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
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
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.
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 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