Sanfrecce’s NAKAJIMA Koji and Gamba Osaka’s NAKAZAWA Sota challenge for the ball during their teams’ 2-2 draw at the Big Arch. (Photo by Stephen Packer)
Itsukaichi JET Stephen Packer fills us in on the latest news on our hometown soccer team, Sanfrecce. For running updates, visit Stephen’s blog, ¡Sanfrecce Olé!
October was a very disappointing month for Sanfrecce, as fans’ hopes of both a surprise title and an Emperor’s Cup run were dashed within a week of each other. The team’s steady performance over the summer, where the team peaked in third place and looked set to make a serious bid for the Asian Champions League place that would bring, was wasted as autumn set in and circumstances conspired against them.
It is difficult for fans not to feel disappointed after coming within two victories of the top spot, especially after Sanfrecce made an early exit in the Emperor’s Cup to J2 opposition (a competition Sanfrecce had every chance of winning due to a favourable seeding). However, it is important not to forget that Sanfrecce were a J2 team themselves last season: the other side of the coin is that by the end of August, Sanfrecce had already guaranteed themselves a place in Japan’s top flight for next season, something which fellow promoted side Montedio Yamagata have still not yet managed.
As reported in last month’s Sanfrecce Update, Sanfrecce’s loss to Albirex Niigata on September 26 was probably attributable to the absence through injury of Sanfrecce’s Bulgarian international defender, Ilian STOYANOV. One of Sanfrecce’s most important players this season, Stoyanov is an asset offensively as well as defensively, and indeed the photo I chose to accompany the previous Update was of Stoyanov celebrating after scoring from a free kick. His offensive playmaking presents enough of a threat to opposing teams that their managers frequently attempted to contain him this season by devising special tactics, a case in point being the unusual decision taken by the manager of FC Tokyo to have his players man-mark Stoyanov (a tactic reserved almost exclusively to nullify the goal-scoring threat of a talented striker or attacking midfielder).
Unsurprisingly for such an important player, Stoyanov’s absence has precipitated a quite dramatic drop in form for Sanfrecce. In the six league games up to his absence, Sanfrecce won five times and drew once. In the six games without him, their league record was three draws and two losses, that is until a late Makino goal last weekend brought Sanfrecce their first league win in nearly two months.
Now, all this is not to say that without Stoyanov, Sanfrecce are a collapsed house of cards. As noted in the previous Update, Sanfrecce’s fixtures during this period have been against, among others, three of the top five teams in the league. If we discard for the time being the 0-7 demolition at the hands of league-leaders Kawasaki Frontale, the draws against Shimizu S-Pulse and Gamba Osaka were quite reasonable (and in fact, these results were identical to those earned in the first half of the season). Against S-Pulse, Sanfrecce actually scored first, but were unable to contain the previously mentioned threat of Japan national team first-choice striker, OKAZAKI Shinji. To further put the result in context, the point both sides earned was enough for S-Pulse to squeeze into first place on goal difference, but with the other teams winning around them in a tight race, Sanfrecce slipped from fourth to sixth. S-Pulse’s subsequent fall from grace has been even more pronounced than Sanfrecce’s, as they have lost their last three (common opinion being that they have simply succumbed to vertigo as the pressure of being top-dogs hit home) and they are now only a point above Sanfrecce.
