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Round Four....Ding!
With several teams coming into the fourth round without a win to their name yet, much of the media's attention was focused on Reds, Frontale, etc. I was able to watch the Sanfrecce/Antlers game (in Hiroshima), but have only seen clips from the rest of Saturday's games.

Antlers 1 - 0 Sanfrecce: For the first twenty minutes or so, Sanfrecce virtually overwhelmed Antlers with their hunger for a goal (Sanfrecce is one of the teams who have not won a game yet). Antlers had almost no chance to even look towards the opponent goal before they lost the ball to aggressive Sanfrecce pressure. The theme for Antlers seemed to be "bear it patiently", and that they did. Sanfrecce almost got their early goal when a forward rushed the Antlers goalie Sogahata as he was preparing to kick a passed-back ball; luckily for Antlers the ball deflected off the Sanfrecce forward and flew above the goal, not in. But whew! That would have been a terrible way to give up a goal...

Particularly dangerous on the Sanfrecce team was Komano (U-23 Athens Olympics) who sent in numerous high quality crosses from the right side and Beto who had the physical strength to get past defenders and a powerful long-range kick. Sanfrecce had numerous chances at goal, but the ball would just not go in. At about twenty minutes, when Sanfrecce started to show frustration and got their first yellow card, Antlers took it as a sign to start pressing forward.

It was truly fascinating watching Antlers inch their way up the midfield. They kept control of the pace, moved and passed almost nonchalantly to each other, and changed the rhythm of the game almost baiting Sanfrecce who were now showing fatigue from their previous full-throttle activity. Captain and playmaker Ogasawara kept a close eye on team balance and changed positions according to what Antlers' situation was -- he retreated to help out with the defense and was able to help the team keep their heads while slowly changing the tempo when the time came. The first shot from Antlers was from Ogasawara, a middle-range low shot that went wide. A perfect opportunity came when Motoyama started to run up towards the Sanfrecce defense line -- Ogasawara smoothly sent the ball forward and Motoyama found himself face to face with the goalie. Unfortunately, his strange habit of missing these perfect opportunities continued when his right-footed shot past the goalie bounced off the top bar. Antlers kept good possession for the rest of the half, and though they had yet to get the goal the general mood of the team seemed to be "it's only a matter of time".

Antlers came back in the second half to a slightly more energized Sanfrecce who were moving better but were not able to repeat the same performance of the first twenty minutes. Goalie Sogahata redeemed himself of his earlier mishap by keeping some dangerous Sanfrecce shots from going in. Meanwhile, Sanfrecce were getting tired again. They had been running around for most of the game trying to get a handle on the Antlers' passing, but that's probably what all that casual passing in the first half was all about -- to slow Sanfrecce down and confuse them alittle. Sanfrecce started resorting to simple long-feeds while Antlers began to add more variation. At 25 min, a pretty through-pass from Motoyama gave Nozawa entrance and his shot from the left side gave Antlers their winning goal. The rest of the second half was more a game of patience, as Antlers stuck stubbornly to possession and played a mature psychological game. Nothing flashy or fancy, but there is satisfaction in seeing a game like this played in the J-league, like a game of chess almost.

Round Up Bits

Chiba 4-2 Oita -- I had to recheck the data to confirm that the first two goals were made by Oita in the first five minutes...! What a way to start a game. Chiba players said that those two points (the second being an own-goal) were more than enough to wake them up. Fortunately, their new Austrian international forward "Super Mario" Haas was able to connect well with teammates and scored his first two goals in the J-league. Haas's first goal seemed to light a fire under Chiba and they were able to dominate for the rest of the game. At 55 min, captain Abe lit up the Chiba crowds with one of his beautiful free kicks that swerved into the left side of the goal.

Reds 1 -1 Gamba -- The Reds defense line was quite stable, and it was suprising to see Tsuboi in the middle instead of playing as stopper. Rumor had it that not only was Zico in attendance, but representatives from a Serie A team (I think Bologna) and an Italian management company were also checking players out -- the main interest is apparently Hasebe, Reds' shining star midfielder. Unfortunately for Hasebe, Reds were not able to dominate in the same way they did last season -- with more than a few players missing and Emerson still off his game. They did get the first goal at about 30 minutes -- a cross from Santos met by Horinouchi finally gave Urawa something to be optimistic about. Unfortunately, though they had a number of opportunities following that in the first half, the forwards were not able to come through with an additional goal.

As for Gamba who were somewhat overwhelmed by the Reds attack in the first half, coach Nishino decided to substitute in forward Yoshihara for midfielder Ienaga at halftime. The addition of players up front left Reds in a bit of a confusion, and the Reds defense began to lose their mark. Gamba def mf Endo played ambitiously, running up to create structure in the offense. His efforts were rewarded when he timed a nice pass through the defense to meet with Araujo who then faked out Tsuboi to the left and shot with his right for a goal. At 75 min, Gamba decided to pull fw Oguro and sub in def Miyamoto to the midfield (something that they've been experimenting with since the end of last season). Meanwhile, Endo was told to stay on the attack and let Miyamoto take care in back. This tactic almost worked for Gamba when a speedy cross from Endo on the left of the goal went right to Fernandinho's on-coming feet; it seemed to be a sure-thing, but Reds defense were able to throw themselves in front of it.

Omiya 2 -3 Albirex: Although I have not seen this game yet it looks like it contained quite the drama. The scoreline kept bouncing back and forth, and I would have guessed a win for Omiya as they have been playing with good focus in the games so far. Unfortunately, it seems that they lost that focus in that crucial last few minutes of the game, when Albirex Fabinho was able to run up unmarked and head the ball in from a corner kick. If it wasn't for that moment of loss in concentration Omiya would have kept a nice non-losing streak...! Ah well, I am sure this will only make the team stronger. And seeing those tears in Fabinho's eyes when the final whistle blew, well, who can deny them their well-deserved win? From the clips I've seen the crowds were out in all their orange glory; nice to see Albirex supporters still gung-ho. As for Omiya goals, the cross from Tuto for Christian's header goal was superb-- crossed from the right of the goal near the goalline to Christian at the edge of the far post, perfect placement and timing from both players.

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