May 12, 2023

Thirty Years On . . .

This weekend marks the J.League's official 30th anniversary. Actually, it isnt true that the J.League was created 30 years ago, despite what the official press releases might say. The J.League was formed in 1992, and the ten original teams that established the League played an extended and very heavily publicised Nabisco Cup campaign, which ran from late 1992 to Golden Week of 1993. This weekend marks the 30th anniversary of the first League match, which was played between Tokyo Verdy and Yokohama Marinos at Tokyo National Stadium on May 15, 1993. To mark the occasion, here is an "old-school" match report, like the ones I wrote every single week, for fifteen long and memorable years.

I was actually in Europe in May 1993 [part of a six-month honeymoon and badly needed vacation], so I can't claim to have seen the first J.League match live. But I do still have an official J.League VHS cassette of it, if anyone wants to make an offer on E-Bay. I did return to Japan in time to enjoy the run-in for that marvellous inaugural season, and have vivid memories of the playoff -- Kashima's early advantage ... the dodgy PK to Verdy ... Zico spitting on the ball ...

... but perhaps the most vivid memory I have of that season was the day when Sanfrecce Hiroshima coach Stuart Baxter yelled at a referee following one dodgy offside call, pointed at the big screen (which was showing a replay) and shouted "Look! You got that one wrong." He was promptly shown a red card - officially, for 意義 or "disputation" - and the J.League soon afterwards adopted an unofficial policy of never showing controversial replays to the crowd.

The point is that 30 years ago, the actual quality of the football being played was often overshadowed by the comical and often amateurish aspects of the Japanese game. Oh ... how times have changed.


2 - 1  

The weekend kicked off with a Friday evening contest betwen FC Tokyo and Kawasaki Frontale - two teams that did not join the League until near the end of the 1990s but which have now established themselves as regular contenders for silverware. This local grudge match, dubbed the "Tamagawa Classico," (because the two stadiums sit on opposite sides of the Tamagawa river), has become one of the most hotly contested local derbies in the J1, in recent years. The match on Friday, and the Tamagawa Classico in general, help to illustrate one of the most progressive aspects of the J.League over its 30-year history: the competitive picture is constantly changing, and even a small club from a small town can hope to enjoy glory every now and then [just ask a Ventforet Kofu fan].

A host of factors contribute to maintaining this competitive balance. In the past, the financial strictures that force clubs to live within their budget were critical, and you can trace the rise and fall of many clubs to their success (or more often, their failure) in building a revenue stream to support a competitive team.

But in more recent years, another factor has come into play. When a team does particularly well in the J.League, nowadays, it attracts attention from European clubs, and before you can say "Latest Transfer Rumor", the top players have all been lured away. One can see how quickly this can change a team's fortunes by looking at Kawsasaki Frontale, this season. After losing NT-caliber players for three years in a row, Frontale find themselves facing a far more daunting challenge this season at trying to remain in the title race. They entered the weekend in seventh place, just ahead of their Friday-night opponents, FC Tokyo.

After trading feints and jabs for the opening ten minutes, the Capital City Coon-dogs opened the scoring thanks to a lovely bit of individual hustle from wingback Shuhei Tokumoto. Yuto Nagatomo tried to lob a ball in to striker Shuto Abe, but the striker was unable to head it down and the ball bounded into the far left corner. When Tokumoto saw that none of the Frontale defenders were chasing the loose ball, he put on a burst of speed and just managed to keep the ball in play in at the corner flag. Before anyone could react, the Tokyo wingback skipped into the box and let fly a shot. Frontale keeper Naoto Kamifukumoto realised the danger too late, and Tokumoto's rising line drive from the low angle hit the roof of the net before Kamifukumoto could react.

Frontale began to press with greater urgency, looking for an equaliser. But it would be FC Tokyo who scored next, on a Frontale miscue. Diego Oliveira dispossessed Tatsuki Seko deep in Frontale territory, and again Tokumoto found space in the left corner to collect Oliveira's pass. This time he sent in a low cross to the edge of the six-yard box, which Shuto Abe deflected home, giving the hosts a two-goal advantage.