Against Gamba Osaka, a very promising first half in Hiroshima produced two goals, and a belief that maybe Sanfrecce could adjust to their new makeshift defence after all. Stoyanov’s natural replacement at centre-back was MAKINO Tomoaki, a Hiroshima native who scored for the Japanese U20 side in the 2007 World Cup. Makino (who is incidentally my favourite Sanfrecce player) is accustomed to playing on the left of defence, where his own attacking instincts allow him to harry the opposition flanks as well as to cut inside and score some spectacular goals (the twenty-yard effort against Urawa Reds being a particular favourite). The problem in the Gamba game though, was that Sanfrecce were also missing right-back MORIWAKI Ryota through suspension (accumulated yellow cards), and there just aren’t enough players on Hiroshima’s roster to adequately cover the loss of 66 percent of the first-choice defence. In the end, the chaos that reigned in Sanfrecce’s penalty area was probably as much to with the fact that Sanfrecce have played most of the season with a reserve goalkeeper barely older than myself (and the goalkeeper he replaced is actually younger). NAKABAYASHI Hitotsugu is a reasonably talented shot-stopper, but his leadership and communication skills are unsurprisingly lacking for a player in a position whose best proponents do not reach their peak before the age of thirty. The fact that the two replacement players were midfielders playing out of position did not help pacify the Gamba attack, and Sanfrecce ended up quite lucky to get away with a point. Makeshift right-back NAKAJIMA Koji headed a shot off the line, and keeper Nakabayashi saved well when Gamba’s BANDO Ryuji decided to try to get a penalty rather than take a free shot at goal. I would have been quite upset if Sanfrecce had conceded again though, not least because I realised I was surrounded by yelping Gamba fans in plainclothes who couldn’t be bothered to walk around to the away section.
While the second-half against Osaka was disappointing, there were no signs of the whitewash that was to follow just a week later against league-leaders Kawasaki Frontale. A special mention at this point has to go out to referee MATSUO Hajime, who destroyed what would had been a lively and competitive game by sending off the returning Moriwaki after two ridiculous yellow cards in the first 25 minutes. As a qualified referee myself, I am more than sympathetic to the difficulties that referees face. But there are some decisions that are incomprehensible, and these (among other decisions Matsuo made during this game) have been held up as examples of the poor standard of officiating in the J-League. The unnecessary sending-off clearly had a catastrophic effect on the game, as the ten men of Hiroshima ran themselves ragged against eleven of the best attacking players in the league. The six goals that Kawasaki scored in the last half an hour of the game (three in the last five minutes) are a testament to the fact that Sanfrecce could just not keep up with playing a man down, as spaces opened up and the goal was exposed. Frontale played well, but on another day their shots would have hit the outside of the post rather than the inside, and with another referee Frontale fouls leading up to their goals would have been penalised rather than let go (and Sanfrecce would still have had eleven players on the pitch). I noted in the previous Update that this was probably the best time to have to play Frontale, since they should have been psyching themselves up for the Nabisco Cup final in 10 days’ time. Instead, they blew all their creative energies embarrassing Sanfrecce when three goals would easily have been enough, and they ended up capitulating to FC Tokyo 2-0 in the final (a team Sanfrecce have beaten once and drawn against once this season). Kawasaki’s distaste at losing to a team missing key players through injury, including top-scorer ISHIKAWA Naohiro (who tore up his knee a few weeks ago), was all too obvious. The consequences of their players’ insolence, which stretched to one player’s refusing to shake hands with patron Princess Takamado during the presentation of the losers’ medals, are quite serious. The team will return the half-a-billion yen consolation prize, three Frontale executives will take a 10 percent pay cut for the rest of the season, and the player who refused to shake hands with the Princess will be suspended for one game (and will probably suffer other consequences). The fallout may be enough to disrupt Kawasaki in the final run-in, and with three league games to go, it will be fascinating to see if the extreme pressure Kawasaki are putting on themselves to actually win some silverware this year will cause the team to spectacularly implode.
The Emperor’s Cup third round tie against J2’s Sagan Tosu was, I hoped, a chance for Sanfrecce to put their problems behind them and regroup with a strong challenge. When luck is against you in football though, sometimes there is not a lot you can do. Sanfrecce’s opponents at the CocaCola West Stadium Hiroshima (near Alpark in western Hiroshima city) enjoyed a psychological advantage, in that they have already had to come to terms with the fact that their league challenge is over for this year. Sagan Tosu occupy an odd sort of no-man’s-land in J2, eight points short of the pack of four teams bickering over the three promotion places, and eleven points clear of sixth-placed Consadole Sapporo. Their disappointment over not being quite good enough to challenge for promotion was obviously well-channelled by the management team, and the winner came in the dying minutes as Nakabayashi was unable to punch clear. Finishing in the top three in the J-League and collecting the Asian Champions’ League money this entails is almost essential for teams wanting to consolidate their position as a major Japanese team, something which will no doubt become painfully clear to Urawa Reds fans as this season draws to a close. As such, Gamba are sure to be casting a furtive eye over their shoulder at the chasing teams, and so they may just be surprised by a Sagan Tosu side whose purpose can now be pretty single-minded. Gamba should not forget though that victory in the Emperor’s Cup is the means by which the Japan Football Association assigns its fourth team that will compete in the ACL next season, and as such it would serve as a useful backup in case their league campaign comes unstuck. Strangely enough, the game against Tosu will be played at the Big Arch this Saturday, a by-product of Sanfrecce’s high seeding (and symbolic of the wasted opportunity).
