Posts Tagged ‘Vegalta Sendai

11
Jul
12

Not playing the percentages

There is an increasing tendency to consider games of football in a very systematic way. Numbers and percentages are all well and good, but sometimes you can’t beat a good old-fashioned humdinger… 

Wherever possible I try not to write about specific games in this column.

The instant nature of the internet and social media means that by the time you get around to reading my views the match is already old news, but this week I really want to talk about the recent clash between Vegalta Sendai and Sanfrecce Hiroshima.

At kick-off Vegalta were top of the table and a formidable side who’d lost just once at home, while swashbuckling Sanfrecce boasted the league’s top-scorer in Hisato Sato and knew a win would take them into first place.

Often such games result in fairly cautious affairs – as evident the previous week when all of the top four drew their matches 0-0 – but that was not the case in Sendai, where these two produced a breathless contest.

Yurtec Stadium is, in my opinion, the best football venue in Japan, and I am always happy to have the opportunity to travel up to Tohoku.

The extra meaning taken on by Vegalta in the aftermath of last year’s tragedy has been well documented, and some subtle yet powerful posters in the underground at Sendai station (including one reading “We can hear your big support, we are not alone”) reinforced the role that the team has played in the recovery process.

The Sanfrecce fans unravelled a banner during the warm-up reading, “Let’s get to the summit together and enjoy the view”, but the home supporters weren’t going to let their team give up top spot easily, and their stirring rendition of “Country Road” had the hairs on the back of my neck standing up.

Obviously buoyed by the incredible atmosphere in the stadium both teams started at a frantic pace, and while Sanfrecce made the slightly better chances it was Vegalta who opened the scoring when Wilson slotted coolly home after just 11 minutes.

They refused to sit on their lead though, and were pegged back right on the stroke of half-time when Sato was on hand to net Sanfrecce’s equaliser.

At that point both sides could have been forgiven for taking their feet of the gas a little but, thankfully, neither did.

Sato emerged from the tunnel at the start of the second half with a gesture to the away fans to double their efforts, and their response ensured that the teams picked up exactly where they’d left off.

A crunching tackle from Kazuhiko Chiba on Wilson caused a coming together on the halfway line which included Mihael Mikic and Vegalta coach Makoto Teguramori – who I can’t help but think of as the Japanese “Big” Sam Allardyce – and 10 minutes later Koji Morisaki put Sanfrecce in front immediately after coming on as a sub.

The home supporters weren’t giving up, though, and as deafening cries of “Sendai! Let’s Go!” reverberated around the ground the other Morisaki twin, Kazuyuki, underhit a back-pass to Shusaku Nishikawa and inadvertently played in Wilson for his second of the game.

Even after all of this toing-and-froing the teams and their fans continued to go all out for the win, and it looked like Sanfrecce were going to get it when substitute Hironori Ishikawa beat the offside trap and closed in on Takuto Hayashi’s goal.

While his powerful strike beat the big ‘keeper it didn’t find the back of the net, instead cannoning back off of the bar and ensuring that things ended all square.

That was a fittingly dramatic end to what was undoubtedly the best game I’ve seen so far this season, and although they’d seen their lead trimmed a little, these two deserved to remain in the top two places at the end of the round.

There has been a lot of talk over the past few weeks about the “right” way to play football, with Spain being accused in some quarters of being boring.

I don’t for a second share that view, but while the Euros were being discussed in terms of formations, ball possession and pass completion rates it was nice to head to the stadium and see a contest with scraps, mistakes and goals aplenty.

Intricate and organised teams can be great to watch, but in terms of pure enjoyment you really can’t beat a game where two teams throw caution to the wind and just go at it.

20
Jun
12

Football Against Adversity: A Japanese Odyssey

The Inside Left is a new online football journal which, in their own words, is “dedicated to telling thought-provoking football stories – no news, gossip or reports, just the best comment, analysis and anecdotes from players, managers, supporters and a team of talented contributors who span the length and breadth of the globe, as well as the depths of the league pyramid.”

My small contribution to that grand aim was a piece on the increasing relevance of football to Japanese culture, something that was emphasised in the aftermath of the Great Tohoku Earthquake of March 11th, 2011.

23
Mar
12

Groundhog J

March brings spring, cherry blossoms and a brand new J.League season. Things didn’t feel particulalry fresh after the first round of matches in J1 though… 

The start of a new season brings fresh hope, and there is always plenty of talk of the positive changes that have taken place which will improve teams over the coming months.

This year was no different, and with eight managerial changes having occurred over the off-season period there was, if anything, even more discussion of ‘new eras’ than usual.

