There is an increasing tendency to consider games of football in a very systematic way. Numbers and percentages are all well and good, but sometimes you can’t beat a good old-fashioned humdinger…
Wherever possible I try not to write about specific games in this column.
The instant nature of the internet and social media means that by the time you get around to reading my views the match is already old news, but this week I really want to talk about the recent clash between Vegalta Sendai and Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
At kick-off Vegalta were top of the table and a formidable side who’d lost just once at home, while swashbuckling Sanfrecce boasted the league’s top-scorer in Hisato Sato and knew a win would take them into first place.
Often such games result in fairly cautious affairs – as evident the previous week when all of the top four drew their matches 0-0 – but that was not the case in Sendai, where these two produced a breathless contest.
Yurtec Stadium is, in my opinion, the best football venue in Japan, and I am always happy to have the opportunity to travel up to Tohoku.
The extra meaning taken on by Vegalta in the aftermath of last year’s tragedy has been well documented, and some subtle yet powerful posters in the underground at Sendai station (including one reading “We can hear your big support, we are not alone”) reinforced the role that the team has played in the recovery process.
The Sanfrecce fans unravelled a banner during the warm-up reading, “Let’s get to the summit together and enjoy the view”, but the home supporters weren’t going to let their team give up top spot easily, and their stirring rendition of “Country Road” had the hairs on the back of my neck standing up.
Obviously buoyed by the incredible atmosphere in the stadium both teams started at a frantic pace, and while Sanfrecce made the slightly better chances it was Vegalta who opened the scoring when Wilson slotted coolly home after just 11 minutes.
They refused to sit on their lead though, and were pegged back right on the stroke of half-time when Sato was on hand to net Sanfrecce’s equaliser.
At that point both sides could have been forgiven for taking their feet of the gas a little but, thankfully, neither did.
Sato emerged from the tunnel at the start of the second half with a gesture to the away fans to double their efforts, and their response ensured that the teams picked up exactly where they’d left off.
A crunching tackle from Kazuhiko Chiba on Wilson caused a coming together on the halfway line which included Mihael Mikic and Vegalta coach Makoto Teguramori – who I can’t help but think of as the Japanese “Big” Sam Allardyce – and 10 minutes later Koji Morisaki put Sanfrecce in front immediately after coming on as a sub.
The home supporters weren’t giving up, though, and as deafening cries of “Sendai! Let’s Go!” reverberated around the ground the other Morisaki twin, Kazuyuki, underhit a back-pass to Shusaku Nishikawa and inadvertently played in Wilson for his second of the game.
Even after all of this toing-and-froing the teams and their fans continued to go all out for the win, and it looked like Sanfrecce were going to get it when substitute Hironori Ishikawa beat the offside trap and closed in on Takuto Hayashi’s goal.
While his powerful strike beat the big ‘keeper it didn’t find the back of the net, instead cannoning back off of the bar and ensuring that things ended all square.
That was a fittingly dramatic end to what was undoubtedly the best game I’ve seen so far this season, and although they’d seen their lead trimmed a little, these two deserved to remain in the top two places at the end of the round.
There has been a lot of talk over the past few weeks about the “right” way to play football, with Spain being accused in some quarters of being boring.
I don’t for a second share that view, but while the Euros were being discussed in terms of formations, ball possession and pass completion rates it was nice to head to the stadium and see a contest with scraps, mistakes and goals aplenty.
Intricate and organised teams can be great to watch, but in terms of pure enjoyment you really can’t beat a game where two teams throw caution to the wind and just go at it.