you can see it in a football stadium? Japan are yet to go to Brazil, but they will not finish the group in rank 4 or 5 for sure. And putting Australia in rank 2 with better goal difference to Oman (0 to -3, actually). I ended up ordering a scarf and a ‘Japan Soccer’ long sleeve.

Last Saturday, the Ulsan Munsu stadium featured a tiger that really looks like a menacing tiger, not the cutesy one like the Seoul Olympics mascot. Al Ahli supporters strengthened their players’ hearts with a cardboard saying something about Allah, but at full time, it was Kim Shin-wook and several other Koreans who kneed and raised their hands into the air, praising Jesus. Korea have won the Asian Champions League again and Ulsan will look forward to pummel the champions of Japan next month – Hiroshima, Sendai, Urawa, or Nagoya.

That Ulsan tiger must be menacing. But Japanese supporters should employ that Hello Kitty float more often – it will become the terror from the East. Really East, the place where the sun rises. Except when facing Korea, the message will be like this – I can be less manly and acts cutesy and I still kick your ass.

Chill down

Never mind Kagawa, here’s your Asian striker.

In other words, because Kagawa isn’t around.
Well, that’s not very fair, is it? Ulsan Hyundai qualify to the AFC Champions League final, the fourth in the row for K-League teams, Keisuke Honda’s kicking around in Russia, and Manchester City is interested to give Hideki Ishige a training run.

But it’s another calm weekend for Asian football. Certainly Shinji Kagawa is the focal point of Asian representation in world football, just like Jeremy Lin does in basketball. And yeah, it’s making me nervous if he does play – worried that he would play badly. Again, that’s not very fair considering that he has scored two goals and several assists in England and Europe, better than Rooney and Welbeck. But while many in Japan overhype him (as usual with any Asian sporting star), many others want to see him fails to make impression in Manchester United, and not only in Europe. Perhaps some of them are also in Asia. They have no problem with a Turk, or Barbadian, or an Congolese, but many people in this world still think that an East Asian doesn’t belong on the pitch. Of course, no one thinks that Ali al-Habsi or Sanharib Malki is doing what he’s not supposed to do.

Sadly, there’s not much replacement could stand in for Kagawa. Whether he plays or not, these days it’s hard to admire Park Ji-sung as the captain of Queen’s Park Rangers (although QPR is probably the only team in Europe to feature players from all confederations, thanks to him, Ryan Nelsen, and Junior Hoillet). The worse thing I can do is to watch Southampton – Maya Yoshida is tumbling and fumbling once more week after week, and Tadanari Lee is never around, not even on the bench (please choose him over Emmanuel Mayuka. Please).

Of course, I am envious of the Belgians – five years ago they were the jokes of Europe, now their players are sought after even perhaps more than the Dutch. Five years ago, Japan and South Korea could handle them. A fate that Kagawa has is that he’s seen as the poor replacement to Eden Hazard. Of course, if you think about it, at least the Japanese and the Koreans are not Australians. Yeah I know, I’m thinking about Koo Ja-cheol rather than Ryo Miyaichi when trying to compare them with Kofi Danning.

…and another thing

First, of course the best news this week is Ulsan Hyundai. I’ve taken the fact that a Korean team will play in the ACL final for granted and it happens again. Yeah it’s good luck, but in any year there’s must be one Korean team that have the guts, the tradition, the determination, and the skill to get forward. Japan qualified three teams to the playoff round and none of them had enough of those requirements. Seongnam, in short, was just out money just like Bunyodkor were, but even the glamour-less Uzbeks still could overcome Adelaide United.

The ACL 2012 were full of unfulfilled fairy tales, it wasn’t UEFA Champions League 2003-04 (final: Porto versus Monaco). No Guangzhou, no ‘wild card’ Adelaide, and Ulsan dispatched Al Hilal too easily. In the end, it was the battle of giants (also Al Ahli were also supposed the third rank team behind Hilal and Ittihad). So what makes Ulsan great? Simply Kim Young-kwang, a cultish goalkeeper, and the ex Gamba Osaka duo of Rafinha and Lee Keun-ho. There’s one in the list of reasons of Gamba’s sudden decline.

