Antlers ascend to Asian throne in the Azadi

Kashima Antlers were crowned kings of Asia in style last weekend, braving the famed Azadi Stadium atmosphere to seal their maiden continental crown…  (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, Friday 16th November, 2018

Buttocks.” The middle-aged nurse turned around and grabbed his cheeks to make sure I’d understood correctly.

It had come to this, then. After covering 14 games in this year’s ACL, enduring an anxious wait for an Iranian visa, and travelling over 5,000 miles, if I wanted to make the final I would need an injection in my behind on the morning of the match to calm an inopportune bout of food poisoning. Two, in fact.

It was a no-brainer. I rolled over on the bed and did what needed to be done.

And, my word, was it worth it. 

Anyone who has ever seen a game at the Azadi Stadium will tell you it is something you have to do if you get the chance, and I am now emphatically one of their ranks.

Built in the 1970s the Azadi is not an especially attractive venue, and the huge dusty bowl planted within a complex of various sporting facilities in the north-west of Tehran could certainly do with a lick of paint. Of course, the best sporting venues are rarely great in and of themselves though, and what makes them so is the fans inside and the atmosphere they create. In that respect the Azadi is far and away the best I have ever experienced.

There were signs I was in for something special when I paid a trip to the ground the day before Kashima Antlers took on Persepolis, with supporters already gathering outside the imposing entranceway to the compound. These fans had driven from all around Iran to be here for the game, and they would spend the rest of the day and overnight singing, dancing, honking their car horns and eating industrial amounts of pistachios as they waited for the gates to open.

At midday the next day, I was told – six-and-a-half hours before kick off – they would start pouring into the ground and ramping up their efforts to intimidate the opposition and will their team over the line.

Before leaving for Iran I spoke with former Shimizu S-Pulse manager Afshin Ghotbi, who led Persepolis to league glory in 2008 – his team sealing the title with a 96th-minute winner on the final day of the season at the Azadi – and he described the venue as, “the Colosseum of football pitches in Asia”, before explaining just how passionate a following Persepolis possess.

“Persepolis is one of the most popular, maybe the most popular, clubs in Asia because they have 30 million followers,” he said. “If you are a player or a coach with Persepolis and you travel anywhere in the world you will meet an Iranian person somewhere in some street that will recognise you and run to you and talk about how you won or lost or how you performed in a particular match. That’s the kind of passion that fans of Persepolis have.

Football Channel, Friday 16th Nov 2018

“Obviously it means a lot to Japanese football, and obviously it means a lot to Kashima fans, but multiply that maybe by 10, or even more, and that’s what it means to Iranian fans because football has a different place in the hearts of Iranian people, and Persepolis has a very special place for Iranian fans. Persepolis fans are born and die as Persepolis fans, that’s how they are.”

That was driven home when I arrived at the stadium on match-day and, sure enough, there they were as promised. My walk down the imposing tunnel that leads to the pitch was sound-tracked by tens of thousands of horns being blown incessantly as the fans ramped up their efforts, and after emerging at the end I was greeted by a mass of red, the stadium almost full four hours before kick off. The noise was indescribable and I started to wonder how the Kashima players, used to the more docile environs of the J.League, would manage to keep their composure amidst such hostility.

“We have a small chance, but I hope they can do it,” the doctor I had seen that morning, who had seemed more interested in the fact I was in Tehran to watch his beloved Persepolis than my ailment, had said. “It will make people happy, and right now in Iran people need something to make them happy.”

Kashima, of course, were there to prevent that from happening, but as kick off approached I had serious doubts that the team would be able to withstand the force that was building in the stadium. Go Oiwa’s side had a 2-0 lead from the first leg and knew an away goal here would require Persepolis to score four, but if the hosts managed to strike first in this atmosphere it was hard to see how Kashima would be able to hold them off.