Then the games took place and it seemed as if we’d never been away.

The televised game in Round 1 pitted the two J1 sides most affected by the March 11th tragedy against each other, and Vegalta and Kashima played out a tense encounter that was decided by Taikai Uemoto’s goal. Sendai defending ruggedly and Antlers underperforming; as you were, then.

In the other 2 o’clock kick-offs there was a similar feeling of patterns continuing from the 2011 season.

Nagoya won 1-0. Their goal was scored by Josh Kennedy. When I saw that the Australian had given them the lead against Shimizu I tweeted, tongue-in-cheek: “Kennedy puts Grampus head against S-Pulse. Header or penalty?” Then NHK showed the highlight. Ah, it was a penalty.

Meanwhile, two of the newly-promoted sides, Consadole and Sagan, were making steady starts by earning their first points in J1 – against Jubilo and Cerezo, who clocked up 18 draws between them last time around.

Urawa Reds, too, had been expecting an upturn in fortunes but just as on the first day of the 2011 season their hopes were dashed with a 1-0 away defeat.

There was even a feeling of déjà vu with the new man in the dugout; a guy called Petrovic getting off to a disappointing start despite the positivity he had brought with him. Have I seen this before?

My opening question to Petrovic 2.0 at the recent Kick Off Conference was, “Last year Reds’ new coach was called Petrovic, this year too. How is this one going to be different?”

He laughed and said, “I know! Do you think the same things will happen?”

I didn’t then but there was an eerie similarity to their opening game defeat.

As there was in Omiya, where Ardija got off to a terrific start in their apparent quest to be the best hosts in the division by going down 1-0 to FC Tokyo.

Jun Suzuki’s side battered the 2011 J2 champions for the opening half-an-hour, but obliged their guests by failing to score and then conceding the only goal of the game after an hour.

Frontale’s 1-0 win over Albirex was slightly incongruous to the way that games between those two sides have gone in recent years though, and the remaining two fixtures also threw up some surprises.

Or did they?

This year’s souped-up Vissel Kobe did come out on top in their Kansai derby with Gamba, and Yoshito Okubo did manage to find the net twice and complete a game without a caution.

However, Yosuke Fujigaya was as clumsy as ever between the sticks for Gamba, and despite being far the poorer side they still managed to score two goals.

The arrival of Yasuyuki Konno to shore-up one of the leakiest defences in the game doesn’t seem to be paying off just yet, and as long as Gamba have a Brazilian or two around to notch at the other end it appears as if they’ll always be a threat.

(Assuming that the usual patterns will continue, that will only be until they head to the Middle East in the summer, of course.)

Aha, but the last – and best – game of the weekend was surely something new?

Kashiwa Reysol drew only three times on their way to the title in 2011 – just once at home – so their 3-3 draw with a new-and-improved Yokohama F. Marinos was a little unexpected.

Marinos’ quick-passing and aggressive attacking was also a refreshing change, and it looks as though I may have to retract their ‘Tsu-Marinos’ moniker if things continue.

But wait a minute.

Jorge Wagner claimed two assists and Leandro Domingues scored a beauty? I’ve heard that before.

And, come to think of it, didn’t Marinos also earn an impressive draw away to the reigning champions at the start of last season…

Does anybody else feel like this is Groundhog J?

08
Mar
12

2012 J.League Preview

The 20th J.League season gets underway on Saturday and my preview is in today’s Daily Yomiuri.

It’s in three parts, the first of which is key info and a prediction for each team. The second is an interview with FC Tokyo’s new coach Ranko Popovic, while the third features comments from Dragan Stojkovic (Nagoya Grampus), Nelsinho (Kashiwa Reysol), Yoshito Okubo (Vissel Kobe), Jorginho (Kashima Antlers), Jose Carlos Serrao (Gamba Osaka), Mihailo Petrovic (Urawa Reds) and Nobuhiro Ishizaki (Consadole Sapporo) on the upcoming season.

06
Dec
11

My Team of the Year

Last night was the J.League’s annual awards ceremony, where the official word was had on the best of the 2011 season. For this week’s Soccer Magazine I decided to pick my Best XI (and a substitutes bench, just to cover my back a little).

A 4-1-2-2-1 (ish) formation best suited the players I went for – although I did have to crowbar a couple into slightly unfamiliar positions – and I tried my best to take into account players’ individual achievements rather than those of their club as a whole.

Anyway, enough excuses, here’s my team.

Goalkeeper: Takuto Hayashi (Vegalta Sendai): Ever-present in the league and a fantastic presence between the posts. Kept clean sheets in nearly half of his matches and provided a great base for the side to build from and enjoy their best ever season.

