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Catching Up: Osaka, Iwata, Nagoya, NT, Emperor's, yadda yadda

Why no, I haven't disappeared into a black hole, but September was an unusually busy month for me and October isn't shaping up to be much freer.  Here's what I've missed posting about:

-The Gamba Osaka match was pretty much exactly as you'd expect from an 0-0 draw; the team fought valiantly without Hirayama but it was pretty much a deadlock.  Not even going to bother posting highlights, nothing to see here.

-The first half of the Jubilo Iwata match was pretty much as lifeless as the Gamba match… then it got interesting in the second half, turning into a back-and-forth shootout that culminated in a come-from-behind 3-2 Tokyo victory.  Ishikawa, Nagatomo, and Akamine all contributed goals in the win.

-The Nagoya match was a much more fiercely contested match than expected.  Tokyo went up 2-1 in the first half on goals by Ishikawa and Suzuki but faced a resurgent Nagoya in the second half.  The team hit a roadblock when Teriyuki Moniwa sustained a severe cut under his eye after taking an inadvertent elbow from Aussie striker Kennedy.  Still, Tokyo prevailed and is currently in 7th place.
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-Four FCT players were named to the National Team for October's matches: Konno, Nagatomo, Ishikawa, and Tokunaga.  For some reason or another Ishikawa was left off the squad for the Hong Kong game, a 6-0 romping by Japan in which Nagatomo scored a goal and Tokunaga contributed an assist as a substitute.  Ishikawa finally found a starting role in last night's exhibition game against Scotland, a largely meaningless affair that Japan finally won 2-0

And now I'm off to Ajinomoto Stadium to watch anyone Jofuku deems healthy enough to play take on Kamatamare Sanuki in the Emperor's Cup Round 2.  I expect that both Sanuki fans making the trip will be very nice people.

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Match Report: Nabisco Cup Quarterfinals First Leg: FC Tokyo vs. Nagoya Grampus

J.League Yamazaki Nabisco Cup Quarterfinal Round Game 1
First Half
4 – 0 Second Half
1 – 1

Final
5 – 1

July 15th 2009, 7:30PM Kickoff at Ajinomoto Stadium (Chofu, Tokyo) Attendance 12,226
GK 20 Shuichi Gonda
DF 25 Yuhei Tokunaga
DF 4 Bruno Quadros
DF 6 Yasuyuki Konno
DF 5 Yuto Nagatomo
MF 28 Takuji Yonemoto
MF 10 Yohei Kajiyama
MF 18 Naohiro Ishikawa
MF 22 Naotake Hanyu
FW 9 Cabore
FW 13 Sota Hirayama
Starting Members
GK 21 Koji Nishimura
DF 32 Hayuma Tanaka
DF 2 Akira Takeuchi
DF 5 Takahiro Masukawa
DF 26 Masaya Sato
MF 10 Yoshizumi Ogawa
MF 7 Naoshi Nakamura
MF 14 Keiji Yoshimura
MF 8 Magnum
FW 19 Keita Sugimoto
FW 9 Davi
Half 24 Shingo Akamine (for Cabore)
68′ 40 Tatsuya Suzuki (for Takuji Yonemoto)
71′ 27 Sotan Tanabe (for Naohiro Ishikawa)
Substitutes Half 11 Keiji Tamada (for Davi)
61′ 13 Kei Yamaguchi (for Keiji Yoshimura)
70′ 18 Tomohiro Tsuda (for Keita Sugimoto)
3′ Sota Hirayama
10′ Takuji Yonemoto
11′ Naohiro Ishikawa
26′ Yuto Nagatomo
75′ Own Goal
Goals 53′ Yoshizumi Ogawa
  Cautions 26′ Akira Takeuchi
88′ Hayuma Tanaka
  Ejections  

Report

Those of you who are familiar with the legendary Blizzard game Starcraft probably remember the one time you played against a Korean player.  You shoulders immediately tensed, the hairs on your arm stuck straight up, a fine line of sweat formed across your brow; all of this before the game even started.  While you attempted to build up your noble Terran army and began to construct factories and even a few bunkers, your opponent already had an army under his command.  Then, out of nowhere, a wave of zerglings overruns you as if you were the last Tickle-Me-Elmo on Black Friday, and they leave behind them a twisted mass of wreckage akin to New Orleans, post-Katrina.  You sat at your computer, desolate, perhaps a small wet spot spreading on the front of your pants, wondering why you’d even bothered showing up in the first place.

