Monday, November 22, 2010

Is the anti-siphoning list good for Football?

Will fans see more of the Socceroos?
It is the one debate that everyone has a strong opinion on and the one debate that, shortly, will be put to bed.

Should Socceroos games be placed on the anti-siphoning list?

For those living under a rock, or outside Australia, the anti-siphoning list is a Government-approved list of sporting events that are “culturally significant” to Australians, and thus, are only available for Free-to-Air (FTA) to bid on.

The current anti-siphoning list expires on 31 December 2010 and the Government are preparing to introduce the new legislation into Parliament this week.

While many argue that having Socceroos games on FTA is crucial as it drastically increases exposure (currently only 34% of Australians have Pay-TV), is placing the Socceroos on the anti-siphoning list the best thing for the sport?

As it currently stands the Socceroos are broadcast on FOX SPORTS as part of a seven-year agreement that ends in 2013. FOX SPORTS paid $120 million for the rights, or just over $17 million a year.

The deal has been a tremendous one for FOX SPORTS with the Socceroos recording the two highest rating shows in history across the entire FOXTEL platform, with more in the top ten.

FOX SPORTS wants the Socceroos and they’re prepared to pay big money for it.

But, by placing Socceroos games on the anti-siphoning list FOX SPORTS are unable to even bid for the rights, therefore reducing the competition for the FTA networks and in turn the money they will pay for the rights. Without competition amongst the bidders, the value of the rights is greatly reduced.

Is that good for Football?

There are important details, however, that cloud the picture even further.

For starters, it is only Socceroos World Cup Qualifiers played in Australia that are on the anti-siphoning list. Away qualifiers and friendly internationals aren’t on the list.

Theoretically, the FFA could sell the rights to friendly games as a separate package. Away World Cup qualifiers are a little different in that generally the FFA buy these rights and then on-sell them, currently to FOX SPORTS.

Again, theoretically, there is nothing stopping the FFA from agreeing to on-sell all these games to a particular network, say FOX SPORTS, and packaging them up with friendly games.

In the course of a year, there would be more away WCQ’s and friendly games than there would be home WCQ’s.

But the question is whether the FFA would want to split up the Socceroos rights, or sell the rights to all games to one network, as they currently do with FOX SPORTS.

But what of the A-League?

Despite a push from ONE HD early in the year the include one game per week from the A-League on the anti-siphoning list, the A-League, it seems will be free from the list and open to a competitive bidding “war”.

Most people recognise that bundling the Socceroos/A-League together is what helped reap the FFA $120m back in 2006, when the A-League was in its infancy.

But with the Socceroos now seemingly destined for the anti-siphoning list and a FTA network, just how much value is the A-League worth on its own? The general feeling is not much, at least not as much as it would be bundled with the Socceroos.

Is getting less money for A-League TV rights good for Football?

The answer, of course, is a resounding no. More and more sports are relying on their television deals to fund the game. Certainly it was hoped the next TV deal for the A-League would help it out of its current financial predicament and put it on the path to profit and, ultimately, a stronger competition.

The FFA recognise the importance of FTA, they have repeatedly mentioned over the last few years their desire to have both the Socceroos and A-League on FTA. But they also want strong competition for the rights to bump up the price they receive.

Ben Buckley travelled to Canberra last week to meet with Senator Conroy, the man responsible for the new legislation, imploring him to keep the Socceroos OFF the list. Buckley, the man who masterminded the AFL’s last deal worth $780 million, knows how important it is to have competition.

Football is not yet at the stage where networks are climbing over themselves to secure television deals, we need all the competition we can get and FOX SPORTS are a big (and wealthy) competitor. Take them out of the equation and all you have left is, most likely, ONE HD.

Given the FFA know how important FTA is, there was a good chance that they would have sold the rights to a FTA network in any case.

Claims that having no anti-siphoning list will lead to all sports simply being sold off to Pay-TV are just baseless scare-mongering.

Every sport knows the value of FTA and they would ensure that the right balance is reached between FTA and Pay-TV. But they shouldn’t be dictated to by a Government, to be even more precise a Minister (it is Sen. Conroy, and Sen. Conroy only, who determines the make up of the anti-siphoning list), on who they can and can’t sell their rights to.

