February 23, 2020

Kickoff 2020 in Style

The J.League 2020 season kicked off on Friday, with a grudge match between Urawa Reds and Shonan Bellmare, and concluded on Sunday with the League's newest rising power -- Vissel Kobe -- hosting a team that seems to have been constructed using CGI and footage of players from ancient history. We will explain that comment later, and break down all the action for you, while trying to offer some context and historical perspective to those of you who are new or recent converts to the Japanese Beautiful Game. Welcome to Amazing J!


2 - 3  

The opening match of the 2020 season was played in Hiratsuka, Kanagawa Prefecture. Though fans of the modern J.League are accustomed to seeing teams from every part of the country, back when the J.League was formed, the "heartland" of Japanese football was confined to the greater Tokyo (Kanto) area and the strip of coastline running from Tokyo to Nagoya. Nearly all the major clubs hailed from this area, and Hiratsuka marked roughly the centrepoint of Japan's football landscape. .

Though the Beautiful Game has grown by leaps and bounds over the past quarter century, the top spots in the pecking order over the past few seasons have largely been filled by teams from this same area. In 2020, for the first time since 1999, Kanagawa Prefecture will have four teams in the top-flight. So it was fitting that the first match of the season was held at a historic venue like Hiratsuka Stadium. It may be a bit run-down, generic, and a bit lonely with the huge running track. But when filled to near capacity by fans as vocal as the Shonan Beach Brigade and the Saitama Red Army, it is a perfect site for football.

The hosts in Friday evening's match had a close scrape with relegation last year. It was only the recent introduction of a promotion/relegation tie, involving the 16th-place finisher, which saved Bellmare from a stint in the J2. The final few weeks of the 2020 campaign were further complicated by a locker-room row which got long-time coach Cho suspended (and eventually fired) for harassment. Those who followed Bellmare over the years were surely aware of Cho's reputation for what American football fans would call "The Lombardi Mentality." Therefore it was no real shock to hear complaints of heavy-handed treatment (and battery) of players. Unfortunately, in the culture Cho had built, the team needed a firm hand on the reins. Without it, the team, spirit collapsed. This year Shonan hopes to put the Cho era behind them, and hopefully chart a new direction under coach Bin Ukishima

As for the visitors ... well ... things are not at all rosy in old Da-Saitama. If the Saitama Red Army does paint the town red this year, it just may be with the blood of the Reds management team, which has driven the mighty franchise into the dust. The Reds have spent vast sums of money over the past decade, snapping up talent from rival clubs, yet have consistently proven incapable of using that talent to build a coherent team. The Reds did win an ACL title in 2017, but the only other silverware the team has hoisted since 2007 were a single League Cup (2016) and an Emperor's Cup (2018). That is nowhere near enough to satisfy the fan base.

Indeed, it was a bit surprising to see Tsutomu Ootsuki, the current Reds coach, retain his job after last season's 14th-place finish. Following last year's disastrous campaign, one might have expected the Reds to go on another buying spree, but to the surprise of fans and opponents alike, the team made few changes at all. Veteran defender Ryota Moriwaki retired, and former Melbourne Victory defender Thomas Deng filled the vacancy. Apart from that, the only addition was Leonardo, a young Brazilian who made a big splash at J2 also-rans Albirex Niigata, but who has yet to be tested at the top level.

This may actually be good news -- I have long argued that the Reds' biggest problem was that they had too MANY talented players. The friction created by constant battling for playing time did not "motivate" players, but rather, created fractures and cliques within the club. Hopefully coach Ootsuki can revive the team's fortunes by focusing on better use of the players he already has.

The contest got off to a great start for the hosts. Intense ball pressure and physical contact have long been features of the Bellmare philosophy, and there is no sign that the departure of coach Cho has changed that character. After several steals and quick counterattacks in the opening five minutes, a slightly more patient Shonan buildup moved the ball into the left corner. Toichi Suzuki, a young midfielder who started his career with Cerezo U-23, spotted veteran Naoki Ishihara muscling with a defender at the edge of the six yard box. Suzuki lofted a ball for the near post, and Ishihara slipped free to head the ball past Shusaku Nishikawa

The run of play gradually began to shift towards the Reds, over the remainder of the first half, but Bellmare's fierce press and physical pressure created several counterattacks which gave Bellmare the clear edge in actual scoring chances. It was not until the final five minutes of the half that the momentum shifted significantly. The equaliser seemed to come out of nowhere, as Ryosuke Yamanaka collected a ball deep in his own half and launched a seemingly innocuous long ball down the left sideline for winger Koya Yuriki. But Yuriki put on a sudden burst of speed to get past his marker and then fired a low ball across the face of goal. Veteran striker Shinzo Koroki timed his run perfectly, one-timed the ball past the keeper, and levelled the score.

