Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Nagoya flex their muscles

Nagoya Grampus have taken a massive step towards their first ever title after demolishing fellow contender Shimizu S-Pulse on the weekend.

It was just one of a number of shock results across the league that has had a big impact on the Championship aspirations of a number of clubs.

In Shizuoka it was shaping up as a titanic battle.

Nagoya, who dropped points last week were up against a fellow contender with critics, who dismiss their title credentials given their relatively poor form against fellow “big” sides, ready to pounce on another slip up.

Shimizu were looking to get their title challenge back on track and what better time to do it than against the league leaders.

And they were looking on track when Takuma Edamura struck just after half time to put the home side ahead.

But they weren’t prepared for what happened next. Four goals in 20 minutes, including a hattrick to Keiji Tamada blew S-Pulse out of the water. To make things worse Keisuke Iwashita was also shown a straight red card, leaving S-Pulse to play out the last 20-odd minutes with only 10-men.

Josh Kennedy, who hadn’t scored since August 22, completed his brace in the 83rd minute to again put him clear at the top of the goalscoring charts with 13.

The 1-5 loss put a dagger through S-Pulse’s title hopes, leaving them 10 points adrift of Nagoya and with only one win in their last seven. If they don’t rediscover their early season form they won’t even qualify for the AFC Champions League.

Meanwhile at Saitama Stadium, Urawa Reds hosted fellow midtable side Albirex Niigata. Both sides were in desperate need of a win to maintain their respective hopes of finishing in the top three.

Urawa have started to discover some form in the last few weeks and were confident of taking their first home win since May, whilst Niigata were looking to arrest a three-game winless streak.

Urawa were dealt a blow early when young defender Matthew Spiranovic went off injured, with reports after the game confirming a hamstring injury that will see the defender sidelined for 8 weeks.

Neither side managed any real clear cut chances in the first half, but with half time looming Yosuke Kashiwagi struck with a beautiful shot from outside the box into the top corner to give Urawa the advantage.

The second half was a mirror of the first, with both sides struggling to create any real opportunities and it was from a scrap in the box that saw Urawa score their second to seal the game in the 81st minute.

The win lifts Urawa up the 8th on equal points with Niigata and with a sniff of achieving an unlikely top five finish.

In a mouthwatering clash at the Todoroki Stadium, Kawasaki Frontale hosted Gamba Osaka who had snuck up on the rest of the competition to sit in fourth before the weekend’s action.

Akira Nishino’s side had started the season slowly, but their form over the last 2 months has seen them gradually climb up the table to the point where they are now a genuine chance for the title.

It was the Osaka outfit who started the brightest and they should have taken the lead in the 9th minute when Takashi Usami rounded the keeper only to see his shot bounce back off the post.

They wouldn’t have to wait long for the opening goal, however, as Sota Nakazawa rose above Takashi Aizwaa to head home from the goal line.

Kawasaki were quickly back on level terms though after a neat finish from Masaru Kurotsu. It was Route 1 football from Kawasaki, but Kurotsu’s pace saw him race past the Gamba defence to slot home the equaliser.

Were it not for a heavy first touch from Vitor Junior Kawasaki would’ve taken the lead on 31 minutes, but his first touch took him wide and made it easy for the keeper.

On the verge of half time Usami missed a golden chance to seal his brace when the ball fell to him on the edge of the box with Aizawa out of position, but he could only sky his shot and the sides went into the break at 1-1.

Both sides created plenty of chances in the second half, but neither side could find the killer finish. That was until Brazilian striker Lucas received the ball 30 yards out in the 86th minute.

Without too much thought he turned to face goal and let rip with a stunning long range effort that cannoned into the back of the net.

That was enough for Gamba to hold on to a 2-1 lead which sees them replace cross town rivals Cerezo in third spot, which will delight the Gamba faithful.

Elsewhere over the weekend Yokohama F.Marinos were left to rue plenty of missed chances as they suffered a shock loss at home to relegation threatened Vegalta Sendai; FC Tokyo slipped further down after another home loss, this time to Omiya Ardija. The capital outfit now sit inside the relegation zone and are a genuine chance of being relegated.

Cerezo Osaka showed their first signs of slipping with a 0-0 draw with Vissel Kobe after losing a thriller in the Osaka Derby last week. These dropped points could come back to bite them at the end of the season, something with Cerezo fans know all too well.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima held Kashima Antlers to a 1-1 draw at home, Montedio Yamagata and Shonan Bellmare also finished 1-1, a result that doesn’t do any side any favours as they fight for survival.

And finally, Jubilo Iwata probably sealed their survival with a 0-1 away win at Kyoto Sanga who look destined to be relegated to J2 for the first time since 2007.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Why I support...

In our latest edition of 'Why I support...' we catch up with Brett from Melbourne, who has developed a love for Yokohama F. Marinos over the last few years.

This is his story:

I married my wife back in '95. She was the youngest of 4 children, and the only girl of the siblings. Her youngest brother in that year went to Japan to teach English in secondary school and has lived there ever since. In 2000 he settled in Yokohama.

Yokohama F. Marinos fans against Shimizu S-Pulse
in 2008 - Brett's only time he's seen Yokohama live
Back home in Australia, after enjoying the football matches held at the MCG during the 2000 Olympics, come 2005 we started to give the then new A-League a go and followed this upstart team, Melbourne Victory. We weren't members that season, and the team finished second last that season. I felt we needed to support them, so in mid 2006 the whole family became members. 

Fast forward to 2007, and my brother-in-law's daughter (our niece) was graduating the secondary school that she was attending in Yokohama. The school was an American run international school, so graduation was the full cape and gown affair like we see in every college movie. Well, my wife, 7 year old son, and I decide we would embark on our first international trip to Japan to see her graduate.

We had already known from our previous viewing of the 2002 World Cup, that football was big in Japan. However, prior to our trip we didn't really relate to any team over there. As we based ourselves out of Yokohama for this trip, we learnt about the two teams in Yokohama: Yokohama F. Marinos and Yokohama FC. 

