Gamba gain final, top Reds in extra time

The J.League’s decision to revert to a two-stage format hasn’t been particularly well-received, but its ‘Championship’ play-off got off to a flying start this weekend as Urawa Reds and Gamba Osaka contested a frenetic semi-final in front of 40,696 fans at Saitama Stadium…

The Japan News, Sunday 29th November, 2015

SAITAMA — Birthday boy Hiroki Fujiharu struck one of two extra-time goals for Gamba Osaka in the J.League playoff semifinal on Saturday, as the reigning J1 champion beat Urawa Reds 3-1 at Saitama Stadium.

Yasuyuki Konno opened the scoring for Gamba in the 47th minute, before substitute Zlatan Ljubijankic pulled Reds level in the 72nd.

The game consequently went into extra-time and looked to be headed for a penalty shoot-out before Fujiharu reestablished the visitor’s lead with a stunning volley in the 118th minute. Brazilian Patric added the gloss in injury time to secure Gamba’s passage to the two-leg final with Sanfrecce Hiroshima on Dec. 2 and 5.

“It was a great ball from Yone [Koki Yonekura] and I just focused on hitting it cleanly with no doubts,” said Fujiharu, who turned 27.

“Reds had more points than us over the course of the season but we knew we just had to give our all to beat them in a one-off game here.”

Captain Yasuhito Endo echoed those sentiments.

“We’re the challengers having finished in third place so have nothing to lose,” Japan’s most-capped player said of his team’s playoff hopes.

The first half was a tense affair of few clear-cut chances. Yuki Abe almost opened the scoring for Urawa in the 14th minute but sent a header just wide, then Hiroyuki Abe fired a warning shot for Gamba in the 18th as he clipped an effort across goal and off the post.

The second half started with a bang, though, as Gamba opened the scoring two minutes after the restart.

Kotaro Omori gained possession on the left wing and fed Konno inside the penalty area, where he kept his composure under pressure from Tomoaki Makino before dispatching beyond Shusaku Nishikawa.

Reds then had to press for the equalizer, but Gamba continued to look dangerous on the counter-attack and Patric whistled an effort just past the post in the 64th.

Urawa Reds v. Gamba Osaka, Saturday 28th November, 2015

Urawa coach Mihailo Petrovic was left apoplectic seven minutes later as referee Hajime Matsuo waved away appeals for a penalty when Takahiro Sekine appeared to have been brought down by Omori inside the area.

Reds pulled level from the resultant corner anyway, Ryota Moriwaki heading against the bar and Ljubijankic rising highest to nod home the rebound.

Yuki Muto had a huge opportunity to seal Reds’ passage to the final with the last touch of regular play, but his free header from a Moriwaki cross was saved spectacularly by Higashiguchi.

“We had nothing to lose coming into this match, so just resolved to give it our all and see what happened,” Gamba’s keeper said.

“Those are the kind of scenes where winning and losing is decided in soccer, so I’m pleased I was able to do my job as a goalkeeper and make the save.”

Penalties were looming but Gamba reestablished its lead in extraordinary circumstances with just two minutes to play.

Daiki Niwa almost scored a freak own goal — inadvertently scooping a backpass over Higashiguchi and against his own post — but after the ball rebounded back into play Gamba launched yet another — this time clinical — counterattack, which was finished off in style by Fujiharu.

“It looked like we’d lost it in that instant,” Hasegawa said of Niwa’s near-miss. “On the other hand, perhaps Reds lost concentration a little at that point and the birthday boy Fujiharu was able to score in such dramatic fashion to win us the game.”

Patric then nudged home an Endo free-kick in the 121st to make absolutely sure of the result.