Out of this Football appear to be on the course for less money for Socceroos rights and less money for A-League rights. In return they will get more viewers and exposure for a minimum of 2-3 games a year.

Less money for the FFA means less ability to promote the A-League, less ability to initiate important components of the National Development Plan and National Curriculum, less ability to grow the game at the grassroots.

Is that good for Football?

What I think will happen…
Socceroos games (all) – ONE HD
2015 Asian Cup – FOX SPORTS
Asian Champions League – FOX SPORTS


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

J.League title is heading to Nagoya

Nakata celebrates his goal for Kashima against Kawasaki
There may still be four games to go in the season, but the inevitable can no longer be denied.

Nagoya Grampus WILL win the 2010 J.League.

They currently sit eight points clear with four games to go and face two relegation threatened teams (in fact Shonan has already been relegated) in their next two games. They won’t drop enough points to give Kashima a sniff.

Kashima’s last hope came over the weekend when they travelled to Kawasaki and Nagoya hosted Omiya Ardija in what was potentially a banana skin game.

To Kashima’s credit, they held up their end of the bargain with a 2-1 win at Kawasaki.

The Todoroki Stadium was packed to capacity for the clash, with a sea of red occupying one end of the stadium as the Kashima supporters travelled in large numbers for the do-or-die clash.

It didn’t start as they would have hoped, however, when Vitor Junior opened the scoring in the 20th minute to give the home side the lead.

Kashima almost equalised a minute later when star striker Marquinhos attempted an acrobatic scissor kick that just went wide.

The breakthrough did eventually come, seven minutes before the half when a free kick from outwide found Koji Nakata unmarked at the back post.

Kawasaki should have re-gained the lead before half time, but first Vitor Junior and then Tukuro Kajima failed to hit the target with two relatively easy attempts.

They were missed that would come back to haunt Kawasaki mid-way through the second half when Kashima, bizarrely, scored a second.

Mituso Ogasawara played in a delightful ball over the top of the defence for Takuya Nozawa to run on to, however coming the other way was Kawasaki keeper Rikihiro Sugiyama.

The players appeared destined to collide, with a third player, Kawasaki midfielder Kengo Nakamura, also coming into the mix. The three players had a coming together of sorts and somehow the ball managed to roll through the legs of Sugiyama into the back of the net.

Not having touched any of the three players, the goal was credited to Ogasawara.

Kawasaki had a couple of half chances late in the game, but couldn’t make any of them count allowing Kashima to run out 2-1 winners.

The Kashima players and fans then waited anxiously to find out the result of the Nagoya-Omiya game taking place at the same time.

It wasn’t the result either group was after though.

Nagoya players celebrate the
winner against Omiya Ardija
Nagoya were missing key players at both ends of the park, with Tulio Tanaka again missing and striker Josh Kennedy also on the sidelines.

The Champions-in-waiting didn’t let that affect them, taking an early lead after just four minutes.

Montenegran midfielder Igor Burzanovic slammed the ball home, after the Omiya defence had failed to deal with the corner situation.

It would be enough to knock the sails out of most teams, but Omiya rallied and started pressing up the other end, twice going within inches of scoring an equaliser.

Their endeavour was rewarded on the half hour mark when Rafael chested the ball down in the box for Naoki Ishihara to slam home the equaliser and stun the vocal home crowd.

But you don’t win Championships with a steely resolve and within ten minutes Nagoya had re-taken the lead through defender Takahiro Masukawa, who headed home from a perfectly taken free kick from Yoshizumi Ogawa.

The match turned even further in Nagoya’s favour just before half time when Korean midfielder Lee Ho crazily lunged in for a tackle from behind just minutes after receiving his first yellow card.

The referee had no other alternative than to show Lee a second yellow card and give him an early shower. After conceding a goal moments earlier, it was the one thing Omiya didn’t need going into half time.

Nagoya enjoyed the lions share of possession in the second half, but couldn’t find a third goal. It mattered little as they held on for a 2-1 win that guaranteed qualification for next year’s AFC Champions League, but more importantly all but guaranteed they will be crowned 2010 J.League Champions.

Gamba Osaka hosted Sanfrecce Hiroshima in what promised to be a fascinating affair at the Expo ’70 Stadium.

Yashuhito Endo

Sanfrecce clung on to faint hope of claiming an ACL spot, sitting five points behind third place Gamba, knowing a win would take them to within striking distance.