Just two minutes later the Reds struck again, and once more it was Yamanaka who played the critical pass. This time he received the ball on the left flank, only about 30 meters out from goal, but again there was no Bellmare defender to pressure his pass. Yamanaka scanned the box looking for a teammate, and chipped the ball for the far post. This time Leandro was on hand to finish off the play, with a swivelling header that beat the keeper into the right corner.

Bellmare came out after the break with the same sort of pressure they applied in the early first half. This shifted the momentum again to the home team. In the 60th minute former Reds star and current Bellmare veteran midfielder Naoki Yamada claimed the tally that had been threatening for several minutes. Newcomer Toichi Suzuki looped a cross for the far (right) post and Yamada muscled off his defender to head past Nishikawa and restore parity.

As the match moved into the final quarter, Bellmare had a golden opportunity to claim the go-ahead goal, when defender Dasisuke Suzuki was caught on VAR handling the ball in his own penalty area. But Tarik Elyounoussi shanked his PK off the crossbar, and the contest remained on level terms.

 With just over five minutes on the clock, the Reds snatched the win on a marvelous individual play by Takahiro Sekine. Collecting a cross about six yards above the penalty box, on the right side, Sekine surveyed his teammates and saw the entire Bellmare defense drop off to cover the target men. With acres of unguarded space in front of him, Sekine decided to put his head down and charge through the crowd. A nice feint to the right beat one defender, and Sekine's shot snuck between another Bellmare man's legs, rolling into the left corner and giving Urawa the go-ahead goal, and ultimately, the full three points.

21 February, 2020
Hiratsuka ("Shonan BMW") Stadium


1 1H 2
1 2H 1


Naoki Ishihara (07') 
Naoki Yamada (64') 


Shinzo Koroki (39') 
Leandro (42') 
Takahiro Sekine (84') 
Naoki Yamada Cautions  



  3 - 2

The football world has plenty of great traditions, particularly when it comes to pre-game rituals. Everyone who has experienced what it is like in the stands at The Kop, as the Red faithful roar out their version of "Youll Never Walk Alone" knows exactly what I mean. In Japan, there are quite a few distinctive pre-game chants, but few as memorable as the Vegalta Sendai fan base's rendition of "Country Roads Take Me Home." On a cool Saturday afternoon, at Sendai Stadium, the Golden Eagles kicked off their 2020 campaign in style, against Nagoya Grampus, with a booming version of the team's traditional anthem.

Both Sendai and Nagoya struggled last season, finishing in 11th and 13th places, respectively. In both cases this was disappointing for fans, but not a major surprise given the fact that both teams are in the midst of some major changes in coaching, strategy and personnel. Both teams had eight players depart at the end of 1019 and ten or more newcomers added this season. Nevertheless, both teams are solid competitors with dangerous individual talent. Neither is a particularly good bet to claim any silverware this year, but both should be tough opponents on a given day.

Last season's main attacking target last season, Joao Alves de Assis Silva ("Jo") was not in the starting lineup this week, so the offensive focus shifted to two wide attacking players who should be central to the Grampus game plan this season. Yuki Soma, a third-year player who joined Grampus from Waseda University, spent the latter half of last season on loan to Kashima Antlers, and also is a member of Japan's U-23 National Team. Soma shows excellent attacking instincts, and is very dangerous on the dribble, but (as Antlers coaches noted) he still has a tendency to squander chances due to a poor sense of when and where to cross the ball. Some of his crosses . . . let's be honest . . . are truly appalling. However, if he can improve his coordination with the target men for Grampus, he could prove to be one of the Red Whales' most important players. At present, though, he is still a work in progress.

On the opposite wing, Mateus offers more experience and physicality. Though his play last season left something to be desired, it often seemed that this was more a lack of chemistry with the rest of the Nagoya attack, rather than shortcomings on his own part. Grampus fans will be hoping he can build some better chemistry with Jo and Soma this year.

Vegalta, by contrast, has never been known for star players. The Golden Eagles are a hard-working, blue-collar collection of guys who are drilled to achieve effective team play, rather than seeking to dazzle opponents with individual play. The team boasts a solid, parsimonious defense -- anchored by former Levante centre back Simao Mate -- that keeps Vegalta in contention and snatches opportunistic goals particularly on set plays.

In typical Vegalta style, the Golden Eagles opened their account in this contest with a well-worked set-play opportunity. Although Grampus cleared the initial delivery of a free kick into the box, Vegalta won the clearance and a second lob into the box found Mate, at the edge of the six-yard box. The powerful Mozambiquan muscled off a defender and drove a shot that Mitch Langerak was unable to collect cleanly. Mate poked the rebound into the strings, and the home team took the early advantage.

