The J.League is back in action, kicking off on Friday evening in Tosu. Although many of the contests this weekend were a bit ragged, as teams exhibited the lack of precision and group coherence that one might expect at such an early stage of the season, the intensity of play was not lacking in any of this week's contests. JSoccer.com will keep you posted on all the action this season, so check in regularly for reports on all matches, as JSoccer brings you all the colour and excitement of Japanese football . . . from the inside!


 

  1 - 1  

The J.League 2018 Season kicked off on Friday, on a chilly but energetic Kyushu evening. This marked the first time ever that the J1 campaign kicked off on a day other than Saturday, and though there is some concern that the introduction of Friday evening contests may have an adverse impact on attendances, at least on this occasion the stands were packed as Sagan Tosu played host to Vissel Kobe. The nearly 20,000 fans at “Best Amenity Stadium” in Tosu did not have to wait long for the flames of competition to ignite. In fact, many had yet to reach their seats when Sagan striker Kyosuke Tagawa burst past the Kobe defense and was upended at the edge of the box, earning a penalty kick. 

Sagan was making just their second foray of the contest into Kobe territory when a long pass by Hideto Takahashi, at the midfield stripe, sent Tagawa away on a one-on-one dash behind veteran Daisuke Nasu. Replays suggest that Mr. Yuichi Nishimura got the call wrong – although the Kobe defender did tug on Tagawa’s shoulder from behind, he released the Tosu player just before he crossed into the box.  But the damage was done. Tagawa buried his spot kick and with just over three minutes in the books, the home team was on the scoreboard.

Sagan has rejuvenated their roster this season, and some fans worry that the team might struggle on offense this season. The biggest off-season departure was veteran target man Yohei Toyoda, who became the latest – and possibly the most high-profile J.Leaguer ever – to move to South Korea’s K.League. Toyoda joined ACL participants Ulsan Hyundai, filling the spot open for AFC-based players, in addition to the three international slots permitted under ACL rules. Though the towering presence of Toyoda will be missed, Sagan’s attacking line has been in need of some youthful energy for the past year or two. Tagawa – who filled the central striker spot in this contest – gave Sagan their first goal of the year. But based on the number of times he narrowly failed to finish off plays, in this contest, he will need some experience before he can fully fill Toyoda’s shoes.

On the opposite side of the ball, Vissel fans are wondering whether last year’s acquisition of two high-profile attacking players, Lucas Podolski and Mike Havenaar, will begin to produce meaningful returns this season. Last year Podolski was responsible for only a handful of goals, but a very large number of verbal spats with his own teammates. As talented as the Former German international might be, he can only be a true asset to his team if he learns how to work effectively with the rest of the Crimson Clan. He appears to be fitter than he was in the first few weeks of his stint last year. Critically, incoming coach Takayuki Yoshida has handed Podolski the driver’s wheel in central midfield, where he should see more of the ball than he did last season. 

Just as importantly, Yoshida selected former Kyoto Sanga and Urawa Reds coach Gert Engels as his assistant.  Hopefully Gert’s presence (and excellent multilingual abilities) can help Podolski to integrate more effectively with the team. Podolski’s move to midfield also allows Havenaar to take over a starting role in the front line. Last year the two were rarely used at the same time. Over the first half hour of play Vissel had a tough time building momentum on offense, continuing to show a lack of understanding or chemistry in the attacking third. But as the match progressed, Havenaar’s size and strength as a front-line target, and Podolski’s vision and passing skills, started to win the dominant share of possession and field position. Despite the improvement, the Crimson failed to test Sagan keeper Yuichi Gonda before the halftime break.

Speaking of the halftime break . . . . no, on second thought, let’s NOT speak of the halftime break. The “musical performance” (and I use that term loosely) by K-POP “star” (and I use that term even MORE loosely) JayJun, was an assault on the eardrums and an insult to the very concept of music. Please . . . in the name of all the divine Kami and the spirits of our revered ancestors . . . I pray that these half-time performances will not become a regular feature at J.League games. I doubt I could handle a repeat of that travesty.

The second half picked up where the opening period left off – Kobe had the better share of possession, and efforts to lob the ball in to Havenaar began to produce a few decent half-chances, while Sagan was limited to the occasional quick counterattack down the wings. Shortly after the hour mark, Coach Yoshida applied the sharpener to his attacking unikt, bringing on Keijiro Ogawa and the newly acquired Wellington (a key contributor at Avispa Fukuoka for the past three seasons) in place of Kazuma Watanabe and Wataru Hashimoto. This dialed up the intensity on both sides, and the next ten minutes or so were marred by a number of argy-bargy incidents among players battling for high balls around the Tosu box. The visitors monopolized possession apart from one or two counterattacking thrusts, but the Tosu players displayed greater poise and mental control, turning away one Vissel power play after another. 

With 15 minutes to go, Kobe brought on their new Thai acquisition, Teeraton Bunmathon, for his first J.League appearance. The Thai international got involved almost immediately, taking over the kicking duties for set plays, which were steadily mounting (on both sides of the ball). After dozens of fruitless attempts, the Crimson fnally managed to hit their target with a looping ball into the box. In the 86th minute, Wellington pulled down a lob just inside the area, directly in the center of the pitch. After feinting once, he passed the ball back to Havenaar inside the penalty arc, and the 193-cm striker slammed a right-footed shot off the inside of the right post and into the back netting. 