Gamba, on the other hand, knew a win would give them breathing space over the chasing pack in third place.

A defensive mistake from captain Tomokazu Miyojin early on almost gifted Sanfrecce an opening goal but Tadanari Lee blasted the ball over after being found free in the box.

It was a defensive blunder, a howler in fact, that lead to the opening goal. This time it was Sanfrecce gifting Gamba with the opportunity.

A wayward back pass missed its intended target and fell straight to Lee Keun-Ho who had the simplest of finishes past the helpless keeper.

Gamba had some nervy moments after scoring, with Sanfrecce forcing Yosuke Fujigaya into a couple of great saves.

Akira Hishino made a change at half time, opting for more experience up front replacing 18 year-old sensation Takashi Usami with Lucas.

It proved a masterstroke when, on the hour mark, Lucas headed home the decisive second goal.

A free kick from the deadly boot of Yasuhito Endo was put into a dangerous position, but ultimately it was a mistake from Sanfrecce keeper Shusaku Nishikawa who started coming for the ball before stopping that allowed Lucas to score.

Having come half way for the ball, Nishikawa left his goal unguarded and Lucas had little trouble in putting the ball in the back of the net.

Sanfrecce continued to have chance after chance, but Fujigaya was a colossus in goals and kept his clean sheet in tact.

Robson Ponte celebrates the
winner for Urawa Reds
Elsewhere on Sunday, Urawa Reds got back to winning ways with a 2-0 win over Kyoto Sanga, a result that condemns Kyoto to relegation and J2 football next season.

FC Tokyo continued to keep their fight for survival alive with a shock 2-1 win at Yokohama F.Marinos. They still have it all to do to stay up, sitting only 2 points above the relegation zone but it is a result that will give the side plenty of confidence ahead of their home clash against Kawasaki next week.

Shonan Bellmare also confirmed their relegation on Saturday when they were thumped by Shimizu S-Pulse 5-0.

Vegalta Sendai faced a tricky match against Jubilo Iwata, who have been in hot form over the last seven weeks. Sendai, however, surprised everyone by cruising to a 3-0 win to all but secure their place in J1 for next season.

Montedio Yamagata and Cerezo Osaka played out an entertaining 3-3 draw, although the Osaka outfit would have been expecting all three points going in. The result leaves them four points behind crosstown rivals, Gamba, in fourth spot.

Vissel Kobe earned a valuable point away to Albirex Niigata in their fight to avoid relegation. They currently sit in 16th spot inside the relegation zone and will battle FC Tokyo to stay up, with both teams facing a tough four weeks to finish off the season.

But the story of the round is Nagoya, who can officially seal the Championship as early as this weekend if they defeat Shonan Bellmare and Kashima drop points at Kobe.

It’s all elementary though as there is now little doubt that Dragan Stojkovic’s men will lift the trophy and be crowned J.League Champions for 2010.


Monday, November 15, 2010

Time for re-think on ACL Final

They say you must learn to crawl before you can walk. It is a saying the folk at The AFC would be well advised to take on board.

The final of the 2010 AFC Champions League was played on the weekend at the National Stadium in Tokyo – between a team from South Korea and a team from Iran.

Whilst The AFC is to be commended for their work in reshaping the AFC Champions League, it’s time for a re-think on the neutral venue for the final.

The neutral venue works in Europe – distances are smaller, the competition is entrenched in the Football culture and travel is significantly cheaper – but in Asia that is not the case.

The AFC have got lucky, somewhat, in the last two years by the fact that two Korean sides have played in the final. The distances between the two countries aren’t that great.

Their opponents, however, have quite a distance to travel.

In 2009, Al-Ittihad, based out of the Saudi town of Jeddah, had to travel 9500km for the final in Tokyo. To put that in perspective, that is further than a trip from London to Los Angeles and almost the equivalent of a London-New York round trip.

It wasn’t much better this year either when Zob Ahan had to travel 7900km to Tokyo.

Compare that to Europe where the furthest a team, and consequently their supporters, have travelled for a final (in the last three years) is 2400km from London to Moscow in 2008. That’s roughly the same as Melbourne to Cairns.

Not only is it a disadvantage for the players, it’s a major disadvantage for the fans. Air travel can be relatively cheap across Europe, with any number of low-cost carriers to ferry you between the major cities.