As the first half progressed, Grampus began to establish the upper hand in terms of possession and the general run of play. The Red Whales showed some raggedness in their play, as several key players have just joined the club and still seem to be learning one anothers' preferences. But in the 33rd minute, two of those newcomers teamed up for the equaliser. Naoyuki Maeda took a pass down the right sideline and pulled a cross back as he approached the goal line. Former Sanfrecce Hiroshima (and Ventforet Kofu) midfielder Sho Inagaki brilliantly dummied to freeze the defenders, but let the ball roll through to Hiroyuki Abe. The veteran striker showed the composure and clinical finishing cultivated over years of high-level experience at Gamba Osaka and Kawasaki Frontale, sending his first touch into the low left corner.

This goal put Grampus on the front foot, and they held the upper hand for the remainder of the first half. Their best scoring chance over this stretch came a minute before the break, when Maeda won a free kick just above the top-right corner of the penalty box. But Vegalta keeper Jakub Slowik punched away Mateus' drive, and the contest remained on level terms at intermission.

The second half was a bit more of a cagey affair, with both teams focusing a bit more on defense, and trying to pick their moment. Apart from a few counterattacking rushes, the number of chances grew spare. The "decisive moment" seemed to have arrived in the 85th minute, when a loop pass over the top found Grampus ' Maeda unmarked inside the penalty box. But Slowik was off his line quickly and managed to smother Maeda's shot, bailing out his defensive teammates.

The Red Whales were energised by the opportunity, and for the remaining five minutes of play they applied constant pressure, pounding the ball into the Sendai box in search of a winner. But the Vegalta defense held out, and both teams had to settle for a single point.

22 February, 2020
Nihondaira "IAI" Stadium


1 1H 1
0 2H 0


Simao Mate (18')


Hiroyuki Abe (34')



 4 - 2 

At Kashiwa Hitachidai Stadium, two of the J.League's most experienced non-Japanese coaches faced off in what was a truly engaging matchup of contrasting styles. Nelson Baptista Junior (Nelsinho) has been a key contributor to the J.League since its inception, having spent time at Verdy, Grampus and Vissel, in addition to two previous stints at Kashiwa. Nelsinho successfully led the Sun Kings back into the top-flight, winning last year's J2 title. His opposite number, Mihailo Petrovic, has served long stretches as head coach at Sanfrecce and Reds, before joining Consadole Sapporo in 2018. Though their preferred philosophies are dramatically different, both have contributed a great deal to the tactical evolution of play in the J.League.

The intensity of the contest was best expressed in the 9th minute, when a loop pass into the box saw two Kashiwa defenders, two Consadole strikers, and the Kashiwa keeper all collide in mid-air, leaving four players on the ground. Just a few minutes later Kashiwa playmaker Ataru Esaka opened the Kashiwa account with a surging drive through the left channel and a rolling shot past his former teammate Takanori Sugeno, into the right corner.

Consadole responded with a flurry of pressure, but their excessive "enthusiasm" cost them another goal when a sudden long clearance sent Michael Olunga off on a gallop behind the Sapporo defense. to win the ball a half-step ahead of the outrushing keeper. Olunga collected the ball, feinted towards Cristiano unmarked at the far post, then drove a shot into the right corner before Sugeno could scramble back into position in his net.

Consadole were rocked onto their heels. Though they continued to hold a large share of possession, the two early goals had disrupted any sense of momentum, and Reysol's quick shift to a tight defense and counterattack tactics kept them from creating any real danger until half time. The second half started with much greater urgency on behalf of the visitors. Consadole began with a concerted press that had the hosts backed up in their own area for much of the first ten minutes.

At this point, the remarkable atmosphere that one encounters in the close confines of Kashiwa Stadium began to have an impact. As Consadole tried to work the ball into a dangerous position, under the Reysol goalposts, a massive wall of yellow seemed to rise in front of them, from the Kashiwa home end. The Reysol faithful roared encouragement to their players, and the Sun Kings stood firm.

Suddenly, as the clock moved towards the hour mark, Reysol broke away on a counterattack. Cristiano posted up inside the penalty arc and demanded the ball, then pivoted to feed it onto the feet of Esaka as he dashed into the box. Esaka stroked the ball past Sugeno, and suddenly the momentum was all on Kashiwa's side. Five minutes later Olunga broke away on a counterattack that left the Consadole defense stretched out on the cutting board, gutted, boned, sliced into thin strips and laid out like sashimi on a platter. Olunga rounded the keeper and stroked the fourth coffin nail home.

To their credit, Consadole did not just give up after the fourth tally. On the contrary, having really controlled the run of play up to that point, they seemed to be annoyed that the score line failed to match the content. So they set out to rectify the situation. In the 67th minute they claimed their first tally on a nice team move, finished off by Takuma Arano. Less than ten minutes later the deficit had been cut to two. As the Hokkaido Snow Owls continued to surge towards Kashiwa's golden wall, Kim Seung-gyu pulled off a spectacular diving reaction save, preventing a third goal but injuring himself in the process. Coach Nelsinho had to use his final substitution to replace the keeper, and thus helped Consadole maintain the momentum.

