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[Preview] 04.26 – 05.10 GOLDEN WEEK SPRINT (J1 Round 8 through 12)

As is apparently traditional, J.League schedules each team for 4 or 5 matches during the Golden Week holiday in an attempt to get more attendees into the stadiums while they can enjoy a rare extended holiday.

In FC Tokyo’s case, this means five matches played over the span of two weeks, three at home and two away. These matches are against a variety of opponents from all over the table, and how they perform in this period will be as good an indicator as any of what the season holds for the team.

I will not be attending the first match (away at Shimizu) for obvious reasons. However, as I’m a season ticket holder I’ll be at the Oita, Nagoya, and Kashiwa home games, and have procured a ticket to attend the away campaign at Omiya. So, in the interest of not flooding this blog with 20 posts in a week by posting match previews every 24 hours (and in the interest of staying sane by not having to do so), I’m going to preview the upcoming two weeks of insanity here in one big post. Match reports/YouTube roundups will hopefully come after each match and if anything occurs that drastically alters the face of any matches I’ll naturally post that as well.

So, let’s get started with the home team!

Where FC Tokyo Stands

It’s been a long time since the Blue and Red stood alone as high as third place (the last time they were this high in J1 was in 2005, when they spent the first month or two of the season in first place). Trailing last year’s champion Kashima Antlers by two points and the current table leaders Nagoya Grampus by five, FC Tokyo is arguably the hottest team in the league right now – while Nagoya may be in the lead, and teams like Kashima and Urawa may have stronger rosters, Tokyo has youth, poise, and a new sort of confidence that the team – and the fans – have been waiting for. Manager Jofuku has put a team on the field that the supporters expected last year and have been waiting for for the last several years – what remains to be seen is whether that momentum can be sustained.

On the attack side, FC Tokyo is taking more shots, controlling its passing better, and getting around defenders with ease. Newcomer Cabore may not yet be the goal-scoring machine that he was in K.League last year (in fact, he’s has three so far – certainly not bad by any stretch), but he’s creating chances, making key plays, and pulling attention from other defenders, making him just as dangerous. Fellow arrival Hanyu, though he’ll miss the next game with an injury he sustained during the Verdy match, has also performed well and added depth to the lineup. Team elder statesman Yasayuki Konno leads the squad with four goals and is as dangerous as ever in the box, while Shingo Akamine has finally found his groove and pushed the attack.

Yet if any player could be considered to be emblematic of FC Tokyo’s success, it would be young phenom Youhei Otake. Raised through the Tokyo system, and easily spotted among the squad (as he’s a few centimeters shorter than most of his fellow teammates), his speed, passing ability, and pure passion for the game have energized the team and captivated the fans. His first J.League goal, less than 30 seconds after coming onto the field, was a perfect lob that the Kawasaki keeper had no chance of stopping that followed a swift dissection of the Kawasaki defense. Already being referred to by some fans as 神の子 – “Child of the Gods”, Otake will likely be the future face of the team.

Defensively, though the team’s goal differential is only +2, 2008’s defense is a vast improvement over last year’s, and Saturday’s game was as great an indication of that as any. Half a year after getting pounded 7:0 by Kawasaki, FC Tokyo held the Dolphins to two goals that came off of free kicks (the one troubling point on the squad), and neutralized Kawasaki strikers Chong and Juninho. A week earlier, Verdy striker Hulk found himself attacked on all sides for most of the game and was, save for his set-piece goal that was admittedly a beauty, a non-factor. A frequent lament of the team’s performance last year was that every time FC Tokyo would march up the field, they would soon be swarmed on all sides by defenders that seemed to materialize out of nowhere as though they were Agent Smith and his many replicas. These days, the shoe is on the other foot, and boy does it fit great.