This quick Wikipedia summary gives you a bit of background between the two teams:
'In 1991, Yokohama F. Marinos was one of the founding members of the J. League. In 1998, after losing one of their primary sponsors, it was announced that crosstown rivals Yokohama Flügels would merge with Marinos. Since then, an F was added to the name to represent the Flügels half of the club. Many Flügels fans rejected the merger, rather believing their club to have been dissolved into Marinos. As a result, they refused to follow F. Marinos and instead created Yokohama FC, F. Marinos' new crosstown rivals.'

Unfortunately, at that time the J-League was in it's summer break and we missed seeing both of them at any game in Yokohama.

Yokohama F. Marinos during a weekday
training session in 2007

However the reclaimed dock areas of central Yokohama have in the last 15 years been transformed in the Minato Mirai 21 urban area. Along with a vast shopping/business/recreation area, Minato Mirai 21 is the home facilities of Yokohama F. Marinos.
This facility contains all administrative, training, and marketing departments for the club. Well, if we couldn't see a game, we would stop by the club shop to get a souvenir or two. As it turns out their club shop over looks their training facility, and the Marinos were in a practice match at that time. 

After purchasing some F. Marinos souvenirs and trying our best to speak Japanese to the sales assistants, we learnt that their training sessions are open to the public to watch. Along one side of their #1 training pitch, is a basic, but modern 2000 seat stand for fans to watch.

Yokohama F. Marinos training facility as viewed
from Landmark Tower in Yokohama (2007)

So that afternoon  we got to sit in the stand with about 250 other F. Marinos supporters to see the squad play some football. Unfortunately for that trip to Japan, that was the only time I saw them, and we thought it would be years before I get to see them play again...

... 10 months later the family is back in Japan again!

Why did we come back to Japan so quickly?
Our home team Melbourne Victory decimated the A-League season of 2006-07, winning both the Premiership (top of the league) and the Grand Final that season. This earned them a spot in the AFC Champions League for 2008.
So after discovering Victory's group stage draw brought them up against Gamba Osaka (The eventual AFC Champions of 2008), it was an unanimous family vote to head back to Japan to support our team on a 9000 km away trip.

But this time, we got my brother-in-law to get tickets to a Yokohama F. Marinos game at their home ground, 'The NISSAN' - the stadium of the 2002 World Cup final. It was our first J-League match and loved it. The crowd, the singing, and the international spoken football language of "WHAT FOR?!?!" to the ref. Yep, Yokohama F. Marinos become our Japanese home team.

Brett's son with enthusiastic Gamba Osaka fans
during their clash with Melbourne Victory in the 2008 ACL
Later that week, we travelled from Yokohama via shinkansen to Osaka to meet up with fellow Victory, A-League, and Australia football supporters to stand in the wet terraces of Gamaba Osaka's home ground at Expo'70 Stadium.
We sang, we joked, we abused the ref, but while the result didn't go our way that night, the team appreciated our efforts in making the journey to support them.
When leaving the stadium we all mingled with the Osaka supporters. Like that Mastercard television advert of a few years ago, we spent about 45 minutes after the game swapping scarfs, caps and anything we had that was Melbourne Victory with the Gamba supporters, as well as getting picture together.
It truly was a case of Football bringing people together. An evening we would never forget.

After this trip, we are J-League fans for life.

In 2011 the Victory will once again travel to Japan to compete in the AFC Champions League. I'll be back there again. Go Victory! Go F. Marinos!

P.S. J.League survival tip - They have beer girls who go up and down the aisles, serving beer in milk shake cups at around 500¥ to 650¥. But if your budget is blown for the night, and you find only 250¥ in change in your pocket, don't panic - they will serve you 250¥ worth of beer. How good is that!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Nagoya look to extend J.League lead

No sooner does one weekend finish than another one starts.

Action from Asia’s premier domestic competition continues this weekend, with a couple of absolute beauties to look forward to.

This, again, is another of those weekends that could help shape the Championship race. By the end of it, one team could have an almost insurmountable lead. Or, the chasing pack may close the gap and the spice up the race for the title.

Whatever plays out, it’s sure to be enthralling viewing.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima vs Vissel Kobe
After a dismal showing last weekend, losing to bottom placed Kyoto Sanga 3-0, Kobe sacked under fire manager Toshiya Miura, replacing him with assistant Masahiro Wada who will become Kobe’s fourth manager in just over a year. Wada had a short stint as caretaker last season before being replaced by Miura.

Tomoaki Makino will lead Sanfrecce's defence
Sanfrecce, by contrast, are a scene of stability. Despite not reaching the heights of last season, when they finished fourth, they have achieved a semi-final berth in the Nabisco Cup for the first time in their history.

They’ll have to play out most of the last 12 games without their key striker Hisato Sato, who is out for two months after undergoing surgery last week for a dislocated shoulder suffered in their Nabisco Cup Quarter Final victory over Gamba Osaka.

They have also struggled to score this season, with Sato having scored a third of their total goals (9 of 26). The defence has been equally stingy and young centre-back Tomoaki Makino has stood out and is creating interest amongst other J.League clubs.

But playing at home, and with Kobe a relative rabble, I expect Sanfrecce to get the job done. Although the “first game syndrome” will see Kobe put up a fight.

Prediction: Sanfrecce Hiroshima 1-0 Vissel Kobe

Jubilo Iwata vs FC Tokyo
What an important game this is for the capital club.

After a lofty finish of fifth last season, they’ve struggled to replicate that form and find themselves fair and square in the middle of a relegation battle. Fellow Tokyo side Tokyo Verdy were relegated at the end of the 2008 season and there are already crosstown jibes of a Tokyo Derby in J2 next season.

FC Tokyo currently sits in 14th spot, two places above the relegation zone, but they do so thanks only to a superior goal difference.

Their last game was a disaster in every sense, losing 0-1 to Urawa at home, but also suffering three injuries to three key players; Hideto Takahashi (out 4-8 weeks), Tatsuya Suzuki (3-4 weeks) and Naotake Hanyu (1-2 weeks).

Iwata enjoyed a confidence boosting 3-2 win over fellow strugglers Shonan Bellmare last week to put a small gap between them and the relegation battle. Another three points here would do wonders for their fight fur J1 survival, and I think they’ll get it.

FC Tokyo are a battered team at the moment, and with three key injuries, I think Jubilo will have enough to get over the capital club and plunge them further into crisis.