Again, this isn’t the case in Asia. And this is the major reason why The AFC must return the final to a two-legged affair.

The fans are the ones who support the AFC Champions League, and this year they did so in increasing numbers.

Yet when it comes to the final, only a lucky few can afford to make the trip to Tokyo. Not the least because the finalists are only decided a few weeks prior.

The AFC Champions League has made many advancements over the last few years, yet getting fans through the gate continues to prove difficult.

Why then are The AFC taking away the opportunity for the fans to see the final live and expose a new audience to the wonders of the tournament?

It’s fair to assume that both Seongnam are Zob Ahan would have attracted well above their average throughout the tournament (5033 and 6949 respectively) had they had the chance to host a leg of the final.

The final of the AFC Champions League had always been a two-leg affair until 2009 when The AFC opted for a single-leg model to be played at a neutral venue.

Whilst noble in its endeavour, the AFC Champions League just isn’t at the level for a single-leg, neutral venue final to work.

The AFC is taking the AFC Champions League to a new world of professionalism and it is clearly going to take time to grow and prosper. Perhaps in 25-30 years when it has had a chance to do so a single-leg final may work.

But for the time being in the best interests of the tournament and fans, the final must return to the two-leg format.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Will the new owners be good for the Reds?

Adelaide United's new owners are unveiled
The A-League received a big boost yesterday when Football Federation Australia announced it had reached an agreement with an SA-based consortium to take over ownership of Adelaide United.

Having stepped in to take over the club in 2009 when then owner Nick Bianco withdrew his support, the FFA came close to selling the club earlier this year to a consortium headed up by Alan Young, however that deal fell over at the last hurdle.

But will the new owners, headed up by well known South Australian Rob Gerard, be all their cranked up to be?

Unfortunately, even after just one day, I am having doubts.

First their was the claim by fellow investor and new Chairman, lawyer Greg Griffin that, “We're not here to lose money, we're actually here to make it.”

Make money? Owning a Football Club? Perhaps they should ask any of the other A-League owners how that is going for them, or any owner of any Football Club across the world.

Football Clubs are an investment, not a profit-making exercise. How do they plan to make that money? Is it by cutting costs back and running the club on a shoe-string, or by initially investing large sums in order to see a return in the future?

When the A-League was formed we were told clubs would start turning a profit by season five. Only Melbourne Victory and Central Coast have managed to record a profit in the first five years, the rest aren’t even close.

What happens if, after a year or two, they’re still no closer to breaking even (let alone turning a profit), will they stick it out or bail and run like Don Matheson did in Townsville and like Clive Palmer threatened to do on the Gold Coast?

On the plus side, they have said they’ll target a marquee player (hopefully one who is actually a marquee in the true sense of the word), so at least that demonstrates that they are prepared to spend some money.

The other concerning aspect of the new owners is their insistence on linking the club with local SANFL club, North Adelaide.

Three of the four new owners have strong links to North Adelaide, so you can understand their desire for both clubs to work more closely, but is it really going to be beneficial?

Talk of sharing backroom and admin staff is slightly concerning given that Football is now a full-time professional job and “sharing” administration between the two clubs could lead to all sorts of issues.

What happens in winter when SANFL is in full-swing and the A-League is in its off-season, does North Adelaide take precedence over Adelaide United?

I’m not so sure sharing facilities is the right way to go, either.

Adelaide United’s home, in every sense, is Hindmarsh Stadium. They play there, they train there and their administration is based there.

Why possibly move their administration staff from their home and Adelaide’s only decent Football stadium to a new location?

Adelaide is probably the only A-League club that can claim to have a true home ground. They’re the only tenant and driving past it is clear that Hindmarsh is Adelaide United’s ground.

From a study trip to Europe in 2008, Director of Football, Michael Petrillo recommended that Adelaide United consider establishing its own training facility away from Hindmarsh, similar to of AC Milan at Milanello.

This is something that every A-League club should be aiming towards, it has many more benefits that just being a place for the team to train. Central Coast are the first A-League club to head down this path with their Centre of Excellence in Tuggerah.

Yet, as important as this development is, it’s unlikely that it will see the light of day under the new owners plans to share facilities. What use are four or five rectangular training pitches to an SANFL club? In fact, what use is any rectangular stadium for that matter?