Despite there being a couple of nervy moments early on, however, as Persepolis looked to attack directly and get the strikers Godwin Mensha and Ali Alipour running in behind, with Kwoun Sun-tae – in the process of becoming the first player to win the ACL three times – an unshakeable last line of defence in those moments the team settled, and from the second half on never really looked like losing their grip of the tie and their maiden continental trophy.

The fact they were ultimately able to do that is a credit to the coach and his players, and while the match was ultimately far from a gripping spectacle for the neutral to behold, it was exactly what Kashima needed.

The Iranian fans also impressed after the game, staying behind in their droves to applaud their fallen heroes off as well as allowing the Kashima players to revel in their triumph with the couple of hundred supporters who had made the long journey from Japan for this historic moment.

It had been far from easy – for me or the players – but the memories of that night in the Azadi Stadium will never fade.


Kashima aim for crowning glory

Despite dominating the domestic scene, Kashima Antlers have never managed to triumph in continental competition. That could all change this month, as they contest their first ever Asian Champions League final against Persepolis of Iran… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, Thursday 1st November, 2018

Kashima Antlers are rightfully proud of their status as Japan’s most successful club.

The story – being informed it was 99.999% impossible to join the J.League, signing Zico and doing so anyway, becoming the first professional side to complete a Japanese treble, winning every domestic title more times than any other team, becoming the first Asian side to progress to the Club World Cup final (and nearly beating Real Madrid once there) – has been told many times, and is a history any team would revel in.

There is, however, one piece of silverware that has eluded the team from Ibaraki. One trophy they have failed to get their hands on. Despite their dominance at home, Kashima have never been able to declare themselves champions of Asia.

Ahead of this season they had taken part in the Champions League seven times, and the best they had managed was a quarter-final berth in 2008. Four times they were eliminated in the Round of 16, including last year when the absence of the Asian trophy from their impressive trophy cabinet will have nagged even more as bitter rivals Urawa Reds surged to their second triumph in the competition.

In a couple of weeks, however, that could all change and the missing piece could finally be added as they contest their first final in the tournament against Persepolis of Iran.

Antlers’ road to the final has been a rather strange and, until the semi-final against Suwon Bluewings, reasonably stress-free affair, with Go Oiwa’s side never really clicking into top gear but at the same time rarely staring elimination in the face.

They won just two of their group stage games – both away from home – but lost only once, 1-0 against Suwon when they knew they were already guaranteed of progression from Group H.

That loss did allow Suwon to leapfrog them to the top of the table and meant an intimidating Round of 16 clash against Shanghai SIPG, although that was negotiated with relative ease after a 3-1 home win was followed by a 2-1 defeat on the road – a result that looks closer than it was thanks to a late Hulk penalty.

Chinese opposition was disposed of with the minimum of fuss in the quarter-final as well, with Tianjin Quanjian looking a shell of their group stage selves after the departure of Axel Witsel and without wantaway striker Anthony Modeste and being swatted aside 5-0 on aggregate.

That set up a rematch against Suwon, which looked favourable on paper but descended into chaos after just six minutes of the first leg as the Koreans established a 2-0 lead in Kashima.

A Jang Ho-ik own goal offered Antlers some encouragement midway through the first half, however, before a pair of late goals from Serginho and, in the 93rd minute, Atsuto Uchida, completed a sensational comeback.

That wasn’t to be the end of the semi-final drama though, not by a long chalk.

After stressing the importance of starting the second leg better than the first, Antlers assumed control of the early proceedings at Suwon World Cup Stadium and claimed an away goal of their own in the 25th minute when Shuto Yamamoto headed home a Serginho free-kick. That left them 4-2 ahead in the tie and as good as in the final until Suwon mounted a comeback of their own after the break.

Football Channel, 2nd November 2018

Im Sang-hyeob struck the first jab for the hosts by tucking home a rebound in the 52nd minute, and with Antlers suddenly shaken Jo Sung-jin made it 2-1 within a minute, powering home a bullet of a header from a corner. Kashima were now on the ropes and looked like conceding every time Suwon attacked, something they sure enough did again on the hour mark when Dejan Damjanovic snuck in behind and put Suwon 5-4 ahead on aggregate.