Prediction: Jubilo Iwata 2-1 FC Tokyo

Nagoya Grampus vs Yokohama F. Marinos
Make no mistake about it – this is the game of the weekend.

Keiji Tamada will look to continue
his goal scoring form
Nagoya is flying at the top of the table and sits a comfortable seven points clear. But doubts still remain about their title credentials, with critics claiming they struggle in “marquee games”. And there is some merit to that.

In their “marquee” games so far (those being against Gamba Osaka, Yokohama F.Marinos, Urawa Reds, Kashima Antlers, Kawasaki Frontale and Shimizu S-Pulse) they have won four, lost four and drawn one.

This game is their chance to put that record slightly in their favour and no doubt it’s something that Dragan Stojkovic will be making aware to his players. Silence the doubters and maintain, or even extend, their lead at the top. The pressure is on for Urawa.

For Yokohama, it’s all about putting themselves in the mix for a top three place. Realistically their chance for the J.League title has probably passed them by, sitting 10 points behind Nagoya. Although three points here could alter that.

But the focus for them will be on the Asian Champions League, and after two big scalps in their last two games (Albirex Niigata 3-0 and Kawasaki Frontale 2-1), they’ll be out to make it three from three and climb the table even further.

Shunsuka Nakamura will be their key man again. His combination with Koji Yamase has resulted in goals in their last two games, so Nagoya’s defence, lead by Tulio Tanaka, will need to be alert to that.

At the other end of the park, equal leading goal scorer Josh Kennedy will be looking to get back on the scoresheet after going goalless in the last two games.

This is a hard game to pick, there are compelling arguments either way, so I’ll opt for the splinters and tip a draw.

Prediction: Nagoya Grampus 1-1 Yokohama F.Marinos

Kashima Antlers vs Omiya Ardija
Kashima are one of a handful of sides that could benefit if Nagoya do slip up.

Currently they sit in equal second, seven points behind the lead. But it’s been a horror six weeks for the three-time reigning champions, winning only once.

Despite a stirring win last week against Shimizu S-Pulse, however, Omiya Ardija shouldn’t cause too many problems for Kashima.

Ardija will be full of confidence after their result last week, but with Kashima at home I don’t think they can back it up two weeks in a row.

Prediction: Kashima Antlers 2-0 Omiya Ardija

Urawa Reds vs Shimizu S-Pulse
Whilst not quite as big as Nagoya vs Yokohama, this one isn’t far behind.

Urawa's legion of fans will be out
in force again this weekend
S-Pulse have fallen from their lofty position earlier in the season, when they lead the J.League and took all before them. An embarrassing 0-3 loss to Omiya Ardija last weekend saw them slip outside the top three and eight points behind Nagoya. Another loss here could kill their Championship dreams.

Urawa are just playing for pride. Whilst they have a mathematical chance of an ACL spot, they sit too far behind the back to be any realistic chance. Their horror mid-season slump has cost them any chance of success this season.

They have gone some way to rectifying that in the last four weeks, with two wins and two draws. Were it not for a last second equaliser by Kashima, that would be three wins and a draw.

Despite that, immense pressure still rests on the shoulders of manager Volke Finke, with Urawa fans calling for the German to move on at the end of the season.

Despite both sides desperately needing a win, I just can’t see either side picking up all three points.

Prediction: Urawa Reds 2-2 Shimizu S-Pulse

Shonan Bellmare vs Kawasaki Frontale
This one should be a relatively straight forward affair.

Shonan are struggling, sitting bottom of the pile and look like going straight back down to J2.

Kawasaki still have top three aspirations and their potency up front will easily account for Shonan, a team who has shipped 46 goals in just 22 games.

This game is being shown on Setanta Sports at 8:45am on Sunday morning.

Prediction: Shonan Bellmare 0-4 Kawasaki Frontale

Gamba Osaka vs Cerezo Osaka
There are more than just local bragging rights up for grabs in this one.

Cerezo have surprised many this season, their first in J1 since 2006. Whilst the other two promoted sides (Shonan Bellmare and Vegalta Sendai) have struggled, Cerezo has flourished and look on course for a finish in the top three.

They sit in equal second and boast the best defence in the league, having conceded only 19 goals. Their Brazilian striker, Adriano, on loan from Vasco da Gama, has proved a revelation, scoring eight goals in his first season with the club.

On the other side of town, Gamba is starting to make a run for the top three after a slow start to the season.

Their clash earlier this season ended in a 1-1 draw, but on this occasion I think Gamba is going to claim bragging rights. Their attack will be too potent and will breach the Cerezo defence.

Prediction: Gamba Osaka 2-1 Cerezo Osaka

Vegalta Sendai vs Montedio Yamagata
Montedio looked to have survived their second season in J1, although they aren’t completely out of the woods just yet. A few poor results could put them back in the mix for relegation, but they should survive.

Vegalta's hardcore fans
Vegalta, despite vociferous support from their loyal fans, have struggled for results so far this season. They have just the five wins and sit just outside the relegation zone on goal difference only.

Montedio struggle for goals, having only scored 18 so far this season.

If only for the fact they’re at home, I’m tipping Vegalta to take the three points.

Prediction: Vegalta Sendai 2-0 Montedio Yamagata

Albirex Niigata vs Kyoto Sanga
The final game of the weekend sees Niigata at home for the second week running.

Their excellent mid-season run that took them from relegation threatened to a possible ACL spot, however they’ve hit a speedbump in the last two weeks, losing to both Yokohama F.Marinos and Gamba Osaka.

Kyoto, who still look likely to go down, moved themselves off the bottom of the table, albeit on goal difference, courtesy of a 3-0 over Vissel Kobe, their first win since March.

Whilst that will have provided them with a great deal of confidence, travelling to the Big Swan Stadium in Niigata will prove too tough a challenge for them as they look for back-to-back wins.

Albirex will win this one, and with some level of comfort.

Prediction: Albirex Niigata 3-0 Kyoto Sanga

Thursday, September 16, 2010

West Asia dominates ACL Quarter Finals

West Asian teams have dominated the first leg of the AFC Champions League Quarter Finals played overnight.

Only one East Asian team, Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma, managed a win and that was against fellow K-League side Suwon Bluewings.