Frontale began their fight-back almost immediately, and though Tokyo defended well the Blue Dolphins had several good chances as the half hour mark passed. In the 39th minute the pressure finally paid off. Seko made up for his earlier error by playing a brilliant pass which sent striker Taisei Miyashiro through the left channel for a one-touch finish into the low right corner. Frontale's momentum continued after the goal, but the score remained 2-1 in Tokyo's favor at the break.

Just five minutes after the restart Frontale's hopes of a comeback suffered a huge blow, when Yasuto Wakizaka slid in to tackle Tokyo's Teruhito Nakagawa and caught him in the calf with his studs. Though it appeared clumsy rather than dangerous, on video review referee Yuichi Nishimura decided it was worthy of a red card, and Frontale were reduced to ten men.

Frontale tried to keep up the pressure, and for most of the second half they not only created decent chances, but even maintained a high share of possession. However, with the numerical disadvantage they were forced to play a lot of long balls into space, and run hard in order to create the space.

With ten minutes to go, Takuma Ominami sent a long lead pass which bounded just outside the box and looped towards the left channel. Daiya Tono raced in from the flank and made a spectacular play to chest the ball down and volley it on net. However, Jakub Slowik reacted to smother Tono's initial drive, and Miki Yamane failed to put the rebound on target. Tono managed to put one more dangerous shot on target as the clock wound down towards 90', but Slowik again was able to tip it over the bar and preserve Tokyo's lead.

The three points move the Tanuki level with Frontale on points, though the latter still have a superior goal difference. But both teams could possibly slip below midtable depending on how Reds, Cerezo and Consadole do on Saturday and Sunday.


 

Date:
12 May, 2023
Attendance:
56,707
Location:
Tokyo National Stadium

2

2 1H 1
0 2H 0

1

Shuhei Tokumoto (12')
Shuto Abe (25')

Scoring


 

Taisei Miyashiro (39')  
Ryoma Watanabe
Teruhito Nakagawa
Cautions

Shintaro Kurumaya
Joao Schmidt
Takuma Ominami

  Sent Off

Yasuto Wakizaka

Jakub Slowik; Yuto Nagatomo, Kimoto, Masato Morishige, Shuhei Tokumoto; Keigo Higashi, Kei Koizumi; Teruhito Nakagawa (Kashif Bangnagande 88'); Shuto Abe, Ryoma Watanabe (Koki Tsukagawa 73'); Diego Oliveira (Adailton 60').

Naoto Kamifukumoto; Miki Yamane, Takuma Ominami (Kazuya Yamamura 90+6), Shintaro Kurumaya, Kyohei Noborizato; Yasuto Wakizaka, Joao Schmidt (Arata Yamada 82'), Tatsuki Seko (Ryota Oshima 59'); Akihiro Ienaga (Kento Tachibanada 75'), Taisei Miyashiro (Yu Kobayashi 75'), Marcinho (Daiya Tono 59').


2 - 0  

Vissel Kobe are riding high this season, coming into the week as the league leaders and showing signs tht they just MIGHT finally have the necessary talent and team cohesion to win their first ever JLeague title. Despite laying out some very substantial money in recent years, and attracting big-name players like Andres Iniesta, David Villa, Lukas Podolski and Sergi Samper, Vissel has struggled to rise far above midtable. Those who follow the club have been able to see, for quite some time, that the problem was not quality alone. Rather, it has been the lack of any team chemistry, or a clear and consistent footballing philosophy.

But over the past year or so, it seems that the Vissel front ofice has seen the light. Whether by accident or design, the club managed to sign several former national-team players who were lured back to Japan after frustrating, albeit not-unimpressive stints in Europe. Yuya Osako, Yoshinori Muto and Gotoku Sakai have provided a solid and experienced attacking unit. The Crimson Cows have also picked up a number of other, less "famous" contributors from weaker J1 teams. This writer still thinks Kobe lacks a real "strategy" for player acquisition, and is just snatching any good prospect that crosses their radar. Nevertheless, Vissel's success rate has definitely improved. The likes of Koya Yuruki, Yuki Honda, Mitsuki Saito and Takahiro Ogihara bring not only extensive J.League experience to the team, but also a lot better chemistry and team cooperation than we saw in the star-studded squads of recent years.