Gamba narrowly slipped into the playoff  having been fourth in the overall standings entering the last league match. However, the team erased a two-point deficit and finished ahead of FC Tokyo on goal difference


The Big Red Machine

Guangzhou Evergrande is continuing to establish itself as Asia’s super-club, but the Chinese powerhouse is not content to settle for continental domination…

Football Channel,  October 22nd, 2015

Football Channel, November 25th 2015

As anyone who witnessed their elaborate Asian Champions League celebrations can attest to, Guangzhou Evergrande don’t do things by halves.

The Chinese club claimed a fifth consecutive Chinese Super League title at the end of October, and reasserted itself as the dominant side in Asia on Saturday, beating Al Ahli 1-0 in the second leg of the ACL final to seal a second continental triumph in three years.

The Canton side has received much attention for splashing the cash on players and A-List coaches since being taken over by the Evergrande Group in 2010, but its reputation is being built on much more than the top-grade foreigners recruited on and off the pitch.

Plans are afoot to list on the stock market, for instance (with the club valued at around US$380 million), a new stadium is in the pipeline, and a 167-acre academy has been built to accommodate 2,300 students recruited from all across the country.

At its opening in 2012, chairman of Evergrande Group Xu Jiayin made it clear that bringing in stars from overseas was only the first step on the road to building a team that could truly represent China and Asia on the world stage in the future. “Our long-term strategy is to use teenagers to turn Evergrande into a team of only domestic players in eight to 10 years, making them stars in China, Asia and the world,” he said.

The man currently tasked with overseeing that development while still delivering titles is Luiz Felipe Scolari; a World Cup winning coach who has the credentials, charisma, and confidence to lead a club with such lofty ambitions – as he proved after Saturday’s win.

“My next target is actually to win the Club World Cup – and why not? This is a great club with great players and we can realize that kind of dream,” the former Brazil national team boss said, before channeling his inner-Barack Obama. “I will end my comment with a famous saying: Yes, we can.”

A team as dominant and financially-endowed as Guangzhou can certainly be forgiven for setting its sights high, but the fact remains that there is still a vast gulf in the overall quality of Asian football and that in Europe. As impressive as Evergrande are when on song, they just don’t come up against high-level opposition regularly enough to consider themselves on a par with the biggest clubs in the game.

“I understand that we have a long way to go before we can achieve success in the Club World Cup, but you have to understand that Evergrande have achieved two ACL titles in three years and we are still improving a lot,” Scolari said.

Screen Shot 2015-11-25 at 15.05.43

Football Channel, November 25th 2015

“Of course there is a certain difference in quality between us and the best teams in Europe, but right now because our level is still improving day by day we can dream about going to the Club World Cup and achieving something.

“The job me and my coaching staff have is to share the experience we have with big teams with the club here in Guangzhou. Now at the Club World Cup we will face Club America and then, who knows, maybe will compete with Barcelona also. This is a great and new experience for Chinese football. I can tell you, the Chinese are quick learners. They are intelligent and anyone who denies that is wrong. The Chinese are learning and maybe in two or three years time we can dream of achieving even greater things.”

Indeed, while the likes of Elkeson – whose title-winning goal against Al Ahli was a finish of the highest order – Ricardo Goulart, and Paulinho hog many of the headlines, the performances of local players such as Feng Xiaoting, Zheng Zhi, and Huang Bowen have been vital to the team’s success.

However, Evergrande’s style and potential is best epitomized by Zhang Linpeng. The 26-year-old’s aggression, speed, and fearlessness have established him as one of the highest-rated players in Asia, and each time he embarks on one of his buccaneering runs from right-back Tianhe Stadium roars in anticipation.

After sealing the 0-0 draw away to Gamba Osaka that booked Guangzhou’s place in the ACL final in October, Paulinho said he had no doubts his teammate was good enough to play in Europe, and the Jinan native was the recipient of interest from Chelsea in the summer.

“That we were able to win the title today both for myself and also many of my teammates is a very proud moment,” Zhang told Football Channel after the final. “The next few days we’ll take a rest and spend some time with our families – it’s a very happy time. Then we’ll come back, get back into the routine and start preparing for the Club World Cup.