Seongnam, featuring former Brisbane and Adelaide player Sasa Ognenovski, easily accounted for Suwon at the Tancheon Sports Complex.

Suwon’s recent K-League form has been brilliant and has seen them climb up the table after an awful start to the season. They were on a 9-game unbeaten run which ended last weekend when they were defeated 0-3 at home by league leaders Jeju United.

Seongnam on the other hand, had only won three of their past seven games, although they are sitting third on the table.

Dzenan Rodoncic

They did have a major home ground advantage however, having won 8 of their last 9 home games in the ACL. Ttheir last defeat took place six years ago in 2004 when Saudi side Al-Ittihad defeated them in the second leg of the 2004 AFC Champions League final.

Montenegrin striker Dzenan Radonic struck early to given Seongnam the lead. Colombian Mauricio Molina played Radonic through, who struck with power from the edge of the box. Suwon’s keeper Lee Woon-jae was helpless after the ball took a deflection off defender Kwak Hee-ju.

Just seven minutes later and the scores were level after a superbly taken free kick from dead-ball expert Yeom Ki-hun. Seongnam conceded a free kick just outside the box and Yeom made them pay with a beautiful free kick that curled around the wall and past the outstretched hand keeper Jung Sung-ryeong

The complexion of the game could’ve changed just moments later had Ha Tae-gyun not fluffed his lines. Yeom’s shot from the edge of the box was spilled by Jung, but Ha failed to make the most of the rebound, scuffing his shot into the ground and seeing the ball bounce over the crossbar.

It was a costly miss, with Seongnam taking the lead just ten minutes later. Suwon failed to deal with a floated ball into the box and Kim Cheol-ho pulled the ball back for Molina to knock home his fifth goal of the campaign and send the home side into the break up 2-1.

Seongnam wasted two golden opportunities to extend the lead on the hour mark, first through Radonic and then through Song Ho-young. Radonic made amends minutes later when he headed home a delightful cross Hong Chukl.

Suwon further compounded their problems when Yang Sang-min put the ball into his own net with just 10 minutes remaining.

They’ll need a monumental effort in the return leg to overcome the 4-1 deficit.

Fellow K-League side, and winner of the 2006 AFC Champions League, Jeonbuk Motors are all but out of the competition after losing 0-2 at home to Saudi side Al-Shabab.

This quarter finals appearance was Jeonbuk’s fourth in their history, joining Al-Ittihad as the only side to have played in four AFC Champions League Quarter Finals. Whilst it may have started as a night of celebration, it ended very differently.

Jeonbuk started brightly and Eninho, Sim Woo-yeon and Lee Dong-gook all had chances early to open the scoring but couldn’t get the job done.

Jeonbuk and Al-Shabab in their ACL Quater Final
As the half wore on, Al-Shabab started to dominate possession but they too couldn’t find the elusive goal.

Desperate to score at home and get the early advantage, Jeonbuk made a double-substitution early in the second half, bringing on strikers Luiz Henrique and Kruno Lovrek.

It was Al-Shabab who continued to dominate, however, and they should’ve taken the lead just before the hour mark when Omar Al Ghamdi headed over the crossbar from close range.

The crucial away goal came not long after though courtesy of Fahad Hamad, who found himself in the right place at the right time after Ahmed Ateef’s shot could only be deflected by Jeonbuk keeper Kim Min-sik. It was the young midfielders first game and goal of the campaign.

Eninho was denied an equaliser seven minutes later when his free-kick from outside the box struck the woodwork. Jeonbuk enjoyed a sustained period of dominance as they pushed for the all important equaliser, and their cause was aided late on when Al Khaibri was sent off for a second yellow card offence.

But despite playing with 10-men it was Al-Shabab who added a second shortly before full-time when Juan Manuel Olivera drove the ball wide of Kim to ensure the Saudi side would leave Jeonbuk with two crucial away goals.

Al-Shabab manager, Jorge Forsatti, was delighted with his sides performance.

"I am very happy because we won a very important game,” he said.

“We travelled a long time and I had to worry about the fitness of my players. Nevertheless we played as we planned and got the result we hoped.

"Jeonbuk played different football from my knowledge. They tried the long ball a number of times and they were certainly different.

"I know they will prepare more for the next game but we will do the same.”

Action from Zob Ahan and Pohang

It was West Asia who dominated the other two games as well, with Iranian side Zob Ahan defeating Pohang Steelers 2-1, although the Korean outfit scored a crucial away goal and are well and truly still in the tie.

In the final game, Al-Hilal from Saudi Arabia had a comfortable win over Al-Gharafa of Qatar.

The second legs will take place next Wednesday, but at the moment it looks like the trophy could be headed back to West Asia for the first time since 2005.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Shandong extend CSL lead

Shandong Luneng have extended their lead at the top of the Chinese Super League to 9 points after clinching a thrilling 3-2 win over Beijing Guoan.

The game was an enthralling encounter played in front of a packed crowd at the Workers Stadium in Beijing.

Han Peng put the visitors ahead after just 18 minutes, but that strike was soon cancelled out by Xu Liang who equalised for Beijing Guoan.

A win was crucial for Beijing if they wanted to remain any chance of staying in the championship race, but just before the break Honduran Julio Cesar de Leon struck to give Shandong the advantage heading into the break.

Beijing were given a lifeline on 78 minutes when Shandong conceded an own goal through defender Mourtala Diakite.

But they suffered heartbreak when Lu Zheng scored a 90th minute winner to ensure Shandong would way away with all three points. The result leaves Beijing in fifth place, one point behind Tianjin Teda and an Asian Champions League berth.

The match of the round saw fifth place Liaoning Hongyun host second place Shanghai Shenhua. Given how tight the table is, three points for either side was crucial.

In the end a strike on 60 minutes by Cheng Xing was enough for Liaoning to secure all three points, and with that move up to third on the table.

The battle for relegation is just as strong and one of the most entertaining games of the weekend saw Shenzhen Ruby host Qingdao Jonoon. Both clubs are anchored towards the bottom of the table, just a handful of points above the relegation zone.

Seven goals flew in, including four in the space of 12 minutes. Ultimately it was Qingdao Jonoon who came out victors after two goals in either half.

