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A Messy Start, But What Fun
J1 Round 1 Sunday

I have to keep reminding myself that the first round of the season is just going to be weird. But unlike last year, when the first round was dominated by controversy -- the fight between Kashima's Takayuki Suzuki and Urawa Reds, that Hand Ball goal from Jubilo's Takashi Fukunishi -- this year's Round 1 is refreshing in that we saw finishing like you wouldn't believe; hat tricks, over-head shots, 18-year old rookies contributing, new acquisitions contributing.

Of course, yesterday's scores are no accurate indication of that team's long-term performance. This first round is obviously a wobbly one because most teams' heads are too full of their own concerns to be equal to the task of strategizing beyond their own offense. This will change as the teams start to adjust to their upcoming opponentents with a better understanding of their own weaknesses and strengths. Plus later on when the weather gets hot and the roster is depleted by injuries you never know.

Below is a review of all the Sunday games. I wrote in a rush, so please excuse if you see any funky sentences. I really don't have time to edit. For a review of Saturday's game, >>click here.

New Management

FC Tokyo 2-0 Oita Trinita
FCT: Sasa 14 min, Rychely 27 min

This is the first time in Tokyo's history that they have a non-Japanese manager. New boss Alexandre Gallo is hoping to bring a more mature, level-headed game to Tokyo through possession football. With rookie sideback Tokunaga (who some of you may remember had the opportunity to go to Valencia but chose to first hone his skills at the J) as a big part of that strategy via the sides, the shape of Tokyo may see a great change in the course of the season. I was able to watch a pre-season special on the team's training camp, and what is bringing me much relief is that Gallo has targeted first and foremost the positioning -- soemthing that was irritating me throughout last year. There is a reserved elegance to Gallo, and he may have a good effect on the team in terms of stabilizing their swings.
We did not see much indication of possession football in this game, which presented the 2006 Tokyo squad in 4-3-3 formation. Defensive midfielder Konno, for whom it was the 100th game, played an active role leading the offense and contributed to keeping Oita at 0.

Traditionally Tokyo has been known for their youthfulness -- tendency to gun their engines with exhuberence when they are riding high and to spiral apart when they lose momentum. In this game they were able to use their strength in fast and quick counters, two goals that started off from interception and set-up by Konno to the two Brazilians up front. At 14 mins, a poor pass from Oita allowed Konno to quickly send to Rychely on the left; he got past the defender and sent in a fast low cross to Sasa who backwards tapped it in at the near. The second goal at 27 mins was also a counter -- Konno sent a long through pass to Sasa who decided to leave the ball alone because of the two defenders who were on him. The ball slipped through the trio, and Rychely, who had been sprinting up the right caught up to it and took it home. A very nice display from the 18 year old.

After that Oita started to gain some momentum, but they were thwarted by a balanced display from Tokyo on defense. Especially Tokyo's midfield were effective in marking and press. Oita were hardly able to create any real opportunities.

Oita of course are painfully missing Magno Alves, who went to Gamba this year. They have 25 year old Osmar from the Mexico league, but the problem may not be in the front lines as much as Oita's search for their new identity. Manager Chamusca made a big splash last year when he took over and seemed to completely turn the team around -- people are expecting the same kind of magic from him again this year, and even I know it's too soon to write Oita off.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima 3-4 Kashima Antlers
SH: Ueslei 33 min, Sato 39 min, Ueslei 82 min
KA: Ogasawara 22 min, Yanagisawa 38 min, Yanagisawa 43 min, Yanagisawa 71 min

Like riding a bicycle... Yanagisawa and Ogasawara only joined the team three days before the game, but it was clear that indeed one could (at least for the season opener) rely on past chemistry. Manager Autuori's first J experience started off with a sigh of relief after a very meaty and exciting game filled with goals of all sorts.

Autuori was forced to play a formation I imagine was not his ideal, having to start Alex Mineiro and Fernando on the bench and 18 year old newbie Uchida as right sideback. With the absence of the Brazilian players, he pushed Motoyama up to forward, and put Fukai in next to Ogasawara, started Masuda as a defensive midfielder. Goalie Sogahata was still injured and Ozawa replaced. (>>see Kashima overview post)

Yanagisawa admitted that he felt a tremendous pressure in returning to Kashima -- he had to show a performance equal to his gratitude to the club for giving him the opportunity to play again, and to show that even though his experience in Italy was barely noteworthy he did deserve to be considered one of Japan's best. And I must admit, not only was it good that he got three goals, but it was also an overall convincing performance from him. He scurried all over, helping out tremendously on defense, connecting passes well with teammates -- you wouldn't have guessed it's been two and a half years.

Sanfrecce also had a "returning hero" in Ueslei, who left the J last year after Nagoya let him go. The 2003 Top Scorer is back again, and it must have been a relief to Sanfrecce supporters that the risky acquisition (given his age) seems to have good chemistry with his new teammates. There were many instances when one look was all that was needed for Sanfrecce teammates to get his meaning, and in particular forward Sato, who made his National team debut this year, was able to play with a clarity that brought out his strengths.