“Of course when you’re playing on the world stage maybe in comparison we’re not at the same level as some teams, but we’re a great team, we have a great spirit, and we know how to deal with these kind of games. The coach will prepare us well and give us the best chance of achieving success.”

The foundations are undoubtedly all in place for Guangzhou, and it will be fascinating to see how they continue to build on them – starting with their trip to Japan to mix it with the big boys later this month.


Tokyo put foot on the gas in push for play-offs

FC Tokyo are on the cusp of making the post-season play-offs, but can’t afford any more slip-ups in the final game of the regular season… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel,  October 22nd, 2015

Football Channel, November 19th 2015

After beating Sanfrecce Hiroshima away on October 3rd it looked as though FC Tokyo were on course for a spot in the post-season play-offs, only for Massimo Ficcadenti’s side to stutter in its next two games, losing consecutive home matches against Shonan Bellmare and Urawa Reds.

The Gasmen recovered well from that setback, however, and put in an assured and solid display against Kashiwa Reysol in their penultimate J1 game, winning 1-0 and jumping back up above Gamba Osaka into 3rd place heading into the final round of the season.

“The team got the win they needed and now it is in our own hands whether or not we are able to challenge for the title,” Ficcadenti said after Masato Morishige’s penalty had secured all three points at Hitachi Dai. “We have some great players, the majority of whom I have worked with for two years and am very proud of. I’ll continue to be proud of them until the end.

“We knew that not everything would be decided in [the Urawa] game and were able to fix certain things and become compact again and put in a good performance. I think we were very good.”

Despite coming into Round 16 knowing that Gamba had their noses just in front, Ficcadenti insisted that he and his players hadn’t been concerned with goings-on elsewhere, and weren’t aware of the score at Banpaku – where visiting Hiroshima ran out as 2-0 winners.

“No, I didn’t know,” the 48-year-old said. “It will be the same in the next game. We knew we had to win both of our last two games, and the next game will be difficult too. First of all we knew we needed to get six points. Afterwards we can look at the other scores.”

Even a draw against Sagan Tosu on November 22nd could see Tokyo progress to the play-offs, although with Gamba only two points behind with a superior goal difference and at home to already-relegated Montedio Yamagata it is unlikely that a point will be enough.

Tokyo have the third best defensive record in J1, however, (33 goals conceded, just behind Sanfrecce Hiroshima (30) and Yokohama F.Marinos (32)) and have won eight games 1-0 this year – more than any other team in the top flight. If they can produce another disciplined and professional performance against a Tosu side with nothing to play for then a play-off semi-final should be in the bag.

If things do go according to plan then their opponents will almost certainly be Urawa Reds – who have been something of a bogey team of late. Tokyo haven’t won any of their last four meetings against Mihailo Petrovic’s side in the J.League, and contrary to their strong defensive record have conceded four times in each of their last three meetings, including the 4-3 at Ajinomoto Stadium on October 24th.


Football Channel, November 19th 2015

“In the Urawa game all of the errors that we usually try and avoid came up,” Ficcadenti admitted. “Having said that, it was a very open game in which we scored three goals, and you didn’t know until the very end what was going to happen.”

Indeed, the margin between success and failure is incredibly slim, and in effect the two games between the sides in the league have determined their respective places in the table – if Tokyo had won both then it would be them in 2nd and Reds in 3rd, although ultimately the only difference that would make would be to give them home advantage in the semi-final.

Kento Hashimoto insists the Tokyo players have no fears about another clash with Urawa, and for the time being are merely focused on getting to the play-offs.

“There isn’t really any feeling of nervousness, and it’s now become a simple situation whereby if we win [against Tosu] then we’re there,” he said after the win over Reysol, in which he won the penalty converted by Morishige.

“I think the atmosphere will be different in the Championship to that in the league, so I don’t think we will go in feeling we are not up to the task [against Reds].”