The final ten minutes was scintillating, end-to-end football, as Consadole threw everyone forward on attack, then Reysol launched clearances to Olunga and Cristiano for a wild counterattack. Unfortunately for both sets of fans, many players began to feel the effects of early-season (lack of) form. Wildly off-target shots and ballooning stray passes were interspersed with delays as players on both teams tried to address calf and thigh cramps.

Yet even though no further goals were scored, the contest ended with an intensity that will please all but the most critical Consadole partisans. This was J.League football at its finest.

22 February, 2020
Kashiwa Stadium


2 1H 0
2 2H 2


Ataru Esaka (13') 
Michael Olunga (20')
Ataru Esaka (58') 
Michael Olunga (65')


Takuma Arano (68') 
Musashi Suzuki (85') 
Shunki Takahashi Cautions  



    0 - 0

This contest was also J.League football at its finest, though only the fans of these two teams, and perhaps a few football purists, would have viewed it as an exciting two hours of football. Instead, a relatively young group of no-name upstarts from Tosu showed how hard work, good organization and a patient strategy can ALMOST earn you a title-contender's scalp. And on the road, at that.

It took them two decades, but Kawasaki Frontale can finally view themselves as one of the top contenders in the 2020 J.League After years of frustration, when they bore the albatross of being the League's most consistent choke artists on second thought let's call them "Bridesmaids", the Blue Dolphins of Kanagawa have finally cast off that burden. Frontale had the infuriating fate of finishing second in no less than ten League or cup competitions from 1997 through 2017. In all that time (though they did win the J2 crown twice), they never actually won a first-tier title.

The Blue Dolphins finally secured their maiden League title in the 2017 season, then defended the crown successfully in 2018. Last season Frontale finished fourth, but they did secure a cup trophy that year. The team may not be viewed as top contenders this year, but they still have the depth and experience to be viewed as one of the frontrunners. 

Frontale kicked off their campaign with a home clash against Sagan Tosu, who narrowly avoided relegation last year. Tosu has just been through a humbling experience in which they tried to buy both respect and a higher spot in the pecking order, with the purchase of Fernando Torres (as well as Isaac Cuenca and coach Lluis Carreras Ferrer) in 2018. Like Vissel Kobe owner Hiroshi Mikitani, the Sagan back office quickly discovered that it takes more to build a competitive team than just two hired foreign mercenaries -- even if both ARE former Spain internationals.

I wont effuse over the legendary Spanish striker's exploits in Japan, because . . . well . . . there simply arent any. Torres retired in the middle of last season, having given his best for the team but produced no memorable results. The huge sums that Sagan management expended to try to leapfrog into contention have produced no result. The rest of the Spanish contingent also departed at the end of last year, leaving long-time Sagan player/coach Kim Myung-hwi to rebuild -- hopefully on the foundations that historically took Sagan from small-town second-tier strugglers to consistent J1 participants.

The first cornerstone of "old-school Sagan" was a tireless, tenacious and truculent defense. Coach Kim has decided to adopt the 3-6-1 strategic playbook which so many other small clubs have used in recent yearws to punch above their weight. Given the number and scale of the changes in Sagan's squad over the past two months, it will be some time before we can guess their true potential. But coach Kim and his charges certainly got off to a strong start.

From the opening kickoff to the final whistle, there was never a question in anyone's mind which was the "better" team. And yet, as early as the 22nd minute, after a LOOOoooonnnng stretch of Kawasaki pressure was finally broken and Tomoya Koyamatsu nearly picked out Cho Dong-Geon with his cross on the counter, the packed home crowd began to murmur with concern.

There is little to say about the play by play, except that Frontale dominated it in every sense. Yet try as they might, they could not break down the dogged defense put up by the Magenta Magpies. Indeed, while Leandro Damiao had the ball in the net for Kawasaki, before VAR ruled him offside, one could argue that Tosu had the best scoring opportunity of the contest. On the stroke of the hour Thiago Alves played a diagonal pass that found Riki Harakawa unmarked at the left edge of the box. Harakawa drove his powerful shot off the gloves of the keeper, and the deflection almost managed to sneak inside the post before trickling just wide.

But that was about the only real chance Tosu created. Frontale never was able to unlock the packed Sagan defensive set. The contest closed with a 97th-minute free kick to Frontale, just a meter outside the box. The ball hit the wall and was cleared, and VAR confirmed that there was no handball. Tosu claimed a valuable away point in what they hope will be a turnaround season.