Elsewhere in the CSL Jiangsu Shuntian and Changsha Ginde played out a 0-0 draw, Dalian Shide defeated Hangzhou Lucheng by the odd goal in three, Nanchang Bayi and Shaanxi Chanba drew 1-1, Chongqing Lifan lost at home 1-2 to Tianjin Teda and Changchun Yatai and Henan Jianye finished 0-0.

Shimizu slip up in race for the title

What the hell happened to Shimizu S-Pulse?

That is the question on most people’s lips after the weekend’s J.League action. It looked like a straightforward game before the weekend. S-Pulse, sitting third, went to the NACK 5 Stadium to take on Omiya Ardija, who were sitting 16th and in the relegation zone.

For a team with title aspirations, and who lead the J.League for a few weeks before the World Cup, this would be a game they would expect to win.

All the stats were in the favour; they are the highest scoring team in the J.League with 42 goals from 21 games; Omiya had only scored 17 goals in 21 games; they’d only won 2 of their 10 games at the NACK 5 Stadium this season.

But that’s what makes Football the beautiful game. Stats can often mean nothing. The game is played on grass, not on paper as coaches often remind us.

Rafael celebrates whilst Shimizu
players look for a place to hide
And that is what happened on Saturday, when Omiya smashed Shimizu 3-0.

Both sides had half chances early, but Omiya made the decisive break just before half time when Shin Kanazawa played a delightful ball for Brazilian striker Rafael who had just the keeper to beat.

That goal allowed Omiya to head into half time with a surprising 1-0 lead, and their confidence only grew in the second half. Chikara Fujimoto almost doubled their advantage on 60 mins but his shot bounced off the underside of the crossbar and S-Pulse put the ball out for a corner.

They wouldn’t have to wait long for their second, however, as from the resulting corner their Croatian defender Mato Neretljak made the most of a goalkeeping error to head home the second goal.

Rafael also had a hand in the final goal, when he played in Korean Lee Chun-Soo who finished easily with just the keeper to beat.

There was one negative to come from the game for Omiya which came late when defender Shusuke Tsubouchi was red carded for a last ditch tackle on S-Pulse and Japanese striker Shinji Okazaki. Okazaki would have one more chance with a nice header, however it proved no trouble for Takashi Kitano.

After the game Omiya’s manager Jun Suzuki revealed their opening goal was something they had been practising on the training pitch.

"Rafael's goal was something we had practised in training," Suzuki said.

"We then also scored from a set piece and a counterattack and I think that the fact we scored in these various ways was a big item for us today."

The game which captured most interest on Saturday was the battle between Kawasaki Frontale and Yokohama F.Marinos. Kawasaki were sitting in fifth place, just a few points off an ACL spot and were playing at home where they had not lost a game all season.

Yokohama, who dismantled Niigata 3-0 in their last outing, were out to claim another big scalp and put themselves in the mix for an ACL spot.

Kawasaki could not have asked for a better start either when their Brazilian import Juninho put them ahead after just one minute.

Yokohama failed to deal with the early corner situation and the ball fell to Juninho at the backpost to knock home one of the easiest goals on his career.

Kawasaki had all the early running and looked likely to score a second. An audacious attempt from Junichi Inamoto, from all of 40 metres out, almost caught out Hiroki Iikura who just tipped the ball over the save his blushes.

Yokohama then started to press for the equaliser. A Shunsuke Nakamura free kick was tipped over the bar by Takashi Aizawa and then minutes later Aizawa made a superb point blank save to deny Yuji Ono an equaliser.

Yokohama captain Yuzo Kurihara then tried a shot as audacious as Inamoto, which forced Aizawa into another excellent save to keep the score at 1-0.

Kawasaki should’ve doubled their lead on 35 minutes. Juninho was played through one-on-one with Iikura, but his shot was brilliantly saved and Tomonobu Yokoyama saw his rebound shot bounce back off the post.

Then, with just seconds to go before half time, the combination of Nakamura and Koji Yamase, who combined for the first goal in their rout of Niigata, worked magic again when an exquisite ball from Nakamura split the Kawasaki defence allowing Yamase to finish cooly by sliding the ball past Aizawa.

Shingo Hyodo celebrates (top) whilst Gamba
players enjoy victory against Niigata
Just minutes after the break Shingo Hyodo launched a rocket from 30m out which Aizawa could only tip into the top corner. In the space of 4 minutes either side of the break Yokohama had turned a 0-1 deficit into a 2-1 lead.

It was that man Hyodo again in the 61st minute that put Yokohama up 3-1, when Yamase set up the vice-captain in the box. And that was the way the game stayed.

The win moved Yokohama ahead of Kawasaki, who slipped from fifth to seventh.

In the other big game on Saturday, Albirex Niigata played host to Gamba Osaka. The two clubs were level on points coming into the game and both knew a win could catapult them into contention for a top three finish.

The match was played on a disgraceful pitch at the Big Swan Stadium in Niigata, with a large barren patch right in the middle of the ground.

Both sides were restricted to shots from distance early as they struggled to contend with the difficult pitch. An audacious chip from Daigo Nishi just before half time almost broke the deadlock, but the ball just sailed wide and the teams went to the break locked at 0-0.

Just three minutes into the second half, however, a defensive blunder from Takumi Shimohira allowed Nishi to cut the ball back for Cho Young-Cheol who scored his 11th goal of the season with a neat finish on his left foot.

They didn’t hold the lead for long though, just five minutes later Kazumichi Takagi rose highest from a corner to head home the equaliser for Gamba Osaka.

The match stayed locked at 1-1 until the 90th minute when Brazilian striker Dodo struck home a stunning goal from a tight angle, beating Takaya Kurokawa at his near post to give Gamba Osaka a 2-1 lead.

In other matches on Saturday, Cerezo Osaka could only manage a 1-1 draw with Sanfrecce Hiroshima but maintained second spot, Jubilo Iwata just edged out Shonan Bellmare 3-2 in an enthralling relegation battle, Kyoto beat Vissel Kobe 3-0 which saw under siege Kobe manager Toshiya Miura sacked the following day and Kashima just edged out Vegalta Sendai 1-0.

