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Catch-up on Europe
As Simple as Getting a Goal

Hamburg SV 2-0 Borussia MG

The way Hamburg celebrate a victory after the final whistle blows, especially at home, is the one refreshing thing about the team. (Personally, no offense to Hamburg fans, I don't think their football is particularly good or fun to watch.) But that bopping up and down in a circle after the game, the way the mascot (a dopey looking blue dragon) joins in, the way a player or two does the can-can inside the circle, the line performance in front of the supporter section, the way the supporters are invited into their merriment -- that's fun to watch.

But this weekend, after Naohiro Takahara got his first goal of the season, it was truly good to watch. After eight long long months of physical and psychological...what? limbo? constipation? Takahara finally got his goal. And when Barbarez slung Takahara over his shoulder to hang him upside down along his back and jump up and down, it was reassuring to see that Takahara has at least some support among his teammates, people who can be happy for him.

This was yet another entrance in the last ten minutes of the game -- Takahara has played in 18 games, 5 of which he has only had 10 minutes or less to play. In injury time, he lightly controlled the trap off a fast through pass from Trochowski while on the run, and flicked the ball to avoid the oncoming goalie's body to bounce into an empty goal. Though the local German papers had diagnosed his troubles as a panic-related weakness in front of goal, at least with this goal he proved it isn't necessarily always true.

Hamburg of course are just universally in high spirits because they are creeping closer to first place Bayern, now with only a 4 point difference. For Takahara, the important thing is to try and get as much time to play, and of course get goals. His position on the National Team I can almost predict is secure, so it's more a matter of how he can prepare himself for June.

Some of the Thunder

Celtic 1-0 Hearts

The win over second placed Hearts at home was a perfect way to get the league championships. Celtic fans have been waiting for this moment all season, and the club's wide lead in points after Rangers sort of fell apart meant the expectations for an early securing of the title were extremely high.

The game itself was not great football; but it was certainly a fight. It was the first time a network tv station (terrestrial freely broadcast channel) showed a Celtic game (albeit it was like four in the morning), and I would have liked the game to contain attractive football to show Celtic's fluidity and speed of their passing style to the people watching a Celtic game for the first time. But it was completely another game.

Shunsuke Nakamura tried to settle the game down but it was just not going to happen, and he looked less and less relevant as the minutes ticked by. Luckily for Celtic, they got an early goal in the first half from Hartson. Nakamura was substituted out early (though disappointing, I agreed this was the best choice), and Celtic ended the game with arms in the air and celebrations.

Celtic 4-1 Kilmarnock

Now with the league title firmly in their arms so early, the rest of the season would be about entertaining the fans and maintaining a performance worthy of champions. So against Kilmarnock in the following round, it was important for Celtic to do these things as well as experimenting with new ideas on attack, being more creative.

Shunsuke Nakamura was terribly disappointed after the Hearts game that he had been so ineffective, and it was important for him to reassert his value in the team. So his two goals against Kilmarnock were very nice follow-throughs after the dissatisfaction he expressed in the previous game.

The first goal was a Nakamura free kick from the right side of the box: >>right-click download video clip As perfect as you can hope for.

The second goal was a persistent and creative team effort that involved probably half the team as it ended with a Maloney through pass to Dublin who heel-tapped it square for Nakamura to pick up. Shunsuke's first touch looked like it would be a shot, so a defender slid in front to block, but Shunsuke's left foot tapped it right to adjust once again and from there he took his shot not to the wider right of goalie but to the left side. The whole sequence was really lovely. >>right click download for goal clip Shunsuke was also involved in the 2-0 goal when he one-touched to allow Maloney through for a cross to Hartson for goal. Though the scoreline looks like Celtic overwhelmed Kilmarnock, it was actually a pretty iffy game for Celtic, with several great passing sequences and opportunities for the Kilmarnock side and some awful errors from Celtic's defense.

There has been some speculation in the press about whether Nakamura will remain at Celtic for another season or not. The Celtic suits have said that they consider Nakamura a crucial part of Celtic, that he has already "become a legend" and that they would do everything they could to make him stay, no matter what kind of offer comes to them from other clubs. Nakamura seems to have found a team that appreciates his style, but the likelihood is that he will want to make his dreams of playing in the Spanish league come true while he is still relatively young enough to play like he wants to. Right now rumors are that three or four Spanish clubs are keen, but as we have seen in past seasons with various players, it's not always as easy as one player's dreams. And just because he goes to a Spanish club does not mean that club is the right fit for him. And of course at Celtic there is the lure of the Champions League and the knowledge that boss Strachan is eager to play a fluid stylish game. The only problem is that though Celtic are obviously a solid team with a champions mentality, the opponents hold less in appeal. In Spain, Nakamura may end up in a relatively weaker team, but he is also keen to play among opponents that reflect some of his ideals style-wise.

This season at Celtic has been I think valuable for Nakamura. Being at a strong club among many internationals, there has been a lot of competition within the team. Nakamura has had to fight to win starting position, and that forced him to become flexible in the way he can contribute to the team, more rounded.

Hide's Future

People love speculating about Hidetoshi Nakata's future. Last week gossipers dished on Nakata's comment in which he mentioned this being his "last World Cup" and his plans for his post-football life. More currently, the problem is at Bolton, where he has not been playing regularly (I read somewhere that he has played 24 minutes total in the past 6 games), and last week was left off the team roster altogether for the away game against Liverpool - in local press read as an indication of how each player ranks in the manager's mind. Instead, Hide voluntarily went to the reserve league to play a game there in order to maintain fitness. Bolton seem to be 99% uninterested in keeping Nakata for next season.

Manager Allardyce stated that he will make no exception and that no player will be allowed to leave the team early to join the national team training ahead of the World Cup.
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