22 February, 2020
Todoroki Stadium


0 1H 0
0 2H 0




  Cautions Thiago Alves
Riki Harakawa



  1 - 0

There was one match on Saturday which failed to excite the imagination of anyone other than the Cerezo Osaka faithful. Taking on one of last-season's strugglers, Oita Trinita, Cerezo fans were probably hoping for a big win. Unfortnately, the cold heavy rain that blanketed Nagai "Yanmar" Stadium not only kept fans to a minimum; it also prevented either team from finding any traction

The Pink Wolves were out of the blocks quickly, taking the lead in the seventh minute on a corner kick headed just inside the near post by Bruno Mendes. But thereafter, the home team seemed to just coast along, unable to extend their lead but never really giving Trinita a chance to climb back into the contest. Cerezo will be satisfied to simply secure the three points, no doubt

22 February, 2020
Nagai (Yanmar) Stadium


1 1H 0
1 2H 0


Bruno Mendes (07') 



   1 - 3 

Last season, FC Tokyo got of to a strong start and seemed to be on track for their first-ever league title. But a number of key injuries, as well as the sale of Japan's newest "wunderkind", Takefusa Kubo, over the summer, disrupted the team's momentum. Tokyo stumbled across the finish line in second place, pipped at the post by Yokohama Marinos. Naturally, fans in the capital city are hopeful that this season will give them a chance to make amends. But if they hope to finish atop the heap, this season, they wil have to be even more efficient than they were in 2019. The level of competition is higher than ever, and this year opponents will be fully aware of the quality that the Tokyo Tanuki have on hand.

Shimizu S-Pulse fans, by contrast, have seen their position in the pecking order decline over the past several years. Last season they were happy just to avoid a serious relegation scrap. The Wingheads finished 12th overall, and the poor showing prompted management to thoroughly replace their fromnt office and coaching staff. In addition to a new CEO and a new general manager, S-Pulse handed the head coach position to Peter Cklamovski -- formerly Ange Postecoglou's assistant in the Australian National Team setup. Certainly the new gaffer will need some time to adjust to the realities of Japanese football (it took Ange himself about 1 1/2 years to fine-tune things). On the other hand, since there is little information available on Cklamovski's philosophy and tactics, it may take opponents a while to figure out the best way to handle the Wingheads.

As one might have anticipated, the Capitol City Coon-dogs had the slight advantage in overall quality and team play. But Shimizu put the visitors under pressure, early on, with a very simple yet effective style of play. Most J.League teams emphasize team play over individual initiative, looking to pass the ball into more dangerous positions rather than taking on your man one-on-one and trying to penetrate on the dribble. S-Pulse turned this tactic on its head, with all of the attacking-zone players looking for their own shot or penetration move first, and only looking to pass off when there was not enough space for individual play. The FC Tokyo defense was not fully prepared for this tactic, and consequently they struggled to contain the Wingheads over the opening 45 minutes. Not only did Shimizu enjoy a substantial share of possession, but they also got off a lot more shots (albeit few truly dangerous ones). As the first half drew to a close, the home team seemed to have the slight edge.

If the opening half was encouraging, the second act got off to a fantastic start for the home team. A full-blooded tackle by Hideki Ishige, on Diego Oliveira, set off a quick counterattack. Keita Nakamura fed the ball into the Tokyo box, for Terasil Dangda, who fired into the low left corner and gave S-Pulse the early lead.

 FC Tokyo responded by taking the pressure up a notch, but the Wingheads managed to hold off the onslaught until the 74th minute, when former Kashima striker Leandro charged into the penalty area from the left flank and was upended by Yugo Tatsuta. Diego Oliveira drilled his PK and suddenly all S-Pulse's hard work and concentration collapsed. Just three minutes later Tokyo took the lead, as Leandro again led a counterattack, fed the ball to Diego Oliveira as he entered the area, and Oliveira touched the ball on to Adailton for the point-blank finish.

 S-Pulse went to the bench hoping to climb back into the contest, but the Coon-Dogs were now in top gear, and after a couple of close calls on the counterattack, they finally put the contest to bed when Leandro chased down a stray back-pass to the keeper, and was upended before he could finish off the opportunity. This time Leandro took his own PK and sent it past Takuo Okubo to round out the scoring.

23 February, 2020
Nihondaira (IAI) Stadium


0 1H 0
1 2H 3


Teerasil Dangda (47') 


Diego Oliveira (77' PK) 
Adailton (80') 
Leandro (90+2' PK) 
  Cautions Masato Morishige



  1 - 0  

Yokohama Marinos kicked off their title defense at home on Sunday, against Gamba Osaka. The visitors have made some substantial changes in an effort to address the defensive failings that held Gamba back last season (48 goals conceded). The two most promising additions are Japan NT centre-back Gen Shoji and former Sagan Tosu (and Marinos) midfielder Yuji Ono. Neither was in the starting lineup this week, however, as coach Tsuneyasu Miyamoto opted for a more experienced (as a team) lineup.

