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.

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