Adelaide already use one AFL ground in Thebarton Oval for training purposes, and now it seems likely that Prospect Oval, home of North Adelaide, could become their “home” away from home.

But that is where my issue lies, clubs should be looking to form their own identity, not piggy back on other clubs from another code.

What message does it send to have Adelaide’s premier Football team training on an AFL ground?

Code-sharing is dangerous as inevitably one code will always have to be the dominant one, I’m just not sure which side of the fence the new owners sit.

For the sake of Adelaide United I hope it’s on their side. If not, it could get ugly.


Friday, November 5, 2010

History beckons for Nagoya

Will Nagoya be celebrating
this weekend?

Both clubs have been in the J.League since its inception in 1993 and both clubs are chasing history, and their clash this weekend could see one of them achieve just that.

Nagoya Grampus and Kashima Antlers are the two teams in questions and their histories couldn’t be any more different. Nagoya, founded in 1939 as Toyota Motor SC, has never won the J.League. Kashima on the other hand are the J.League’s most successful club.

Seven titles, including the last three, three J.League Cups and three Nabisco Cups. 13 trophies in 17 years, a stunning record in any league.

But this year it is the Nagoya based club that is taking all before it. 19 wins from 28 games tells the story of their dominance. Their target man, the lanky Josh Kennedy, has caused nightmares for defences across the league and leads the golden boot award with 16 goals.

Heading into their clash this weekend, Nagoya enjoy a comfortable 11 point lead over second placed Kashima. A win, whilst not guaranteeing anything, would surely secure Nagoya their first J.League title.

Two of their stars will face last minute fitness tests, with Tulio Tanaka and Mu Kanazaki both trying to overcome injured hamstrings suffered in their win over Vissel Kobe two weeks ago. Latest reports suggest Tanaka could return via the bench, although Kanazaki is likely to miss.

Despite this, with the prospect of clinching the title, especially against the team that has won the last three, I can’t see Nagoya not getting the three points.

Further north, Gamba will be looking to bounce back from a demoralising 2-4 home loss to Vissel Kobe when they travel to the capital to take on FC Tokyo.

Gamba Osaka will be hoping Yasuhito Endo fires
FC Tokyo are trying to avoid the drop to J2 for the first time in more than a decade. Last weekend’s shock win over Shimizu S-Pulse helped the cause, but they still have work to do if they want to avoid the drop.

Gamba players were copped some heated abuse after their loss last week and Akira Nishino’s men will be out to make a point against another relegation contender.

The strike pairing of Shoki Hirai and Takashi Usami, who have scored 14 and 7 goals respectively this season, will likely lead the line for Gamba. Usami starred for Japan at the recent AFC U19 Championships and will need to produce that form to ensure Gamba stay inside the top three.

FC Tokyo will welcome back midfielder Takuji Yonemoto, but will lose Yohei Kajiyama through suspension.

After sacking manager Hiroshi Jofuku in September, the club has got its season somewhat back on track with two wins and a draw from their last five games.

But with Gamba baying for blood, it’ll be a brave man that will back FC Tokyo to take anything from this game.

After winning their first piece of silverware since winning the Emporer’s Cup in 2003, Jubilo Iwata will be on a high when they host fellow mid-table outfit Albirex Niigata.

A win over Sanfrecce Hiroshima in the Nabisco Cup final during the week was a welcome return to success for the club that became accustomed to success in the late 90s and early 2000s.

Jubilo Iwata celebrate their
Nabisco Cup triumph
During that time the club won three titles (1997, 1999 and 2002), three times runner-up (1998, 2001 and 2003), one J.League Cup (1998), one Emporer’s Cup (2003) and the Asian Club Championship (1999).

It is a record that rivals that of Kashima Antlers, yet the club has gradually slipped down the table since and narrowly avoided relegation in 2008 after it finished 16th.

Despite a horror start to the season, just one win from the first seven games, Iwata has slowly recovered and sit in 11th place. Their last two weeks has seen them take all three points against Urawa, take a point against Kawasaki and win the Nabisco Cup.

The club can have genuine ambitions of finishing inside the top ten. Whilst it may not sound spectacular, after their start to the season it would be some small consolation.

They have one of the better front men in the league at their disposal in Riyochi Maeda and as such pose a threat to any team they play against.

