Play to win

Higher-ranked clubs are offered plenty of advantages in the J2 play-offs, but Omiya Ardija have become the latest side to learn that the incentives don’t always work in a team’s favour… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, Wednesday 28th November, 2018

The format is far from straightforward, the teams taking part are often still recovering from having missed out on automatic promotion, and those given advantages frequently fail to seize them, but the J.League play-offs never fail to provide wonderful drama to round off the season.

Forty-two games’ worth of J2 football are boiled down to anxious, live-or-die 90 minute contests, and the first instalment of this year’s series – extended to an even longer-winded system to include the 16th-placed team in J1 – provided yet another addition to a growing catalogue of match-ups that will live long in the memory.

Despite finishing higher in the table and thus having the benefit of only needing a draw to progress, Omiya Ardija became the latest side to slip-up in the post-season knockings as they went down 1-0 at home to 10-man Tokyo Verdy on Sunday.

“We needed a draw but we couldn’t do it – it’s frustrating,” Omiya striker Robin Simovic said after the loss. “We didn’t play good at all. Tokyo destroyed us today, so I think they deserved to go through.”

The Swede, sent on as an 81st-minute substitute as Masatada Ishii’s side searched for an equaliser, continued by bemoaning the hosts’ lack of intent.

“We didn’t really know what to do – it felt like they controlled the game totally and we were passive, and it’s dangerous to be passive. We can’t play like we only need a draw, we have to go for the 1-0 and then we can come back (and play more defensively). But we didn’t do this, and that’s why it became like this and now we are angry, everybody.”

Omiya started the season as one of the teams expected to challenge for promotion to the top flight having been relegated from J1 in 2017, but started slowly back in the second tier and only won one of their first five games and two of their first nine.

Thanks largely to the goals of Genki Omae – who finished as the division’s top scorer with 24 strikes – they kept themselves in the hunt though, and with five games to play they were just three points behind second-placed Oita Trinita. A three-game winless run then put paid to any chance of automatic promotion, however, and they only booked their place in the play-offs on the final day of the season when they edged Fagiano Okayama 1-0 and Avispa Fukuoka slipped to a 0-0 draw away to FC Gifu.

Rather than being reinvigorated by that last-gasp recovery the team started incredibly reactively against Verdy, seemingly happy to let the visitors boss possession and wait for chances to break on the counter. This was a risky strategy to adopt despite knowing a draw would see them progress – although it wasn’t hugely different to the safety-first approach they had used for most of the season, and they were clearly banking on Omae and his fellow forwards to come up with the goods with the team having only failed to score in one of their previous 27 league games.

Football Channel, 28th November 2018

Verdy, meanwhile, gleefully seized upon Omiya’s hesitancy and assumed control of the contest from the very first whistle, pressing eagerly from the front and clearly boosted by the confidence that came with having the second best defence in J2 this year, which conceded just 41 times.

“They applied far less pressure than I was expecting and were kind of loose, which made it quite easy to play,” Verdy midfielder Kota Watanabe said of Omiya’s hesitant stance. “In training this week we had been working on dealing with their pressure from the front, so the way they played wasn’t what we’d expected.”

Ri Yong-jik also felt Omiya were affected by the fact they didn’t need to win the game to progress to next week’s clash against Yokohama FC.

“Maybe that was difficult for them, in terms of whether they should try and attack or not,” he said. “That ultimately led to them dropping back, which made it easier for us to keep the ball.”

Brazilian forward Mateus was adamant Omiya’s aim wasn’t to play for a draw, but conceded the team’s submissive stance ultimately cost them.

“None of the players individually or the team as a whole came into the game aiming for a draw, and the plan was to try and win the same as always,” the 24-year-old said. “We wanted to press more from the front and deny the opponent freedom on the ball, but we were unable to click into gear in that respect and it’s really disappointing that we surrendered the initiative.

“We came into the game with the advantage of being at home and only needing a draw, but I think the fact we started by sitting too deep unfortunately became a factor in the defeat.”

The stipulation that entitles higher-ranked teams to play at home and only need a draw is criticised yearly by players, and while Simovic insisted it wasn’t the cause of Omiya’s elimination he was the latest to question the rule’s validity.

“I don’t think (it made the game) difficult, but it’s a very strange rule,” he said. “It’s not supposed to be like that. It should be a winning game, you can’t draw and go through; that’s a crazy rule.”

On the other hand, the Verdy players were largely in agreement that the system had worked to their advantage rather than Omiya’s – and were hopeful it would continue to do so in the next two games as well.

“For us it’s simple,” Ri said. “We don’t have to think about a draw being enough, and know that we just have to win. In that sense we can just play in the same way as we always do for regular league games.”

Watanabe agreed and was already looking ahead to facing Yokohama under the same regulation.

“We don’t have any pressure at all,” he said. “If we play like we did today then I have confidence we can win.”


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