The final few minutes slipped away in a frantic, fast-paced but rather disjointed exchange of long balls and breathless sprints. Neither team was able to break the deadlock, and the opening match of the 2018 season concluded on level terms. 

Date:
24 February, 2018
Attendance: 
19,663
Location:
Tosu Stadium

  1

1 1H 0
0 2H 1

1  

Kyosuke Tagawa (03') Scoring Mike Havenaar (87')
Hideto Takahashi Cautions

Daisuke Nasu
Yoshiki Matsushita
Lucas Podolski
Hirofumi Watanabe

 Yuichi Gonda; Yuzo Kobayashi, Kim Min-Hyeok, Jun Seung-Hyun, Yutaka Yoshida; Hideto Takahashi, Riki Harakawa, Akito Fukuta; Cho Dong-Geon (Kei Ikeda 59'), Yuji Ono, Kyosuke Tagawa (Yuji Takahashi 70')  

Kim Seung-Gyu; So Fujitani (Teeraton Bunmathon 75'), Daisuke Nasu, Hirofumi Watanabe, Wataru Hashimoto (Keijiro Ogawa 65'); Hirotaka Mita, Yoshiki Matsushita, Masatoshi Mihara; Lucas Podolski; Mike Havenaar, Kazuma Watanabe (Wellington 65')


   1 - 0   

Although computer-based randomizers are supposedly used to draw up the bulk of the match schedule, the J.League usually gives careful consideration to the selection of opening-week matches. Organizers usually try to select regional rivalries, clashes between closely-matched opponents, or teams with some other relationship in order to excite fans and boost the league’s profile among the general public. This was perhaps most apparent in the scheduling of this week’s curtainraiser between Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Consadole Sapporo. The J.League has been working hard to boost its profile in Southeast Asia, supported by cooperative relationships with ASEAN leagues and an influx of players from Thailand and Vietnam, among other places. This week’s match marked the first time that two Thai internationals have ever faced off against one another in a J.League contest -- a great advertisement to prospective fans in the Kingdom of Thailand. 

Chanathip Songkrasin broke into the spotlight last season, as a debutant at Consadole, and proved conclusively that Southeast Asian players can succeed in Japan. This year his compatriot, Teerasil Dangda, joins Sanfrecce Hiroshima, and based on his preseason performances most observers in the Great Purple Kingdom are expecting him to match, or even surpass Chanathip’s feats in Sapporo. The opening-week match between these two Thai stars was a blatant appeal to potential fans in Thailand, and a well-considered one at that. Public vi3ewing events were arranged in Bangkok, giving local football aficionados a chance to witness Teerasil’s J.League debut . . . as well as his first J.League goal.

From the opening phases of play, Sanfrecce took the upper hand, creating a flurry of early opportunities with forays down the flanks. Though Teerasil quickly got himself involved in the run of play, most of the early chances came from the left-flank duo of Sho Sasaki and Yoshifumi Kashiwa. But in the 28th minute, when Kashiwa finally turned the Sapporo right flank and broke into the box, the first man he spotted was Teerasil, lurking near the penalty spot. Teerasil flicked Kashiwa’s cross on into the low right corner, and just managed to beat the dive of Gu Sung-Yun. Less than a half-hour into his J.League career, Teerasil was already announcing his presence to Hiroshima fans with a pumping fist and a powerful leap of celebration.

Not to be upstaged by his Thailand teammate, Chanathip began to contribute some dribbling runs and dangerous crosses of his own, teaming up with first Jay Bothroyd and then Koji Miyoshi for Consadole’s best two chances of the first half. But Sanfrecce maintained their lead at the halftime break.

Early in the second half Sanfrecce suffered a blow when defender Kazuhiko Chiba came down heavily on his right arm after contesting a corner kick, and appeared to sprain his wrist. His replacement, Yuki Nogami, is a solid defender in his own right, but he certainly does not have the experience or leadership provided by the 15-year veteran, who spent the first three seasons of his career in the Netherlands. Consadole coach Mihailo Petrovic spotted an opportunity, and quickly called to the bench for veteran playmaker and former national team genius Shinji Ono. Though age and injuries have diminished his mobility and his impact, Ono still has the ability to shred a defence to confetti with a single touch. As the contest moved into its final ten minutes, Consadole took over the control of play for the first time all afternoon. 

For the final ten minutes the Snow Owls pounded at the door repeatedly, but Sanfrecce’s defence stubbornly kept it locked and barred. Four minutes into injury time, keeper Takuto Hayashi leapt to pick an Ono corner kick right off the forehead of Bothroyd, and the final whistle sounded. Sanfrecce claimed their first win of the season, and as Thai flags waved in both end zones, a legion of fans in Southeast Asia savored what will hopefully be many more experiences of the Beautiful Game as only Japan provides it.