Right Back: Hiroki Sakai (Kashiwa Reysol): A constant threat when his side is attacking and supplements his aggressive and direct approach play with fantastic crossing ability. Doesn’t shirk at the back either, and is the model of the modern full-back.

Centre Back: Makoto Kakuda (Vegalta Sendai): Strong in the tackle, a good organiser and, like his goalkeeper, has been integral to Vegalta’s success. Has also chipped in with a couple of goals and assists and isn’t afraid of the physical side of the game at either end of the pitch.

Centre Back: Marcus Tulio Tanaka (Nagoya Grampus): Still an intimidating presence at the heart of the Grampus defence. Not the quickest and, yes, he does get too much respect from referees and opponents alike, but his attitude has helped to build that persona and his performances invariably back it up.

Left Back: Jorge Wagner (Kashiwa Reysol): OK, he’s not really a left-back but that’s where he started the season and it’s where he’d play in my team. Always uses the ball intelligently and rarely loses possession. On top of that his goal tally is in the double figures.

Defensive Midfield: Yasuhito Endo (Gamba Osaka): Yet again he has been the conductor in the Gamba midfield. Always composed and totally controls the pace of the game, as well as popping up with numerous defence-splitting passes and timely goals. Pure class.

Central Midfield: Takuya Nozawa (Kashima Antlers): Usually lines up wider and further forward but, in this hypothetical team, I would use him more centrally. Another calm-and-collected player who is always thinking two or three passes ahead. Scored or set up nearly half of Antlers’ goals.

Central Midfield: Leandro Domingues (Kashiwa Reysol): Like Nozawa and Endo, Domingues is responsible for controlling the speed at which his team plays. Comfortable when collecting the ball from his defenders or in the final third and deadly in front of goal.

Right Midfield: Genki Haraguchi (Urawa Reds): A coach at Reds suggested to me earlier in the season that without Genki Urawa would already be in J2. At the time that seemed a little bit of an exaggeration but if it weren’t for his guts and goals then just think where the side would be…

Left Midfield: Ryang Yong-gi (Vegalta Sendai): Yet another great leader – can you have too many? – who plays with fantastic poise. His set-pieces provide a constant threat but he can do it in play too. Never flustered in possession and knows exactly when to release the ball and when to delay the pass.

Striker: Mike Havenaar (Ventforet Kofu): Other players perhaps have better all-round play, but his scoring record for a side at the bottom of the table is an incredible achievement. Has struck a wide variety of goals, and is about much more than his height. 

Subs: Hiroki Iikura (Yokohama F. Marinos), Naoya Kondo (Kashiwa Reysol), Wataru Hashimoto (Kashiwa Reysol); Shingo Hyodo (Yokohama F. Marinos), Hiroki Yamada (Jubilo Iwata); Josh Kennedy (Nagoya Grampus), Lee Keun-ho (Jubilo Iwata)

That’s my team, and I’m sure that you’ll have spotted many ridiculous inclusions and glaring omissions. Please feel free to point them out and tell me who you’d have in your side, either below the line or on Twitter @seankyaroru.

03
Sep
11

All for One

After the tragedy in March the J.League acted swiftly and en masse to help the situation. Further to the official recovery efforts the side closest to the disaster hit region, Vegalta Sendai, embarked upon a fantastic run of results that saw the usual minnows vying at the top of the table.

I spoke to several Vegalta fans to find out just how much of an impact the side’s efforts had had in the area for No. 1 Shimbun.

29
Aug
11

Giving hope

The good results may have dried up a little of late, but Vegalta Sendai are playing for more than just points this season.

Last month I was at Hitachi Dai for the J.League game between Kashiwa Reysol and Vegalta Sendai, and before the match I spoke to a few Vegalta fans about their club’s incredible form since the events of March 11th.

I wanted to know just how much they thought the team were being spurred on by the disaster during their spectacular 12-game unbeaten run at the start of the season and, vice-versa, how the players’ efforts were motivating those most affected.

Two supporters I chatted with, Mihoko Konno and Seiko Abe, were in no doubt that a productive cycle of encouragement had been produced by the tragedy.

“The expressions on the players’ faces are different,” Konno-san said. “Watching them really fight in the games is encouraging, and I think they’re giving hope to Sendai and to Miyagi.”

Abe-san agreed and, paying reference to the number of late goals the team had scored, drew a parallel between the on-pitch struggles and those of a far more serious nature.

“I think there’s the message that you shouldn’t give up until the very end. If you lose emotionally, that’s the end.”

