Shimizu S-Pulse take on Kashima Antlers in the Nabisco Cup final on Saturday so this week I wrote a short preview for Soccer Magazine…
Either of Shimizu S-Pulse or Kashima Antlers will be worthy winners of the 2012 Nabisco Cup.
In fact, in the case of holders Kashima they will five times as worthy of triumph this year than they were last.
The 2011 champions made it to last season’s final against Urawa Reds after winning just two matches, whereas this year they have played 10 in order to take their defence to the final hurdle.
Shimizu, too, have been involved in the competition since the very start – and, in fact, progressed from the same group league as Antlers, which got underway way back in March.
The tournament is a long way from perfect and does struggle to muster a huge amount of enthusiasm from fans, players, and media alike, and I still believe – as I argued last year – that it would be much improved by the inclusion of the J2 sides.
However, there is still an excitement in the latter stages of knockout competition that is lacking in regular league play, and having seen the first leg of Shimizu’s semi-final with FC Tokyo and second leg of Antlers’ win over Kashiwa Reysol there was no doubt that the four sides involved were all desperate, having come so close, to take part in Saturday’s final.
Before Antlers’ 2-2 draw with Kashiwa that saw them into the showpiece at National Stadium I spoke to some of their fans, and while I was unsure they would be able to hold off the reigning J.League champions at their own stadium (Kashima had won the first leg 3-2, meaning Reysol needed just a one-goal win to overcome that loss) their supporters were full of confidence.
“We win a title very year,” they told me. “We’re not doing so well in the league but every year we win something.”
Indeed, you have to go back to 2006 to find the last season in which the Ibaraki club finished up empty-handed, since when they have won three J.League titles, two Emperor’s Cups and last year’s Nabisco Cup.
That record means they are the only J.League side who can realistically be described as a “big club”, with no other team coming close to matching their trophy haul.
Several challengers have come and gone, and Antlers are in anything but full health at the moment, but they have been able to keep picking up titles regardless, and in the current crop of players the signs are certainly promising for the future.
S-Pulse, too, are a side worth keeping an eye on.
When Afshin Ghotbi arrived at the start of the 2011 season most people foresaw a battle against relegation for the Shizuoka side, with them losing several key players in one fell-swoop, including Shinji Okazaki, Jungo Fujimoto, and Frode Johnsen.
The Iranian-American placed his trust in the younger players under his charge though, and has built on last year’s mid-table finish by guiding his side into the battle for the ACL places this year.
That has all come despite the fact that the departures gate in Shimizu seems to be permanently open.
The talented duo of Alex Brosque and Shinji Ono have both moved on mid-season, while regulars Daisuke Iwashita and Takuma Edamura have also headed for pastures new, and Freddie Ljungberg – brought in to considerable fanfare midway through 2011– didn’t even make it into a second season in orange.
There has been little or no noticeable impact from all that upheaval out on the pitch, though, and in the likes of Genki Omae, Toshiyuki Takagi, and Hideki Ishige S-Pulse possess a huge array of young and exciting attacking talent to carry them onto the next stage.
They also look to have shored up their back line with Calvin Jong-a-pin a solid presence at the heart of defence and Kaito Yamamoto and Akihiro Hayashi providing a real headache for Ghotbi when it comes to selecting his No. 1.
Success in the present – or lack of – can determine just how much players and teams can make of their potential.
While S-Pulse and Antlers look to have bright futures in the offing, however, neither of them will be looking any further ahead than this weekend for the time being, with immediate glory occupying the minds of both sets of players.