 

Date: 
25 February, 2018
Attendance: 
17,026
Location: 
Hiroshima Big Arch

 1

1 1H 0
0 2H 0

0  

Teerasil Dangda (28') Scoring  
Hayao Kawabe
Toshihiro Aoyama
Cautions

Jay Bothroyd

 Takuto Hayashi; Takuya Wada, Kazuhiko Chiba (Yuki Nogami 62'), Hiroki Mizumoto, Sho Sasaki; Toshihiro Aoyama, Sho Inagaki, Hayao Kawabe (Kosei Shibasaki 88'), Yoshifumi Kashiwa; Patric Oliveira, Teerasil Dangda (Daiki Watari 84')

Gu Sung-Yun; Ryosuke Shindo, Kim Min-Tae, Akito Fukumori; Yoshiaki Komai, Hiroki Miyazawa; Kazuki Fukai (Shinji Ono 71'), Daiki Suga Naoki Ishikawa 59'), Koji Miyoshi, Chanathip Songkran (Reis 71'); Jay Bothroyd


  1 - 1  

While the Sanfrecce-Consadole match may have been the biggest event in the eyes of Southeast Asians, the top contest on this week’s marquee was the clash between the two Tokyo-area giants, Urawa Reds and FC Tokyo. Plenty of partisans would dispute the claim if I were to call these two “the best-supported teams in the J.League”, but regardless of how one calculates “best”, these two teams certainly count the largest numbers of tickets sold each season.  The Reds have held the number one spot for the past decade, and their ACL championship last year should ensure that they maintain top spot in 2018. But FC Tokyo has gradually been closing the gap as crowds at Ajinomoto Stadium in western Tokyo creep slowly towards the venue’s rated capacity of 49,000.

The 36,000 who turned out on a sunny Saturday afternoon were perhaps disappointed by the rather cautious, uneventful first half, but as soon as the two teams came out for the second act, the fireworks began to fly. Three minutes after the restart a long lead pass found Keigo Higashi breaking behind the Reds defence. Higashi collected the ball just above the penalty arc, and showed excellent poise in holding off the last defender while waiting for Shusaku Nishikawa to make a commitment. As Nishikawa dashed off his line Higashi pushed the ball just past the keeper’s fingertips, and it trickled lazily into the left corner to put Tokyo in the early lead. 

But the Reds wasted no time in responding to the challenge. A mere two minutes later Urawa won a corner kick on the left side, and Tomoaki Makino met the cross with a lunging right-footed volley into the back strings. These two tallies dispelled the caution that prevailed over the opening half, and suddenly the run of play roared into top gear. Both teams came close to extending their tally over the next twenty minutes. But both teams also still displayed the imprecision and uncertainty that comes from an accumulation of off-season rust. Despite close calls at both ends, neither team could break the deadlock, and the match ended at a goal apiece.

Date: 
25 February, 2018
Attendance: 
35,951
Location: 
Tokyo Ajinomoto Stadium

  1

0 1H 0
1 2H 1

1  

Keigo Higashi (03') Scoring Tomoaki Makino (87')
Takuji Yonemoto Cautions

 Yosuke Kashiwagi

  Takuto Hayashi; Kosuke Ota, Masato Morishige, Jang Hyun-Soo, Sei Muroya; Keigo Higashi, Takuji Yonemoto, Yojiro Takahagi, Kotaro Omori (Cayman Togashi 84'); Diego Oliveira (Kensuke Nagai 70'), Ryoichi Maeda (Takefusa Kubo 72')

 Shusaku Nishikawa; Wataru Endo, Mauricio, Tomoaki Makino, Tomoya Ugajin; Takuya Aoki, Martinus; Tomoki Nagasawa Kosuke Taketomi 64'), Yosuke Kashiwagi, Yuki Muto (Zlatan Ljubijankic 83'); Shinzo Koroki


  2 - 3   

Until last year, Nagoya Grampus was one of only three teams that had been in the J.League’s top-flight division for every single year since the 1993 launch of professional football in Japan. But the Red Whales have been on a downward slide ever since Dragan Stojkovic led the team to their first league title, in 2010. Indeed, Grampus had not won any silverware since 2010, and since Stojkovic’ departure in 2013 the team has not finished above midtable. Their relegation at the end of the 2016 season was a shock to fans in the Motor City, but it may have been a blessing for their longer-term hopes. There have been dramatic changes in the J.League pecking order over the past decade, as demonstrated by V.Varen Nagazaki’s climb into the J1 this season. Teams that fail to clear away older, unproductive players and recruit talented replacements can find themselves suddenly relegated to near-permanent second-tier status, as has happened to Founding members of the J.League such as Tokyo Verdy and JEF United Chiba.

Last year former Kawasaki Frontale boss Yahiro Kazama took charge of the team and began the process of rebuilding. Unfortunately, the sheer number of aging veterans was so large that Kazama was unable to make a clean sweep and still take the team back to J1 in a single season. Some (including this writer) think that Grampus would have been better off taking their time, and completing the project before returning to the top-flight. Grampus qualified for promotion despite finishing third in the J2, last season – a fact that suggests they still are not as competitive as fans would like. There are still some aging players whose ability to contribute is questionable, including 42-year-old goalkeeper Seigo Narazaki, 36-year old Hisato Sato and 38-year old Keiji Tamada.

