Happy Kwanzichrismukkah to all of you readers out there, whoever you may be.
Couple brief bits of news:
-Reserve forward Kouhei Shimoda has been selected to Japan’s U-20 squad for a “International Goodwill Tournament” to be held in Qatar this January. Can’t seem to find any details on what the tournament’s about, but hey, good on you Kouhei!
-Midfielder Yinka Adedeji, who has played for Nigeria’s U-20 team and served as a backup player to the Beijing Olympics, began a 4-day practice tryout with FC Tokyo on the 24th. He is currently attached to Nigerian second-division squad Shooting Stars S.C. Should FCT choose to sign him, the young striker (born in 1985 or 1989 depending on the data I’ve found) could prove to be a good replacement for Emerson, who will not be resigned for the 2009 season. His presence could also inspire other J.League squads to take a closer look at African players, who are a rare signed on Japanese pitches. The Yomiuri Shinbun reported his display of a good passing sense in a squad mini-game.
In Emperor’s Cup news, Gamba Osaka stumbled to a 2-1 upset victory against heavily favored Nagoya Grampus. Though the team came out strong in the first half with two goals (one scored by former FCT striker Lucas), they struggled to hold back Nagoya in the second half as they were obviously worn out from their Club World Cup matches held just three days earlier. Gamba will face a well-rested Yokohama F. Marinos squad on Monday at Kokuritsu, just after FC Tokyo and Kashiwa Reysol finish their duel at Ecopa Stadium. Nagoya’s loss also dashed cold water on the hopes of Oita supporters; their team no longer has an outside shot at an ACL bid.
That’s all from Tokyo! I’ve got 6 days of concerts ahead of me and will be at Countdown Japan 08-09 starting from the 28th so I sasdly won’t be able to watch either match. Here’s to an FC Tokyo victory, and hopefully a celebratory blog post on New Year’s Day!
On a cold day in Sendai (wait, that’s every day in Sendai, isn’t it), FC Tokyo met one of their most frequent opponents this season, Shimizu S-Pulse, for a record 5th time.
Like many of their other matches this season, the Gasmen fell behind in the first half, this time on a set play. But as the second half began, the team was resolute; they’d come this far, and they would keep going all the way to New Year’s Day.
And opportunity came 5 minutes into the second half, when midseason aquisition Katsuya Suzuki was fould in the penalty area and FCT was awarded a kick. Suzuki deferred to Shingo Akamine, who sent a low shot to the left just past the outstretched hands of Shimizu’s goalkeeper to tie the game at 1.
A minute later, Shimizu’s defense collapsed again as a series of brilliant passes between Cabore and Nagatomo on the left side split the Shimizu defense. Nagatomo lobbed the ball to Suzuki, who again set up Akamine for a cross and the winning goal.
Though Shimizu did challenge for the rest of the half, FCT held strong and secured a berth in its first semifinal since 1997, when as Tokyo Gas FC beat Kansai University, Ehime FC Youth, Nagoya Grampus, Yokohama FM, and Belmare Hiratsuka before losing to eventual champions Kashima Antlers.
After the game, the fans passed out Santa hats in celebration of the holidays and pulled out what I can only imagine is a classic chant from the old days:
Tokyo’s next opponent will be the ever-tenacious Kashiwa Reysol, who beat out Sanfrecce Hiroshima in a thriller of a match that went into overtime. The game will take place at Shizuoka “Ecopa” Stadium, out in the ass-end of nowhere, on December 29th.
On the other side of the bracket, tournament surprise Sagan Tosu pulled ahead early but eventually fell 3-1 to Yokohama F. Marinos, who will play the winner of Gamba Osaka vs. Nagoya Grampus. The remaining quarterfinal match will be played on Christmas Day due to Gamba’s Club World Cup commitments.
It will certainly be an interesting set of matches – Brazillian Alex is playing his last matches for Kashiwa, as is their manager Nobuhiro Ishizaki. The team finished in the middle of the table in a season that included a stunning upset against Urawa. They beat FC Tokyo on a rain-soaked field at Ajinomoto during the Golden Week Sprint, but lost to the Gasmen at home, both by 1-0 scores.
Nagoya is arguably the strongest team of the five remaining, having finished third in J1 and secured a spot in the 2009 ACL. FC Tokyo split their series this year, losing 1-0 at home on a game marred by questionable officiating and won 1-0 at Nagoya. Several Nagoya players, including Norweigan striker Johnsen, are playing their last matches for the team as their releases or transfers have already been announced. Because of their already-secured ACL slot, should Nagoya win the cup Japan’s fourth and final ACL slot would go to Oita Trinita, who finished fourth in J1.
Gamba Osaka is a bit of a paradox; they won the ACL this year as their odds of winning J.League shrank and they finished . Because the ACL champion no longer has a guaranteed invitation to the tournament, Gamba needs to win the Emperor’s Cup in order to return to the competition in 2009. They’ve just played two matches in two days – against Manchester United and Mexican club team Pachuka in the FIFA Club World Cup, which is why their match against Nagoya is to be played on Christmas.
Yokohama F. Marinos, disappointing underachievers in this year’s J.League, have ascended the tournament ladder with a combination of luck and skill. They beat J1 basement-dwellers Consadole Sapporo to reach the 5th round, where they dispatched Urawa 6-5 on penalty kicks. This week they Sagan Tosu on Tosu’s home turf, eventually pulling away with a 3-1 win that was nothing if not contested thoroughly by the home team. Continuing in the luck vein, Yokohama will have twice the rest of either of its possible opponents. This is Yokohama’s first semifinal appearance since the 1993 Emperor’s Cup; they were champions the year before.
Though the final two teams are far from decided, some fans across the country are already tempting fate and snatching up tickets for the last match at Kokuritsu. The front stands are for all intents and purposes sold out, while there are still plenty of tickets remaining in the back stand, where the majority of supporters will likely make a beeline for. Will Tokyo and Osaka battle for national supremacy once again? Could Kashiwa and Yokohama slug it out in the Battle of Kantou? Will Nagoya win it all and give Oita a late Christmas gift? We’ll all know in a little over a week.
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.