Gamba lined up with five extremely experienced and technically skillful players in midfield -- Yasuhito Endo, Kensuke Onose, Shinya Yajima, Shu Kurata and Yosuke Ideguchi -- with former Augsburg and Hoffenheim player Takashi Usami at the top of the formation. These players all focused on anticipating passing lanes and timing their challenges to win possession in dangerous positions. The visitors started very strongly, counterattacking quickly and pressuring the ball, and seizing the early lead thanks to a Marinos defensive blunder. Keeper Park Il-Gyu was unable to handle a back pass cleanly, allowing one-time Leeds United player Ideguchi to poke the ball away at the edge of the six yard box, and veteran midfielder Shu Kurata to slide it into the empty net.

This shocking start rocked the Marinos back on their heels. The Marinos' one real weakness last season was in defense, as Ange Postecoglou's aggressive, high-pressing, high-risk/high-return strategy tends to give opponents opportunities to counterattack from deep in Marinos territory. The tactics Gamba adopted were clearly designed to exploit this weakness. The Osaka Boys were able to maintain the upper hand for much of the first half hour, nearly doubling their advantage on a corner kick that Usami headed off the left post. In the 33rd minute, keeper Masaaki Higashiguchi launched a booming kick downfield, and with several Osaka players caught deep in Marinos territory, the defense seemed to switch off. But Kurata -- still on his side of the midfield stripe -- spotted an opportunity and took off after the ball. By the time a few Marinos defenders realised that Kurata might be onside, the Osaka winger had already collected the ball and begun his dash for the left post. At the last second Kurata cut the ball back for Yajima to stroke into the Marinos net, stretching the advantage to 2-0.

Gradually, as the Bay City Seagulls began to settle into their rhythm, the run of play shifted in the home team's favour. From around the half hour mark, the Marinos had cut down on the flustered and disjointed passing exchanges in their own end, settling into a more patient and steady offensive flow. In the final 15 minutes of the half, Marcos Junior, Ado Onwaiu and Teruhito Nakagawa all managed to get off shots on target. But Masaaki Higashiguchi was able to deal with the threat, and the visitors carried their two-goal advantage into the locker room at half time

Yokohama came out in the second half with their game faces back in place, and immediately got down to work, controlling the majority of possession and circulating the ball with much greater caution, to prevent the sort of counterattacks that hurt them int the first half. But despite creating a lot more half-chances, the Marinos struggled to put shots on net. Gamba steadily shifted their tactics, tightened up the back line, and did their best to deny Yokohama players an open look at goal.

As the number of shots by the home team gradually increased, Higashiguchi was called upon to keep his team on top with several fantastic reaction saves. Buht in the 75th minute Marcos Junior collected a pass near the penalty spot and chipped a shot into the high left corner, opening a path back into the contest for Yokohama.

The final 15 minutes were played at a furious pace, as the Marinos threw every weapon in the arsenal at Gamba, and the visitors snatching at chances to counterattack. But try as they might, the reigning Champions could not unlock the Gamba strongbox a second time, giving Osaka a victory and an inspiring start to the 2020 Season.

23 February, 2020
Yokohama Int'l (Nissan) Stadium


0 1H 2
1 2H 0


  Marcos Junior (74')   


Shu Kurata (06')
Shinya Yajima (34')
Kosuke Onose Cautions  


 2 - 1

Full disclosure:
The first J.League team I ever supported was Yokohama Flugels. I lived through the most joyous, innocent and energetic period of J.League history. I basked in the electric passion of a 51,390-human congregation at Yokohama International Stadium, when the Marinos and Flugels played their 1994 Derby. I travelled to distant stadia and felt the passion of football fever sweep over the country.

Ialso wept and raged in impotent anger at the scandalous doubledealings of heartless corporate suits and incompetent League officials, in 1998, when they stole the team right out from under our noses. I even ducked out of work to carry pizzas to the ANA headquarters building, on that hopelessly dark October night, to support those who refused to stand idle, and faced down even cops and corporate crooks in the vain attempt to save our Beloved Fulie.  

Though I never REALLY got behind the resurrected team that was/is Yokohama FC (I had already moved to the foot of Mt. Fuji, and taken up with a different Tribe), I felt a twinge of pride when Yokohama FC made their first foray into the J1 (a single-season stint in 2007). But the direction Yokohama FC has taken in the decade thereafter is something I cannot let pass without comment. The following comments represent my own personal views, and nobody else's. I take personal responsibility for any negative comments from those who disagree.

But sometimes . . . some things just have to be said.
Yokohama FC is not a football team, it is a carnival sideshow -- a travelling group of well-known stars from yesteryear, who are propped up by hard-working extras, but always get the spotlight and the final bow. Its a sort of P.T.Barnum throwback, focused mainly on generating revenues off of past fame. The Yokohama FC roster this season includes nine players aged over 35, four who are over 40, and of course the widely-known and admired, 52-year-old Kazuyoshi Miura (who has proven, if nothing else, that you dont have to be capable of actually playing football to get Japanese fans to cheer for you -- a good point to note if you are a foreign ex-superstar looking for one more paycheck). Oh . . . and then there are six OTHER players who have already reached the age of 30, or will do so this season.  