On a positive note, though, the team did respond to their promotion in 2017 by handing coach Kazama a big bankroll to use in acquiring international talent, to bolster the squad. Newcomers include goalkeeper Mitch Langerak – a former Australian NT stalwart, Brazilian striker Joao “Jo” Alves Silva, Spanish defender William Rocha and former Marinos, Tokyo and Cerezo midfielder Ariajasuru Hasegawa. Most of the squad is still either old enough to be a cause for concern or too young to be viewed as a reliable regular. Only time will tell whether the Red Whales can stay afloat in the J1 this year.

Gamba Osaka is also a founding member of the J1 which learned the hard way how dangerous it is to get complacent. After a brief spell in the J2, in 2013, Gamba bounded back to win all three major titles in 2014. Unfortunately, that magnificent season was the last hurrah for Gamba’s Golden Generation (as well as a springboard that several youngsters used to make the jump to Europe. Unlike Nagoya, Gamba does have a fair number of proven twentysomething players, as well as plenty of promising youngsters. After a tenth place finish in 2017, though, fans are concerned that this might be another disappointing season. Veterans like Yasuhito Endo, Yasuyuki Konno and Jungo Fujimoto are still capable of contributing, but they are not likely to have the stamina to carry the team through an entire, exhausting season. Yet no new leaders have emerged to take over the role of team leader. It will be interesting to see how youngsters like Ryo Hatsuse and Keito Nakamura perform this year, and whether either one can take on some of the responsibility borne by Endo and Konno for the past decade plus.

This week Gamba came out with the greater energy and sharpness in attack, creating several dangerous chances in the opening ten minutes, whereas Grampus struggled to even take the ball across midfield. In the 13th minute the Naniwa Nerazzuri finally opened their account, when Shu Kurata’s hustling play on the left sideline allowed him to skip past his man and walk the tightrope into the left corner. Turning into the box, Kurata waited for teammates to arrive, and eventually opted to drop the ball back to veteran Yasuhito Endo, at the left junction of the penalty arc and 18-yard box. Endo stroked the ball smoothly into the low left corner and the home crowd roared their approval.

However, this tally seemed to finally jolt the Grampus players awake. For the next ten minutes the two teams exchanged thrusts in an evenly-balanced seesaw. But for the first time Grampus was making effective forays into Gamba territory, and threatening the Osaka goal. In the 26th minute, young Ryuji Izumi collected the ball in a pocket of space just inside Gamba territory and spotted “Jo” Silva breaking towards the left channel. With a perfectly weighted through pass, Izumi sent Jo into the box on a gallop. The clever-footed Brazilian cut back against the collapsing Gamba defense and stroked the ball laterally to Gabriel Xavier, breaking forward from midfield. Xavier sent his first touch past Masaaki Higashiguchi, and the teams were back on level terms.

The equalizer seemed to boost the confidence of the visiting team. Although Gamba continued to create chances of their own (including a near-miss by Endo just a minute after Nagoya’s goal), for the final 20 minute of the half it was Nagoya who controlled the greater share of possession. The two teams were still on level terms at intermission, but the Red Whales were knocking on the door.

The second half started with little change in the run of play. Gamba continued to counterattack dangerously, but Nagoya’s advantage in possession continued, and the Osaka defense showed signs of instability. Five minutes after the restart Grampus won a free kick about 40 meters out from goal, near the left sideline. Hoping to take advantage of their big-bodied Brazilians, Nagoya sent eight men to the edge of  the Gamba box to await Gabriel Xavier’s  kick. Sure enough defender William Rocha managed to pull the ball down with his chest, and deflect it towards goal. None of the Gamba defenders reacted as he spun onto his own deflection and drilled it low and hard past Higashiguchi.

The home team struggled to recover from this setback. In fact, the visitors nearly broke the match wide open with a few dangerous opportunities in the subsequent ten minutes. The Gamba back line seemed particularly flustered, nearly handing the ball away to Xavier inside their own penalty box. New gaffer Levir Culpi, who achieved solid results at Gamba’s crosstown rivals Cerezo over three separate stints as head coach, finally recognized the urgent need to change the flow of play. He turned to the youthful end of his bench, bringing on Shinya Yajima and Keito Nakamura, and as the contest moved into its final quarter the tide finally seemed to turn.

Nakamura – a 17-year-old attacking midfielder who will not officially graduate high school until next month, was particularly impressive on the right side of midfield, helping to reverse the advantage Grampus had maintained in time of possession. He nearly linked up with Endo for a goal just moments after coming on, and fired just wide with a shot from the right corner of the penalty area, in the 77th minute.

With just over ten minutes remaining, Osaka finally broke down the Nagoya defense. Nakamura opened up the right flank with an overlap pass to Oh Jae-Suk, streaking into the corner, and Oh delivered a low, hard cross that Shun Nagasawa met with a diving header, and pounded into the far side netting. Unfortunately for the home fans, their joy at this equalizer was short-lived. Four minutes later Grampus took advantage of Gamba’s aggressive pursuit of the go-ahead goal, breaking out on a four-on-four counterattack. Gabriel Xavier carried the ball across midfield and studied his options, then fired a crisp pass towards Kohei Hattanda, who had just come on a minute earlier and was the freshest man on the pitch. Hattanda surged towards the ball and as the Gamba defensive line stepped forward to challenge, he touched it on into space. Joao “Jo” Silva was just onside as he raced after the loose ball, and feinted Higashiguchi to the ground before tucking the ball away. The victory marks a happy return to J1 for the Red Whales, but Gamba must be wondering about the omens, having never won a home opener at Suita Stadium.

