I went to the Tokyo derby and while the atmosphere was in fitting with occasion, the football was some way off…
Officially this was one of the most eagerly anticipated games of the season.
Yes, it was happening in J2 but the Tokyo derby was back. FC Tokyo’s recently humbled stars were coming face-to-face with Tokyo’s ‘original’ club (if we ignore that whole starting-in-Kawasaki bit) for the first time in three years.
To be honest though, I went along more out of a sense of obligation than expectation.
I’d been at Ajista for FC Tokyo’s previous game against Consadole and it was dire. Tokyo (red and blue) and Consadole (white) had served up a poor-man’s El Clasico, complete with slow approach play, poor refereeing and Brazilians overreacting. Unfortunately, nobody reprised the ‘Messi’ role and it ended as a drab 0-0.
Verdy, meanwhile, were alone with Tochigi as the only teams to have started with a 100% record in J2 – although they were probably slightly less happy with their three losses from three than the league leaders were with their trio of victories.
Still, it was Golden week, it was Greenery Day (which the pre-match VT took much glee in promoting, to the ire of the away support), and it was a derby. As the original Clasico so wonderfully demonstrated, a game needn’t be technically gripping if the drama can be provided elsewhere.
And things started fairly well. The teams were greeted by nearly 30,000 supporters, the home fans (although, really, there was no such thing as a home team) unfurled a “Real Tokyo” banner to taunt their Johnny-come-lately neighbours, and the match started at a fairly frenetic pace.
After an end-to-end start when Verdy should have had a penalty and Kajiyama should have scored for Tokyo, both teams began to surrender possession far too easily, although Verdy certainly looked the most likely to score.
An FC Tokyo fan I’d spoken to before kick-off confessed he wasn’t holding out much hope for the match and expected the Gas Men to be 1-0 down at half-time and to go on to lose 3-0. I told him to do his best but he replied simply, “It’s not up to us to do our best; it’s up to the players.”
And these fears seemed well-placed as his team struggled to cope with the positive, probing runs of Hiroki Kawano who was steadily establishing himself as the best player on the pitch by some distance.
Half-time came and went without any goals, but shortly after the break the game’s decisive incident occurred.
Roberto Cesar, who had been booked in the first half (and was lucky not to receive a second yellow straight away for showing a complete lack of respect to the referee), burst towards the Verdy penalty area and then flung himself embarrassingly to the ground after minimal, if any contact. A deserved red card, and game on. Although not in the way I’d expected.
Rather than looking to make the most of their one-man advantage Verdy seemed happy to settle for the 0-0 and cut-back on their expansive forays into the Tokyo half.
This approach certainly livened up the occasion, primarily because it enabled Tokyo to create chance after chance. Yazawa had a goal correctly disallowed for handball and Kiyoshi Okuma marched repetitively from the bench, shouted at someone then strode back to his seat swigging water and ruffling his hair. Verdy keeper Doi invited pressure from Suzuki when dallying in possession and was extremely lucky to see the ball squirt up into his arms, then he got injured and sub forward Kazuki Hiramoto had to pull on the jersey as the closing minutes were played out 10 v. 10.
No goals but plenty of talking points, then, and the match was tense, enjoyable and fairly draining.
However, while this is fine for the neutrals, the reactions of both sets of fans demonstrate just how far these two teams are from where they want to be.
The Verdy players were applauded enthusiastically for picking up a point against 10 fairly unimpressive men, while FC Tokyo were jeered from the pitch after their second 0-0 in a row.
I’ll certainly be going to the Tokyo derby again, although, on this evidence, it looks like the fixture will be staged in the second tier for a while yet.