Niigata had a similarly horror start to the season, but went on a barnstorming mid-season run that at one stage saw them in with a chance of clinching an ACL spot. However they have fallen away since and are now in a myriad of teams aiming for a top six finish.

Whilst they have no real chance of silverware this year, despite still being involved in the Emporer’s Cup, they have already had a big say in the outcome of this season’s J.League.

A last minute winner against Kashima last week all but ended the Antlers title hopes.

Other games this weekend include Sanfrecce Hiroshima hosting Urawa Reds in another mid-table battle. Sanfrecce will likely be a bit flat coming into the game after their extra time loss in the Nabisco Cup final.

For Urawa, they will be looking to arrest a two-game losing streak that has all but consigned them to a mid-table finish this season. The match is also important for their manager, German Volker Finke. There is still some doubt as to whether the German will keep his job next season and a strong finish to the season will help his cause.

The last two weeks wont have helped, with some reports during the week suggesting that ex-Japan coach Takeshi Okada could be a possible replacement.

Cerezo will take on S-Pulse
Both Shonan Bellmare and Kyoto Sanga are already resigned to the fact they will be playing their Football in J2 next year and both face difficult tasks this weekend; hosting Yokohama F.Marinos and Kawasaki Frontale respectively.

Cerezo Osaka and Shimizu S-Pulse have one chance left to stay in the hunt for an ACL spot when they meet at the Nagai Stadium on Saturday.

Also on Saturday is Vissel Kobe hosting Vegalta Sendai and Omiya Ardija hosting Montedio Yamagata.

But all the attention this weekend will be on the top of the table clash in Kashima on Sunday.

Dasher’s Predictions
Shonan Bellmare 0-3 Yokohama F.Marinos
Cerezo Osaka 1-1 Shimzu S-Pulse
Vissel Kobe 0-0 Vegalta Sendai
FC Tokyo 1-4 Gamba Osaka
Jubilo Iwata 1-0 Albirex Niigata
Omiya Ardija 1-1 Montedio Yamagata
Kyoto Sanga 0-2 Kawasaki Frontale
Sanfrecce Hiroshima 1-0 Urawa Reds
Kashima Antlers 1-2 Nagoya Grampus

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

J.League title Nagoya's for the taking

Josh Kennedy celebrates the
winner against Cerezo Osaka
The J.League title appears headed for Nagoya after a weekend that delivered a number of upsets, allowing Nagoya to extend their lead to 11 points with just six games remaining.

Nagoya went into the round with an eight point lead over second placed Kashima Antlers, who still held out hope of a record breaking fourth straight title.

Both sides faced tricky assignments, with Nagoya playing host to Cerezo Osaka and Kashima making the trek to Niigata for their game against Albirex.

The Nagoya-Cerezo clash was played at Toyota Stadium, away from Nagoya’s normal home stadium of Mizuho Athletic Stadium. It was their fifth game at the larger venue this season, with their previous four games resulting in two wins (vs Kobe and Urawa) and two losses (vs Kawasaki and Kashima).

Cerezo received a boost before the game when Tulio Tanaka was forced to withdraw.

But it was Nagoya that started brightest, with a shot from Keiji Tamada sailing just wide and a header from Mitsuru Chiyotanda well saved inside the first 15 minutes.

The opening goal would soon after though when Josh Kennedy was body checked in the box, leaving the referee with no other option than to blow for a penalty.

And it was the Australian who stepped up to the spot and knock home the penalty and his 16th goal for the season.

Cerezo created a couple of fantastic opportunities in the second half, but there was no way past Seigo Narazaki in the Nagoaya goal, who pulled off a number of outstanding saves to keep the score at 1-0.

Takashi Inui did what many on his side couldn’t just five minutes from time…beat Narazaki. Unfortunately for he and Cerezo the crossbar still stood in the way, with the ball cannoning back off the crossbar to safety.

That was enough to see Nagoya take all three points and go 11 points clear at the top.

In torrential rain Shimizu S-Pulse played host to struggling FC Tokyo. Both clubs were desperate for the three points, but for different reasons. Shimizu were trying to keep touch with the top three in the hope of stealing an ACL spot that looked assured for the first half of the season.

FC Tokyo were fighting to keep out of the relegation dogfight.