Dont get me wrong; I admire how hard Kazu works to keep himself in shape. It shows a great deal of dedication, and if he sticks to J2 and J3 clubs who need a revenue boost from the miha-fan contingent ... sure, Im happy to see him play until he is 80! But I challenge any self-respecting football fan to make the argument that he was actually a POSITIVE contributor to the team when he took the pitch last season (in J2). A sideshow like this one does not belong in Japan's top PROFESSIONAL competition.  

Clearly, Yokohama FC management has decided to keep players like Kazu, Leandro Domingues, Daisuke Matsui, Yuta Minami, Calvin Jong-a-Pin, Masahiko Inoha and Shunsuke Nakamura on the roster not because of their ability to play first-tier football, but because they can fill a hall with fawning autograph-seekers. Unfortunately, the only player on that list who might still have a few J1-calibre performances left in him would be Nakamura ... and based on Jubilo's fate while he was there, last season, he only has a handful of them remaining.

Fulie does have a number of younger players who are capable of putting up a good scrap (they did, after all, finish second in J2). But with so many roster spots occupied by soon-to-be Senior leaguers, Fulie may lack the depth to stay afloat in the top-flight for long. I will refrain from any further criticism until coach Shimotaira demonstrates whether or not he will focus on developing his REAL team (and leaves the ojii-san brigade to sign autographs in the stands). Yokohama stuck with mostly U-35 players for the opening match, and the results were encouraging. With a midseason injection of AUTHENTIC talent, Yokohama FC could actually bring the Phoenix back from a fate worse than death. They certainly have the location and connections to rebuild a J1 franchise, but it remain s to be seen whether this iteration of the club is something that nostalgic Flugels fans can once again discuss with pride, and not embarrassment.

On the other hand, if we see a string of late substitutions with Kazu, Matsui, Leandro or Nakamura coming on to give the fans a Cheap Thrill, you can count on this writer to call it out as the most embarrassing farce in J1 history. 

Of course, long-time readers will know that I have a less-than-impressed opinion of Vissel Kobe as well. Over the past two seasons, the team has squandered a fortune to bring in famous but not particularly productive stars, whose only real contribution to Vissel has been to keep younger, more deserving players out of the lineup. But owner Hiroshi Mikitani does seem to have a genuine interest in building the team into something Kobe fans can take pride in. The most unproductive of the paid mercenaries (Lucas Podolski, in particular) have been asked to move on, and the most prominent "aging star" left on the team is Andres Iniesta, whose technical savvy and unselfish approach to the game are always a net benefit to the team. Given the agony that Flugels fans were subjected to in 1998, naturally I still have reservations about the influence of money on the game. Mr. Mikitani has bent a lot of the rules that were introduced in the wake of the Fulie Fiasco, and if other clubs were to follow suit, it might send the J.League down the same self-destructive path as many European leagues.

If we give Mr. Mikitani the benefit of the doubt, however, it seems like Vissel are finally moving onto a more sustainable footing。So long as they learn from the mistakes of the past few years, they seem to be headed in the right direction. Vissel's maiden title trophy -- the Emperor's Cup crown secured on January 1, 2020 -- was not as impressive as fans might have hoped. After all, when your opponent registers a goal and an assist, and the final score is 2-0, it usually means you are the losers. Kashima's understrength squad and atrocious defending were as big a factor in the victory as anything the Crimson Tide did. Be that as it may, a trophy is still a trophy. If they can build on last year's accomplishments, perhaps Kobe can vie for a league crown (or even an ACL title) this year. 

The opening minutes of this match were about as one-sided as prognosticators predicted, with Vissel controlling almost 80% of possession and play taking place almost entirely in Yokohama's defensive end. But the visitors packed their zone tightly, showed good patience, and prevented any truly dangerous shots until Noriaki Fujimoto's drive into the keeper's chest, at about the 20 minute mark. The sluggish start cost Vissel dearly, as Yokohama's first real foray into Kobe territory -- a cross into the box from the left corner -- was miscleared, and dropped to Tatsuki Seko inside the penalty arc, with no defender in sight. Seko drove his first touch into the Kobe net, and Fulie had the early advantage.

This seemed to completely shatter the Crimson concentration, and they spent the next 15 minutes passing the ball backwards in aimless circles. It is not unusual for ACL teams to look lethargic on the weekend following a trip to Asia, particularly early in the season. But in this case the home team looked even more listless than expected, lacking any energy or speed in attack. Before long, the home crowd was expressing their displeasure at Vissel's lack of urgency with prolonged stretches of unrestrained booing. The first half ended with only three shots on goal -- two for Kobe and the lone Yokohama tally.

The opening ten minutes of the second half were as sluggish and inconsequential as the first. Kobe seemed to have no direction and no real fighting spirit. In the 55th minute coach Finke made a double substitution, introducing Douglas Vieira and Keijiro Ogawa in an effort to inject some life to the run of play. Bit by bit, the Crimson started to create meaningful chances, including an Iniesta chip off the crossbar in the 64th minute.

