Frontale Clash not so "Friendly" for Chelsea

The Blues are hardly the first "big" team to arrive in Japan for a preseason friendly, underestimate the quality of J.League opposition, and get humbled by a hustling team that is primed for the task.

Those of you who have followed the J.League for years will not need the following introduction, but if anyone from the UK should stumble on this report, a few points of background are necessary. Old-timers can skip down to the match report on Frontale-Chelsea.

Most European fans pay little attention to Japanese club football . . . for obvious reasons. The cream of the sport is right in your back yard. Why would you follow a competition from halfway around the world? Unfortunately for many large clubs in Europe, this lack of interest has bred a bit of complacency regarding the quality of teams in Asia. Not only has it led to a number of unpleasant surprises, over the years, but it has even arguably destroyed a coach's career, following one particularly bad tour of Japan back in 2014.

For the past few years, most of the "international tours" have focused on the US, China and Australia. The marketing reasons for this focus are easy to understand. But Japan is also a major market for European clubs, and somebody was bound to focus their interest back to these shores eventually. Interestingly enough, though, the teams that signed up for this summer's round of friendlies -- Chelsea and Barcelona -- happen to be newcomers to the Japan circuit. And it is probably no surprise that their respective rivals -- Manchester United and Real Madrid -- chose to look elsewhere.

At this stage of the European season, teams are lacking in the technical precision and split-second reflexes that make European football an inarguable step up from even the best J.League club. J.League teams, conversely, are in the midst of their seasons, as sharp as they get, and highly motivated to put on an impressive show for their own fans. More importantly, as Kashima Antlers demonstrated in the Club World Cup against Real Madrid, the disparity in quality between top UEFA clubs and the J1 is narrow enough to be negated by a clever strategy, good implementation and hard work. If the Antlers could hold a full-strength, midseason Madrid to a 2-2 draw over 90 minutes, the challenge that a preseason EPL club faces when travelling to Japan should be no surprise to anyone. Yet every time this sort of result crops up (and it is remarkably frequent), for some reason the Europress is unable to wrap their heads around the concept.

For the record, over the years Manchester United has lost three times and drawn as many (vs just two wins) against J.League opposition. They were virtually run off the pitch by the Antlers in 2005, in one of their first ever visits to the Far East. ManU eventually lost just 2-1, but fell behind twice in the opening 25 minutes on Kashima plays that completely ripped the Red Devils' formation apart. Not long after Kashima's second goal they completely lost the plot -- Ruud van Nistelrooj deliberately kicking Daiki Iwamasa in the hamstring, and Wayne Rooney putting up one finger towards Antlers fans behind goal. Both incidents nearly set off a brouhaha of handbagging. At half time Sir Alex gave his boys a "talking to", and the second half played out anticlimactically. 

Those sort of antics were eliminated following that embarrassing summer of 2005 -- a year when Real Madrid also lost 3-0 to an understrength Tokyo Verdy! In subsequent years, most visiting teams not only recognised the need to act the part of gracious guests, but also were less likely to take the local team they faced too lightly. There were a fair number of upsets following that 2005 debacle, including another loss by Real Madrid a few years later. The level of competition that J.League clubs are capable of delivering should have been clear to anyone who follows the game.

Nevertheless, when David Moyes brought United (including Shinji Kagawa) to Japan in 2014, he seemed to hearken back to the bad old days, saying less-than-complimentary things about his opponents, and then refusing to start Kagawa in a match at the former Cerezo Osaka midfielder's original home park, Nagai Stadium. Moyes paid the price with both Japanese and EPL fans, as Cerezo twice took the lead (the opener on a goal by a then-19-year-old Takumi Minamino). Though Wilfried Zaha rescued a draw with a 91st minute equaliser, this was Moyes second failure in a row against J1 opposition. A week earlier Marquinhos led Yokohama F. Marinos to a 3-2 victory over the same club. By the time Moyes returned home, fans of the Red Devils had already soured on the gaffer. And the rest . . . well, the rest is history.

Since 2014, there have been fewer clubs touring Japan in the summer. That partly reflects the fact that the J1 has been in full swing during July (apart from last summer, when the World Cup kept preseason tours to a minimum), but it also may show that the likes of Real Madrid, Inter Milan, Man United and Arsenal have seen the situation first-hand, and prefer to play against clubs that are unlikely to prompt "embarrassment". Regardless of the relative quality, for some reason a 1-1 draw with Bohemians is not as disconcerting to the UK press as a 1-0 loss to Frontale

The point of this introduction is that Chelsea should by no means feel "embarrassed" by a narrow loss to a team as motivated and as sharp as Kawasaki. A scoreless draw (or a 1-1 result) probably would have been fair to both teams. But Frontale wanted the victory more, and a bit of masterful set-up work by veteran Kengo Nakamura, coming off the bench late, was enough to decide the result. A wise coach (or fan) would simply congratulate the opponent, compliment their hard work and preparation, and then focus on addressing the shortcomings that the match exposed. 

  1 - 0 

Kawasaki Frontale were granted a week off from J.League competition, this weekend, so the Blue Dolphins could prepare fully for their clash with Chelsea, at Yokohama International (Nissan) Stadium. Though at least half of the crowd were here to see the EPL giants, the Frontale faithful turned out in large enough numbers to provide a rousing backdrop to the contest. Frank Lampard started off with a 4-2-3-1 [Caballero: Azpilicueta Luiz, Zouma, Alonso; Kovacic, Jorginho: Pedro, Mount, Kenedy ; Batshuayi] and maintained essentially the same structure despite numerous substitutions. Toru Oniki countered with  a virtually identical setup: [Jung; Noborizato, Jesiel, Taniguchi, Tanaka; Morita, Shimoda; Saito, Abe, Ienaga; Kobayashi], but at half time he made a well-timed and effective switch to 4-4-2, with a slightly more "first-string" eleven.