Vlada Avramov, who had a shaky time between the sticks in the recent league game against Urawa, recognizes that they represent a formidable opponent, but like Hashimoto is confident Tokyo can emerge victorious.

“I think personally that they are the best team that I’ve played against since I came here,” the Serbian said after the win over Kashiwa. “Since I came to Japan I think the only game in which I haven’t played to my true level is the Urawa game. Before that in four games I only conceded one goal.

“The most important mentality to have is to respect the opponent and do everything you can to win. If we come into the game with the right mentality then I personally think it is possible for us to beat a strong team like Urawa.”

Of course, in order to earn that opportunity first of all he and his teammates have to make sure there are no more uncharacteristic errors on the last day of the regular season.


Race for promotion lacking pace

Three teams will earn promotion to the top flight of Japanese football from J2, but as yet we don’t know for sure who they will be…

Soccerphile, 11th November, 2015

You can read my run down on who’s in the mix at Soccerphile. 


2nd-half blitz helps Antlers claim Nabisco Cup

The first silverware of the 2015 season was handed out on Saturday, as Kashima Antlers and Gamba Osaka clashed in the Nabisco Cup final…

The Japan News, Sunday 1st November, 2015

SAITAMA — Kashima Antlers extended their record as the most successful club in the Nabisco Cup on Saturday, beating 2014 champions Gamba Osaka 3-0 at Saitama Stadium.

South Korean defender Hwang Seok Ho opened the scoring with a header from a corner in the 60th minute, with Mu Kanazaki and Caio striking twice inside three minutes late on to deliver Antlers their sixth triumph in the competition.

“We assumed relative control of the game from the first half but knew Gamba always posed a threat on the break,” Kashima coach Masatada Ishii said postmatch.

“As a team, we dealt with that well and were able to play our football. We also managed to keep a clean sheet, so I’d say we were able to win with the perfect game.”

Antlers started the brighter of the sides and could have taken the lead twice in the opening five minutes. First Atsutaka Nakamura sent an effort over the bar after a neat one-two with Yasushi Endo, then Shuhei Akasaki squirted an effort off target from close range.

The Ibaraki outfit continued to dominate in the opening exchanges, and went close again in the 13th minute.

Akasaki ghosted into the box with some tricky dribbling on the left and laid back for Nakamura, but he was denied a Halloween treat by Yasuhito Endo, who blocked it with his head.

Last year’s treble-winner Gamba struggled to carve out any real opportunities of their own, and the closest they came in the first half was a tame Takashi Usami effort struck straight at Hitoshi Sogahata after a 40-meter run from inside his own half.

2015 Nabisco Cup final, October 31st, Saitama Stadium

Antlers continued to press and the breakthrough finally came from a Mitsuo Ogasawara corner after an hour, as Hwang charged into the box late and headed home while totally unmarked from the edge of the 6-yard box.

“We’d been working on set plays in training and knew if we made the right runs at the right times, we’d have chances,” the 26-year-old said. “I was able to lose my marker well and then all I had to do was head the ball in.

“It’s a big thing for this club and these players to have been able to win a title today, and now we have to take this confidence into the remaining games of the season. We have two [league] games left and should now play without any nervousness.”

Kashima almost doubled its lead two minutes later as Endo played Nakamura in behind the Gamba defense, but he couldn’t get his effort beyond Masaaki Higashiguchi, who closed him down sharply. The Ibaraki side continued to fashion the best chances, and Kanazaki — who had been a menace throughout — extended the lead in the 84th minute, outjumping Patric and heading beyond Higashiguchi after Yuma Suzuki had headed a deep corner back into the danger zone.

Gamba came from two goals down in last year’s final to beat Sanfrecce Hiroshima 3-2, but Kenta Hasegawa’s side never looked likely to repeat that feat this time around, and Caio made sure of the victory for Antlers with three minutes to play, tearing down on goal and sweeping beyond the onrushing Higashiguchi.