Date: 
25 February, 2018
Attendance: 
28,681
Location: 
Suita (Panasonic) Stadium

  2

1 1H 1
1 2H 2

3  

Yasuhito Endo (13')
Shun Nagasawa (79')
Scoring Gabriel Xavier (26')
William Roja (51')
Joao ("Jo") Alves Silva (84')
  Cautions

 Yuki Kobayashi

  Masaaki Higashiguchi; Oh Jae-Suk, Genta Miura, Fabio, Hiroki Fujiharu; Yuya Fukuda (Shinya Yajima 60'), Mizuki Ichimaru, Yasuhito Endo (Jin Izumisawa 89'); Hwang Ui-Jo (Keito Nakamura 69'), Shun Nagasawa, Shu Kurata

 Mitch Langerak: Kazuya Miyahara, William Rocha, Yukinari Sugawara, Yosuke Akiyama (Kohei Hattanda 82'); Ryota Aoki (Keiji Tamada 72'), Ariajasuru Hasegawa (Kazuki Kushibiki 87'), Yuki Kobasyashi, Ryuji Izumi; Gabriel Xavier, Joao Alves Silva


 

  2 -  1   

The final contest on the card Saturday afternoon was a head-to-head battle between two teams that have just earned promotion to the top-flight division – V.Varen Nagasaki for the first time ever. The match opened with a flurry of offense, and both teams got off the mark almost immediately. Just eight minutes after kickoff, Bellmare’s Tenma Matsuda skipped down the left sideline and with a sudden slashing move to the inside, squeezed between two Nagasaki defenders to break free into the box. The V.Varen defence collapsed on Matsuda to deny the winger an easy shot, but at the last second, he cut the ball back to the top of the box for Lee Jeong Hyeop, who drilled a shot past the stranded keeper and gave Bellmare the early advantage.

But the newcomers from Nagasaki wasted little time in making their own first mark on the J1. In the 15th minute a free kick about 30 meters out was curled into the box by Yusuke Maeda. Defender Ryota Takasugi snuck in at the back post and headed the ball powerfully on target, and while keeper Yota Akimoto managed to parry the shot, it bounded right back onto the forehead of Daichi Tagami, for an easy finish.

The score would remain deadlocked at 1-1 for the next hour, as early jitters subsided and both teams settled down to a cautious, defense-oriented battle, punctuated by only a few real scoring opportunities on either end. As the contest progressed, though, Bellmare slowly exerted their superiority in depth and talent. By the second half, the Lime Greens were controlling nearly 80% of possession, and V.Varen were reduced to a series of desperate fouls around the perimeter of the box to prevent a breakthrough. Eventually, one of these set plays was bound to produce a goal. 

It finally arrived with ten minutes to play. Following another clumsy trip at the defensive perimeter, Bellmare earned a free kick from a spot on the penalty arc, just to the left of midfield. Hiroki Akino drove his kick for the top left corner, and though V.Varen defender Daichi Tagami managed to head the ball onto the crossbar, keeper Takuya Masuda was unable to find the handle. Shunki Ishikawa pounced on the loose ball and stabbed it across the goal line, setting off scenes of celebration in the stands behind goal. There will be laughter and joy on the Shonan Shoreline tonight, but at the western end of the Japanese archipelago they will be singing that old refrain: – Aaaahhhh! Nagasaki wa, kyo mo ame datta (It’s raining tonight in Nagasaki)!

Date: 
25 February, 2018
Attendance: 
12,148
Location: 
Hiratsuka (BMW) Stadium

  2

1 1H 1
1 2H 0

1  

Lee Jong Hyeop (08')
Shunki Ishikawa (80)
Scoring Daichi Tagami (15')
Daiki Sugioka
Lee Jeong-Hyeop
Cautions

 

 Yota Akimoto; Miki Yamane, Andre Bahia, Kazunari Ono; Takuya Okamoto (Kaoru Takayama 74'), Hiroki Akino; Daiki Sugioka, Shunsuke Kikuchi, Tenma Matsuda, Alen Stevanovic (Toshiki Ishikawa 45'); Lee Jong-Hyeop (Ryunosuke Noda 82')

 Takuya Masuda; Shuhei Tokunaga, Ryota Takasugi, Daichi Tagami; Ryutaro Iio, Yusuke Maeda; Yuzuru Shimada, Hijiri Onaga, Takashi Sawada (Keita Nakamura 81'), Ben Halloran (Musashi Suzumi 45'); Juanma 

 


 

  2 -  1   

The rivalry between Shimizu S-Pulse and Kashima Antlers may not be as well known as some of the J.League’s other top head-to-head grudge matches. Indeed, many who are relatively recent converts to the J.League might think that the Antlers’ fiercest rival is either Urawa Reds (true in the eyes of Reds fans only) or Gamba Osaka . . . or perhaps even Shimizu’s prefectural neighbor, Jubilo Iwata, whose championship battles with Kashima in the early '00s are the stuff of legend. But numbers don’t lie. There are only two teams that can claim to have matched the Antlers on the field of play, year in and year out. One of those is Sagan Tosu, with a record of five wins, five losses and two draws. But as those numbers indicate, Sagan and Antlers have not been playing each other for very long. 

