Archive for May, 2022

25
May
22

Blood and thunder

The J.League puts in a lot of effort behind the scenes to build hype around ‘derbies’, but as with most things the end product is always more authentic when it occurs naturally… (日本語版)

The marketing departments of the J.League and its clubs are always working hard to try and promote the various ‘derbies’ that take place across its three divisions but, truth be told, the majority of these are merely games contested by teams that happen to be located near each other, and they can’t really be classified as derbies in the truest sense.

For a rivalry to be considered a derby there has to be authentic animosity between the participants, and the bad blood has to have been curdling for years. It can’t just be manufactured in a meeting room and whipped up with some posters and hashtags.

Urawa Reds versus Kashima Antlers is a derby.

The teams aren’t neighbours and there’s no preordained reason why the two should dislike each other, but over the past 30 years the pair have rubbed each other up the wrong way enough times that games between them naturally come with an edge.

Last Saturday’s encounter at Saitama Stadium provided the latest instalment in the series, and it certainly didn’t disappoint.

Kashima came into the game targeting three more points as they aimed to keep up the pressure on narrow league leaders Kawasaki Frontale, while Urawa were hoping to build upon their sensational comeback from three goals down against Yokohama F. Marinos on the same pitch three days earlier as they looked to climb away from the bottom third of the table and end their run of six straight draws in J1.

All of this took a backseat once the whistle blew though, with both teams throwing themselves into the clash with the kind of gusto not often seen in a division more commonly home to games boasting periods of passive possession play and chess-like tactical brinkmanship.

Despite the blood-and-thunder nature of proceedings the visitors were incredibly well-oiled in the first half and always looked in control after taking an early lead through Arthur Kaike, seemingly driven on by the dominant drumbeat emanating from their fans in the southeast corner of the ground and asserting their supremacy in both directions. 

They didn’t give Reds a moment to settle on the ball – Yuma Suzuki even standing menacingly on the edge of the penalty area for Shusaku Nishikawa’s goal kicks – pressing in packs and snapping into tackles to ensure every time the hosts had possession they were forced to surrender it almost immediately. When attacking themselves, Antlers always looked composed and dangerous.

They were able to do this in large part because of their solid spine: Kento Misao, increasingly comfortable at centre-back, and who looks like he is very much enjoying the rough and tumble battles against opposing strikers; Diego Pituca, another who doesn’t shy away from physical contact and who seems to grow stronger with each successive duel; and the aforementioned Suzuki, a bundle of energy that every team would love to have leading their line.

Everything appeared to be going swimmingly for Antlers as half-time approached, but then a minute before the break Reds were awarded a penalty when Takahiro Akimoto’s cross struck Ikuma Sekigawa’s trailing arm. While it was a slightly harsh call and required a VAR review, Yuichi Nishimura brought play back and pointed at the spot.

There, Suzuki and Arthur Kaike did their best to distract Alexander Scholz, but just as Suzuki had shrugged off similar gamesmanship from Tomoaki Makino six years previously to dispatch a penalty into the same goal, the Dane wasn’t to be perturbed and drilled clinically home.

Reds had been handed a lifeline and were invigorated by getting on the scoresheet, and Ricardo Rodriguez’s side were able to assert themselves far more in an even and thoroughly entertaining second half.

Both managers spent the majority of the game watching and conducting proceedings from the limits of their technical areas – Rodriguez bouncing up and down and shuffling from one side to the other as he pointed, gestured, and cajoled constantly, while René Weiler cut a more studious presence, standing arms crossed and barely shifting more than two or three paces from the left-hand corner of his allotted rectangle as he surveyed the scene before him.

Antlers could have retaken the lead in the 61st minute after Suzuki robbed Akimoto in the left back position and burst into the area, but he couldn’t quite get the ball to Ayase Ueda and just as quickly as the chance had arrived it was gone.

After that Reds gradually worked their way into the ascendancy and were keeping and moving the ball much better, looking to stretch the visitors and preventing a tiring Antlers from pressing in numbers with such ease.

Yusuke Matsuo was introduced in the 82nd minute and instantly starting causing Kashima problems with his snaking runs and direct dribbling, but he passed up a golden opportunity to secure the three points 10 minutes later when he shot at Kwoun Sun-tae instead of cutting back for Kasper Junker.

