Archive for August, 2021

27
Aug
21

Business picking up

After six months of games in hand and provisional tables the J1 standings finally reflect the true state of play, and all signs point towards a thrilling climax to the 2021 season… (日本語版)

For perhaps the first time all season we have a J1 table that actually tells us something about what there is to play for, and who’s playing for it, in the Japanese first division.

Just as in 2020, Covid-19 has caused huge disruption to the calendar this year – both as a result of outbreaks causing fixture postponements and also the centralised ACL group stage requiring Japan’s participants to front-load their domestic schedules – meaning the standings have been skewed in various directions since pretty much the third week of the season.

At one point Kawasaki Frontale were 18 points clear on paper and seemingly cruising towards consecutive titles, for instance, while just a few weeks ago Gamba Osaka were slumped down 19th place and looking like they had a real battle for survival on their hands.

That of course didn’t reflect the reality of the situation and vastly different number of matches played by each club, and the ironing out of those creases over the Olympic break has presented us with a very different picture of proceedings heading into the final third of the campaign. 

Frontale are now top by just a single point as a result of Yokohama F.Marinos’ extraordinary run of form – unbeaten in 13 with just two defeats all season – while Gamba picked up enough points in their make-up matches to lift them up into the almost-safe region of lower mid-table alongside neighbours Cerezo Osaka on 30 points.

A proper relegation dogfight looks to be brewing beneath them though, with Oita Trinita, Yokohama FC, Vegalta Sendai, Tokushima Vortis, Shimizu S-Pulse, Shonan Bellmare, and Kashiwa Reysol all embroiled in the battle to avoid being one of the four teams demoted to J2 come December.

Yokohama FC were bottom of that pile for a long time but were certainly proactive about turning things around in the summer transfer window, bringing in a handful of new foreign signings – including one of Germany’s goalkeepers at Tokyo 2020, Svend Brodersen, which first impressions suggest was a very shrewd piece of business – and their win over Gamba on Wednesday served the huge psychological boost of moving them off the foot of the table.

Whether they will have enough in the tank to complete a great escape remains to be seen, but with the teams around them struggling to put together runs of form the seven points to safety don’t look insurmountable if Tomonobu Hayakawa’s side can keep grinding out the odd win here and there.

Indeed, things are incredibly tight in the lower third of the table with only 10 points separating the bottom seven sides, and as the finish line draws within range and the pressure begins to build it will come down to which sides are best able to hold their nerve and remain focused on the job at hand.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Avispa Fukuoka, and Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo, meanwhile, occupy a kind of no-man’s land in the middle of the rankings – too far back to make a push for the ACL but with enough points in the bank to be all-but assured of a place in the top flight next year – and above them there’s a six-team mini-league in progress, with competition for the third and final Champions League spot incredibly fierce.

Here, too, teams are packed together like commuters on the Marunouchi Line (despite the state of emergency, they’re still very much there), and setting aside outside bet FC Tokyo on 39 points, the handful of Urawa Reds (44), Sagan Tosu (44), Kashima Antlers (44), Nagoya Grampus (46), and Vissel Kobe (47) are all bunched within three points of each other between third and seventh place.

Sagan aside – who are very much punching above their weight considering their current financial difficulties – all of these clubs will have come into the season targeting at least a place in Asia’s premier club competition next year, and so we should be set for a thrilling back-and-forth battle over the coming weeks as they duke it out for the one berth remaining.

The reason there are only enough spoils for one victor in that contest is because way out at the top of the rankings and going mano a mano for the J1 shield we find reigning champions Frontale and the team they dethroned last year, Marinos.

The league leaders have been absolutely sensational again this season, averaging over two goals per game and only conceding 17 times so far on their way to 63 points. They are, however, in the midst of an uncharacteristic dip in form and followed draws against Reysol and Sanfrecce with a 1-0 loss to Avispa in midweek, driving home just how important Ao Tanaka and Kaoru Mitoma were to the side after both completed moves to Europe over the summer.

Marinos also lost a key figure just before Tokyo 2020, although if things were supposed to come tumbling down after Ange Postecoglou’s switch to Celtic nobody appears to have told the players. They haven’t missed a beat and have won five and drawn one under new boss Kevin Muscat, overtaking Frontale on goals scored after finding the net 14 times in their last three games and setting up what is sure to be an absolute humdinger of a title race over the coming weeks.

The ebb and flow of all teams playing matches in tandem is part of what usually makes league competition so enjoyable, and while the disruption of the past year or so has been unavoidable here’s hoping some semblance of normality can be resumed in that respect next season. The last 12 rounds of 2021 will serve up a whole range of drama, but how nice it would have been to have had nine months of twists and turns instead of just three.