Looking at their overall roster, Kobe might be a bit on the "mature" side to remain in the chase to the very end. Their attack, in particular, lacks any real "youth" or even young prospects. But at this point in the season Vissel's chances look brighter than ever, and the impending retirement of Iniesta (to be announced this summer) just might mark the beginning of a championship era.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima have a lot more title experience than the team they faced off against on Saturday. While they have not won the league since 2015, they typically finish in the upper half, and last year's Levain Cup title suggests that the Purple Archers may be back in contention for a 2023 championship. Sanfrecce faces some of the same weaknesses that Vissel does - an aging core team that could struggle to maintain the pace in the heat of August and September. However, the Hiroshima youth program has been turning out J1 quality talent for 20 years, so there is less concern about where the team can get an influx of youthful energy. Last year's breakout star Yuya Asano (younger brother of Bochum's Takuma Asano) was sold to Consadole Sapporo, but players like Makoto Mitsuta, Shunki Higashi and Ryo Tanada look ready to step right into his vacated shoes.

Furthermore, incoming German gaffer Michael Skibbe seems to have already developed a good sense of what "works" and what does not work in the J.League. The team entered this match in fourth place with a game in hand, and for the opening 11 matches, the team has relied mostly on domestic players in the starting lineup (apart from strikers Nassim ben Khalifa or Douglas Vieira). If Skibbe can make a few smart signings this summer, perhaps tapping some promising young German attackers or a Big centre half, Sanfrecce certainly have a chance to claim their first league crown since the Moriyasu era.

The opening sequences of play at Kobe's Noevir Stadium were a bit too aggressive and disorganised, with both teams conceding a lot of set plays in relatively dangerous positions. By around the 15 minute mark, though, the pace dropped off slightly and the two teams settled into a more coherent run of play. Hiroshima's narrow, 3-6-1 alignment conceded a lot of possession to Vissel in the wide areas, but effectively stuffed up the centre of the pitch and limited the Crimson Cows to a few high crosses from the perimeter. Vissel retained their patience and did not give the ball away too easily, but when Sanfrecce did win possession their attacks were quick and direct.

As the first half wound down Vissel began to alter their attack, with Muto and Osako dropping deeper into the formation to avoid the clutter in the penalty area, then trying to slip the ball down one of the wings, behind the Sanfrecce block. The Purple Archers had far less of the ball, since they almost always launched a charge towards goal as soon as they won possession. In terms of scoring opportunities, both strategies seemed to be equally (un)productive. there were a lot of speculative balls into the box, but each team managed only a single shot on net in the first half.

Hiroshima coach Skibbe responded at half time by bringing on Brazilian midfielder Ezequiel for Takaaki Shichi, perhaps hoping to maintan a bit more possession in the attacking half. But it was Vissel who came out with a bang. Just a minute after the restart Osako and Muto teamed up to split the Archers' defense asunder. As Kobe broke out on a counter, Osako dropped back to midfield to collect the ball behind the first wave of attack, swivelled suddenly, and fired a pass down the right flank for Muto.

The former Newcastle striker sent his first touch through the Hiroshima defense, and right onto the boots of Hotaru Yamaguchi, charging the net. The keeper, a Sanfrecce defender and Yamaguchi all arrived at the same time, and though the result would be credited as an Own Goal, Yamaguchi had as much right to claim it as his own.

The opening goal invigorated the dynamic of play, as Sanfrecce began pressing harder on the attack and Kobe began looking to cut the passing lanes and launch quick counters. Ezequiel began to make his presence felt in the buildup to attack, with Sanfrecce taking contol of possession. At the hour mark Coach Skibbe brought on Douglas Vieira and Shuto Nakano to further sharpen the attack.

