STOYANOV (centre) is mobbed by HATTORI, Hisato and MAKINO after his goal against Yokohama.
The past few months have literally been historic for Sanfrecce Hiroshima. They completed a nine-game unbeaten streak from July to September, their best ever run of form in J-League Division 1 (J1) since its first season in 1993. As a result, Sanfrecce find themselves in a heated race for the J1 title, in the same season they were promoted from J2. It was also announced yesterday that Hiroshima’s captain and striker, SATO Hisato, has been included in the Japanese national team squad for three upcoming friendlies in October against Hong Kong, Scotland and Togo.
Sanfrecce’s unbeaten run began with a 4-1 home drubbing of JEF United Chiba on the 19th of July. They went into the game having suffered three straight defeats, their worst run of the season. It left them in a precarious mid-table position of 9th (out of 18 teams), and within another loss of a relegation fight. A solid but unspectacular away draw at FC Tokyo followed, where Sanfrecce stymied the offensive force of Tokyo’s Ishikawa (also called up to the Japan squad along with Hisato), breaking Ishikawa’s goalscoring streak in the process. FC Tokyo will play Kawasaki Frontale in the J-League Cup in November, and although Sanfrecce were eliminated at the group stage, Sanfrecce’s Hisato will probably share the top-scorer’s award.
In what will probably be one of the defining moments of Sanfrecce’s season however, they next beat the reigning J-League champions and current leaders Kashima Antlers 1-0 at home on the first day of August. SATO Hisato was the scorer in the only goal as Sanfrecce condemned the Antlers to only their second defeat in the J-League at that point.
A drab away draw at Vissel Kobe and a plodding home win against an injury-decimated Oita Trinita prefaced another season-defining win, as Sanfrecce overcame the arrogant Urawa Red Diamonds in front of a five-year record home crowd at the Big Arch. Urawa’s German manager, Volke FINKE, was publicly denounced by the president of the Japan Football Association for criticising his players for not diving more against Sanfrecce. INUKAI Motoaki was reported to have said of Finke, “It’s unbelievable he said that. It’s hopeless. … He’s not qualified to be a manager.” It was the first time Sanfrecce had beaten the Reds in ten years, and the action was every bit as rancorous as the aftermath suggests.
Another slow but professional win against an inferior Montedio Yamagata gave way to a hectic win over the Yokohama F. Marinos as we slid into September. The Marinos game marked the last win Sanfrecce have so far managed, a period which has coincided with Bulgarian international team defender Ilyan STOYANOV’s absence through injury. (For anyone wondering why they are called the “Yokohama F. Marinos” and not just the “Yokohama Marinos”, this article explains how the ‘F’ is a posthumous memorial to a once proud J-League team.)
Sanfrecce’s last two games, against Kashiwa Reysol and Albirex Niigata, have been defined by a malaise that could be due to tiredness, pressure, overconfidence or the absence of key players, or all of the above. Stoyanov was joined by the talismanic KASHIWAGI Yosuke on the sidelines for the Niigata game, the latter’s enforced absence being due to a suspension handed out for accumulated yellow cards.
Sanfrecce play four games in October, the first against fellow high-flyers Shimizu S-Pulse. The two sides are fairly similar in that they place strong emphasis on youth development, and both are chasing their first ever J-League title (although both have won a J-League Stage under the old league system where the season was divided into two Stages). Shimizu’s main goal threat comes from Hisato’s fellow Japan international OKAZAKI Shinji, who scored his last international goal against Ghana in September this year and is competing with Hisato to win this season’s Golden Boot in the J-League. Not to be underestimated is Okazaki’s Norwegian attacking partner Frode JOHNSEN, a three-year veteran of the J-League who has notched a respectable 9 goals for S-Pulse this season.
Sanfrecce then play Gamba Osaka, another top team with a chance of winning the title. Some of you may remember the publicity surrounding Gamba’s game last year against English giants Manchester United in the semi-final of the FIFA Club World Cup. Gamba lost the game 3-5 as United went on to win the competition, but they gave a great account of themselves and the J-League as a whole. Gamba’s threat comes from their midfield, with both ENDO Yasuhito and HASHIMOTO Hideo selected for the upcoming national team friendlies. The hope for Sanfrecce is that Gamba’s most important midfielders will be too exhausted by their international commitments to be effective.
The final J-League game for October is against Kawasaki Frontale. Kawasaki have been in second place for much of the season, but have dropped back recently, presumably as they concentrated on going for glory in the Asian Champions League. Their loss to Nagoya this week though means that their hunt for silverware is narrowed from four competitions to three. In what is probably the best scheduling draw Sanfrecce could hope for, Kawasaki will contest the Nabisco Cup Final (otherwise known as the J-League Cup) with FC Tokyo just three days after playing Sanfrecce, so it is likely that they will not mentally be at their best. Goalkeeper KAWASHIMA Eiji and midfielder NAKAMURA Kengo are Kawasaki’s contribution to the Japan squad for the upcoming friendlies, and both are likely to start for Japan.
Sanfrecce have played out draws against all three teams in their previous encounters this season: 0-0, 2-2 and 1-1 respectively.
The other game to be played in October will be in the second round of the 89th Emperor’s Cup. Sanfrecce will play Japan Soccer College, the winners of the Niigata prefectural competition (J-League teams are exempt from the prefectural competitions and are seeded directly into the second round). Fukuyama University won the Hiroshima prefectural competition by beating a team fielded by the Sagawa deliveries group in the final. Sanfrecce are very likely to win this game, and can probably do so even with a severely weakened team (as the manager is sure to use the opportunity to rest important players). See this link for my article explaining the Emperor’s Cup results, as well as an update on the results of the local Chugoku League.
In summary, October is a make-or-break month for Sanfrecce. They say that you cannot win a football championship without beating the other top teams, and this is especially true in the case of Sanfrecce, as their next three games are against the main contenders for Kashima’s crown. If they can manage to win their games this month, then it is very possible that Sanfrecce could go on to win the league, as their remaining games are against poorer opposition (with the exception of Nagoya Grampus, but they have the prospect of an exhausting trip to Saudi Arabia in the ACL semi-finals).
There is also the Emperor’s Cup, in which Sanfrecce have a good seeding. The result of this is that they will not meet quality opposition until the fourth round, when their opponents are likely to be Gamba Osaka. Sanfrecce have the home advantage though, and have every chance of winning the competition that they have been runners-up in three times since 1995.
THE UNBEATEN RUN
7/19 Sanfrecce 4-1 JEF United Chiba
7/25 FC Tokyo 0-0 Sanfrecce
8/1 Sanfrecce 1-0 Kashima Antlers
8/15 Vissel Kobe 0-0 Sanfrecce
8/19 Sanfrecce 1-0 Oita Trinita
8/22 Sanfrecce 2-1 Urawa Red Diamonds
8/30 Montedio Yamagata 1-2 Sanfrecce
9/12 Sanfrecce 3-2 Yokohama F. Marinos
9/20 Kashiwa Reysol 1-1 Sanfrecce
10/3, away @ Shimizu S-Pulse (J1)
10/11, home (CocaColaWest Stadium Hiroshima) vs Japan Soccer College (Emperor’s Cup R2)
10/17, home (Big Arch) vs Gamba Osaka (J1)
10/24, away @ Kawasaki Frontale (J1)
11/21, home (Big Arch) vs Nagoya Grampus (J1)
11/28, away @ Jubilo Iwata (J1)
12/5, home (Big Arch) vs Kyoto Sanga (J1)
J-League Division I Table (Oct. 2, 2009)