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城服東京、楽しい東京、俺とお前は夢の中!

Man, I really have to do better at this regular blogging thing, but that’s what happens in JLPT season.

In any case, the regular season is over.  In line with predictions I made early on in the season on the RSN forums, FC Tokyo did make the top 6 – in fact, the team ended in 6th place, when it could have reached as high as 4th were it not for a tragic fall-from-ahead loss at Chiba to end the season.  JEF Chiba’s shock win saved the team from relegation, meaning that we’ve been the dramatic foil for relegation-threatened teams for two years in a row now.  Which, I’ll be honest, is kinda amusing in a “if I didn’t laugh I’d be crying” way.  Hell, I’m from Philadelphia, who knows more about abject futility than us?

A week earlier, the final home game of the year was held at Ajinomoto Stadium; a match against Albirex Niigata that ended with an exhilerating goal as time was running out.  In stark contrast to 2007’s home finale, which resembled the atmosphere of a funeral, this year’s home finale had a palpable sense of celebration attached.  Manager Hiroshi Jofuku has gotten FCT to play almost at its full potential, and with the nucleus of the team largely expected to return next season, the eyes of the J.League world will undoubtedly be on Ajinomoto Stadium.  Though the team has some weaknesses it needs to overcome, nobody can dispute that FC Tokyo will be a contender for the championship in 2009.

What needs to change? That depends on what aspects of the squad you choose to look at.  By virtue of its solid youth program, FCT doesn’t need transfers as desperately as other teams in the league, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t needed.  The most perplexing issue is at forward – should Cabore have another foreign strongman – either South American or European – to give him some relief and help the team in the opposing goal area, where they seem to get caught up frequently?  Akamine, despite taking half as many shots as Cabore, was FCT’s leading goal-scorer of the year and one of the top 2 or 3 Japanese goal-scorers this season.  The odd man out seems to be Sota Hirayama, who showed flashes of brilliance this season but has yet to show enough consistency to earn a regular starting role.

One lineup change that will be affecting all squads is the addition of a forth foreign player slot – while teams were previously limited to having 3 foreign players on their roster, the fourth has to come from an ACL country.  Most teams will probably go to Korea, which has sent its fair share of players to Japan, or to Australia, which seems to have one of the best performances aside from Japanese teams in the ACL.

In any case, the season is not over yet – this Saturday (the 20th) FCT plays Shimizu S-Pulse for the billionth (actually 5th) time this year up in Sendai in an Emperors Cup quarterfinal match.  The team hasn’t had very good luck against Shimizu (0-1-3 this year), but with the fourth and final ACL bid still up for grabs, one would be foolish to take anything for granted.  Amazing J indeed.

In player news, Yuto Nagatomo has been nominated as both Outstanding Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year by J.League, honors well-deserved.  Here’s hoping he takes some silverware home!

In other site news, I’ve been asked by Gora over at JapaneseSoccer.net, an English-language J.League news blog that’s now in beta, to write a special piece about the deteriorating situation at Tokyo Verdy.  For those of you who haven’t been following, Verdy has not only been demoted to J2 but their supporters are now declaring open rebellion on the board of directors.  This includes urging a season ticket boycott, an act virtually unheard of in Japan.  Part 1 of my essay is up now, with parts 2 and 3 to follow.  I assume by the time anyone reads this Gora will have the formatting fixed, so stay tuned.

Preview: 04.16 FC Tokyo vs. Jubilo Iwata (Nabisco Cup Group B Prelims)

First, a shout-out to those who have commented so far! I’m adding links to the blogroll as I get them so feel free to get in touch or suggest blogs I haven’t listed yet.

Tomorrow night finds FC Tokyo returning to Ajinomoto Stadium (yeah, I said Kokuritsu in my last post, whoops) as the home team to face Jubilo Iwata in the Group B Preliminary Round of the Nabisco Cup.

The momentum seems to be on FC Tokyo’s side as they’re coming in on a streak of two consecutive division wins, including Saturday’s climactic victory against Verdy and a win against newcomers Consadole Sapporo. Jubilo, on the other hand, has lost two in a row, falling 2-1 to both Consadole and the Urawa Reds, and is plagued by reports of discord among the players. Additionally, FC Tokyo has already defeated the Flycatchers (yes, I looked this up, that is their mascot, although I sincerely hope that’s not how the fans refer to themselves) once this season on the Nabisco away leg. Jubilo is currently at 13th place in J1, while FC Tokyo sits at 7th.

Although it’s only a preliminary qualifier on a weeknight, I expect a stronger than average turnout of Gasheads, buoyed by the result of the Tokyo Derby match, and a token showing by the dedicated Iwata fans, but the decibel level in Ajinomoto should be significantly lower than it was on Saturday night. Good thing for me, as I’ll have class on Thursday morning and I can’t afford to kill my throat.

FC Tokyo will likely play a slightly more conservative game, as the Verdy match was a bruising affair and the team has to save its strength for Saturday’s home match against Kawasaki Frontale, which remains a dangerous side despite their weaker than expected start. On offense, I expect Otake to start on the field after coming off the bench in Saturday’s match, but he’ll get replaced sometime in the second half if Tokyo gets a comfortable lead as his speed and agility will be a necessity against Kawasaki. After getting pulled out of the F. Marinos game and benched against Sapporo, Hirayama was a replacement in the Verdy match and may have proven to coach Hiroshi Jofuku that he’s stopped being, to put it delicately, a whiny bitch. Only time will tell. Hanyu was pulled from the Verdy game with a leg injury and will probably come on from the bench if he makes an appearance, but he’ll more than likely be ready for Saturday. Cabore and Akamine will likely both get playing time, although it’s a fair question as to whether they’ll both start on the field.

On the defensive end, Moniwa may make a return to the lineup following a shoulder injury that kept him out of the Verdy game, and I personally wouldn’t mind seeing Bruno get some playing time after his spirited performance against Consadole two weeks ago. Rookie Nagatomo, who “scored” the winner against Verdy, has consistently performed well on the defensive end and will probably get a start.

So far this season FC Tokyo has run a 4-3-2-1 position with Cabore as striker, but against Verdy ran a 4-3-1-2 that turned into a 4-3-3 when Otake was substituted. These formations seemed to suit them so I think they’ll continue to tinker with a stronger attack.

Oh, and a Random Game Fact: Jubilo’s slogan for this year is, I shit thou not, “Hungrrrrry!”. If that’s not a reason to cheer against them, I don’t know what is.

In other Group B action, Shimizu S-Pulse hosts “Tokyo” Verdy in Nihondaira. Verdy is 0-1-1 so far in the prelims and needs a win to have any sort of shot at advancing to the elimination stage, while Shimizu holds a one-point lead over FC Tokyo and Jubilo Iwata. So, best of luck to the S-Pulse in at least drawing. See you tomorrow night with the match report!