This almost immediately produced resuts, but a perimiter shot from Vieira in the 61st minute was batted away by Daiya Maekawa. Sanfrecce's attacking play continued to produce dangers, so in the 67th minute Vissel coach Takayuki Yoshida brought on defensive veteran Leo Osaki for a midfielder, to stiffen the defense. Osaki has been out of the squad in recent weeks due to injury, and it appears that he may have a serious, long-term problem because he lasted only ten minutes before being replaced himself, by Haruya Ide.

As Vissel struggled to sort out the changes, Hiroshima's control of the initiative continued. However, solid play in net by Maekawa, the threat of Kobe counterattacks, and an excessive number of stray passes in the final third kept the Purple Archers from unleashing their arrows. The pitch surface at Noevir Stadium was slick, giving Sanfrecce some excuse for their miscues, but coach Skibbe will not be happy with the number of chances his team wasted simply because they tried to rush the pass/cross.

With five of six minutes played in injury time, Vissel finally broke the Sanfrecce barrage, and dashed out on a three-on-two counterattack. Yoshinori Muto carried the ball all the way from midfield to the edge of the Sanfrecce box, then fired into the low left corner to seal the victory. Thus Vissel weathered the late challenge and secured their grip on first place with their tenth win of the season. Sanfrecce retain fourth place but slip three points further off the pace at the top.


 

Date:
13 May, 2023
Attendance:
15,741
Location:
Kobe Wing (Noevir) Stadium

2

0 1H 0
2 2H 0

0

Own Goal (12')
Yoshinmori Muto (90+5')

Scoring


 
Mateus Thuler
Haruya Ide
Cautions

Takaaki Shichi
Hayato Araki
Shuto Nakano

Daiya Maekawa; Tetsushi Yamakawa, Mateus Thuler, Yuki Honda, Ryo Hatsuse; Hotaru Yamaguchi, Mitsuki Saito, Daiki Sasaki (Leo Osaki 67') (Haruya Ide 78'); Yoshinori Muto, Yuya Osako, Koya Yuruki.

Osako; Tsukasa Shiotani, Hayato Araki, Sho Sasaki; Sota Koshimichi (Shuto Nakano 60'), Shunki Higashi (Daichi Yamazaki 88'), Gakuto Notsuda (D. Viera 60'), Takaaki Shichi (Ezequiel 45'); Tsukasa Morishima, Takumu Kawamura; Nassim ben Khalifa (Shun Ayukawa 72').


0 - 1  

Saturday's late kickoff took place at Kashiwa Hitachi Stadium (aka Sankyo Frontier Stadium), where two beleaguered coaches faced off hoping to protect their jobs for another week. Yokohama FC entered the match in last place, with only one win in 12 attempts. Fulie gaffer Shuhei Yomoda was viewed as one of the most likely coaches to NOT see the end of the season, and Yokohama's performance so far just confirms the preseason expectation. Fortunately for Yokohama, the league is expanding to 20 teams in 2024 and only one team will be relegated this year. While there is still some hope, fans of last-place Fulie are not terribly optimistic about staying in the top-flight next season.

Kashiwa Reysol fans, by contrast, were expecting a lot more from their team this year. Coach Nelson Baptista Junior (Nelsinho) led the Sun Kings to a seventh-place finish last year, and after some large-scale buying and selling over the winter, many assumed that the team could be even stronger. But Reysol has yet to demonstrate any real competitiveness on the pitch in 2023. Eleven points from their 12 matches put Reysol in 16th place, just two above Yokohama.

Nelsinho is currently the J.League's longest-serving coach. He has been the Reysol gaffer for eleven years in total (two stints: 2009-14 and 2019 to present), and has also coached for extended periods at Verdy Kawasaki, Nagoya Grampus and Vissel Kobe. He is the only coach to have ever won the J.league title with two separate teams (Verdy and Reysol), but he also has a reputation for clashing with players and team management, if his absolute authority is challenged [For those with a historical interest, JSoccer's team history of Nagoya Grampus discusses one of these "clashes" in detail].