Their midfielders are not famous, while defenders Kang Min-soo and Kwak Tae-hwi can be as clumsy as Manchester United defenders (evident in the first half of last mid-week match against Bunyodkor). But I’ve taken another assumption for granted – AFC representatives will become the third best team in the FIFA Club World Cup. They can still take on African and CONCACAF champions anytime.

….suddenly I wonder if J. League disinterest with the ACL is also related to the fact that it only needs to win the J. League to qualify for the Club World Cup. Then again, I don’t want the CWC to be hosted in the Gulf.

When Saturday Comes

Where do you go? I wanna know.

So excited I was with the Olympics that I forgot that J. League and K-League were going on. In fact, K-League was done. Regular season wise. So now, on to the playoff round where Seongnam will beat everyone before losing in the final, and with Daegu and Gangwon having a break?

Not quite. This year the afterlife of K-League season introduces several changes – first like in Russia, there’s Championship Round and Relegation Round. Yes, finally there’s something called Relegation. There’s no such thing in USA but now it’s there in Korea. The name of the hell is Korea National League, coming soon in 2013. The name of heaven is ACL Champions League. Not a name to be associated with heaven, but let’s hope Korean clubs will win it again and again.

And Seongnam will not contest an ACL spot. With Seoul and Qatari clubs poaching their Colombians, Aussies, and Brazilians, they sit at number 10 below Daegu. No, not via FA Cup either – they lost to Ulsan at the 1/8 final. So if now you’re an aspiring Korean footballer and you want to become big, you have better options than Ilhwa Chunma. Good for Korea.

While the eight clubs (two more clubs than previous editions) will contest three Asian spots (four of them – Pohang, Gyeongnam, Jeju, and Ulsan have the KFA Cup backup) have time to rest until mid-September, national coaches around Asia are already preparing for the Brazil 14 Qualifiers, also held in mid-September. Next Thursday Japan will face UAE and Australia take an away trip to Lebanon. Korea will skip the friendlies, but already making headlines in the in brief section for recruiting Park Jong-Woo, probably now the most hated South Korean in Japan, into the roster for the match against Uzbekistan.

On the other hand, Al Zaccheroni have also made up his mind. He will not include Ryo Miyaichi and Hisato Sato. The former is “not having match fitness” while the latter, now the top scorer of J. League, would mean a change to the lineup, and Al Z is not interested with any change. Surely he can at least trade his place with say, Ryoichi Maeda or at least Genki?

At least, when Saturday comes, the world will see Shinji Kagawa playing again (Sunday actually). For his third match, and last weekend all Japanese was in relief – he didn’t embarrass. In fact now he’s seen as one of the best assets for Manchester United, besides van Persie. He’s not, groan, a ‘shirt seller for Far East market’ anymore. He’s the incarnation of Tsubasa Oroza, the number 10. Since Wayne Rooney has to play for number 10 and 9 roles for both Manchester United and England.

And so, now it’s back to leagues watch for me – tracking down European clubs where Japanese and Korean players are. There are dozens of them now, ten years after the post-Korea/Japan boom launched Takahara, Shunsuke, Seol, and Ji-sung to Germany, Italy, Belgium, and Netherlands. And in the past weeks, I did lose track. Week 1 was pretty sad, seeing Kagawa failed to pass Everton’s defense and looking for Ki Sung-yeung in Celtic’s lineup.