“We were well-beaten,” Hasegawa said. “My players fought until the very end, but couldn’t match Antlers today. I want to congratulate all of the Kashima players and staff. That was a victory worthy of a championship.”


Reds net wild win to keep pace with Sanfrecce

I was at Ajinomoto Stadium on Saturday to see second take on third, as FC Tokyo hosted Urawa Reds in J1…

The Japan News, Sunday 25th October, 2015

TOKYO — Urawa Reds kept pace at the top of the J.League on Saturday, emerging as 4-3 victor from a slobberknocker with fellow high-flier FC Tokyo.

The win kept Reds level on points with overall league-leader Sanfrecce Hiroshima — which kept its nose in front on goal-difference after a 2-0 triumph over Ventforet Kofu — with just two matches of the regular season to play.

First-stage champion Urawa raced into a two-goal lead within 14 minutes at Ajinomoto Stadium thanks to strikes from Yosuke Kashiwagi and Yuki Muto, before Keigo Higashi pulled one back for the hosts.

Takahiro Sekine and Tomoaki Makino found the net to maintain Reds’ control of the match, but a late brace from Hideto Takahashi meant Mihailo Petrovic’s side was hanging on as the clock ticked down.

Reds’ coach was relieved to ultimately escape with the three points.

“In Germany there is the mentality for the team in the lead to go for five or six goals, I’d like my team to also have that approach,” he said.

“It’s like boxing. If you get the opportunity to finish the opponent off, you have to take it. At 4-1, the opposition was on the ropes and we should have sent them down to the mat.”

Reds started brightly and took the lead in the 11th minute, Kashiwagi sidefooting home after Tokyo keeper Vlada Avramov palmed the ball into his path.

Three minutes later Muto bent a beauty into the top corner from just outside the box to double Urawa’s lead.

Higashi halved Tokyo’s deficit in the 16th minute — converting from an improbable angle after an inch-perfect Takuji Yonemoto through-ball — but Sekine re-established Reds’ two-goal lead in the 27th minute, rifling home from inside the penalty area after his first attempt had been blocked.

Urawa Reds fans ahead of their team's 4-3 win over FC Tokyo, Ajinomoto Stadium Saturday 24th October, 2015

Makino then made it 4-1, firing into the top corner to finish off a wonderful Reds passing move after receiving from Zlatan Ljubijankic just outside the penalty area.

“A game against Tokyo is one of the most important of the season, and to win at their ground in front of so many people is really important and gives us a lot of confidence,” Ljubijankic said.

It looked like the game was up for Tokyo at that point, but Massimo Ficcadenti’s men launched a late surge — Takahashi thumping a header home from a Kosuke Ota cross in the 74th and then lashing in from close-range after Nishikawa fumbled the ball into his path with six minutes to play.

Japan’s goalkeeper more than made up for that mistake at the end of the match, pulling off an instinctive double-save in injury time to make sure of the victory for his side.

Sanfrecce extend stage lead

Elsewhere, Sanfrecce kept themselves on top of the overall rankings, downing Ventforet Kofu thanks to goals from Douglas and Kohei Shimizu.

That leaves the Purple Archers level with Reds on 68 points but 10 goals better off with six points to play for.

Hajime Moriyasu’s side also leads the second-stage table, and now three points clear of Kashima Antlers after the Ibaraki outfit lost 2-1 to Shonan Bellmare.

Meanwhile, Montedio Yamagata was relegated back to J2 after losing 3-1 to fellow struggler Vissel Kobe — whose own J1 status was preserved thanks to Kazuma Watanabe’s hat-trick.


Shimizu slump

Another of the J.League’s ‘original ten’ slipped through the trapdoor to J2 last weekend, although Shimizu S-Pulse’s relegation had been coming for a while… (Also available in English here / 日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel,  October 22nd, 2015

After a season spent on life support, Shimizu S-Pulse were finally put out of their misery last weekend, being relegated without a whimper after a 1-0 defeat to Vegalta Sendai.