Antlers were punch-drunk by this point and Elvis Saric had the chance to land the killer blow in the 62nd minute, yet again breaching a porous defence but sending his effort narrowly wide.

The Bosnian would come to rue that miss two minutes later, as Kashima snatched a goal back through Daigo Nishi – a strike which left the tie all square at 5-5, with both teams having a pair of away goals to their name. That state of affairs enabled Kashima to regain the composure they had shown in the opening 45 minutes, and it wasn’t especially surprising when Serginho pounced on a loose ball in the area in the 82nd minute to finally decide the contest in their favour.

As exciting as the semi-final was it did highlight the current fragility in the Kashima defence, which absolutely must be overcome if they are to stand a chance of defeating Persepolis.

Far from being a one-off, a susceptibility at the back has been prevalent all throughout October as Antlers have conceded at least twice in five of their six games in all competitions. With their schedule set to become even harsher – including the two legs of the final they will play four games in 11 days between 31 October and 10 November – tiredness and the resultant individual errors could even increase as the club head into the biggest games in their history.

Injuries have certainly played a part, and a big decision to be made ahead of the final is whether to stick with Gen Shoji at centre back. The 25-year-old is a top class defender but has looked understandably rusty in his two games since returning from an extended spell on the sidelines, and while he has another week to get up to speed and show he is ready if he isn’t at 100 percent then Oiwa may need to consider going with Tomoya Inukai instead.

Going forward, things look far more promising. Yuma Suzuki and Serginho are combining very well, with the latter now having scored in all four of his ACL games since joining the club in August and the former a handful for even the best defenders. Shoma Doi poses a constant threat as well, and with the full-backs also given free license to push into the final third Kashima always have a goal in them – the aforementioned loss to Suwon is the only game in the competition in which they have failed to find the net.

They should maintain that attacking stance heading into the final, and even bearing in mind their defensive concerns – or perhaps because of them – a positive, no fear approach will give Kashima the best chance of reaching the promised land and succeeding Urawa as kings of the continent.


Japan’s feisty forwards bringing the fun

Japan made it three wins from three under Hajime Moriyasu with an all-guns-blazing 4-3 win over Uruguay on Tuesday night, and with the forwards in scintillating form it looks like the fun could just be getting underway… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, Thursday 17th October, 2018

Well, that was fun.

Kirin Cup games are usually fairly uninspiring contests, unfolding uniformly to the drone of supporter chants as new players are tested out, multiple substitutions are made, and genuine entertainment is in short supply.

On Tuesday, however, Hajime Moriyasu’s side ensured the 57,239 fans left Saitama Stadium with smiles on their faces and plenty to talk about after a scarcely believable 4-3 win over Uruguay.

Yes, this was a ‘friendly mode’ Uruguay who had just fallen to a 2-1 defeat to South Korea, made six substitutions, and were without Luis Suarez. Question marks could also be raised about their preparedness and motivation for the game – one Japan player joked afterwards that the opponent might have been out in Roppongi the night before – but teams of Uruguay’s quality don’t take kindly to being beaten, and rarely do they do so by conceding four goals.

Japan came into the game off the back of successive 3-0 wins to start the ‘Moriyasu Japan’ era though, and with the supporting cast of Shoya Nakajima, Takumi Minamino, and Ritsu Doan reinstated behind Yuya Osako, and Hiroki Sakai, Maya Yoshida, and Yuto Nagatomo making their first starts under Moriyasu in the defence the hosts started the brighter of the two sides.

The Samurai Blue bossed possession in the opening 15 minutes, during which time they crucially also managed to open the scoring. All too often Japan teams have kept the ball but struggled to create chances – or, more often, failed to convert them when they do – and Minamino’s superb turn and finish after a crisp Nakajima pass in the 10th minute ensured that wouldn’t be the case here.