There are still a few questions that face the team – the foremost in my opinion being can they stay fit. GK Shiota was helped off the field after Saturday’s game by trainers, and although he’s a tough SOB one can’t help but worry. MF Emerson has been out for several weeks now and his eventual return will only add depth to Tokyo’s attack. Other concerns include the team’s vulnerability to the free kick, their ability to consistently score (one can only hope that the offense clicked during the Kawasaki match and will continue to do so), and their strength against stronger squads. So far Tokyo’s wins have come against Albirex Niigata, Consadole Sapporo, Tokyo Verdy, and Kawasaki Frontale – not exactly the top teams in the league by anyone’ standards. Their one loss came against Yokohama F. Marinos in what was undoubtedly their worst performance, and the team has pulled draws against Vissel Kobe and a surprisingly resilient Kyoto Sanga FC.
All in all, they are winning games they are supposed to win, which is all well and good, but to reach first place the magicians on the squad had better dig deep into their hats and pull out some rabbits. This stretch of games will provide them the perfect opportunity to do so.

Round 8: 04.26 Shimizu S-Pulse vs. FC Tokyo at Nihondaira Stadium

Shimizu presents a dangerous matchup for FC Tokyo – while the team is undefeated in the Nabisco Cup group stage (including a win against FC Tokyo and a win and draw against Tokyo Verdy), in league play they have only 5 points to their name, hovering above the relegation zone along with Albirex Niigata. Their last game was a convincing draw against Yokohama F. Marinos that did nothing else if not prove that S-Pulse hasn’t lost its energy from last season. Where Shimizu has lacked so far this year is in the goal department – they’ve put five on the board in the first seven games of the year, tied for the lowest in the league with Albirex. If FC Tokyo can keep Shimizu off the board and their offense continues to click as it has in the last couple games, this should be a relatively easy three points.

Round 9: 04.29 FC Tokyo vs. Oita Trinita at Ajinomoto Stadium

Truth be told… I really have no idea how Oita is performing this season. Apparently they’re in the middle of the table. I think we may have lost to them last year, I could be wrong. In any case I don’t think predicting a Tokyo victory would be unreasonable, but someone correct me if I’m mistaken.

Round 10: 05.03 Omiya Ardija vs. FC Tokyo at NACK5 Stadium

In what could be the most intriguing match in this strech (if not the highest-profile; that honor goes to the Nagoya campaign), FC Tokyo travels north to take on the “other” Saitama team – a surprisingly resilient Omiya Ardija squad that has gone from a team that just barely avoided relegation to a mid-table contender. Omiya’s match on Sunday, a well-fought 0-0 draw away at Urawa, proved that though they lack depth, they do not lack skill or passion which, when concentrated enough, will beat an expensive roster such as the Reds’ 9 times out of 10.

Win, lose, or draw, this will be a fun and entertaining match – the visitor’s stand at NACK5 (which I’m referring to from now on as 靴箱競技場) sold out in about a day or two and FC Tokyo fans are scrambling to get tickets in the back stand as they come out to visit Squirrel Nation. Omiya, for its part, will open the sprint by playing home against Kashima and away at Gamba Osaka. Following their near-upset of Urawa, fans across J.League will surely be tuning into those two games and FC Tokyo would be advised to take notes as well.

Round 11: 05.06 FC Tokyo vs. Nagoya Grampus at Ajinomoto Stadium

Depending on Tokyo’s performance in the first three matches of the spring, this could be the match that defines how our season will play out. Nagoya is currently the strongest team in J1, with an unbeaten record that includes having won the last six games including wins against ladder-toppers Yokohama FM and Urawa. The team is high on new head coach Pixy’s dust but whether they will continue to be strong or flame out early like they did last year is yet to be seen. For what it’s worth, Nagoya’s three opponents before the Tokyo match include away at Verdy (which, given Verdy’s latest performances without Hulk, will likely be the equivalent of stealing candy from a small retarded child), home against Kawasaki, and away at Osaka.

Round 12: 05.10 FC Tokyo vs. Kashiwa Reysol at Ajinomoto Stadium

Just when you expect that most teams in J1 are about to fall over from exhaustion, one last Saturday game gets attached to the schedule to test the mettle of both the players and hardcore supporters alike. Kashima is currently hanging tough on the lower half of the table and could prove to be a reasonable threat to Tokyo – then again given that all 18 J1 teams will endure similar schedules, Kashiwa may be ready to collapse as well.