The Dane couldn’t believe the chance had gotten away from them – and Matsuo’s reaction suggested he knew full well what he should have done too – but Ken Iwao almost made up for it with an imperious drive from the edge of the area three minutes later that thundered off the bar and then Junker had another half-sight of goal but saw his effort blocked by Koki Anzai.

Nobody wanted the final whistle as the two teams continued to duke not out in search of a winner, but seconds later Nishimura brought proceedings to an end and that was to be that.

Now that was a derby.

10
May
22

Leading from the front

Kawasaki Frontale flattered to deceive once again in Asian competition this year, but their upcoming schedule leaves them well placed to make a real push for a third consecutive J1 title… (日本語版)

It feels as though Kawasaki Frontale have been sat permanently astride the J1 rankings since Covid-19 started to wreak havoc around the world, and for the past two-and-a-bit years Toru Oniki’s men have been a class apart in the J.League.

They may have sealed their maiden title in 2017 by only going top for the first time at the end of the final round of games, and 2019 did see them slip momentarily back into the pack to finish 10 points behind eventual champions Yokohama F.Marinos, but since the fourth round of the 2020 season Frontale have been almost permanently in possession of first place as they have established themselves as the dominant power in Japanese football

Kawasaki have of course had to fend off the occasional challenger during that spell, but even as key players have departed for pastures new in Europe they have managed to keep playing assertively from a position of power, coping admirably with the pressure of being the hunted and ultimately protecting their leads with relative ease to celebrate back-to-back championships twice in half a decade.

Last week they returned from their AFC Champions League duties in Malaysia in an unfamiliar position, however, sitting in second place and five points adrift of a resurgent Kashima Antlers.

Not only that, but Frontale were smarting from another chastening experience in continental competition, struggling yet again to transfer their J.League swagger to Asia and failing to make it out of Group I after winning just three of their six matches – the only one of this year’s J.League representatives not to progress to August’s Round of 16.

This latest collapse in the ACL will certainly have smarted, and everyone at the club will know that for all their domestic dominance glory further afield is needed to truly cap this generation’s dynasty and move the side from Todoroki up into the next bracket as a giant of the Asian game.

Set against that backdrop then, Saturday’s game away to Shimizu S-Pulse looked like a potential banana skin, with Kawasaki needing to shake of their disappointment and reacclimatise and Hiroaki Hiraoka’s men unbeaten in five games and full of confidence after an impressive 4-1 win away to Shonan Bellmare in their previous match.

Well, on paper at least. In reality, Kawasaki slipped straight back into their effortless J.League groove and moved ahead inside the first quarter of an hour after some characteristically intricate build-up play between Yasuto Wakizaka and Akihiro Ienaga ended with the former rifling home at Shuichi Gonda’s near post.

Wakizaka then turned provider just past the half hour mark as he floated a delicious ball to the back post for Marcinho to head home, and with an hour left to play the visitors already had the luxury of being able to take the sting out of the game and preserve some energy and three more precious points – racking up 69 percent of possession in the first half and making almost twice as many passes as the hosts (378 to 194) with 89 percent accuracy.

That completion rate was maintained over the 90 minutes as a whole, and although Shimizu had a few potshots at goal Frontale’s victory never looked like it was in any serious danger. At the same time, Kashima were falling to a surprise 3-0 defeat away to Sanfrecce Hiroshima to see their lead at the summit reduced instantly to just two points, with Frontale also having a game in hand.

With only a third of the season played it would of course be foolish to start speculating with any real conviction about favourites for the title, but a quick glance at the upcoming fixtures suggests Kawasaki have a real opportunity to seize the initiative and once again situate themselves as the leaders of the pack.

Their next seven league games starting with this weekend’s clash at home to Avispa Fukuoka and ending with the visit of Jubilo Iwata at the end of June all look eminently winnable, with neither of those opponents or any of the handful in-between (Vissel Kobe, Sagan Tosu, Shonan Bellmare, Kyoto Sanga, and Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo) any higher than mid-table and all needing to be at their very best to stand a chance of upsetting the two-time defending champions.

Frontale’s early exit from the ACL is an undoubted disappointment, but the fact the club now has no further continental commitments this year could serve as a blessing as the season picks up pace and the pressure starts to build. Kawasaki have shown time and again that they have terrific staying power at the top, and as spring moves into summer the question could be whether anyone else is similarly able to handle the heat.




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