The importance of that goal was made clear during the middle third of the first half, when Japan lost their rhythm a little and Uruguay assumed control of proceedings, culminating in their equaliser in the 28th minute when Gaston Pereiro found himself unmarked in the six yard box to tap home after a Giorgian De Arrascaeta free kick was headed back across goal by Sebastian Coates.

Here, too, Japan reacted impressively, however, refusing to retreat into their shells and instead coming out fighting. Osako sent two shots off target inside two minutes as the team clicked back into gear, and the Werder Bremen man made no mistake with his next effort as he evaded the offside trap and tucked home after a Nakajima shot from the edge of the area was palmed into his path by Fernando Muslera in the 36th minute.

Football Channel 19th October 2018

A horrendous Genta Miura error then gifted Uruguay with another equaliser 12 minutes into the second half, the 23-year-old sending a pass back to his Gamba Osaka teammate Masaaki Higashiguchi without realising that Edinson Cavani was still between the pair having hung around to berate the assistant referee after not being given a penalty kick. The Paris Saint Germain star unsurprisingly didn’t pass up the opportunity to make it 2-2.

Again Japan reacted boldly to this setback, and Ritsu Doan notched the first of what will surely be many goals for his country after a sensational piece of combination play with Sakai in the 59th minute, before Minamino added his second of the night to make it 4-2 seven minutes later after another Doan attempt was parried by Muslera.

Gaku Shibasaki, whose well-balanced partnership with Wataru Endo in the centre of the park enabled Japan’s attacking quartet to pour forward freely, was impressed with the way the team refused to be shaken by the concession of the goals in this game, sensing a newfound resilience to their play.

“I think this result will really give us confidence,” the 26-year-old said. “Even though the opponent pulled level we managed to score again afterwards and then move further ahead, which is maybe a little different to the way things have been with the national team before.”

Yuto Nagatomo was also encouraged by the team’s positivity, and looked genuinely thrilled by the attacking threat posed by the youngsters Nakajima, Minamino, and Doan.

“It’s really exciting,” the oldest starting outfielder and most experienced member of the squad beamed. “I think it’s at the level whereby even if I wasn’t called up for the national team I’d want to come and watch the games. There’s such energy and real quality and speed. I think the national team is going to become really interesting.”

‘Exciting’ was undoubtedly the right word to describe this match, and the unpredictability and lethality of the forwards is breeding increasing optimism about the next step in the team’s evolution. Nakajima (4), Minamino (3) and Doan (2) took nine shots at goal over the course of the 90 minutes, landing all of them on target, and Nakajima made it clear that he is not feeling any pressure as the spotlight grows.

“In Portugal I play against the likes of Porto, Sporting, and Benfica so I don’t really think about it too much, just go out there and aim to enjoy playing football,” the 24-year-old said. “The opponent or stage I’m playing on doesn’t really matter, football is fun and so I’m always trying to enjoy it one hundred percent.”

Plenty of issues remain with regards to the balance between defence and attack and, especially, Japan’s ongoing vulnerability to set pieces, but with attacking players in this form and seemingly growing in confidence with every game, the fun doesn’t look like stopping any time soon.


Vissel on choppy waters

Vissel Kobe – they of Andres Iniesta and Lukas Podolski – are floundering dangerously close to the J1 relegation zone, showing once again that signing big names is never enough to guarantee success on its own… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, Wednesday 26th September, 2018

The last time Urawa Reds sold out Saitama Stadium they were winning the AFC Champions League, and on Sunday they put in a performance worthy of the reigning kings of Asia as they swept Vissel Kobe aside 4-0.

As impressive as Oswaldo Oliveira’s side were, however, they weren’t presented with much of a challenge by a disheveled and disorganised Vissel, who crumpled defensively and offered next to nothing going forwards.

Indeed, the visiting players looked just as concerned that Andres Iniesta wasn’t playing as the thousands of fans who’d bought their tickets to see the No.8 up close, and his absence was unsurprisingly a key talking point among fans and media alike.