It is always nice to end on an upbeat note however, and the slim 1-0 win away at Omiya Ardija belied a decent Sanfrecce performance. Sanfrecce and Ardija (“squirrels” in Spanish, from the ardiija-filled park in which Omiya’s stadium is located) have something of a history this season, as Omiya were the improbable winners at the first J1 game at the Big Arch since the end of the 2007 season. Sanfrecce eased the pain somewhat by scoring seven goals of their own as they pasted Omiya 7-0 in the Nabisco Cup group stage, but really three points in the league were what Hiroshima needed. (Sanfrecce went on to hammer Albirex Niigata 5-1, but a 1-2 loss at bogey-team Jubilo Iwata in June meant they made a surprise exit from the Nabisco Cup at the group stage, as they were squeezed out by a perfect combination of unfavourable results elsewhere.) Omiya played a high backline and employed the offside trap, which is always a risky tactic (it only takes one dawdling defender to accidentally play an attacker onside, and often even a small mistake in positioning can gift a speedy attacker like SATO Hisato a one-on-one situation with the goalkeeper). Indeed, although it was marshalled by the capable and experienced Croatian defender Mato NERETLJAK (known only as “Mato” in Japan due to the difficulties in translating his surname into katakana), there was at least one good goal incorrectly cancelled for offside. Sanfrecce switched tactics in the second half, with the ball going out to the wings for more crosses and Makino was given more freedom to range forward. This freedom paid off in the dying minutes, as KASHIWAGI Yosuke played a high diagonal ball into the box for HATTORI Kota. Under pressure from a defender, Hattori skilfully chested the ball down for Makino to blast home from sixteen yards. He even found the energy to track back and prevent an immediate Omiya response, as his marking forced an attacker’s header wide from six yards out. The result earned Sanfrecce their first league win in nearly two months, and the team has an extra week to prepare for their next match after exiting the Emperor’s Cup.
Sanfrecce now only have three games remaining, as the Emperor’s Cup run I anticipated did not materialise. All three games are in J1, and at this point all three are still relevant. Mathematically, Sanfrecce can still finish second, although that is very unlikely as it depends on five teams above them not scoring a single point in their remaining games. Third place is still just within reach though, as it would require Sanfrecce to win two of their remaining games and hope that results go their way elsewhere. The league is so tight though (there are five teams on 49 points, including Sanfrecce, and fourth-placed S-Pulse have 50 points) that Sanfrecce could conceivably finish in the exact middle of the table, which would be a great shame considering the quality of entertaining football the team has played this season.
Coming to Hiroshima on the 21st of November are Nagoya Grampus, a team Sanfrecce drew with 0-0 back in April. Grampus have complained of injuries though, specifically to their starting defenders, which has prevented them from fielding a consistent back line. If Sanfrecce can exploit this, and contain the attacking threat of Australian striker Josh Kennedy at the same time, they may be able to capture the three points.
On the 28th of November, Sanfrecce travel to the Yamaha Stadium to play Jubilo Iwata. Hiroshima have lost both games so far this season against Iwata, which is particularly galling since the 0-1 loss at the Big Arch saw Jubilo name KOMANO Yuichi as captain for the day, presumably as some kind of taunt. Komano deserted Sanfrecce for Jubilo after the 2007 season, when Hiroshima were relegated to J2 after losing the playdown against Kyoto Sanga. The irony is that Komano is now apparently rumoured to be desiring of a return to the Hiroshima fold, after Iwata have spent much of 2009 courting relegation themselves as they trundle along in the lower reaches of J1. Something will probably happen soon at Jubilo, as the board desperately tries to recapture their glory days (Jubilo won the J-League three times in 1997, 1999 and 2002), but it might not happen soon enough to stop Komano jumping ship again.