Reysol have just one loss in their last five games, and victory at home in this contest would surely preserve the veteran gaffer's job for the time being. However there have already been rumours about Reysol pursuing another (European) coach, with the aim of hiring him some time this summer. For both teams, therefore, Saturday's match was a critically important one. Reysol have conceded some very soft goals this season, and Yokohama FC set out immediately, in this contest, to pressure their back line with a very high press and a lot of trapping/double-teaming. This produced a number of half-chance for the visitors in the opening 15 minutes.

However, Reysol gradually began to warm to the contest, creating a number of chances on set plays and gradually weathering the initial Yokohama surge. The first truly dangerous chance of the contest came in the 32nd minute, when a steal by Reysol's Mao Hosoya deep in the Yokohama end created a momentary three-on-two. Matheus Savio tried to carry the ball into the box on two successive dribbling drives, and the second time was able to fire straight at the keeper from inside the six yard box. But after a ping-pong scrambling in the goal mouth Yokohama managed to clear.

Encouraged by the close call, Reysol stepped the pace up a gear and over the remaining minutes of the half they sent in a string of crosses and corner kicks. Though only that initial drive by Savio was truly dangerous, official stats show that the subsequent Kashiwa barrage took their shot count to 16 in the first half alone (five on net).

The shots . . . and their waywardness . . . cotinued after the break. The Sun Kings seemed to have the upper hand, yet never managed to create a truly convincing opportunity to score. All attempts were skewed wide or blasted over the crossbar. Fulie, on the other hand, relied almost entirely on defense. The only chances that the visitors created came from steals or loose balls won deep in Reysol territory. When you are in last place, perhaps this sort of passivity is acceptable in the name of claiming a point on the road. But Yokohama fans surely can not be enjoying the football their team has been playing this season.

Given the almost complete dominance exhibited by the home team, for the opening 67 minutes, it was only to be expected that the first goal would come on a stroke of bad fate. Following one of Reysol's best scoring opportunities of the half, Yokoham made a foray down the left flank, Ryoya Yamashita sent a ball into the left corner for Sho Ito, and the former Marinos and Grenoble winger's cross accidentaly hit the arm of a Reysol defender. Replays show a very typical slide and attempt to block the cross. Under the old rule on handball, the defender's arm did not seem to be in an "unnatural" position, though it was just outside the "cylinder" of his body. VAR confirmed a penalty kick for Yokohama, just the same. Koki Ogawa drilled the spot kick, and Fulie were suddenly in position to snatch ony their second victory of the year.

Reysol fought furiously to overturn the deficit, but Yokohama's defense remained as stubborn as before, and Reysol's shots seemed to grow increasingly desperate. Though they would make 28 attempts in total, the closest Reysol came to hitting the net came with about six minutes left: a Matheus Savio lob off the crossbar.

The victory raises Yokohama FC level on points with Reysol, though the Sun Kings remain in 16th place. Fulie are in 17th for the moment, but both will be watching currently last-place Gamba Osaka in their match against Urawa Reds, tomorrow.


 

Date:
13 May, 2023
Attendance:
8,111
Location:
Kashiwa Hitachi Stadium

0

0 1H 0
0 2H 1

1

 

Scoring


Koki Ogawa (69' P)
 

Cautions


Yuri Lara
Tomoki Kondo
Koki Ogawa
Shion Inoue

Kenta Matsumoto; Eichi Katayama (Naoki Kawaguchi 80'), Yugo Tatsuta, Taiyo Koga, Hiromu Mitsumaru; Keiya Shiihashi, Tomoki Takamine (Kenta Yamada 80'); Sachiro Toshima (Grot 72'), Matheus Savio, Tomoya Koyamatsu; Mao Hosoya (Yuki Muto 83') .

Svend Brodersen; Katsuya Iwatake, Nduka Boniface, Kyohei Yoshino; Tomoki Kondo (Einaga Yamane 70'), Yuri Lara, Shion Inoue, Kotaro Hayashi; Sho Ito (Koki Sakamoto 70', Ryoya Yamashita (Saulo Mineiro 79'); Koki Ogawa


2 - 4  

 Consadole Sapporo fans have enjoyed some very attractive football over the past few seasons, thanks in part to the attack-oriented philosophy and innovative tactics employed by coach Mihailo Petrovic. However, despite the flair with which the Snow-Owls have played, their place in the J1 pecking order has not changed much since the start of Petrovic's reign. The former Sanfrecce and Reds gaffer led Sapporo to a shock fourth-place finish in his first season, but since then the team has remained stubbornly midtable.

