Archive for December, 2021


Seamless transition

Urawa Reds won the Emperor’s Cup last Sunday, and while the 2-1 win over Oita Trinita brought the curtain down on one era, it also heralded the beginning of a new and intriguing one for the Saitama side… (日本語版)

When teams win trophies, it is often customary to contextualise their triumph in one of two ways.

The title can be looked at as the realisation of a long and hard road to glory, for instance, as with Kawasaki Frontale’s maiden J1 title in 2017 after many years of falling at the final hurdle.

On other occasions – think Vissel Kobe lifting the 2019 Emperor’s Cup – the feat is considered more as a springboard, in terms of what it could lead to for an emerging side in the following seasons.

Urawa Reds’ 2-1 win over Oita Trinita in last weekend’s Emperor’s Cup final, however, was a little unusual in that it provoked both feelings simultaneously.

Much was made in the build-up to the showpiece at the new National Stadium of the fact that the match would be Yuki Abe, Tomoya Ugajin, and Tomoaki Makino’s last as Reds players, and it was certainly hard to shake the significance of that fact as proceedings played out on a crisp and clear afternoon in Sendagaya.

The retiring Abe didn’t make the matchday squad, but both Ugajin and Makino came on as second half substitutes for Urawa – the latter performing his trademark mini haka before entering the fray with seven minutes to play and Urawa 1-0 up and seemingly on the brink of victory – and despite the concession of a last-gasp equaliser the trio’s fairytale ending was assured in the 93rd minute when Makino, who else, diverted home a dramatic late winner.

At the same time as that narrative being drawn to an emotional close, though, there was also a great deal about Reds’ triumph that served as something of an hors d’oeuvre to whet the appetite for what may lay ahead for Ricardo Rodriguez’s side.

Urawa tore out of the traps in the early knockings, clearly having seen how well Trinita frustrated Frontale in the semi-final a week earlier and not wanting to allow Tomohiro Katanosaka’s side to settle into their groove again in the final. Takahiro Sekine and Yoshio Koizumi were especially lively going forwards, Kasper Junker and Ataru Esaka pressed high up the pitch – even for Oita goal kicks – while Kai Shibato and Atsuki Ito buzzed and snapped around in the middle of the park to seize control of the opening exchanges.

Hiroki Sakai and Takahiro Akimoto also exemplified Reds’ early intent and offered proactive and energetic options from full-back, and it was hardly surprising when they took the lead in the sixth minute, Esaka drilling home from the edge of the area after Koizumi and Sekine had forced their way in from the right flank.

Oita came out with more fire in their belly in the second half and the game plateaued somewhat as the minutes ticked away, but Reds maintained their composure even after being pegged back so late on and few could argue that they weren’t worthy winners.  

Claiming a title and securing an ACL berth in his first season in charge is no mean feat for Rodriguez, particularly when considering just how much he has managed to reshape the team since taking over at the start of the 2021 campaign.

Urawa ended the previous year miserably, losing four and drawing one of their last five games as they slumped to a 10th place finish in J1, and it was clear that sweeping changes were required on and off the pitch if the Saitama side was to get back amongst the big boys.

The Spaniard didn’t shy away from instigating that revamp, and the team he sent out to take on Oita was almost unrecognisable from that which hobbled over the finish line 12 months earlier. Stalwarts Yosuke Kashiwagi and Yuki Muto had both been moved on by the summer, as was Kenyu Sugimoto, and along with Abe, Ugajin, and Makino the writing also looks like it is on the wall for another club legend Shinzo Koroki, who is widely rumoured to be at the top of his former manager Mihailo Petrovic’s shopping list at Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo.

The manner in which Rodriguez has facilitated that changeover while still producing results is worthy of huge praise, and it is certainly rare for a manager to be able to preserve a spirit of togetherness amongst a squad during such upheaval.

The recent/impending departure of so many key figures certainly didn’t seem to have affected the morale of the team if the interviews after the semi-final and final were anything to go by, and Ugajin – who opened the scoring in the semi-final against Cerezo Osaka – and Makino both spoke of their motivation to go out on a high and leave the players who will be pulling on the red shirt next season the gift of ACL football.

The next stage of the team’s evolution will of course be far from straightforward and many hurdles remain, but the assuredness with which the first steps have been taken suggests the future looks bright indeed for this new-look Urawa.


2021 J2 Best XI

The likes of Daizen Maeda, Kyogo Furuhashi, and Miki Yamane all built upon their burgeoning reputations in 2021, winning awards, earning moves to Europe, and establishing themselves with the national team.

One thing these three have in common is that they all spent the early part of their careers in J2, a league in which a whole host of players emerge every year looking destined for bigger and better things.

With that in mind, excluding players from promoted Jubilo Iwata and Kyoto Sanga or those on loan, here’s a Best XI (plus substitutes) of talent from J2 who shone in the 2021 season and should be worth keeping an eye on in the coming years (日本語版)

Goalkeeper: Koto Abe (24, Albirex Niigata

Abe started the season in goal for Albirex as they set the pace at the top of J2, but then dropped to the bench once Ryosuke Kojima was fit again. Another knock to Kojima soon presented Abe with a fresh chance as No.1, however, which he took with both hands. A confident presence between the posts who is also comfortable with the ball at his feet, Abe ultimately kept 12 clean sheets and conceded just 28 times in 32 games.