Sota Hirayama scored the opener for FC Tokyo

Despite their respective positions it was FC Tokyo that shone brightest early on the dark and dreary day, with Naohiro Ishikawa coming closest with a long range free kick that just went wide after 17 minutes.

Shimizu had their first real chance in the 25th minute, but it was a half chance at best.

FC Tokyo’s domination got the reward it deserved in the 32nd minute when Sota Hirayama headed home from a corner to breath life into the capital clubs fight for survival.

Shimizu should’ve scored before half time, but two guilt-edged chances inside a minute were both excellently saved by Shuichi Gonda.

The home side came out from the break determined to get back on level terms, but it was FC Tokyo that struck first after a defensive mistake allowed Masashi Oguro to tap home a simple goal to give FC Tokyo a surprise 2-0 lead.

Substitute Genki Omae made an immediate impact off the bench, scoring just one minute after coming on to give the home side a chance with 12 minutes remaining.

FC Tokyo put the game beyond doubt just two minutes before time when a long-range free kick bounced awkwardly for Yohei Nishibe who fumbled the ball over the line…or so they thought.

Unspeakably the linesman didn’t see the ball cross the line before Nishibe bought it back in to play and the goal wasn’t allowed. Replays clearly show the ball crossed the line.

It mattered little however as FC Tokyo held on for the final few minutes to record just their sixth win for the season, moving them two points clear of the relegation zone.

Elsewhere on Saturday, Vegalta Sendai surely condemned Kyoto Sanga to relegation after recording a 1-0 win at home and at the same time all but ensuring they remain in J1 next season.

Urawa Reds and Montedio Yamagata do battle

Urawa Reds missed a golden opportunity to climb further up the table after a 0-1 loss at home to Montedio Yamagata. After a strong recovery from a now traditional mid-season slump, Urawa has lost two on the trot to kill off any hopes of a top six, or higher, finish.

Kawasaki Frontale also missed a golden opportunity to put pressure on the top three when they drew at home to Jubilo Iwata.

In arguably the biggest shock of the round, Gamba Osaka inexplicably lost 2-4 at home to relegation-threatened Vissel Kobe. A win would’ve seen Gamba jump to second and go close to securing an ACL place for next season.

On Sunday Yokohama F.Marinos hosted Sanfrecce Hiroshima in what promised to be an intriguing mid-table clash.

F.Marinos, playing at their second home ground of Mitsuzawa Stadium, came within inches of opening the lead early on after a long-range bullet from Norihisa Shimizu sailed just wide.

It would be Sanfrecce that would open the scoring though Yojiro Takahagi after 22 minutes to stun the home crowd.

In a bizarre incident after the goal, the Sanfrecce players took their positions for what looked like an elaborate goal celebration when the referee came over to break up the party.

Yuji Ono scored again for Yokohama

Yokohama equalised in equally bizarre circumstances when a harmless volley was deflected forward by Yuji Ono, wrong footing the keeper and bouncing in to the open.

Both sides created good chances in the second half and just when it looked like it might be headed for a 1-1 result, up stepped Shimizu to smash in a goal from the edge of the box to send to home crowd wild.

That was enough to see F.Marinos hold on for a 2-1 win and move to 45 points, equal with Cerezo Osaka and Shimizu S-Pulse, just four points behind Gamba and Kashima.

The final game of the weekend saw Albirex Niigata host Kashima Antlers in a must-win game for both clubs.

The first half failed to live up to expectations with both sides reduced to speculative shots from distance that never really troubled either keeper.

It took all of two minutes though for Niigata to open the scoring in the second half when a bullet from Marcio Richardes found the top corner.

That prompted Kashima into action and it was just over ten minutes later that scores were level thanks to a classy finish from Toru Araiba.

It looked like Kashima might steal it in the 89th minute, but two spectacular saves back-to-back from Masaaki Higashiguchi saved Niigata.

Niigata players celebrate the winner against Kashima

The saves proved important as Niigata went down the other end to score the winner in the 90th minute. Isao Hommer hammered home the ball after having it cut back for him on the edge of the box.

The Kashima players were left devastated at an opportunity lost.

It sets up the most mouth-watering of mouth-watering clashes next week when Kashima host Nagoya next Sunday.

You’d have to think if Nagoya takes anything from that game the title is theirs…if it isn’t already.