I’d already heard many good things about the passionate home support at Yurtec Stadium – one of only two in J1, along with Grampus’ Toyota, that I hadn’t been to – so I decided to make my way to Sendai for the return fixture with Reysol to see for myself.

Even before arriving at the stadium (after a lunch of gyuutan, of course), I could tell the place was unique – it’s right there, basically at the station.

While this is true of most football grounds in England I was caught by surprise as I’ve become used to having to walk miles before getting to J.League stadiums. Not having to do that on this occasion meant I was already a fan.

Then, just a couple of minutes later inside the ground, I was even more impressed. The pitch is right next to the stands and it became apparent that as well as the emotional bond between fans and players, there is also a physical closeness between the two at every home game.

This reminded me of a comment by another supporter I’d spoken to in Kashiwa.

We were discussing Marquinhos’ departure as a result of fears over the nuclear situation, when Junichiro Kawamoto made a very astute observation.

“Society’s smallest unit is the family,” he said. “When families expand, it becomes a town, which become cities; so if you’re concerned about your family I think (Marquinhos’ decision to leave was) an obvious choice.”

And observing the fans, staff and volunteers of the Vegalta family doing all they could to raise money and morale provided a wonderful example of just how close-knit communities can pull together in times of need.

There was an authenticity to their efforts, and while taking some pictures on the concourse I was asked to write a message on a fan which, along with thousands of others, would be sent to children in Kessunuma.

As I struggled with the kanji (“This is support from England. Sending you our best wishes.”) a young boy next to me offered his help, writing them extra large for me to copy.

I was then enthusiastically thanked by the man co-ordinating the scheme, and told with genuine feeling that a message from England would be received with great excitement.

Shortly afterwards I witnessed another act of altruism – although this one possibly had slightly ulterior motives.

As the teams warmed up I spotted a ballboy flinging himself passionately about as stray shots fizzed wide of the goal.

Initially I thought he was perhaps a goalkeeper and was getting in some extra training, but then I noticed (I hadn’t spotted them before, honest) that he was in fact putting his body on the line to prevent the team of cheerleaders behind him from getting hit!

Soon afterwards I had shivers down my spine as I stood in front of the home fans as ‘Country Road’ rang out.

The game itself sadly failed to live up to the rest of the experience, although one aspect of the 0-0 was constant; Sendai weren’t defeated.

08
Jul
11

The only way is up

The 2012 season will see the final promotion place from J2 decided by an English Championship-esque play-off, and as the level of the league continues to improve I think it’s a very good idea.

 

The J.League recently announced plans to introduce a play-off system in J2 from the 2012 season, meaning that the teams finishing third to sixth would all be in with a chance of moving up to the top-flight.

While opinion is fairly divided on this – with some asking how the sixth-placed side is likely to fare in J1 when considering the abysmal top-flight form of Avispa Fukuoka, who came third in J2 in 2010 – I am all for it and think that anything which adds to the competitiveness of the second tier is good for the Japanese game.

Avispa have certainly struggled – and nothing short of a miracle will keep them from relegation this year – but prior to them the only side to have moved up to J1 from the final promotion place and been relegated straight away is Shonan Bellmare.

Before this season 11 other teams, including Shonan, had come up in the last available spot and four of them – Reds, Omiya, Kobe and Yamagata – are still there. Four  more – Sendai, Cerezo, Sanfrecce and Kofu – went back down but are now re-established in the top-flight, while the final two sides are last year’s relegated pair of FC Tokyo and Kyoto Sanga – the former of whom are strong favourites to make a return next season.

Although they have recovered slightly from their far from impressive start to life back in the second division, Tokyo’s promotion is definitely not a foregone conclusion though, and the growing competitiveness of J2 was demonstrated by JEF’s failure to gain an instant return last year.

JEF’s head coach Dwight Lodeweges is well aware of the difficulty in gaining promotion, and insisted before the season that just being a big club is not enough to secure a spot in the top-flight.

“It’s not just a name that brings you back or does well or keeps you in J1. We have to do the right things. What I’m trying to do now is to build a foundation but it just doesn’t happen like that, it’s not just like pushing a button and there you go. We have to do the right things and make the right choices.”

Alongside JEF and FC Tokyo this year’s J2 also features two more giants of the Japanese game who could be revitalized by a return to the top table, in Tokyo Verdy and Yokohama FC – although both sides are admittedly shadows of their former selves at this moment in time.

Add to these the likes of Tochigi, Sagan Tosu, Tokushima Vortis and Roasso Kumamoto and you have almost half a division who have either the tradition or ability – or both – to make a go of it in J1.

Indeed, the introduction of a play-off system as opposed to three automatic promotion spots may actually help sides with the ambition of gaining promotion.