S-Pulse, on the other hand, was one of the J.League’s original ten teams, and while they may not have anywhere near as many titles to their credit as the Golden Herd of Ibaraki, the historical record of this series, as of Sunday morning, stood at an identical 24 wins, 24 losses and six draws. Even when the Wingheads are struggling in the league table – as has been the case for the past few seasons, they always seem to lift their game when they fact off against the Antlers.

This was evident from the opening kick on Sunday afternoon, as a young, energetic and fired up group of orange-clad warriors threw themselves at the technically adept and highly experienced Antlers, and kept them on the back foot for almost the entire first half. Certainly, they were helped by the fact that referee Jumpei Iida was allowing both teams to jostle and grapple freely, but the constant pressure that S-Pulse applied had the Antlers players on their heels. As the first half was winding down, Mr Iida handed the Wingheads a valuable present in the form of a penalty kick that was not only soft, but seemed even more generous in light of how he had been calling the contest up to that point. 

Unfortunately for the home fans, Kashima keeper Kwoun Sun-Tae reacted perfectly to Crislan’s drive into the low right corner, and smothered the shot, keeping the contest scoreless. The extreme generosity of the PK also affected the character of the contest, particularly since Crislan took out his frustration by plowing cleats-first into Yuto Misao just a few minutes later. The tirade that coach Go Oiwa delivered in response to what many Premiership referees would have called a straight red (the Antlers boss had to be physically restrained from charging down Crislan) must have convinced Mr. Iida that he could not allow S-Pulse to continue the sort of argy-bargy that had prevailed early on. Of Shimizu’s 11 first-half fouls, six of them were called in the final 5-10 minutes, and though S-Pulse maintained a fierce press in the second half, they began to concede more and more free kicks deep in their own territory.

As the second half progressed, and S-Pulse’s pressure began to wane, the visitors started to dominate possession, with an almost continuous assault on the S-Pulse penalty area and a seemingly unbroken sequence of free kicks and corner kicks.  In an effort to change the flow, coach Jan Jonsson brought on two fast strikers, in Mitch Duke and Chong Tese, hoping they could relieve some of the pressure on the S-Pulse defense. Although S-Pulse’s counterattacking thrusts became more dangerous, the Antlers’ relentless search for a goal continued. With ten minutes remaining Oiwa took countermeasures by replacing wingback Atsuto Uchida with Pedro Junior as a third striker, in a 3-4-3 setup. But despite a torrid final few minutes, the Wingheads defense managed to hold out to the final whistle and keep the record of this historic rivalry on exactly level terms.

 

Date: 
26 February, 2018
Attendance: 
19,632
Location: 
Nihondaira (IAI) Stadium

  0

0 1H 0
0 2H 0

0  

   Scoring  
Crislan Cautions

Yuta Misao
Yuma Suzuki

  Yuji Rokutan; Yugo Tatsuta, Hwang Seon-Ho, Friere, Ko Matsubara; Ryo Takeuchi Yosuke Kawai, Shota Kaneko, Hideki Ishige (Mitch Duke 68'); Kitagawa (Chong Tese 71'), Crislan

 Kwoun Sun-Tae; Atsuto Uchida (Pedro Junior 84'), Naomichi Ueda, Gen Shoji, Koki Anzai; Yuto Misao, Leo Silva, Yasushi Endo (Shoma Doi 76'),Hiroki Abe (Shuto Yamamoto 67'); Yuma Suzuki, Mu Kanazaki  

 


   0 -  3   

The reigning J.League champions, Kawasaki Frontale, were always viewed as long-shots to repeat as champions this season. Not that the team is any weaker than it was last year, but the team does have a large number of key players who are well onto the downward slope of their careers. When you also consider that they benefitted from the late-season advantage of chasing the Kashima Antlers, who everyone is tired of seeing monopolize the domestic trophy haul, you knew that the Blue Dolphins had their work cut out for them this season. Particularly since they have continental duties to distract them in the first few months of the season.

Yet I would be surprised if anyone predicted that they might start off their 2018 campaign with three straight losses. Frontale were comprehensively outplayed in the season opener by Cerezo Osaka, but that was partly due to the brilliant game plan that coach Yoon Jung-Hwan devised to neutralize the speedy and prolific Frontale offense. It was a bit more distressing for Kawasaki fans to watch Frontale drop their first two ACL contests, in hard-fought clashes with Shanghai SIPG and Ulsan Hyundai.

Frontale opened the scoring in the 24th minute when Eduardo Neto received the ball about 30 meters directly out from goal, and spotted Kengo Nakamura making a sudden burst into the box. Neto chipped a perfectly-timed pass over the defense just as Nakamura burst through the final line of defense. Nakamura was just onside, and he only had to brush the ball lightly to redirect it past Krysztov Kaminski and into the back of the Jubilo net.

Kengo Nakamura delivered a high, curling cross onto the head of Shogo Taniguchi, who headed the ball into the low left corner, narrowly eluding the fingertips of Kaminski. Just moments later the Frontale playmaker had another opportunity to set the table once more, from a very similar location, when Frontale won a free kick just above the top right corner of the area. AGAIN Nakamura’s delivery was pinpoint-perfect, allowing Eduardo to drive a header just inside the right post and extend the lead to 3-0.