On Sunday, FC Tokyo, who are struggling to stay out of the relegation battle, hosted Urawa Reds in a must win battle for both sides.

FC Tokyo suffered early injuries that didn’t help their cause, and were it not for the post Yohei Kajiyama would’ve scored a stunning individual goal to put them in the lead. As it was, both sides went into the break at 0-0.

Australian Matthew Spiranovic in action for Urawa
against FC Tokyo on Sunday
The second half was a more open affair, but FC Tokyo couldn’t find a way past the Urawa defence. Kenta Mukuhara had his header brilliantly saved by Norihiro Yamagishi.

The decisive moment came in the 64th minute when Masato Morishige was adjudged to have fouled Genki Haraguchi in the box and the referee immediately pointed to the spot.

Urawa’s Brazilian stalwart Robson Ponte was the man tasked with scoring the penalty and despite guessing the right way Hitoshi Shiota could do nothing to stop it going in.

FC Tokyo again had the woodwork to blame not long after when Yuhei Tokunaga’s shot struck the crossbar and, despite falling nicely for Naohiro Ishikawa he couldn’t keep his shot down.

Injury again struck for FC Tokyo when Tatsuya Suzuki went down clutching his hamstring and had to be stretchered off late in the game.

But 1-0 to Urawa is how it would stay, heaping further heat on under fire FC Tokyo manager Hiroshi Jofuku.

In the final game of the weekend, a single goal by Keiji Tamada was enough to give Nagoya a 1-0 win over Montedio Yamagata and stretch their lead at the top of the J.League to seven points.

With just 12 weeks remaining it is Nagoya’s title to lose as they seek to win their first ever J.League crown. But they cannot look that far ahead, they must focus all their attention on this weekend’s game against the in-form Yokohama F.Marinos.

That clash already has the juices flowing.

Be sure to tune into Setanta Sports on Thursday night at 7:00pm AEST for the J.League Highlights Show. For those that cannot wait until then, check out these highlights via YouTube.

FC Tokyo vs Urawa Reds
Montedio Yamagata vs Nagoya Grampus
Kashima Antlers vs Vegalta Sendai
Kyoto Sanga vs Vissel Kobe
Jubilo Iwata vs Shonan Bellmare
Kawasaki Frontale vs Yokohama F.Marinos
Albirex Niigata vs Gamba Osaka
Omiya Ardija vs Shimizu S-Pulse
Cerezo Osaka vs Sanfrecce Hiroshima

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Why I support...

In a new feature to Asian Football Feast, we will be talking to various fans of Asian Football and finding out why they support the club they do.

In our first feature, we speak to Tel Porter from Sydney, who is a mad Sanfrecce Hiroshima fan. Here is his story about why he supports the Sanfrecce outfit.

I have been supporting Sanfrecce Hiroshima now since 2006.

I was living and working in Japan, in Shimane prefecture and desperate to get my footballing fix. Shimane is about as far away from anything exciting as you can possibly get, so naturally there was no J-League team for me to cheer on in my local town.

Sanfrecce fans at the Nabisco Cup QF against Kashima
The nearest J-League team, geographically, was Sanfrecce Hiroshima (3 hours away by bus!) This was before Fagiano Okayama entered the J-League, so Hiroshima was the closest city that had a team I could follow. Hence, Sanfrecce became my ‘local’ team.

Because my work schedule was pretty busy and I always worked Saturdays, I only had the chance to go out to Big Arch once to see Sanfrecce play.

Arriving in Hiroshima on the bus early in the morning, I bought a Sanfrecce uniform (and a Hiroshima Carp uniform) and went out to Big Arch to see Sanfrecce vs Antlers in a Nabisco Cup quarter final.

A Sanfrecce victory, 1-0 made the whole day (and night sleeping in an internet café) worthwhile! (Never mind that Sanfrecce lost on aggregate!)

Even more exciting than seeing Sanfrecce play at home was when I heard Sanfrecce were drawn in the same group as Adelaide United in the Asian Champions League.

Tel supports Sanfrecce against Adelaide in the ACL
I booked my flight and bought my ticket in the away bay and joined all the Sanfrecce away fans in singing and chanting nonstop for 90 minutes, the one hachimaki wearing gaijin in the sea of purple clad traveling Japanese fans.

Despite the thrilling game not quite going the way of Sanfrecce (3-2 win to Adelaide) the experience of posing for a hundred photos, being interviewed, being given a Sanfrecce scarf by a traveling fan and some J-League merchandise from Sanfrecce club officials who called out to me on the street of Adelaide later that night was thoroughly memorable.

I’m as loyal to Sanfrecce as I am to Sydney FC – my longterm dream is to be there to see Sydney FC vs Sanfrecce in the ACL in both the Big Arch and the SFS. Hiroshima is one of my favourite cities and Sanfrecce are my pride and passion, the embodiment of my Japanese life.

For those wondering, Tel's interview he conducted at the Sanfrecce-Adelaide game can be read here...if you read Japanese: http://www.jsgoal.jp/photo/00059300/00059307.html

Friday, September 10, 2010

J.League returns after international break

After a week off which saw the national side notch two wins to mark the start of a new era under Italian Alberto Zaccheroni (even though he wasn’t actually in charge), Japanese attention will return to their domestic J.League this weekend.

With just 12 weeks to go, the action is heating up and this weekend tosses up some enticing clashes.

Omiya Ardija vs Shimizu S-Pulse
After returning to winning ways last time around, Shimizu will be looking to continue that run when they take on relegation-threatened Omiya Ardija.

Shimizu broke a three-game losing streak against fellow contenders Kawasaki Frontale in Round 21 with a 2-0 victory. Ardija, on the other hand, are coming into this game on the back of two losses that see them placed in 16th and in the relegation zone.

Shinji Okazaki, who turned out for Japan midweek, will be looking to continue his scoring form, having already registered 10 for the season, just one shy of Golden Boot leader Josh Kennedy.

A win for Shimizu could put them into outright second, and with that on the line I can’t see the Shizuoka outfit not getting all three points:

Prediction: Omiya Ardija 1-2 Shimizu S-Pulse

Cerezo Osaka vs Sanfrecce Hiroshima
Sanfrecce will come into the game on a high after advancing to the Nabisco Cup Semi-Finals for the first time with a 2-1 win (2-2 on aggregate, Sanfrecce through on away goals) over the more fancied Gamba Osaka.