For all the on- and off-the-pitch positives that come with the acquisition of global stars – the 34-year-old’s first couple of goals, for instance, and the undoubted boon it has had with regards to exposure for the J.League – Kobe’s recent travails show that there are also issues to overcome when signing such players.

Chief among these problems is the manner in which teams fall into a sense of over-reliance on the star name, rather than incorporating the new player as a high-quality component to fine-tune the side. Iniesta is certainly capable of creating moments of class to win games almost single-handedly, but not as often as the marketing around him suggests, and certainly not all of the time.

Football is not an individual sport but a team game, and when your teammates are defending as poorly as Kobe did against Reds then the presence of one of the game’s greats further forward doesn’t make much difference.

Even if Iniesta had been on the pitch, he wouldn’t have been able to do anything to prevent Shinzo Koroki doubling Reds’ lead after evading Hirofumi Watanabe with such ease in the 42nd minute, nor would he have been able to save Shunki Takahashi’s blushes after the 28-year-old gifted possession to Yuki Muto for the hosts’ third.

If you have the chance to sign Andres Iniesta you obviously snatch it with both hands, but it is always disappointing that J.League teams don’t also try to acquire defensive midfielders or centre-backs when it comes to picking up big names, rather than always opting for attacking players.

Those who make and score the goals are of course far sexier acquisitions, but the ones who stop them going in at the other end are just as important if the ultimate aim really is to win titles and not just improve interaction rates on social media.

Another difficulty with bringing in players of truly top pedigree is that it can be hard to know how to manage them, and just four months after signing Iniesta Kobe have made a change in the dugout, replacing Takayuki Yoshida with Juan Manuel Lillo.

Football Channel, Friday 28th September 2018

The hope must be that the new man can introduce a more solid, coherent structure to get the best out of Iniesta and Lukas Podolski, who did manage 90 minutes in Saitama but struggled to make an impact on the game.

In fairness he didn’t have much to work with, and with Iniesta unavailable the German was lumbered with the ‘make-something-happen’ role, often forced to drop incredibly deep to collect the ball and try to create – a tall order for a player whose career in Europe was always more about finishing chances off than making them.

Only time will tell if Lillo can bring about longer-term improvements, but while the Spaniard has been tasked with overseeing a late push for the ACL he will first have to make sure he can steer his new team away from the relegation scrap.

Vissel are eight points adrift of FC Tokyo in the final ACL spot and only six above Kashiwa Reysol in 16th, and recent form would suggest they’d be better off concentrating on the teams below them rather than those jostling for position above them.

Podolski is of a similar mind.

“If you make mistakes you’ll concede goals, and this result came about because we made lots more mistakes than the opponent,” he said after the humbling by Reds.

“The most important thing is that we accept this result. Until now we have been talking about aiming for the ACL but we are also getting closer to the relegation battle. The gap is tight above and below us. We have to fully take in where we are in the table and work to improve our position.”

Kobe have now lost their last four games and the schedule doesn’t get any easier in the coming weeks.

This Saturday they host Kashima Antlers – who themselves are honing in on third place as well as making a decent fist of succeeding Reds as continental champions – before welcoming bottom-placed-but-winning V-Varen Nagasaki to the Noevir on 6 October. They then travel to Kawasaki Frontale the week after the international break, with the reigning champions embroiled in a two-horse race with Sanfrecce Hiroshima for this year’s title.

If points aren’t picked up by that stage then Kobe will be very much involved in the scrap for survival – not something many foresaw when the club picked up Podolski last summer, and certainly not what Iniesta thought he was signing up for when he joined in May.


Nakajima shines on Moriyasu’s Japan debut

A new-look Japan side swept to victory in Hajime Moriyasu’s first game in charge, and Shoya Nakajima is starting to look like he could be the real deal…  (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, Friday 14th September, 2018

Hajime Moriyasu got off to a dream start as Japan manager on Tuesday night, not only delivering a win in his first game in charge but doing so in style as the Samurai Blue cruised to a 3-0 victory over Costa Rica in Osaka.

