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.