Sunday, 1 July 2012

Agent Orange: Keigo, Kim and the King of Saitama

Off the field, I think it's fair to say that Omiya has been one of the more intriguing teams of the week. With new manager Zdenko Verdenik trying to stamp his mark onto the team, it was inevitable that some guys would be leaving and two important players in the Jun Suzuki regime are all but out the door. A third was due to be gone more temporarily and for a happier cause, but now that (luckily for our league chances) looks not to be the case. Diving in...

1. London Calling... And Hanging Up

Tomorrow is final cut day for the Japan U23 Olympic squad. I hate to spoil it for you but Keigo Higashi isn't going to be on it. The number 10 for the young Blue Samurai was a critical player in the team's qualification campaign and ended up as co-leader in scoring. Unfortunately for the young midfielder, he plays in a position in which Japan has an embarrassment of riches. More crucially, he then slumped at a time when he needed to be at his best.

With the foreign-based and more popular domestic choices at coach Takashi Sekizuka's disposal, it was always going to be hard for Higashi to claim one of the eighteen spots. To be fair, guys like Genki Haraguchi, Manabu Saito and Kota Mizunuma (while contributing far less to qualification) have been in better league form and Takashi Usami pretty much claimed his spot at Toulon - a tournament where players were competing against each other as well as other teams. 

It would have been great to see an Omiya player represent Japan in a major tournament but the good news is that we will have the playmaker around to integrate into Verdenik's system, along with possibly two new foreign signings. A little cold but ultimately fair.

2. Kim Young Gone

It's a little hard to fairly judge the year and a half we saw of Kim Young Gwon. On the one hand, he had all the tools to be a very good center back. Getting into the Korean National Team is not an easy achievement, and Young Gwon was quickly becoming a fixture in both their U23 and senior squads. Relatively fast, big, not bad in the air, Young Gwon showed flashes of really good play.

The problem was that he never seemed to mesh with any of the other choices at centerback. During 2011, he paired up with Shusuke Tsubouchi, Yuki Fukaya and Yosuke Kataoka before eventually being pushed out to left side back. This year he had the same troubles consistently partnering with Kosuke Kikuchi. At times he was badly out of position and his decision-making was suspect.

Kim had the potential to be the best foreigner in a fairly good line of centerbacks and he failed. It's off to the big dollars and physical play of Guangzhou Evergrande and I wish the kid luck. It's kind of a shame that the last impression he leaves is a flailing substitute performance in which the team yielded a three-goal lead to relegation-threatened Albirex Niigata.

3. Shift Change

Rafael was really an afterthought when he was signed from Tombense. The first we saw of him was a Youtube video containing his finest moments for second division Turkish side Bursapor. The big Omiya signing at that time was supposed to be K-League legend Dudu, a guy with a good scoring record and a hairdo straight out of a horror movie. Dudu turned out to be one of Ardija's greatest mistakes and ultimately a tragic story, Rafael (in my opinion) turned out to be one of the team's best signings. 

From his first appearance on the field, the lanky Brazilian showed flashes of skill that we hadn't seen since Bare left the squad. On his debut Rafael helped force an own goal in a game against Jubilo Iwata to earn a much-needed point for a sagging squad. His greatest moment in his debut year would come some weeks later, though, when Rafael scored a brace against crosstown rivals Urawa Reds in a 3-0 drubbing. He would go on to score the team's 100th J1 goal as well as being the first Omiya player to notch double figures in scoring in a season. He also goes out as the squad's all-time leading J1 scorer.

It's been very common this season to pile on the shortcomings of Rafael. He's slow. He's a bad finisher. He doesn't score enough. He's overpaid. This season it's been hard to argue that he has been good, because on most days he hasn't. However, he was the most important and best player for almost three years and he could change the flow of a game with one play.

A lot of people have argued that Naoki Ishihara should have been kept over Rafael. To this I'd say two things:

1. I remember those times in 2009 and 2010 when Ishihara was the lone option. He failed at the role. Nobody was really all that high on Naoki in 2009 before Rafael came along - and 2010 was a disaster during the eight or nine games Rafael was out due to injury.

2. It never should have been a choice between the two. Ishihara and Rafael complemented each other well. If I had to choose, I'd still choose Rafael but I'd want both.

The thing that will stand out most for me is the seven goals in six games he put up against the hated Reds. Rafael always performed in our two biggest games of the season. Last year, when we could have been in relegation trouble, he scored the lone goal to put some distance between us and Urawa. They booed and jeered and he loved it. Rafael owned the Saitama Derby and he'll always be one of my favorite Omiya players.

Last night against Shimizu S-Pulse was a nice way to say goodbye. Coming on in the 55th minute, he added a spark to a squad that had no answers on offense. At times he looked gimpy, being outrun by the giant Dutch centerback Calvin Jong a Pin on a few occasions, but he was always a threat. In stoppage time he threaded a nice through ball to Daigo Watanabe, who shook off a challenge and put a bullet through the legs of Akihiro Hayashi. Like the 2012 version of Rafael, the ball rolled at a slow and painful pace towards the goal before inching in. A hard-fought victory and a fitting way for the King of Saitama to exit the stage.

Obrigado to our friend and good luck at Botafogo.



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