While, of course, it would be foolish to claim that any team had ever achieved promotion by accident, it could be suggested that some teams have made the step-up after a season of over-achievement – which they had perhaps not fully anticipated before the first ball was kicked. 

If teams know that there are twice as many berths available with the potential to take them to J1 though, then they may be able to better equip themselves for life in the top tier if and when they get there.

The instant success enjoyed by Cerezo, Sanfrecce and, so far, Reysol after re-joining J1 backs up this argument, with each team having had promotion as their realistic target throughout their season in the second tier. 

Just as importantly, if not more so, play-offs would also add to the excitement in the division by ensuring that more teams actually have something to play for as the season nears its climax. (Relegation, something else that I believe urgently needs to be introduced, would also serve this aim).

Furthermore, just because the sixth-placed team is in with a chance of gaining promotion to J1 it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will take it, and they’ll still have to beat two of the teams above them to earn the right.

And, anyway, even if they do they can’t really do any worse than Avispa, can they?

31
Mar
11

Japan as One

Before travelling down to Osaka for the Japan v. J.League ‘Team as One’ match at the start of the week, I wrote about the importance of the game for Weekly Soccer Magazine.

Nagai Stadium is certain to be an emotional place on Tuesday night.

While I was very disappointed with New Zealand’s decision to back out of their scheduled game with the Samurai Blue, I think that it is crucial this match goes ahead and feel that the time is right for Japan to come together to not only remember all of the victims of the tragic events of the past few weeks, but also to look forward.

Indeed, if New Zealand had honoured their commitment they would have found themselves in a no-win situation. Most likely they would have come up against a hugely fired-up Samurai Blue team who would have been more determined than ever to put in a performance and secure a good result in front of their own fans. Had the Kiwis been able to brave this onslaught and been victorious themselves though, it would have been hugely dispiriting for their hosts.

Now, with the match set to be contested between a full strength national team and a selection of the biggest stars currently playing in the J.League it is sure to be stirring occasion for everybody packed inside the ground and the many millions watching at home – particularly when Kimigayo strikes up.

Such was the desire to be involved in the match and to help out in any way possible, J.League chairman Kazumi Ohigashi revealed that he had to turn down several requests from players to be included in the ‘Team as One’ squad.

Speaking at JFA house when announcing the selection Ohigashi said, “Many players wanted to join but we only had room for 20 members so I was very sorry that I had to refuse some players.”

With competition so fierce it is little surprise that the chosen few were so eager to accept their call-ups, with everybody desperate to do what little they can to help out in the current circumstances.

Ohigashi confirmed this keenness – including on the parts of players from Kashima Antlers and Vegalta Sendai, two of the most affected areas:

“All the players said yes to our offer as soon as possible. Sendai and Kashima experienced a lot of damage but their players said ‘ok, and thank you for the offer’.”

This enthusiasm to be a part of the event was shared by supporters, with tickets at the 50,000 capacity venue selling out in under 2 hours – an incredible feat.
 
The chairman’s rationale for the evening, which will be shared by players, supporters and media alike, is simple:

“This match I want to be brave and positive for the victims,” he said.

One man who is certain to embody this spirit is Kazu, who Ohigashi revealed was the first man to confirm his availability for the match.

Employing Kazu’s star status was a smart move on the part of the J.League, and the 44-year-old – who was an unannounced presence at the ‘Team as One’ press conference – sparked a flurry of activity upon arrival as photographers scurried around to get the perfect shot. 

He expressed relief at being given an opportunity to do something to aid the relief efforts, however small, having experienced a similar helplessness to most of the population as the tragic events unfolded. 

“After the earthquake I was thinking ‘what can I do to help?'” Kazu said. “This was a very difficult question for me. I wanted to do something to improve the situation through football, and so when I got the offer to join this charity match I was delighted to have the opportunity to cooperate with the Japanese soccer world.”

When asked if he had a message for those affected most deeply by the tragedy Kazu replied.

“This is a very difficult and very serious situation. Maybe I can try to imagine how they feel but I think their real situation is beyond that – it is unvbelievable.”

And this is something that everybody involved should bear in mind. Real people have experienced, and are still experiencing, real suffering and this game is merely a diversion to raise much-needed funds and to provide some brief respite from the current difficulties. It does not mark the end of the situation but might just provide a point from which the country can start to pick up the pieces and begin to look to the future.

23
Mar
11

J.League ‘Team as One’ squad announced

On Tuesday the J.League called a press conference to announce its ”Team as One’ squad to face the national team next week.

The full squad and comments from J.League legend Kazu can be found here.




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