The second half was rather sedate, by comparison, as Frontale seemed content to just sit back and guard against the aerial prowess of Kengo Kawamata and Adailton. Neither team added to the score line, despite Jublo’s most concerted efforts and a few dangerous counterattacks by Frontale. The Blue Dolphins will be relieved to finally have a win under their belts, after such a disappointing start to their title defense.

Date: 
26 February, 2018
Attendance: 
31,375
Location: 
Shizuoka "Ecopa" Stadium

  0

0 1H 3
0 2H 0

3  

   Scoring Kengo Nakamura (24')
Shogo Taniguchi (43')
Eduardo (45')
Kentaro Oi Cautions

Edwardo Neto
Eduardo

  Krysztov Kaminski; Kentaro Oi, Nagisa Sakurauchi (Taishi Taguchi 58'), Guilherme, Shun Morishita (Masaya Matsumoto 45'), Shohei Takahashi; Fosil Musaev (Rikiya Uehara 70'), Shunsuke Nakamura, Adailson, Hiroki Yamada; Kengo Kawamoto

 Jung Sung-Ryong; Elsinho, Shogo Taniguchi, Eduardo, Shintaro Kurumaya; Edwardo Neto (Hidemasa Morita 67'), Ryota Oshima, Kengo Nakamura (Ryohei Noborizato 85'), Akihiro Ienaga; Kei Chinen (Yoshito Okubo 78'), Yu Kobaya


 

   1 -  1   

 The final match of the weekend had Cerezo Osaka hosting Yokohama F.Marinos, at the larger of the two stadiums at Nagai Park (known as “Nagai Yanmar Stadium” to distinguish it from “Nagai Kincho Stadium”). The Marinos opened their 2018 season with a match against the team that deprived them of the chance to play ACL football this season. Cerezo’s Emperor’s Cup victory over Yokohama prevented the Marinos from qualifying for the Asian tournament – a distraction for most of the J.League teams that take part, but an opportunity that Yokohama’s new coach, former Australia NT boss  Ange Postecoglou, surely would have welcomed.

Ange faces a difficult task this season, since he will have to negotiate a change of generations at Yokohama in addition to coaching the team to success. While veteran defenders Yuji Nakazawa and Yuzo Kurihara are both still important links in the team, and have been permanent installations in the Yokohama back line for over a decade, both are beginning to show their age. They will need to be eased out of the lineup eventually, but it may be difficult for Ange to remove them without some negative impact on defensive solidity, in the short term. 

Cerezo, meanwhile, have started the season off with a bang, claiming the Xerox Cup in a stirring victory over Kawasaki, then defeating Jeju United in Korea, before earning a scoreless draw against mighty Guangzhou Evergrande. Cerezo got off the starting line quickly in this contest as well, and seemed to have taken the lead after just ten minutes when a lovely exchange of passes through the middle was flicked into net by Yoichiro Kakitani. But the linesman’s flag was up, for reasons that are impossible to guess. The replay showed Kakitani at least two steps behind his man, and though a Cerezo player was in offside position, he did not play any part in the exchange. After the contest Kakitani was caught on camera asking the linesman specifically who had been penalized, and was told that he was offside himself. In any event the contest remained scoreless. 

The Marinos breathed a sigh of relief, and responded almost immediately with an attacking thrust of their own. The visitors took the lead on a perfectly placed drive by Ryosuke Yamanaka from just outside the box. Yamanaka’s shot seemed to have eyes, slipping just between the legs of Yasuki Kimoto and then creeping into the low right corner, just eluding the dive of Kim Jin-Hyeon.

Thanks to the early lead, Yokohama was able to play a counterattacking style of football, with the experienced three-back line playing high and tight, denying Cerezo the sort of space that they prefer to run into. The contest swung back and forth, but the contest was closely balanced and genuine scoring opportunities at a minimum. Only when the contest moved into its final half-hour did the Pink Wolfpack manage to spread the active portion of the pitch and increase the pace of play. This increased the number of scoring opportunities at both ends, and as the contest moved into the final ten minutes an insurance tally by Yokohama seemed just as likely as a Cerezo equalizer.

But with four minutes to go, Cerezo finally breached the Marinos defence, thanks in part to a deflection which dropped a cross directly in front of Kakitani as he accelerated past Nakazawa and into the six-yard box. Though keeper Hiroki Iikura managed to deflect Kakitani’s shot, the ball bounded across the goal line and scores were level. A late surge of pressure by the Flaming Pinks failed to produce a winner, though, and the two teams settled for a point apiece. 