The demotion of one of the J.League’s founding members grabbed all the headlines, but the club had been sliding ominously towards the trapdoor for some time.

Shimizu survived by the skin of its teeth last year, and despite a surprise 3-1 win over Kashima Antlers on the opening day of the 2015 season performances and results didn’t improve throughout the first stage this year.

Those in charge decided to stick with Katsumi Oenoki – a legend at the club as a player – despite the team picking up just 13 points from its first 17 games, only to then replace him with his newly-appointed assistant, Kazuaki Tasaka, after five games of the second half of the season.

Things haven’t gone any better under the former Oita Trinita boss, who hasn’t overseen a single victory in his nine-game tenure, and there was a grim sense of foreboding at Nihondaira ahead of S-Pulse’s fateful meeting with Vegalta – a side to whom Shimizu had never lost at home in J1.

Even Mount Fuji couldn’t bear to watch, hiding behind the clouds, and the inflatable orange walkway through which the team enter the stadium deflating as they arrived – leaving the players to fight their way ungracefully to the changing room – acted as a wonderful metaphor for their limp showing this season.

Things predictably didn’t go any better on the pitch and the hosts were a goal behind inside four minutes; Ramon Lopes losing Calvin Jong-a-pin at a corner and heading home what would prove to be the only goal of the game.

The team’s relegation wasn’t mathematically certain at full-time – with Albirex Niigata not rubber-stamping it with a 2-0 victory over Matsumoto Yamaga until later in the evening – but everybody knew the game was up. The players slumped to the floor, tears were shed, and hollow apologies were offered from a club official in response to the boos and heckles from the fans gathered behind a “We have nothing but S-Pulse” banner, but not many seemed surprised by the outcome.

S-Pulse's season in a picture

That’s because, in truth, the downward spiral had begun long before, when Oenoki’s predecessor Afshin Ghotbi was fired in July last year.

The Iranian-American may have struggled to build on the achievements of the man in charge before him – current Gamba Osaka boss Kenta Hasegawa, who made top-third finishes a reality for S-Pulse – but Ghotbi delivered steady mid-table results and was asked to clear his desk with the team in 12th on 21 points after 17 games in 2014. Fifteen months down the line, the club’s relegation has been confirmed with them on the same number of points after 31 matches.

“You don’t want to go down without a fight,” a visibly disappointed Peter Utaka told me after the loss to Sendai.

“If you’re playing at home you’re playing in front of your family, your fans and everything. A lot of people got nervous and felt too much pressure and it showed in the game.

“There’s so many factors,” he continued when asked if he could pinpoint the key reason for the team’s relegation.

“We should win more games at home. But when we play at home most of the boys get nervous. I think we should have more confidence playing at home. Most of the boys have to try and take responsibility and not try to put everything on the coach. The coach makes decisions, ok, but at the same time you’re the player and you have to take some responsibility for yourself, because where I come from that’s how it is.”

Former Shimizu midfielder Shinji Ono echoed those sentiments the next day.

“There are still games left and I think the players really have to fight with passion,” he said after his Consadole Sapporo side was defeated 3-0 by Shimizu’s Shizuoka rivals Jubilo Iwata – who look set to replace their neighbours in the top flight next year.

“When you get relegated there are many [factors], they pile up. However, of course the players on the pitch have to take the most responsibility. It is very important that those players take that responsibility and put everything in between now and the end of the season. How the players take the responsibility for the supporters’ disappointment is very important.”

Of course, even that is not enough. The actions of the past year-and-a-half have hammered the nails into Shimizu’s coffin, and while the club also experienced difficult spells under Ghotbi and Hasegawa the fans would give anything for a return to those days now.

If Sakka Nihon isn’t enough then you can follow my every move (sort of) here.

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