The biggest home crowd of this season, just under 31,000, swarmed Aji Sta on Saturday evening to see The Gasmen take on the three-time defending champions Kashima. Both teams were coming off 2-1 losses the previous weekend, Tokyo in the Classico at Kawasuckisaki, and Antlers in a stunner away to Sendai, where their number one striker, Marquinhos, was sent off after 15 minutes and subsequently suspended for two games.
Tokyo lost both games to the champions last season, and must have been wary of a backlash from a wounded Kashima following their first loss of the season. Still, Jofuku was not afraid to swing the changes after the Classico loss, Kim returning in place of Mukuhara at left back and Matsushita getting a first start in four games (including Nabisco v Nagoya) on the left side of midfield ahead of Hokuto, but the biggest decision of the season so far from the manager was the attention-grabber- handing Shigematsu his full debut in place of Tatsuya up front. That took some ba##s from Jofuku, but he'd obviously liked what he'd seen from the youngster in the three games he'd come on in, although Akamine can't have been pleased at being overlooked again. Ricardinho made the bench, and was to provide some late entertainment and excitement. Sorry, I don't know how to do the team lists as dokool does them, but the team in full was Gonda; Nagatomo, Morishige, Konno, Kim; Ishikawa, Tokunaga, Hanyu, Matsushita; Shigematsu, Hirayama. Subs: Shiota, Hiramatsu, Mukuhara, Hokuto, Akamine, Tatsuya, Ricardinho.
I arrived at the ground much later than usual and the crush in the ホーム自由席 seats had seen tokyobairn only manage to get seats well away from our regular spot, we were stuck down near the away end and were forced to put up with the rowdy Antlers fans' (hey guys – leave the jungle beats to Shimizu fans), but after four minutes, their howls of disgust were music to our ears.
Tokyo won a corner in the third minute, and after Matsushita's outswinging delivery to the far post brushed the head of a Kashima defender attempting to clear, the ball came to Konno on the edge of the box, he dinked it back inside, left his foot in and Nozawa obliged by clipping his foot and sending him to the floor. Referee Nishimura had no hesitation and quite correctly pointed to the spot, and Tokyo had a penalty. The decision enraged the Kashima hordes in the stands but was bang-on, as was Hirayama's penalty, Sogahata dived to his left but Sota drove low and hard into the opposite corner.
Predictably, the champions hit back hard and enjoyed a solid period of pressure, Tokyo's defending looked shaky and there were some close shaves, in one sequence Kashima had five consecutive corners, one conceeded after Gonda leapt to turn over Jung Soo's firm header.
Hirayama and Shigematsu worked hard to try and hold the ball up when Tokyo won possession back, though understandably their inter-play wasn't razor-sharp. Ishikawa burst forward on a few occasions, though he was forced to track back a lot to cover Araiba's forays forward.
Kashima had another near-miss in the 27th minute after Kim had a brain-fart and pushed Koroki to the floor about 30 metres from goal. Reigning League Player of the Year Ogasawara stepped up and curled the free kick towards the top corner, forcing Gonda to tip on to the roof of the net.
Twelve minutes later Antlers were level, and that man Ogasawara was the catalyst as usual. He lost Tokunaga, who was occupied with Araiba, took a square pass 35 metres out and unleashed a fierce drive that Gonda parried, but straight to the alert Koroki, who volleyed in from 7 yards. Gonda could've/should've done better, and though Kashima had knocked on the door several times, it was still a somewhat soft goal to conceed.
From the restart Tokyo almost immediately reclaimed the lead, but Hirayama missed his kick on the turn after Matsushita leapt to head down Ishikawa's cross. Ogasawara, again given too much space, then opened-up our defence with an excellent through ball that was just a touch heavy, and Gonda managed to claim, and that was about it for the first half.
Shigematsu had struggled to impose himself in the first half, but nine minutes after the break he was presented with a golden chance to net his second J League goal. Hanyu played a ball over the top for Ishikawa, who advanced and crossed low across the face of goal, Sogahata tried to claim but only pushed the ball out to the youngster on the edge of the box. With the goal gaping Shigematsu HAD to hit the target, but he mis-timed and shot into the floor, the ball bouncing harmlessly wide.
On 67 minutes Ishikawa burst into the box after receiving a pass from Shigematsu, but the winger's touch was a little heavy, and on the stretch he fired straight at the keeper.
That pass was Shigematsu's last involvement as Ricardinho came on for him, and the Brazilian was all-action, his first touch saw him embark on a 60-metre cross-field dribble but then fall over and miss his kick when he turned to pass back. If that moment had us perhaps understand why he hadn't been playing all season, the last 20 minutes was basically The Ricky Show, he displayed some nice touches, troubled the Antlers defence with his pace, and showed a real desire to make an impression, tracking back and defending from the front.
With eight minutes left Mukuhara replaced the tiring Ishikawa, which saw Nagatomo move to right midfield. Two minutes later Ricky produced a brilliant cross from the left that Hirayama, leaning backwards, headed on target but Sogahata claimed easily. Kashima still posed a threat, but Ricky had a chance to seal the points in the 88th minute, released by Hanyu he raced away with a defender giving chase, however he was forced onto his left foot and shot straight at Sogahata.
There was one more chance for each team in stoppage time, firstly for Kashima, Aoki crossed from the right by-line, and Tokyo breathed a huge sigh of relief as the ball cleared Gonda and almost seemed to roll along the crossbar. At the right end Ricky showed good instincts to head a deep cross back across goal, but no one in a red and blue shirt was arriving to take the chance.
Mr. Nishimura blew for full time and the points were shared, a fair result in what was a very open, entertaining game. Pleasingly for Tokyo, we more than matched the champions for long stretches, a good sign after the disappointment of the previous weekend. A solid team performance in which we didn't carry many passengers, although Matsushita will need to do more (at least try and take someone on) to keep his spot for the games coming up. It was certainly a steep learning curve for Shigematsu, his effort could not be faulted but did he do enough to earn a run in the starting lineup? Ricardinho's impressive display after coming on might mean he didn't.
I'd also like to say a good word about the ref (and not just because he gave us the penalty!), because most of them are dire and it was good to see a ref officiate in a balanced way, on what happens on the pitch and not influenced by reputation.
The Gasmen are back in action tomorrow night (Wednesday), we have a Nabisco Cup game away to Omiya, and then we welcome Kyoto to Aji Sta next Saturday evening (5pm kickoff). Hopefully the positives we can take out of the draw with the champions will spur us to even better performances in the games to come.