11
Aug
21

Fatigue, Humidity, Sluggishness – Together

The football competitions at Tokyo 2020 combined the brutal heat of summer, a packed schedule, and coronavirus prevention measures to ensure the participants had absolutely no respite from the first to the last whistle… (日本語版)

There was a tension weighing over Nissan Stadium as the clock ticked down in the second half of regular time and heavyweights Brazil and Spain gamely threw everything they had left at each other, trying desperately to land the knockout blow that would deliver them Olympic gold.

The thickness in the air wasn’t only caused by the humidity or magnitude of the occasion though – these, after all, are players used to playing on the biggest stages and in front of tens of thousands of expectant fans – but as their increasingly frustrated voices echoed around the 70,000 empty seats in the vast Kanagawa bowl it was clear that these young, supremely fit professional athletes were absolutely shattered. 

Indeed, even in the hours ahead of kick-off there was a general sense of fatigue lingering in the bowels of the stadium, with venue staff, volunteers, and media personnel frazzled at the end of a brutal schedule and sleepwalking towards the finish line rather than charging towards it with the feeling of excitement and expectation more usually associated with these kinds of events.

Everyone was so very, very tired.

The previous day Japan had stumbled as well, manager Hajime Moriyasu repeatedly referring to the tiredness and fatigue his players had been battling against – as well as a ruthless Mexico side – after they were roundly beaten 3-1 to miss out on the podium, just as they had done under Takashi Sekizuka at London 2012.

Whereas the group stage encounter against Mexico had seen Japan burst out of the traps and move 2-0 ahead after just 11 minutes, this time they could barely string a couple of passes together and as the game moved into the 11th minute here they were already up against it after an uncharacteristically sluggish challenge from Wataru Endo gifted Jaime Lozano’s side a penalty.

Endo’s overall performance against Mexico summed up the general trend of the latter stages of the football at Tokyo 2020, with one of Japan’s outstanding players of the past year looking out on his feet and struggling to keep up with the flow of the game, let alone dictate it. He was at fault for the second goal in the 22nd minute as well, losing track of Johan Vasquez at a free-kick and allowing the Mexican to tuck home with disbelieving ease from close range.  

Of course, this is meant in no way to single Endo out for criticism, and the same lethargy had also been on display four days earlier as Australia and Sweden did battle in the women’s semi-finals. Two of the the most dynamic teams in the competition saw the second half of their contest drop almost to walking pace at times as the players’ exertions in the heat and humidity of the Japanese summer over the preceding two weeks began to catch up with them.

“It’s getting to the point towards the end of the tournament where everyone’s tired, everyone’s played a lot of minutes,” Australia striker Sam Kerr said afterwards. “It was a hot one today. I don’t know, I feel like this is the hottest game we’ve played since we’ve been here. But it is what it is. Everyone’s feeling tired, they [Sweden] feel the same, they’ve played the same minutes.”

Indeed, her opponent Hanna Glas was in full agreement.

“Especially the last 20-30 minutes, it was really tough because of the humidity and a really tough schedule,” the Bayern Munich defender said. “We only get two rest days, and that’s not what we’re used to in the World Cup or the Euros.”

Such a compact fixture list is always a feature of the Olympics, but the various coronavirus prevention measures meant Tokyo 2020 added an unprecedented mental strain on the athletes (and overseas media and staff) as well, offering them no time or space to decompress between matches. 

“Obviously it’s been tough,” Glas said of the restrictions. “We knew that before we came here – that that was one of the big challenges, together with the warm weather – so we came prepared, but even though you know it it’s still hard.”

Megan Rapinoe of the USA concurred after scoring twice to help her side to the bronze medal against Australia in Kashima on 5 August.

“It’s really hard – I’m sure every team would say that, too, it is really difficult,” the 36-year-old said.

“If it’s a World Cup you have a lot more days between games, but, you know, you can [also] see your family. But [here] we’re just there staring at each other the whole time, and there’s only so much we can do or talk about. We don’t want to talk about soccer all the time, but there’s nothing else going on.

“So I think that part has been really hard. It’s been hard for everyone, just to not sort of have that break has been the most challenging part – probably more challenging than the schedule, to be honest.”

Back in Yokohama, as had been the case 24 hours earlier when Sweden and Canada went the distance in the women’s final, the contest between Brazil and Spain couldn’t be settled inside 90 minutes, and it ultimately took a turbo-charged burst from Malcom – one of the freshest players on the pitch, who had played just 142 minutes before coming on at the start of extra time – to secure consecutive golds for the Seleção with a 2-1 win.

Sport is the pursuit of excellence, of testing boundaries, and while the exhaustion of these Olympics will fade over time and leave only the positive memories, slickly-edited highlights packages, and plentiful history-making achievements, there can be absolutely no doubt that Tokyo 2020 pushed each and every one of its participants to their mental and physical limits – on and off the field of play.




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