That’s more or less what it must have felt like to be a Nagoya fan in Ajinomoto Stadium last night.

Nagoya, stung by a 3-0 defeat on Sunday, attempted to barrel their way to the Tokyo goal and get a couple goals that would, at the very least, help them in the event of a tiebreaker.  Tokyo had other intentions, however, and the first goal was so quick that some fans were probably still pouring into the stadium.  10 minutes later the score was 3-0 courtesy of an incredibly well-placed shot by Yonemoto and yet another score by Ishikawa, bringing his streak to 6 games in a row which sets a new team record.  Nagatomo contributed a score of his own at 26′, and the team basically spent the rest of the first half in incredibly intricate passing sequences, much like bullies passing a stuffed animal back and forth to keep it away from a little kid.  Nagoya’s players were visibly frustrated, as were the fans who hoisted a banner exclaiming “Fight back if you’re man enough! behind their goal.  Pixi looked like he wanted to impale himself on the corner kick flag and end it all right then and there.

The second half featured a lot more miscues, errors, and generally sloppy play by Tokyo; not enough to turn the game to Nagoya’s favor but just enough to wipe out the afterglow of an amazing first half.  One could argue that playing 2 games in 4 days against the same opponent is quite tiring, especially when Nagoya played some dirty football in an attempt to derail Tokyo’s concentration, but some of these mistakes were facepalm-worthy.  Poor clearing choices, missed passes, hesitations on the attack… you name it, they screwed it up.  Fortunately this lapse only lasted long enough to give away one goal, and Tokyo went back to kicking ass and taking names for the rest of the match until newly-signed striker Owen Gouru, appearing on a one-day contract, knocked in the 5th goal.

With the win, Tokyo takes a 4-goal difference into Nagoya in two weeks.  A 3-goal loss or a better result would be enough to send Tokyo into the semifinals, where it will face either Shimizu or Urawa (who won their first match 2-1 at home).

Match Preview: J1R17 FC Tokyo v. Nagoya Grampus

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July 12th 2009, 6PM Kickoff at Ajinomoto Stadium (Chofu, Tokyo)

Competition Record: FCT 4 wins, 3 draws, Nagoya Grampus 6 wins

Haven't written one of these in a while, have I…

Background

Both FC Tokyo and Nagoya Grampus started the season with high expectations yet failed to meet them; the difference between the two teams is that Tokyo seems to have regained its footing while Nagoya continues to flounder in the middle of the table, closer to the danger zone than any team should be comfortable with.  While Tokyo has recovered from its slow start to the season (-game winning streak including two Cup matches), Nagoya is wearing itself ragged by participating simultaniously in J1, the ACL, and the Nabisco Cup.  If the orcas want to stay in contention for J1 they may have to make some very tough choices soon about which titles they're going to put effort into chasing.

Speaking of the Nabisco Cup, FC Tokyo is in the Round of 8 as well; their opponent?  Nagoya.  The teams will play again at Ajinomoto Stadium on Wednesday evening.  I'm not even sure if Grampus is planning on going home in the 2-day interim.  In any case although whoever wins Sunday's match may have a psychological advantage, but both teams will be able to read each other's strategy and adjust accordingly for the rematch.

The Matchup

Though billed as an epic confrontation between two of the league's highest scorers (Davi at the top of the table with 10 goals, and Ishikawa right behind him with 9), that storyline took a (not quite so) surprising turn when it was announced that Davi had been sold by Grampus to a club team in Qatar.  While he will still play the next three matches, a pending medical check will surely keep the Brazillian from making any bold challenges.  Never mind the fact that his heart may not be into helping Nagoya win as much as it will be into considering how to spend all of the petrodollars he's to recieve.  Tokyo has dodged an additional bullet in that Nagoya's new Aussie striker Joshua Kennedy won't be in the lineup until the 18th.