It is important not to get carried away at times like this – the 50-year-old could hardly have asked for more accommodating opposition for his debut in the dugout – but the early signs for ‘Moriyasu Japan’ were encouraging as they put on a positive, attack-minded display for the 30,000-plus supporters at Suita Stadium.

Local boy Ritsu Doan was understandably a fan favourite as he made his national team debut back where his professional career started with Gamba Osaka, but the jewel in the team’s crown was undoubtedly Shoya Nakajima, who looks well on the way to becoming a key player at this level.

“[The manager] told us to keep the ball as much as possible, and in training we’ve been working on playing in an attacking manner,” the 24-year-old said after the game. “I think we were able to do that reasonably well today.”

That was something of an understatement, and Tomoaki Makino was far more effusive in his assessment of the match.

“It was almost too good to be true, the way we put into practice what the manager has been asking of us despite only having such a short amount of time in training,” the Urawa Reds defender said.

“Our build up and combinations were good. We had a real awareness of building up from the back, starting with the goalkeeper, and thanks to several players all sharing the same image when it came to particular passes we were able to put together some good combinations and score the goals.”

The slickness of the team’s attacks was certainly impressive considering this was the first time the players had lined up together, and also bearing in mind the disruption caused to their preparations by the earthquake in Sapporo and subsequent cancellation of what was supposed to be Moriyasu’s first match against Chile.

Aside from a slightly shaky opening when the visitors looked to test an inexperienced back line – Makino, at 31, was the second oldest outfielder on the pitch for Japan and, with 33 caps, had 11 times as many appearances for his country as fellow defenders Sei Muroya, Genta Miura, and Sho Sasaki combined – Japan were in full control of proceedings.

Football Channel, Shoya Nakajima, 14th September 2018

“[Toshihiro] Aoyama and [Wataru] Endo did very well today when it came to knowing when to release the ball and also when to get forward,” Makino added. “Us players at the back were also expected to get involved in the build up, including [goalkeeper Masaaki] Higashiguchi, which I think is a big change.

“Also, when it came to the front players, as I said just before, it wasn’t a case of just one player using their imagination and trying something, but there was a shared sense of where the ball was going to go. There were many times when Shoya [Nakajima] had the ball and the players in the box showed good movement to create danger.”

The running of Yu Kobayashi, Doan, and Takumi Minamino was certainly impressive, but without Nakajima’s willingness to get on the ball and ability to pick out and then execute the passes those efforts would have been wasted.

Fortunately the Portimonense man had brought his A-game though, showcasing the full array of talents which will surely see him transferring elsewhere in Europe sooner rather than later.

Whether it was dribbling at pace at his man, tricking his way beyond baffled opponents with deft touches, or arrowing balls into his teammates – or the space in front of them, as he did with a sublime reverse pass when enticing Endo forward to set up Minamino’s goal – Nakajima put on a real show and looked entirely comfortable with the coveted No.10 on his back.

Whether he is able to make that shirt his own longer term remains to be seen, but having also shown flashes of his potential in the pre-World Cup friendlies it is clear that the Tokyo Verdy youth team product has all the raw ingredients to challenge Shinji Kagawa for the privilege.

Of course, plenty of players have flickered briefly for the national team before fizzling out and fading from the picture, and in order to establish himself as an un-droppable member of Moriyasu’s new-look Japan Najkajima needs to ensure that he continues to perform at such a consistently high standard, for club and country.

Not only that, but he will need to keep developing his game as well. As his reputation grows opponents will prepare increasingly stringent counter-measures to keep him quiet, requiring him, in turn, to develop new ways to escape those shackles and ensure he is still able to influence games when it really matters.

The signs so far suggest he is more than capable of doing that though, and if he can keep adding new strings to his bow then Moriyasu could do a lot worse than building his Asian Cup team around Nakajima.


Antlers in ACL ascendancy

Japan’s most successful club is aiming to create more history after Kashima Antlers confidently put one foot in a first ever ACL semi-final this week… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, Thursday 30th August, 2018

Rarely can a quarter-final have been so one-sided.