As far as my predictions – the “middle of the road” prediction is two wins (Shimizu and Oita), two draws (Omiya and Kashiwa), and one loss (Grampus). Optimistic would be 3 wins (Shimizu, Oita, Kashiwa) and one draw (Nagoya), with Omiya as a game that could net Tokyo either one point or three. Conservative would be one win (Shimizu) two draws (Oita, Kashiwa) and two losses (Omiya, Nagoya). I think if one is to predict based on the assumption that Tokyo is the “favorite” for all but the Nagoya match, the only team with the potential footing for an upset is Omiya.

So, to sum things up, this sprint should be good for FC Tokyo and at the end we’ll most likely be in the top half of the ladder.  I’m attending a concert in town tomorrow but I may try to find a sports bar that w

Preview: 04.19 FC Tokyo vs. Kawasaki Frontale (2008 J.LEAGUE Div. 1 Round 7)

I'm falling asleep at my keyboard so this will not be as in-depth and analytical as the Jubilo preview (and in fact I'll probably end up re-writing some of this in the morning). I'm still trying to find a comfortable pace at which I can write this blog, but I assume anyone reading this will bear with me.

Tomorrow's match marks the home leg of the Tamagawa Clasico between Kanto rivals FC Tokyo and Kawasaki Frontale. Gasheads are still smarting from last year's 7-0 home thrashing at the hands of the dolphins, a low point if ever there was one in the dismally mediocre 2007 season. Fortunately, it's a new season and a new team, perfect for the exorcism of demons of seasons past. FC Tokyo has 3 wins, 5 draws, and 4 losses all-time in the series.  Kawasaki currently sits in 10th place and is at risk of falling several spots with a loss.

So, let's go ahead with my predictions.

How FC Tokyo Can Win
Get the ball into the net. Cabore, Hanyu, and Otake have been instrumental in reviving the team's attack, and indeed they've had many more chances to score this year than they ever did last year. There is a difference, however, between a shot and a goal, and that can often be the difference between leaving the field with three, one, or no points. Even a shot their goalkeeper knocks away is better thana scrum in the box that the Kawasaki defenders clear to the sideline; the more pressure they put on the GK the better the chance is he'll make a mistake.

Stop Juninho. FCT managed to keep Verdy's Brazillian Brigade in check for most of the match last Saturday, but Juninho is arguably better than anyone on Verdy's squad and will give Otake and Nagatomo a run for their money. Although the 4-2-2-2 against Jubilo worked well in creating chances at goal, expect a more conservative 4-3-1-2 to adjust for Kawasaki's offense. To counter Juninho's speed, Bruno may get another start following his appearance against Jubilo.

Fewer turnovers. Far too many were committed against a Jubilo team that couldn't capitalize on them. Kawasaki, on the other hand, will be more than capable of making Tokyo regret its mistakes.

Hirayama must perform. Although fans on Wednesday night were appreciative of his performance, reaction on the blogosphere afterwards shows that #13 hasn't done enough to atone for his lack of effort earlier in the season. If Cabore isn't fit to play a full 90 minutes following his early exit on Wednesday, Hirayama needs to draw his line in the sand and come through with some big plays.

Wild Card

The weather in Tokyo since the other day has been, for lack of a better word, shit. The wind is blowing, it is raining, it is damp, it is cold, it is miserable. British fans attending the match will feel right at home. I've been told the rain is supposed to stop at 12PM (kickoff is at 4PM), but whether that turns out to be true is another matter.  The condition of the pitch could certainly affect play, and if it starts raining during the match all bets are off.

In Other News…

Speaking of #13, Sota Hirayama has been called up to the Japan National U-23 Olympic Team's training camp in Saitama next week after being left off of the squad for last month's match against Angola.  He'll be joined by fellow squadmate Youhei Kajiyama.

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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!