Ishikawa, on the other hand, is scoring goals so phenomenal that even traditionally staid Japanese announcers are showing signs of excitement.  Tokyo's offensive strategy seems to be “use long passes to break through the opponent's second line, push the back line into the box, get the ball to Nao at the top of the box, and watch him send a picture-perfect volley somewhere in the vicinity of “between the crossbar and the goalkeeper's outstretched hands”.  And it's working.  oh lawdy is it working.

On defense, Konno and Bruno have teamed up to bring stability at the CB position and were successful in shutting down Vissel's attacks last week.  Yonemoto is also contributing thoroughly on defense; the young star seems to be in 3 places at once on many occasions.

Tokyo's starting lineup has remained essentially unchanged since league play resumed; given how much the lineup was being tweaked on a weekly basis in the first few weeks of the season this is perhaps the best sign that things have finally calmed down in the capital city.

Predictions

Nagoya may have broken a 4-game losing streak against Osaka last week, but they didn't win the game so much as a bad goalkeeping blunder lost it for Gamba.  Tokyo is arguably the hottest team in the league right now and they will more than likely continue their winning streak.  If Tokyo can sweep their games this week (a reasonable possibility), it will be a bold statement that the Gasmen are in the running for a title in 2009.

Errata

This will be the first match at Ajinomoto Stadium in a month and a half; improvements and repairs have been made to the pitch and the irrigation system.

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[Recaps] FC Tokyo breaks winless streak of 8 games vs. J.League opponents

It’s been two months since FC Tokyo won a game against a J.League opponent.  Two long months in which fans began to question how well their team, which had performed far above anyone’s expectations during the first half of the season, would turn out to do in the end.

Following the break for the National Team qualifiers, FC Tokyo drew vs Chiba, lost against Oita in a Nabisco Cup match, lost away at Urawa, lost away at Kashima, drew at home against Osaka, drew away at Kyoto, drew at home against Yokohama, then tied away at Oita (in the second Nabisco Cup match, eliminating themselves after the quarterfinals for a second year in a row).  8 matches total, 6 of them league fixtures, with a grand total of 7 goals scored (one in each except for a 2-0 shutout against Urawa).  4 points gained in 6 league matches.  Things were not looking pretty.

Fortunately, in a Division 1 where the top 10 teams in the league are separated by 6 points, anything can and will happen.  Today, problem child Hirayama proved to be decisive for Tokyo, scoring the lone goal of the match as they held on to beat Nagoya Grampus 1-0.  The top three teams in the league failed to get one win between them, resulting in an ever-tightening J1 ladder, in stark contrast to J2 where Sanfrecce Hiroshima is running away with the championship leaving everyone else to fight for the second automatic promotion spot followed by a place in the Promotion/Relegation Cup.

Unfortunately for FC Tokyo, its abundance of young talent is proving costly in August.  The 2008 Beijing Olympiad began yesterday, and two FC Tokyo players are on Japan’s U-23 squad: DF Nagatomo and MF Kajiama.  The two, known as pivotal parts of FC Tokyo’s offense, will be sorely missed, particularly against Urawa this coming weekend.  Tickets in both the home and away supporter’s sections have been sold out and odds are (as is usual with Urawa matches) that the stadium will be at capacity (50-something thousand give or take) with security likely prepared to deal with altercations between the passionate supporters of both clubs.

I, for what it’s worth, will be coming to the stadium straight from Comiket 74 where I’ll be doing my yearly coverage for PTD Magazine, and going straight from the stadium to a friend’s rock DJ event, which means I pretty much won’t sleep (unless it’s on the train) for about 24 hours.  Should be a blast either way.