Centre back: Tetsuya Chinen (24, FC Ryukyu)

Ryukyu were third, six points behind leaders Kyoto Sanga, when Chinen picked up an injury against Blaublitz Akita on 28 August, and his absence had a clear impact on the team. They had won 15 and conceded just 27 goals in their first 27 games with him but lost their first four and went winless in seven without him, ending the season with just three wins in their last 15 matches as they struggled to cope without his assuredness in the backline.

Centre back: Rikito Inoue (24, Fagiano Okayama)

Inoue played every minute for Fagiano Okayama in his first season in the second tier after joining from J3 outfit Gainare Tottori at the start of the 2021 campaign, and looked immediately at home at City Light Stadium. Despite Fagiano finishing in 11th place, Inoue and the on-loan Takashi Abe formed a formidable pairing at centre back and the team ended the year with the joint second-best defensive record in the league after conceding just 36 times.

Centre back: Hiroki Noda (24, Montedio Yamagata)

Aside from eight minutes rest at the end of a 4-0 cruise over Ehime FC, Noda was ever-present for Montedio before getting injured ahead of the 31 October clash with Tochigi SC. The team’s form slipped drastically after that, and they only won two of their last seven games – losing four of them, including a 5-2 drubbing at home to Machida Zelvia – having only lost five times in their previous 22 matches under Peter Cklamovski with Noda on the pitch.

Right wing back: Riku Handa (19, Montedio Yamagata)

Hopes are high for this Yamagata native who is already involved in the Japan youth set-up, and Handa established himself as a regular this season, clocking up 37 appearances and registering three goals and five assists. Confident on the ball and well-suited to Peter Cklamovski’s high-pressing, proactive approach, he looks set to become an increasingly important player for the Mountain Gods next season. 

Left wing back: Satoki Uejo (24, Fagiano Okayama) 

Actually played in a more advanced central role for much of the past campaign, but Uejo is just as adept working his way in from outside on the left. The former FC Ryukyu man delights in getting shots off early and is just as capable of lashing home efforts from distance as he is of arriving late to tap-in from close range. A sharp, intelligent, and lethal player who causes opponents real problems. 

Defensive midfield: Caio Cesar (26, V-Varen Nagasaki) 

The oldest player in this selection but an assured presence in the middle of the park who strikes an intimidating presence at 193cm tall. Caio Cesar assumed the role as Varen’s leader in central midfield in the absence of Hiroki Akino this year, and drives the team forward with his confidence. The Brazilian is also authoritative in possession and capable of finding the back of the net with the odd wonder goal as well.

Defensive midfield: Kaishu Sano (20, Machida Zelvia) 

Sano also made my J2 selection last year, and has continued to improve as Machida further established themselves as one of the teams to be reckoned with in the second tier. Played slightly fewer games than in 2020 on account of injury (34 as opposed to 41), but despite that he still managed to impress with his composure and quality at the heart of midfield, as well as adding more end product to his game with six goals rather than the one he served up in 2020.

Attacking midfield: Tomoya Miki (23, JEF United)

One of the most consistent performers in J2 this season, Miki was a constant threat in the final third and is incredibly adept at popping up at the exact moment when he can cause maximum damage. Finished the campaign as JEF’s top scorer with 14 goals and also provided five assists, and if they can keep him at Fukuda Denshi Arena next year he could be the player to finally spearhead a proper promotion challenge back to the top flight for Yoon Jong-hwan’s side.

Attacking midfield: Kai Matsuzaki (24, Mito Hollyhock)

Still a little inconsistent, but that is part of the charm for Matsuzaki. In many ways he epitomises the unpredictability and chaos of Mito under Tadahiro Akiba, with them finding the net 59 times this year but also conceding 50. Matsuzaki had a hand in almost a quarter of those scored, notching eight goals and coming up with six assists in his 41 appearances, and his low centre of gravity and rapid footwork must make him a nightmare for opposing defenders to face.

Striker: Asahi Uenaka (20, V-Varen Nagasaki)

Uenaka wasn’t expected to feature much ahead of the season with Edgar Junio, Ken Tokura, Cayman Togashi, and Victor Ibarbo ahead of him the pecking order, but the youngster finished the campaign as Varen’s surest bet in front of goal. The rangey target man exhibited real ruthlessness with his chances, and ended his debut season with 10 goals from just 975 minutes on the pitch – a little shy of one goal per game in real terms.

Bench: Junto Taguchi (FC Ryukyu, 25); Niki Urakami (Ventforet Kofu, 25); Rui Sueyoshi (JEF United, 25), Yuya Kuwasaki (V-Varen Nagasaki, 23); Taiki Hirato (Machida Zelvia, 24), Motoki Hasegawa (Ventforet Kofu, 23); Ryoga Sato (Tokyo Verdy, 22)

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December 2021