The final game of the season is at home, against Kyoto Sanga. Sanga are the J-League’s number one yo-yo team, as they have been relegated and promoted between J1 and J2 more times than any other club. The 2009 season will probably be the first in Kyoto’s history that they have managed to stay in J1 for two seasons in a row (although that will not be confirmed unless Kyoto win in their next game, or if Kashiwa Reysol fail to). How Kyoto’s manager has transformed his side though will be familiar to fans of English football, and specifically teams like Blackburn Rovers who put a premium on disrupting their opponents’ attacks with intimidating hard tackling and (whisper it) some rather cynical tactics. Sanfrecce lost the game in Kyoto back in June after Kashiwagi was taken off injured (a victim of targeted rough play that was not properly spotted and controlled by the referee). Kyoto’s lowly league position is also not helped by tactical decisions, among them the decision to play their top-scorer from 2008, YANAGISAWA Atsushi, on the wing. Yanagisawa spent two years in Italy’s Serie A, where he clearly learned a thing or two about the “other” side of how the game is played (I watched him try to divide and conquer the officiating team at their game in Kobe, in an attempt to get the decision he wanted). He is sure to give the Sanfrecce defence trouble, be it with his feet or with his brain.
THE J. LEAGUE AT LARGE
While the top half of the table could, mathematically speaking, be completely inverted come the end of the season, the bottom half is more settled. Oita Trinita were the first team to be relegated when they failed to beat Kyoto Sanga a few weeks ago. Oita came from nowhere to finish fifth last season and win the Nabisco Cup, but injuries decimated the squad and disappointed fans increasingly turned on the players and the manager. The common opinion though is that Trinita were very lucky to get the results they did last season, and that this season has seen them repay the debt of good fortune that flew them to Los Angeles of all places to play the Cosmos in a pre-season tournament. The other team guaranteed to make the drop to J2 is JEF United, who fought for their lives in vain as they went down 3-2 to Kawasaki Frontale last weekend. The result means that they cannot catch 15th place Omiya Ardija, but it also means that JEF will not repeat their great escape of 2008, where they managed to survive on the last day of the season. Next season will see JEF play in the second tier of Japanese football for the first time in 44 years. Kashiwa Reysol live to fight another round though, as they thumped fourth-placed Shimizu S-Pulse 5-0 to keep their hopes alive. They were helped by the fact that the six teams immediately above them obligingly lost their games, and there are four teams other than Reysol who could theoretically replace them in the final relegation spot. Conversely, a win by one of those teams would ensure their safety with two games remaining.
The race to replace the bottom three teams in J1 is coming to a head at the top of J2, as Cerezo Osaka and Vegalta Sendai booked their place in next year’s top flight. Cerezo’s 2-1 win over fellow promotion hopefuls Shonan Bellmare was a key victory, one I travelled to Osaka to watch (click here for the match report). The third promotion spot is still up for grabs though, with Bellmare and Ventforet Kofu tied on 81 points with three games to go. Ventforet may just have the edge, as they travel to rock-bottom Fagiano Okayama on the last weekend of November, a game I am planning to attend.
10/3, Shimizu S-Pulse 1-1 Sanfrecce Hiroshima
10/11 (Emperor’s Cup round 2), Sanfrecce Hiroshima 5-0 Japan Soccer College (Niigata, J4)
10/17, Sanfrecce Hiroshima 2-2 Gamba Osaka
10/24, Kawasaki Frontale 0-7 Kawasaki Frontale
10/31 (EC r3), Sanfrecce Hiroshima 2 – 3 Sagan Tosu (J2)
11/8, Omiya Ardija 0-1 Sanfrecce Hiroshima
11/21, Sanfrecce Hiroshima vs Nagoya Grampus
11/28, Jubilo Iwata vs Sanfrecce Hiroshima
12/5, Sanfrecce Hiroshima vs Kyoto Sanga