[Match Report] 04.06 FC Tokyo 0:1 (0:1) Nagoya Grampus (J1 W11)

Me?  Burned out?  Just a little.  Sorry for the late report but quite frankly besides having to get back into the groove of school again (at least I passed my Friday midterm, woohoo!) the game was such a downer that I wanted to space myself a bit before I came and wrote this up.

This was the third loss FC Tokyo has received this season, but the first in which I felt that the team did put through the best effort it could muster in going for the win.  This was not the second-half collapse of the Yokohama F. Marinos game, or the error-prone Shimizu campaign, but a losing effort by a team that held its ground or better with a Nagoya squad that, quite frankly, got off a little bit lucky.

One of the first things I noticed early on in the match was the size difference – Grampus’ players, including
lead striker Johnsen, are for lack of a better term goddamned huge.  Lots of players who were around 185cm and even a couple who were over 190cm.  FC Tokyo’s squad, on the other hand, has a bunch of players in the 175-180 range and a few in the 160s.  Early on in the game it seemed that Tokyo’s strategy of speed and agility got steamrolled by Nagoya’s strength and size, but as time passed Tokyo adjusted accordingly and began to dominate the midfield, with long stretches of time spent attacking the Nagoya goal.  Nagoya certainly did try to throw its weight around over the course of the match and got called on it – Tokyo took over twice as many free kicks, 26 to Nagoya’s 10.

The lone point in the game… was pretty brutal.  The ball bounced off Shiota’s outstretched fingers as he dove and slowly rolled into the net.  A rare misplay by the goalkeeper, and these things certainly happen, but it didn’t hurt any less.

On a positive note, the game saw the return of two players that have missed long stretches of time due to injury.  MF Naotake Hanyu returned to the starting lineup, putting in a solid effort before being replaced by Otake after halftime.  In the 76th minute, fan favorite MF Naohiro Ishikawa came onto the field after recovery from injury and quickly demonstrated that his speed and agility have not been lost.

Also in the second half, Yusuke Kondo came in as a replacement for Akamine about an hour in and repeatedly proved that his rental time spent in Kobe was wisely spent, driving to the goal several times and creating bold attacks.  Late in the game, Yusuke took a penalty kick after a hard foul on Cabore that unfortunately hit the top crossbar.  In injury time, he also provided Tokyo’s last attack, with two close-range shots that were batted away by the Nagoya keeper as time expired.  With his aggression, decision-making abilities, and decisive ability, Yusuke has proven himself in some ways to be the anti-Hirayama, and if my kit had #13 on the back I would be very concerned with my place in the Tokyo lineup.

Overall, the attack was strong, way stronger than Nagoya’s, but the goal just didn’t come through.  The fans seemed to recognize this and gave the players their due applause and saved a few extra cheers for a visibly dejected Yusuke who was consoled by Shiota as they walked into the locker rooms.

Yet, as I left the stadium, I was reminded of last year’s home loss to Nagoya, also 1-0.  That day, much like Tuesday, FC Tokyo was bullied around by a bigger and meaner Grampus squad.  This time, however, not only did the referees not let Grampus get away with it, but FC Tokyo adopted and fought back and overall was the clearly stronger squad.  It was a moral victory that bodes well for our hopes as the season goes on… but of course moral victories don’t translate to points in the standings, do they.  Oh well.

With Urawa and Kawasaki also winning their Tuesday matches, FC Tokyo fell into 4th place based on goal differential (or Goals For or something like that).  The next match is against Kashiwa Reysol, which has started the fifth month of the year with two victories in a row against JEF United Chiba and Vissel Kobe.  In order to wash out the bad taste of the Nagoya result Tokyo absolutely needs a win.  The fans have certainly taken notice – Tuesday’s attendance, at 30,000 and change (the most since October 28th of last year, and even that was only greater by about 200 people or so), was the highest gate count all season, although that it was a holiday certainly didn’t hurt.  FC Tokyo’s 5 hours at the top of the standings inspired more people to come to Ajinomoto, now the team has to deliver.

[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