Now here’s a summary of how Japanese and Korean players in Europe are doing:

  • Eiji Kawashima (Standard Liege) – the move upward after Lierse. He has conceded six goals, as much as Club Brugge’s Vladan Kujovic, but worse than Belgium’s national keeper Silvio Proto (just one goal gap), and Gent’s Sergio Padt. Fortunately, his team mates are apt in scoring goals.
  • Yuto Nagatomo (Inter) – He didn’t come to Indonesia few months ago, unfortunately, because he had to mark Tim Cahill and Mark Bresciano. After a gloomy season, Inter are off to a good start against Pescara, where he played 90 minutes at the left back. Since the retirement of Lee Young-pyo, Korea are yet to produce his opposite.
  • Park Jo-hoo (Basel) – finally he’s a Red Devil once more. Integral to the defense of Basel, unfortunately last year’s surprise pack of the UCL fell down to CF Cluj, so no more sightings of him on Wednesday nights.
  • Maya Yoshida (VVV Venlo) – the very manly Maya, probably a successor to Marcus Tulio in terms of being an enforcer and a corner kick bulldog, is yet to move a better club. Even in VVV he’s competing with Ismo Vostermann for right center back. At least he has better chance of being a starter than Robert Cullen. UPDATE: Now Yoshida’s with Southampton. He might face Kagawa on Sunday.
  • Gotoku Sakai (Stuttgart) – yet to play for his new club.
  • Hiroki Sakai (Hannover) – ditto.
  • Makoto Hasebe (Wolfsburg) – A real tough competition in Wolfsburg, since the slots for defending midfielders are taken by Robin Knoche and international player Marcel Schafer. Iranian winger Ashkan Degajah has better chance to be in the Starting 11. Even in the subs list, Hasebe’s current rank is below Czech’s Jan Polak. Even by Christmas he could be in the transfer market.
  • Hajime Hosogai (Leverkusen) – at least this pretty German-looking guy is on the bench, covering for Simon Rolfes or Lars Bender. The bad news is on the bench there’s also Junior Fernandez from Chile.
  • Keisuke Honda (CSKA) – Back to the tough neighborhood that is the Russian League and he’s comfortable at the left midfield, already scoring two goals from six appearances.
  • Kim Bo-kyung (Cardiff) – Damn, and I had had made of fun of Cardiff :p. Has yet to play for the Red Bluebirds Dragons.
  • Koo Ja-cheol (Augsburg) – another year to survive the Bundesliga. The left wing is his. Last week he duelled against Robbie Kruse from Dusseldorf and both of them were substituted.
  • Ki Sung-yeung (Swansea) – there you are, I was looking for you in Celtic. Is expected to replace Jonathan de Guzman, and has to match Michu’s standard.
  • Lee Chung-yong (Bolton) – Welcome back Chungy. Rumors of transfer to the Premier League is counterbalanced for feeling of grateful for a club that nurtured him (and also Stuart Holden) during the long injury and comfortable starting place.
  • Shinji Okazaki (Stuttgart) – Last year he could hold the competitors – Martin Harnik and Vedad Ibisevic. This season he expects to sit on the bench much longer, next to Cacau.
  • Shinji Kagawa (Manchester United) – top of the world.
  • Mike Havenaar (Vitesse) – If Bony doesn’t deliver, then he’s off for the job, but he’s yet to save the day.
  • Park Chu-young (Celta Vigo) – That’s it, I don’t have to tune in for Arsenal anymore. Tipped to be the successor of van Persie, competing with Gervinho & Theo Walcott, Chu-young moves instead to somewhere nearer Monaco. No what? He’s Arsenal reserve no 30? Possible moves to Fulham or Norwich? But Berbatov also cancels Fiorentina for Fulham? So what’s his club now? Which one I should see? Ah well, at this rate he might play for Sangju Sangmu Phoenix.

And please keep these names in your pray:

Besides the regular intention for Takayuki Morimoto, also pray for Ryo Miyaichi, Atsuto Uchida, Michihiro Yasuda, Cha Du-ri, Tadanari Lee (esp. now he’s lost his love to pretty old man Gackt), Takashi Inui, Ji Dong-won, and Son Heung-min. Jesus loves you, said the Korean players.