Kashima Antlers sauntered past Tianjin Quanjian in the first leg of their AFC Champions League quarter-final on Tuesday night, and the 2-0 score-line hardly did justice to the ease with which Go Oiwa’s side established control ahead of the second leg on 18 September.

Antlers burst out of the traps with plenty of intent against their lethargic visitors, keeping Paulo Sousa’s side penned back in their own half for the majority of the first period and winning seven corners in the first half-hour alone.

They were unable to make that supremacy count, however, and with things scoreless at half-time there was a lingering fear this game could follow the pattern of so many others in which a Japanese team lacking a killer touch is punished for their profligacy by a more ruthless opponent.

Such concerns were dispelled as soon as play resumed after the break though, with the flow of the game picking up exactly where it had left off and Tianjin offering absolutely nothing to counter Antlers’ increasing pressure.

That finally paid off on the hour mark, when Leo Silva latched onto a loose ball headed into the area by Yasushi Endo and drilled it beyond Zhang Lu in the Tianjin goal to give the hosts a richly deserved lead.

Even falling behind didn’t spark any kind of recovery in the visitors, and 12 minutes later Serginho followed his compatriot’s lead and rifled home Kashima’s second to give them some breathing space at the halfway point in the tie.

“In the first half we were attacking a lot but unable to make the breakthrough, but we didn’t grow impatient and stuck to the way we wanted to play, which in turn led to us scoring the two goals,” Shuto Yamamoto said after the game.

“We did everything we needed to do with regards to dealing with Tianjin, which meant we were able to keep our composure when attacking. We were able to play the football we wanted to at home and keep a clean sheet, and I think we have picked up a result which will help us looking ahead to the next game.”

The eight-time J.League champions are now clear favourites, but surely won’t find things so straightforward in China.

Football Channel, 30th August 2018

They were utterly dominant over the 90 minutes, racking up 68.3% possession, making more than double the passes of their opponents – 437 to 214 – and achieving an 80.3% passing accuracy rate as 83.4% of the game was played in the middle or Tianjin thirds of the pitch.

On top of that they notched up 15 corners to Tianjin’s one, attempted an incredible 46 crosses to Tianjin’s 10, and took twice as many shots, 21 to 10.

Even so, they were served a warning in the final minute of regular time after an uncharacteristically sloppy clearance from Yamamoto fell to Yang Xu, who drew a smart stop from the impressive Kwoun Sun-tae.

That is exactly the kind of complacency Oiwa will be desperate for his players to avoid in Tianijin next month, especially in the early stages when the CSL side can be expected to throw some caution to the wind.

Their talisman Alexandre Pato is certainly not expecting his team to put up such a timid showing in the second leg, and cut a philosophical figure after the defeat.

“Ok, we lost but we have another game at home and we can do better than today,” he told the-AFC.com. “Two-zero is not over, we have another game and we need to have more concentration at home and try to do our best.”

The former AC Milan star pointed out that Tianjin’s preparation had been far from ideal after they missed their initial flight two days before the match – something which certainly seemed to affect them and would go some way to explaining their sluggish performance.

“We arrived one day before the game – it’s not good. We needed to arrive two days before but we had some difficulties with the trip. It’s not an excuse, but of course if we have two days to recover our legs it’s better than one day.”

And the 28-year-old was adamant that a composed opening in Tianjin could still see his side progress at Kashima’s expense.

“We need to think about the game,” the Brazilian said. “We need to start good and try to do the best and then try to think about the goals.

“Of course at home we have the advantage and the supporters and we will try to do our best. They played better than us today, but we still have another game.”

Be that as it may, on this showing a spot in their first continental semi-final is now Kashima’s to lose.