The game plan adopted by Oniki was also very well constructed. The hosts opened with a hard ball press, keeping Chelsea under pressure even deep into the Chelsea end. The pressure had the desired effect on Chelea's early-season uncertainty, causing the Blues to rush their passes and give away possession frequently over the opening 15 or 20 minutes. Unfortunately, despite a few chances, the closest Kawasaki came to snatching a goal while the visitors were regaining composure was Akihiro Ienaga's volleyed shot off a weakly cleared cross, which he drove straight at Caballero. Manabu Saito had two chances to break into the clear down the left flank, but both times the pass behind Chelsea's defense was just a bit too long for him to keep in play.

As time progressed Chelsea began to take control of possession, partly because they were able to wrestle any 50:50 balls away from the relatively "small" Frontale midfield (Saito, Tanaka and Shimoda, in particular, were frequently dispossessed). Nevertheless, quick movement to the ball and a lot of double-team defensive work prevented Chelsea from creating much of anything, on attack, apart from a couple of long-distance efforts by Pedro. As the 30-minute mark passed, and the Frontale players' focus began to droop in the moist heat of a Yokohama summer evening, Kenedy very nearly put Chelsea in front with a sudden steal of a weak pass by Hokuto Shimoda deep in Frontale territory. But a lunging clearance by Shogo Taniguchi bailed out the former Ventforet Kofu midfielder.

Over the next ten minutes Chelsea had their best run of the first half, but Batshuayi and Kenedy both were unable to beat the final defender on runs into the box-- the scrambling Frontale team defense closing up every gap. Chelsea's comfort level seemed to be growing, and taking control of the contest. But in the final five minutes of the half, the Frontale midfield (perhaps expecting to finish their evening service at half time) seemed to revive the hard ball press they had shown in the opening 15 minutes. With a minute or so  until the break, Frontale burst out on a counterattack from midfield, with Kobayashi feeding Ienaga down the right channel. Kobayashi surged through the middle to draw all but one defender, while Ienaga cut back and fired a hard, bounding drive towards the low left corner, which was just barely turned around the post by Caballero. Frontale put on a late rush, including two corner kicks and some dangerous balls into the box, but Ienaga's effort would be the best chance either team produced in the opening 45 minutes.

At the break both teams made numerous substitutions, but it was Coach Oniki whose adjustments seemed to have the greatest impact. Tatsuya Hasegawa and Kazuya Yamamura came on to fill the midfield out into a 4-4-2. with Kobayashi coming off for Leandro Damiao, and Kei Chinen joining him up front. Both strikers are extremely good at pressing back to trap the ball, on defense, while the midfield line of Hasegawa-Morita-Yamamura-Wakizaka provided a lot more athleticism and strength in the tackle than what Chelsea had faced in the first half. In addition, Mawatari replaced Tanaka at wingback, filling the most obvious defensive weakness Frontale had displayed in the first 45 minutes.

The second half opened much like the first, with Frontale pressing hard, hoping to prevent the still-rusty Chelsea players from finding their groove. Ross Barkley and Mason Mount nearly teamed up for a dash down the left channel, just after kickoff, but Jesiel had the speed to catch up with him on the dribble, and Mount was forced into a low angle shot that swerved well wide. Thereafter, the momentum swung towards Frontale as effective trapping and double-teams won them the ball at midfield, time and time again. As the hour mark approached it appeared that the Blue Dolphins were on the verge of taking over control of the contest completely. Leandro Damiao received a pinpoint cross from Chinen that he sent just wide, with a diving header, and Chinen had a chance of his own from the right side of the box, a few minutes later.

For reasons that are difficult to fully understand, however, referee Yuichi Nishimura chose to take this opportunity to give the guests a warm show of hospitality, awarding two very questionable free kicks near the Kawasaki box, and making a few other calls which gave Chelsea time to right the ship, and regain their composure. As the match moved into its final quarter, Chelsea seemed to be gearing up for a late surge and possibly the winning goal. But with eight minutes to play, Oniki showed his final card -- veteran Kengo Nakamura, one of the best Japanese players to never go abroad. Kengo's experience, passing instincts and strength on the ball are still as good as ever, even though 39 years have taken his athletic gifts. Sure enough, this addition was just what Frontale needed to wrest back control of play, and as the clock ticked towards 90, Kawasaki crafted a series of chances.

After one corner kick was worked around the box and eventually driven hard on net by Yamamura, Frontale took a second corner, from the left flank, Chinen taking the kick short and exchanging it with Kengo before lobbing it into the box. Olivier Giroud was the first to the high ball, but he misjudged it slightly and the clearance bounded right to Kengo, on the left side of the box. Quickly identifying his targets, Nakamura lofted the gentlest of chip shots for the far post, where Leandro Damiao was lurking. The Brazilian ace made no mistake, leaping high and powering the ball into the ground, just across the goal line.

That would be all she wrote for what was by now a very tired Chelsea team. Frontale took the win, and gained a big emotional boost to fuel their J.League campaign as the season moves into its second half. All in all it was great entertainment, and hopefully will be seen as just that, and not some "smudge on Chelsea's reputation", by the press back in the UK.



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