So I'll be totally honest and say that the last 96 hours could have been better, hence the very late update and a report that probably won't be as detailed as I'm trying to strive for. Fortunately, the boys dominated in their away campaign at Omiya, knocking in three unopposed goals and keeping their own sheet clean.
I arrived at NACK5 Stadium a little before noon to find out that every FC Tokyo Fan who had a ticket was already in line, forcing me to walk about half a kilometer to find the end of the line. Fortunately my usual seat partners had an extra seat available when I finally got inside. The visitor's stands are divided into two tiers – the bottom are standing-only for the supporters and the top are supposedly for people to sit, but everyone wearing blue and red was on their feet for the entire game. Though rain threatened throughout the morning, the game was played for the most part under clouds that at time thinned enough to let the sun shine through on a solid Tokyo victory.
Once the match started, Omiya tried early on to use its gaijin sledgehammer to break through Tokyo's defense to no avail. Pedro Junior did little more than foul (and I believe at least one very impressive dive that I got on camera) and was replaced at halftime, while Denis Marquez, though constantly encouraged by the Squirrel Nation, seemed stymied at every turn, letting loose a volley of shots that were either wide of the goal or handled deftly by Shiota.
Tokyo's first-half goals came from Yohei Kajiyama on a glorious header in the 15th minute from a long pass that caught Omiya's defense completely off-guard, followed about 20 minutes later by a long bomb from GK Shiota that drew the Omiya goalkeeper all the way out to the edge of the box… to be there just as Cabore lobbed it past him. Waiting to see if the ball would actually get into the net was the longest 3-4 seconds I've experienced in the stands in a long time, but it was certainly worthwhile.
In the second half, the substitution of Otake created a somewhat awkward moment when the player he replaced, Kurisawa, opted not to go to the center-line to tag in Otake but to go straight to the Tokyo bench. However, the substitution took place before an FC Tokyo corner kick which Otake was waved down to take, so I'm not sure whether it was an intentional snub or not. However, Kurisawa has been pulled for Otake in three out of the last four matches (the exception being the Shimizu game where Otake was named a starter) so there could be a bit of resentment there.
Two minutes later after what I believe was a particularly rough hit, manager Jofuku pulled out Cabore for problem child Sota Hirayama. I've always been optimistic that despite his numerous motivation issues over the course of this year and the last our number 13 would turn it around, but his performance yesterday made it all too apparent that in terms of individual player performances he is the weak link on the squad. Several times he had the ball with an open field save for maybe one or two defenders in front of him, and rather than an aggressive attack and a shot that might have gone into the net (or at least created pressure on the goalkeeper), Hirayama often opted to wait for support or held onto the ball for too long, resulting in several wasted opportunities. One such turnover, in the 74th minute, was recovered by fan favorite Nagatomo and slammed into the goal for his first J.LEAGUE point.
After what appeared to be the clincher for FC Tokyo, Shingo Akamine was replaced by #32 Yusuke Kondo, part of last year's National Team squad. Though he was on FC Tokyo's roster for three years from '03 to '05, it wasn't until '06 when he was transferred to Vissel Kobe that he found significant playing time, helping them in their promotion campaign in that year. Fans in the visitor's stand were overjoyed to see him step onto the field once again wearing the blue and red kit, and even more so when both of the shots he took in the last 15 minutes of play came close to finding nylon.
The game ended with Tokyo in a place it has not found itself since 2005 – first in the standings with 20 points. Urawa's draw with Vissel Kobe later in the evening would raise the Reds up to 20 points as well, and because of the goal differential tiebreaker FC Tokyo presently stands in second with a squad that looks more and more dangerous with each match. The offense is finally clicking and is arguably as strong as it's been since the Amaral era. Cabore is racking up goals that many had hoped for when he was signed, and has a perfect companion at the wing in Akamine. Midfielders Konno and Kajiyama's leadership is propelling the squad both on attack and defense, while Otake and Nagatomo have brought surprising weapons to the squad. Once Emerson and Hanyu recover from their injuries (more on that below) and as Kondo (referred to by the fans as Yusuke so I'll probably use that from here on) starts to have a more active role on the field, FCT will have one of the deepest offensive lineups in J.League.
Defensively, while the team does have lingering issues to resolve, this is not the FC Tokyo that allowed 58 goals in 2007 (one of the worst tallies in the league). Defenders Sahara, Nagatomo, Moniwa, and Tokunaga have all become adept at frustrating the opposing attackers, often stymieing breakaways and forcing turnovers before a shot is taken. Corner kicks and free kicks have been the source of most of FC Tokyo's allowed goals, and even when the goal is successfully defended issues with clearing the ball continue to haunt the squad.
To officially end the Golden Week Sprint (although I'm not counting it as 'over' until Round 12 against Kashiwa on Saturday given the short period in=between matches), FCT plays the free-falling Nagoya Grampus at Ajinomoto Stadium. Nagoya, which opened the season undefeated for 7 straight matches (the last six of them wins), has completely collapsed during the Golden Week Sprint with 2-1, 2-0, and 2-1 losses to Kawasaki, Verdy, and Gamba Osaka.
-After injuring his knee during a practice match versus Yokohama FC, Bruno Quattros was diagnosed with an inflamed tendon and will be out for approximately two weeks.
-Speaking of injuries, Naotake Hanyu is on the mend – after joking in his official blog that he would be considered a “salary thief” if he missed any more matches, he was shown in a photo on FC Tokyo's official website in a practice match against the FC Tokyo U-18 squad, which leads me to think that he'll probably be on the roster for the Kashiwa campaign on Saturday, or maybe even against Nagoya if the stars align correctly.
-Matsu over at The Rising Sun posted a great analysis of J.LEAGUE's poor refereeing, including an incident that apparently took place last Tuesday at the Oita match.
As far as photos, I'm just going to do a “Best Of GW Sprint” post after Saturday's match against Kashiwa for the benefit of my sanity. Stay tuned for the Nagoya report!