Upstarts on the charge

The teams relegated from J1 last year are having far from impressive campaigns in the second tier this season, and as Omiya Ardija, Ventforet Kofu, and Albirex Niigata toil away in the mid- to lower reaches of the table it is instead two of the J.League’s younger clubs that are setting the pace… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, Friday 10th July, 2018

Matsumoto Yamaga started the season without a win in their first six games but have lost just twice since then to ensure they sit top on 53 points, while Machida Zelvia have won four in a row and are breathing down their necks on 49 points.

In a division that remains frustratingly unpredictable both sides have exhibited impressive levels of consistency, establishing themselves as the teams to beat and each losing just two of their last 15 games.

Under the guidance of the wily Yasuharu Sorimachi, who remains an accomplished tactician 10 years after leading Japan at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Matsumoto have exhibited an impressive ability to adapt to the style of whichever team they are playing.

They can fight and play aerially, break down teams that try to pack bodies behind the ball and counter – as they demonstrated most expertly in the 5-0 dismantling of Zweigen Kanazawa on 12 May – and also go blow-for-blow with the more proactive teams, as evidenced in their 1-1 draw away to Tokushima Vortis on 26 May and the back-and-forth 3-2 on the road to JEF United last weekend. 

That victory was their seventh in an eight-game unbeaten run, and a wealth of quality all over the park has enabled them to settle into an intimidating stride atop the rankings.

Solid at the back and in possession of the third best defence in the division, conceding just 25 goals in their 27 games and keeping 12 clean sheets, Yamaga also have an enviable wealth of attacking players, with Hiroyuki Takasaki, Ryo Nagai, Daizen Maeda, and Serginho a formidable array of options all capable of occupying opposing defenders in a variety of ways.

Indeed, the club have so much strength in depth up front that former Mito Hollyhock hotshot Kohei Mishima has become a forgotten man and can’t even make the bench, while they were also able to let Kohei Kudo and Naoki Maeda move elsewhere recently without any effect on results.

They may only be four points clear in first (so the fans who were wondering after the win over JEF whether the team could put a star on their shirt if they win the league were getting a little ahead of themselves), but seeing as they sit 11 points clear of seventh place it would take an impressive collapse now for them to fall far enough from grace that they don’t make the play-offs at the very least.

Football Channel, 10th August, 2018

The only other team that has demonstrated a similar level of ruthlessness is Machida, who made the step up to J2 in the same year as Matsumoto in 2012 but have had a rockier journey since.

Zelvia finished bottom that year and dropped straight back down to the JFL, only returning to the second tier after finishing as runners-up to Renofa Yamaguchi in the 2015 J3 season and beating Oita Trinita in the promotion/relegation play-off.

This year, however, their fifth under Naoki Soma in his second stint at the club, they have motored steadily up into the battle for supremacy at the top of the table and are the closest side to Matsumoto in the automatic promotion places.

What makes the small Kanto outfit’s form all the more remarkable is the fact that even if they were to upset the odds and finish the season in the top two they won’t be promoted to the first division as they don’t fulfil the J.League’s licensing requirements.

That hasn’t stopped them putting together their formidable run of form though, and even if they are to run out of steam as the season wears on it certainly won’t be for a lack of motivation on the part of the players. 

Considering the position Soma played during his career Machida have traditionally been a solid, no-nonsense defensive unit, but as they have looked to become more expansive this season they have been no more than average in that regard, conceding 31 times in the process – more than mid-table Montedio Yamagata and Mito Hollyhock, and only once more than Tochigi SC (17th) and Ehime FC (18th).

Going forward, however, they have posed plenty of threat and are the third highest scorers in the division, notching 44 times thanks to 16 different players finding the net.

Yuki Nakashima is their most prolific marksman with eight goals, while fellow forwards Koji Suzuki and Taiki Hirato have also contributed five each. The defensive players have left a mark at the other end of the pitch as well, with centre-backs Kodai Fujii and Kota Fukatsu scoring three apiece and Naoki Otani and Koki Shimosaka also amongst the goals.

They welcome JEF to Nozuta Stadium on Sunday, when they will no doubt be looking to lay down another marker against one of the J.League’s original members and show that in football history counts for very little – it’s what you do now that matters.

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