Finally, in the 74th minute, defender Sergei Samper spotted an open passing lane and slipped a pass behind the Fulie defense, for Kyogo Furuhashi. Furuhashi used his first touch to take the ball wide of the keeper, then tucked it back into the open goal, knotting the score.

Kobe had a golden opportunity to take the lead, moments later, when Douglas beat the offside trap and galloped down the left channel for a one-on-one with the keeper. But Yuji Rokutan was off his line quickly, and smothered the shot. With ten minutes on the clock, Iniesta tried to manhandle the ball through the penalty area, bamboozling five defenders before his lay-off to Douglas was deflected over the crossbar. Finally, Vissel seemed to be finding a good rhythm. But the home team had squandered too much time. Fulie were able to run out the clock and claim an important point from their first J1 contest in over a decade.

23 February, 2020
Kobe (Noevir) Stadium


0 1H 1
1 2H 0


Kyogo Furuhashi (74') 


Tatsuki Seko (24')
  Cautions Maguinho



  3 - 0  

Full report willl be posted shortly

22 February, 2020
Hiroshima "Big Arch" Stadium


2 1H 0
1 2H 0


Douglas (20')
 Leandro Perreira (25')
Tsukasa Morishima (84')


  Cautions Kose



Hits: 192

J1 Standings


. Team Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif.
1 Marinos 70 22 4 8 68 38 +30
2 FCTokyo 64 19 7 8 46 29 +17
3 Antlers 63 18 9 7 54 30 +24
4 Frontale 60 16 12 6 57 34 +23
5 Cerezo 59 18 5 11 39 25 +14
6 Sanfrecce 55 15 10 9 45 29 +16
7 Gamba 47 12 11 11 54 48 +6
8 Vissel 47 14 5 15 61 59 +2
9 Trinita 47 12 11 11 35 35 0
10 Consadole 46 13 7 14 54 49 +5
11 Vegalta 41 12 5 17 38 45 -7
12 S-Pulse 39 11 6 17 45 69 -24
13 Grampus 37 9 10 15 45 50 -5
14 Reds 37 9 10 15 34 50 -16
15 Sagan 36 10 6 18 32 53 -21
16 Bellmare 36 10 6 18 40 63 -23
17 Yamaga 31 6 13 15 21 40 -19
18 Jubilo 31 8 7 19 29 51 -22

J2 Standings

. Team Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif.
1 Reysol 84 25 9 8 85 33 +52
2 Yoko FC 79 23 10 9 66 40 +26
4 Vortis 73 21 10 11 67 45 +22
3 Ardija 75 20 15 7 62 40 +22
5 Ventforet 71 20 11 11 64 40 +24
6 Montedio 70 20 10 12 59 40 +19
7 Hollyhock 70 19 13 10 56 37 +19
8 Sanga 68 19 11 12 59 56 +3
9 Fagiano 65 18 11 13 49 47 +2
10 Albirex 62 17 11 14 71 52 +19
11 Zweigen 61 15 16 11 58 46 +12
12 VVaren 56 17 5 20 57 61 -4
13 Verdy 55 14 13 15 59 59 0
14 FCRyukyu 49 13 10 19 57 80 -23
15 Renofa 47 13 8 21 54 70 -16
16 Avispa 44 12 8 22 39 62 -23
17 JEF United 43 10 13 19 46 64 -18
18 Zelvia 43 9 16 17 36 59 -23
19 Ehime FC 42 12 6 24 46 62 -16
20 Tochigi SC 40 8 16 18 33 53 -20
21 Kagoshima 40 11 7 24 41 73 -32
22 FCGifu 30 7 9 26 33 78 -45

J3 Standings

. Team Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif.
1 Giravanz 66 19 9 6 51 27 +24
2 Thespa 63 18 9 7 59 34 +25
3 Fujieda 63 18 9 7 42 31 +11
4 Kataller 58 16 10 8 54 31 23
5 Roasso 57 16 9 9 45 39 +6
6 Cerezo U23 52 16 4 14 49 56 -7
7 Gainare 50 14 8 12 49 59 -10
8 Blaublitz 49 13 10 11 45 35 +10
9 Parceiro 49 13 10 11 35 34 +1
10 Vanuraure 48 14 6 14 49 42 +7
11 Fukushima 43 13 4 17 45 53 -8
12 AzulClaro 39 11 6 17 35 43 -8
13 YSCC 39 12 3 19 53 65 -12
14 Kamatamare 39 10 9 15 33 49 -16
15 Sagamihara 38 10 8 16 36 45 -9
16 FCTokyo U23 36 9 9 16 43 52 -9
17 Gamba U23 35 9 8 17 54 55 -1
18 Grulla 26 7 5 22 36 63 -27