Date: 
26 February, 2018
Attendance: 
23,049
Location: 
Nagai "Yanmar" Stadium

  1

0 1H 1
1 2H 0

1  

Yuichiro Kakitani (86')   Scoring Ryosuke Yamanaka (45')
Kentaro Oi Cautions

Edwardo Neto
Eduardo

  Kim Jin-Hyeon; Riku Matsuda, Yusuke Maruhashi, Yasuki Kimoto (Souza 76'), Matej Jonjic, Hotaru Yamaguchi, Kota Mizunuma Toshiyuki Takagi 76'), Takaki Fukumitsu (Yang Dong-Hyen 89'), Kazuya Yamamura; Yoichiro Kakitani, Kenyu Sugimoto

 Hiroki Iikura; Yuji Nakazawa, Ryosuke Yamanaka, Milos Degenek; Ken Matsubara, Takuya Kida, Kosuke Nakamachi (David Babunski 90'), Jun Amano; Keita Endo (Ippei Shinozuka 78'), Hugo Vieira (Sho Ito 80'), Yun Il-Lok


 

  1 -  0   

Full report will be posted later

Date: 
26 February, 2018
Attendance: 
15,655
Location: 
Sendai (Yuasa) Stadium

  1

0 1H 0
1 2H 0

0  

Ko Itakura (53') 

 Scoring

 
Ko Itakura
Yasuhiro Hiraoka
Cautions

Kei Koizumi
Yuta Nakayama
Yuta Nakayama
Kosuke Nakamura

  Sent Off

Yuta Nakayama

  Kentaro Seki; Yasuhiro Hiraoka, Kazuki Oiwa, Ko Itakura; Shingo Tomita, Hiroaki Okuno (Kim Jung-Ya (90+1), Shota Kobayashi (Naoki Sugai 77'), Katsuya Nagato; Gakuto Notsuda, Takuma Abe (Takuma Nishimura 70'), Naoki Ishihara

 Kosuke Nakamura; Ryuta Koike, Yuta Nakayama, Jiro Kamata, Yun Suk-Young (Masashi Kamekawa 75'); Hidekazu Otani (Kei Koizumi 59'), Kim Bo-Kyung, Ataru Esaka; Junya Ito, Cristiano, Ramon Lopes (Yusuke Segawa 59')

Hits: 823

J1 Standings

 

. Team Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif.
1 Sanfrecce Hiroshima 56 17 5 5 42 21 +21
2 Kawasaki Frontale 52 16 4 6 42 20 +22
3 FC Tokyo 43 12 7 8 34 25 +9
4 Kashima Antlers 42 12 6 9 37 34 +3
5 Cerezo Osaka 41 10 11 6 34 30 +4
6 Vegalta Sendai 41 12 5 10 36 38 -2
7 Consadole Sapporo 41 11 8 7 35 38 -3
8 Urawa Reds 38 10 8 9 37 27 +10
9 Vissel Kobe 36 10 6 11 33 35 -2
10 Shimizu S-Pulse 34 10 4 13 38 40 -2
11 Jubilo Iwata 33 8 9 10 29 37 -8
12 Yokohama Marinos 32 9 5 13 45 46 -1
13 Nagoya Grampus 31 9 4 13 43 48 -5
14 Shonan Bellmare 31 8 7 11 31 36 -5
15 Sagan Tosu 30 7 9 11 22 28 -6
16 Kashiwa Reysol 30 9 3 15 33 42 -9
17 Gamba Osaka 30 8 6 13 29 39 -10
18 V.Varen Nagasaki 27 8 3 16 32 48 -16

J2 Standings

. Team Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif.
1 Yamaga 56 16 8 5 42 26 +16
2 Zelvia 53 15 8 5 48 34 +14
3 Trinita 51 15 6 8 50 35 +15
4 YokohamaFC 49 13 10 5 42 32 +10
5 Ardija 47 14 5 10 47 34 +13
6 Verdy 46 12 10 7 39 29 +10
7 Avispa 46 13 7 7 37 27 +10
8 Fagiano 44 12 8 9 31 27 +4
9 Renofa 43 11 10 7 47 46 +1
10 Vortis 41 12 5 12 35 29 +6
11 Montedio 40 11 7 10 34 35 -1
12 Hollyhock 39 11 6 12 34 32 +2
13 TochigiSC 38 10 8 11 29 33 -4
14 Ventforet 37 10 7 12 45 37 +8
15 Zweigen 36 9 9 11 36 37 -1
16 JEF United 35 10 5 14 49 56 -7
17 EhimeFC 33 9 6 14 24 38 -14
18 FC Gifu 32 9 5 15 36 43 -7
19 Albirex 29 8 5 16 30 45 -15
20 Roasso 26 7 5 17 37 55 -18
21 Sanga 25 7 4 17 25 41 -16
22 Kamatamare 24 6 6 16 23 49 -26

J3 Standings

. Team Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif.
1 FCRyukyu 35 10 5 3 35 20 +15
2 Azul Claro 32 9 5 3 19 9 +10
3 KagoshimaU 31 8 7 3 26 17 +9
4 FukushimaU 28 6 10 2 21 18 +3
5 Gainare 27 8 3 7 24 23 +1
6 Gamba U23 26 7 5 6 31 25 +6
7 Thespa 25 7 4 7 18 21 -3
8 Cerezo U23 24 6 6 6 24 23 +1
9 Blaublitz 24 7 3 8 17 16 +1
10 YSCC 23 5 8 5 26 22 +4
11 Sagamihara 23 6 5 6 29 27 +2
12 Grulla 23 7 2 9 22 30 -8
13 Parceiro 22 5 7 6 23 23 0
14 FujiedaMyFC 21 6 3 8 18 22 -4
15 Kataller 20 6 2 10 21 32 -11
16 Giravanz 14 3 5 9 13 27 -14
17 FCTokyo U23 13 3 4 11 18 30 -12