Fans in the far north of Japan are hopeful this year, however. Consadole are off to a strong start, and entered the weekend in sixth place. Moreover, they seem to be gaining strength and cohesion as the season goes along. One of the most critical improvements this year has been the addition of striker Yuya Asano from Hiroshima. Asano is the younger brother of Takuma, the Bochum ace, and he plays a very similar style with fleet-footed slashing attacks. Petrovic has ties with both brothers since they were in the U-18s, and he managed to convince Yuya to make the move to Hokkaido, this spring.

Bellmare, on the other hand, are coming off one of their best seasons in recent memory (12th place in J1), yet seem to be in a bit of a pessimistic slump. The risk of relegation this year is almost nonexistent (only one team will face relegation, and even that depends on a playoff with J2 teams), so the Beach Bums of the Shonan Shoreline have lost the main motivating factor that has propelled them through recent seasons. So far this year they have been a dificult opponent, but have only two wins to go with five draws.

The disparity in team momentum and sharpness made itself felt just six minutes after kickoff. Consadole moved the ball almost casually into the right corner, Takuro Kaneko made a sudden surge to the end line, and his low cross was turned home by Yoshiaki Komai.

Consadole continued to dominate the run of play for the entire first half. But the early goal ... or perhaps the rain-slicked pitch ... may have caused the Owls to ease off on the pressure. Bellmare narrowly made it through a few scrapes, including two separate PK shouts by Asano for contact around the penalty box, but at half time the deficit remained just a single goal.

The complexion of the contest would take a dramatic shift early in the second half, however, as Bellmare turned the score on its head. The comeback actually started in the 53rd minute, when Bellmare players spotted and appealed for an accidental hand ball in the Consadole penalty box. It took nearly seven minutes to sort out, but a PK was indeed awarded, and in the 59th minute young NT prospect Shuto Machino levelled the contest from the penalty spot.

Invigorated by the goal, Bellmare came out and launched a rolling attack that seemed to have been stopped by foul play three or four times (both teams sliding in on late challenges), only for Machino to latch onto it above the penalty arc and feed it into space near the right top corner of the 18-yard box. Hiroyuki Abe galloped in and stroked a shot past Takanori SUgeno, and Bellmare was suddenly in the lead!

But Consadole regained their poise quickly and over the next ten minutes set seige to the Bellmare goal mouth. A fierce press won the ball back again and again, depriving Bellmare of any possession. In the 70th minute, Tsuyoshi Ogashiwa made a sudden dash through the middle, and Kanerko met his run with a looping chip towards the penalty spot. Ogashiwa met the ball in full stride and headed it over the keeper's fingertips to restore parity again.

Five minutes later, it was Asano the Younger's turn to light up the scoreboard and put his teakm in front. The play began with a Bellmare throw-in deep in their own end. Komai and Ogashiwa teamed up to snatch the ball away and Ogashiwa immediately fed it to Asano, inside the penalty arc. The Consadole ace slanted to his left to evade the last defender and sent a left-footer screaming into the low left corner.

Bellmare never got their heads back into the contest, and following a number of opportunities, Thai midfielder Supachok finished off the contest with a majestic, arching drive from the left side of the box into the top right corner. The win lifts Consadole temporarily into fifth place, though several teams play their matches tomorrow.


 

Date:
13 May, 2023
Attendance:
7,694
Location:
Hiratsuka (LemonGas) Stadium

2

0 1H 1
2 2H 3

4

Shuto Machino (59')
Hiroyuki Abe (60')

Scoring


Yoshinari Komai (06')
Tsuyoshi Ogashiwa (70')
Yuya Asano (75')
Supachok (87')
Hirokazu Ishihara Cautions

Daihachi Okamura


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