Hisato Sato was the star of their win midweek, scoring early before setting up Koji Morisaki and he will be the main danger for Cerezo to deal with. With 9 goals already this season in the league, the game could come down to how much influence Sato has on the game.

Cerezo, however, are no mugs and have surprised many by sitting in second place after the first 21 rounds. They are on a four-game winning streak and haven’t lost since the end of July.

The game promises plenty, and I expect it to deliver. For me you can’t go past Cerezo in the form they’re in.

Prediction: Cerezo Osaka 1-0 Sanfrecce Hiroshima

Jubilo Iwata vs Shonan Bellmare
This game doesn’t exactly get the heart pumping and juices flowing.

After being promoted from J2 last season, Shonan have struggled, managing only three wins so far. They’re GD is the second worst in the league, only ahead of the hapless Kyoto Sanga, at -21.

Iwata, who reached the Semi-Finals of the Nabisco Cup midweek, have been on some sort of a mini-revival of late, picking up seven points from their last five games to give them a bit of breathing space above the relegation zone. Ryoichi Maeda, last season’s Golden Boot winner, will provide their main threat up front. He has scored 8 of his teams 22 goals so far this season.

This game has 0-0 written all over it.

Prediction: Jubilo Iwata 0-0 Shonan Bellmare

Kawasaki Frontale vs Yokohama F.Marinos
This one should be the match of the weekend.

Yokohama scored a confidence boosting 3-0 win over Albirex Niigata last time around, with Japanese international Shunsuke Nakamura in vintage form. It’s the sort of form that, if he produced consistently, would see Yokohama further up the table.

They will have some concern over defender Yuzo Kurihara, who had to pull out of the Japanese squad after the Paraguay game because of injury.

Kawasaki, who lost ground on the top two after a 2-0 loss to Shimizu in the last round, will be eager to getting back to winning ways. They’ve also lost striker Renatinho since their last encounter, with the out-of-favour striker sealing a move to Portugal.

They have one important factor though…home ground advantage. In their 10 games at home this season, they’ve won eight and drawn two. All of their six defeats this season have been on the road.

This game could also have big implications for either side’s hopes of an ACL spot. If Yokohama lose, they risk slipping eight points behind third place, whilst for Kawasaki they could slip seven points behind. That’s a lot of ground to make up in just 11 games.

The Todoroki Stadium will be bursting at the seams come Saturday night and I think Kawasaki’s home form will be too good for Yokohama.

Prediction: Kawasaki Frontale 2-1 Yokohama F.Marinos

Kyoto Sanga vs Vissel Kobe
The less said about this clash the better.

Kyoto is struggling, big time. And they don’t look like getting out of their slump anytime soon.

Kobe are only outside the relegation zone due to the fact they’ve scored four more goals than Omiya Ardija.

Kobe will get the job done, just, but it won’t be worth writing home about.

Prediction: Kyoto Sanga 0-1 Vissel Kobe

Kashima Antlers vs Vegalta Sendai
Kashima, who have slipped up in recent weeks, shouldn’t have too many problems disposing of Vegalta.

The Sendai outfit, despite the support of a vociferous crowd, have struggled this season, winning only 5 games. Like Kobe, they only sit outside the relegation zone thanks to goals scored.

Kashima, who looked on their way to a fourth straight title just a few weeks ago, will be looking for Shinzo Koroki to continue his run of scoring as they look for their first win since the end of July.

This one could be get ugly for Sendai, who concede almost 1.5 goals a game on average.

Prediction: Kashima Antlers 3-0 Vegalta Sendai

Albirex Niigata vs Gamba Osaka
If Kawasaki vs Yokohama is the match of the round, this one isn’t far behind.

Niigata, despite suffering a 3-0 loss to Yokohama last time around, has been on an amazing run of form after a horror start to the season.

Gamba Osaka also made a stuttering start to the season and are slowly clawing their way back into contention. They currently sit in sixth, having won five of their past seven. They are the great entertainers of the league, always playing attractive Football however it hasn’t delivered results on a consistent basis.

There are question marks over their playmaker Yasuhito Endo, who withdrew from the Japan squad after the Paraguay game due to injury.

This one could go either way, but I feel Niigata in front of their parochial fans will just get the job done.

Prediction: Albirex Niigata 2-1 Gamba Osaka

Montedio Yamagata vs Nagoya Grampus
This is a golden opportunity for Nagoya to maintain their lead at the top of the table.

Montedio are no pushovers, but struggle to score goals and Nagoya has one of the best defences in the league, lead by Japanese international Tulio Tanaka.

They also have the league’s leading scorer in Australian Josh Kennedy. Kennedy should be right for this game after being forced to pull out of Australia’s squad for their recent friendlies against Switzerland and Poland.

I’m predicting a comfortable win for Nagoya.

Prediction: Montedio Yamagata 0-2 Nagoya Grampus

FC Tokyo vs Urawa Reds
The final game of the round should be an intriguing match-up.

On paper you’d suggest Urawa should get the job done, but they’ve struggled in recent times, winning only one of their last six.

Tokyo is similarly struggling and are without a win since 25 July. They are one of four clubs sitting on 21 points, but are outside the relegation zone courtesy of goals difference.

Urawa is mathematically in with a chance of an ACL spot, but they chances would be less than 2%. After a bright start to the season, they have fallen in a heap and at best will finish top six if they can get a run on.

Pressure will be mounting on both coaches if they lose this game. After two successive top six finishes, the Tokyo faithful will not be happy with their current predicament and Hiroshi Jofuku, who took over in 2008, will be the man in the firing line.

If for no other reason than I support them, I’m tipping Urawa to get the job done.

This game will be shown on delay on Setanta Sports at 10:30pm on Monday night. Be sure to tune in.

Prediction: FC Tokyo 0-2 Urawa Reds

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The future looks bright for Australia

Brett Holman celebrates his goal against Poland
Before the game Lucas Neill implored the next generation of Socceroos to seize their chance to impress new manager Holger Osieck.

A 2-1 win over Poland and impressive performances by goalkeeper Adam Federici and the man of the moment Brett Holman shows they were listening.

In case there was any doubt, the future is bright for the Socceroos.

Another young gun, Japan-based Matthew Spiranovic, impressed during his 90 minutes in the game against Switzerland which will have gone a long way to securing him a regular place alongside Lucas Neill for the foreseeable future.

Up front there still remains some issues however. Despite being given almost 180 minutes together, neither Cahill or McDonald managed to get on the scoresheet and save for the first half against Switzerland never really looked like a lethal combination.

Despite his amazing scoring record for Australia we must realise, and quickly, that Cahill is not a striker and shouldn’t be used as one.

The problem facing Cahill is that he now has a genuine challenger for his attacking midfield spot in Brett Holman. Just 6 months ago the suggestion of Holman replacing Cahill as Australia’s primary attacking midfielder would’ve seen someone admitted into a psychiatric ward.

Now, after contrasting 6-month periods, the idea doesn’t seem so absurd. Cahill struggled and looked disinterested during the World Cup warm up matches and his World Cup was destroyed by the red card against Germany. He did prove his class with a trademark headed goal against Serbia, however.

Brett Holman, on the other hand, has gone from whipping boy and poster child for the next generation of Socceroos.

A last minute winner against New Zealand at the MCG has proved the catalyst for a stunning run of form that has seen him score four goals in his last eight games after scoring just one in his first 28 games for the national team.

Holman was always valued by Pim Verbeek for his non-stop running and harassing in the final third, but was derided by the fans for his lack of goal scoring despite numerous golden opportunities. Now having added goal scoring to his game at international level he is a much more rounded, and valued (by all) player.

With a new manager in place and everyone starting from a clean slate, Holman will have drastically boosted his chances of a regular starting berth after his last two performances.

There are still problems for Osieck to solve though, most notably on the left.

Scott Chipperfield has left a big hole at LB and despite numerous chances, David Carney doesn’t appear to be the right answer. He still looks quite suspect defensively and he isn’t as big a threat going forward as he should be.

It’s an area that Australia struggle for almost across the board. One look at the A-League shows our lack of quality left sided defenders. Scott Jamieson is one name who could step into the void, although even he has quite some improvement left in him.

Then there are the left-field options (pardon the pun) of Turkey-based, Melbourne raised Ersan Gulum and Portuguese-based Jason Davidson.

Gulum signed with Turkish giants Besiktas on the off-season and has managed two games with the club so far. For the last two seasons he played in the second division for Adanaspor, playing 59 games and scoring two goals. Although he mostly played as a central defender, even being named in the Team of the Season for the TFF First Leage, he is more than capable of playing on the left.

Davidson, a member of Australia’s U20 squad for the 2009 FIFA U20 World Cup and son of Socceroo champion Alan Davidson, recently signed for Portuguese outfit Pacos de Ferreira and has made a handful of appearances for the club in Portugal’s top flight.

Neither of those are ready made replacements, however, so Osieck must decide whether he sticks with Carney or, like he did with other positions these last two games, gives an opportunity for a youngster to show his wares.

It’s a tough call, but if it were up to me, I’d be opting for the latter and having one eye on the future. Players like Gulum, Davidson and even Shane Lowry are realistically players capable of playing at the next two, possibly three, World Cups for Australia. Carney will be 30 by the time 2014 comes around, which by no means is to old, but he is a player for the now, not for the future.

Osieck will primarily be judged on his win-loss record, so focussing on the now isn’t necessarily bad. But after Verbeek failed to really bring through the next generation of Socceroos, Osieck will also be judged on how he does just that…bring through the next generation.

As Spiranovic, Holman and Federici showed over the last few days, the next generation is more than capable. They just need to be given the chance.

Osieck has shown a willingness in his first two games give players a chance. Long may it continue.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Let the countdown begin

127 days.

It sounds like a long time, it’s just over four months, but in reality the time will fly by. That is how long until Asia’s premier Football competition, the AFC Asian Cup, kicks off in Qatar.

After a disappointing showing in 2007 under interim coach Graham Arnold, Australia will be looking to put in a better showing this time around.

Clearly Asia’s number one side (at least according to the FIFA rankings), a lot is expected of Australia who have been drawn with fellow heavyweights Korea Republic, as well as Bahrain and relative newcomers, India.

Over the coming weeks we’ll take a look at each of the teams in Australia’s group and analyse how we think they’ll go.

First up, Bahrain.

Whilst Australia and Korea Republic will be expected to advance from the group without too much difficulty, Bahrain, who has fallen at the final hurdle in their last two World Cup Qualifying campaigns, will be no pushovers.

Bahrain will receive fantastic support at the tournament and will effectively be a second home side, with the tournament taking place in Qatar, just a stones throw from Bahrain. Bahrainis are expected to make the trek in good numbers to support their country and will provide an atmosphere that will make their team think they’re playing in Manama rather than Doha.

Those with long memories (or maybe not that long) will remember Bahrain comprehensively outplaying a full strength Australian side in Manama in the last round of World Cup qualifying just over 18 months ago.

Only an undeserved Mark Bresciano goal in the 93rd minute, and some awful misses by Bahrain striker Jaycee John, saved Australia’s blushes.

They’ve also got one over on Japan in recent times, with a 1-0 win over the Blue Samurai in Manama during qualification for the AFC Asian Cup.

Under new coach, Austrian Josef Hickersberger, they will be match hardened by the time they get to Qatar. They have eight games between now and January, including the 2010 Gulf Cup in Yemen in November.

This will allow Hickersberger the time to try new players and formations and settle on a line-up and squad he is comfortable with well before their first game against Korea Republic on 10 January.

Their key man up front if the exciting and enigmatic Jaycee John, who plies his trade in Turkey with Eskisehirspor. He has played 43 times for Bahrain, scoring 11 goals. Although if it weren’t for his wayward finishing that tally would be a lot higher.

Fouzi Ayesh is also one to keep an eye on in midfield. If he is allowed too much room, his creativity will unlock defences and he can also get forward and score himself.

With Australia and Korea Republic in their group, the draw hasn’t been kind to them, and they will need some heroic performances to get out of the group. Whilst they will have “home” ground advantage, I think both Australia and Korea Republic will have enough firepower to get the job done.