Sanfrecce's biggest problem in the first half was probably their defense. They are known to have an iron defense, but in this game were unable to put the pressure on Kashima, allowing the visitors more space than they shoould have given. Kashima had their first opportunity at 3 mins, when Yanagisawa dove dynamically to head in a cross, but it missed. He had another chance at a shot from the left off a square ball but his timing was off and it lacked enough power to get past the goalie.

Kashima got their first goal not from the efforts of its well-known stars, but their newest youngest starter -- right sideback Uchida. I mentioned in my club overview last week that circumstances would probably allow 18 yr old Uchida the greatest chance at making it into the first squad, and I guess he understood he had to make the most of his chances while Narahashi was injured. At 20 mins, he had the ball on the right corner of the box, and could have passed or sent in an iffy cross -- but instead he bit the bullet and took it in with his dribbling. A defender caught at his legs, and a PK was awarded, converted by Ogasawara.

But their lead did not last. When Hiroshima's Sato was taken down with a foul the ensuing bickering distracted the players as Sanfrecce slyly initiated a quick restart. The defenders were barely aware when Ueslei was already off on his own with the ball for the equalizer.

Yanagisawa's first goal of the game was a header at the near post off a cross from Aoki on the right. Yana moved well enough to disappear from Jininho's mark, and beat the goalie to the ball.

Then Sato equalized when finally his efforts to catch the defenders on the back foot (something he is extremely good at) paid off. A long feed was all he needed to slip through two defenders and chase the ball into the box. Though he had to first tap the ball to the side to avoid the goalie, he stayed upright and got the ball in.

The next goal (yes, there's still more) was a pretty reflection of the Kashima chemistry in passing, going from right to left inside the box to end with Yanagisawa's well-timed shot. Motoyama brought a lot of accent to the game with a sharpness to his dribbling and tricky passes through defenders this game. In this play, he took the ball up to the box with some great dribbling, quickly sent it to Ogasawara who was in the middle; Oga then one-touched it left to Yana who was open on the left after all the defenders had gone to the right to block Motoyama and Ogasawara from shooting.

The second half, Sanfrecce's pressure was much better, and Kashima was struggling for the same momentum they had in the first. Last year, Antlers had a tendency to lose steam and motivation especially when they were ahead, so it was most important for them to persistently look for the fourth goal. Sanfrecce threatened the goal several times early in the half, especially off Ueslei's corner kicks. Sanfrecce pushed forth looking to equalize.

yanagisawa_overhead.jpgOf course, it is those times when teams have to be most wary of the counter. A Kashima counter gave them a corner, which Ogasawara took. Aoki got his head on the ball while going down, and the ball hit the post and pinged directly down to the ground, bouncing wildly up again. Yanagisawa saw it coming, but had to run back out to reach it -- so he had little choice but to take it over head (click pic to enlarge). Nice balance in the air, and the shot was well placed. It was the third hat trick in Yanagisawa's career (the last time was in 1998).

Auturoi by this time had substituded in his two Brazilians and Nozawa (for Motoyama), but the two coming off injuries were still obviously not close to their best. Sanfreece had substituted in Hanjae Ri, and it was Ri who gave Sanfrecce added quality in the last portion of the game. His big cross from the right dropped beautifully down just in front of the goal in the center, and Ueslei threw himself between the defenders and headed it in.

The score was 3-4, and the way things were turning out all eyes were on the two returning stars. Yanagisawa already had his hattrick; would Ueslei do it too? The perfect opportunity came at 87 mins, when a PK was awarded Hiroshima. Of course, Ueslei was to take it. Maybe it was the air thick with expectation, the difference between losing and drawing, a hattrick dangling seductively. Normally it would have been nothing for him to make the shot, but amazingly the ball flew over the bar.

Both teams were hurting badly last year from their lack of goal-getting, so in a way it is a good thing that multple goals were scored, and that there was a clear performance from the players whose job it is to set-up and get goals on both sides. Of course, the managers are not satisfied by the defensive errors and looseness, but since both sides are not unfamiliar with sound defense I think it can be adjusted fairly quickly.

Nagoya Grampus 3-2 Cerezo Osaka
NG: Koga 27 min, Sugimoto 70 min, Toyoda 76
CO: Maeda 47 min, Nishizawa 87 min

Nagoya had a pretty low profile in the pre-season, being overshadowed in the media by more "interesting" news happening at other clubs. Still, they are one of the teams with a new foreign manager -- Dutchman Sef Vergoossen. And it wasn't a pretty pre-season for the club either, with multiple players going out with injuries and poor performances and results in the pre-season matches against supposedly weaker teams. But Vergoossen responded to all this with a "no problem" during a press conference a couple weeks ago. He does not expect the team to come together all at once, saying that he is aiming to work the club to their peak in the mid-season.

The first to create an opportunity after about 25 minutes of focused and quality play from both sides was Nagoya. A corner kick ended loose, and Katayama picked it up for another cross in; it was headed by Koga for the lead. And a nice level-headed display from rookie Katayama.

The second half started off with an equalizer from Cerezo's Maeda -- off a free kick. But despite the slight set-back Nagoya showed they had changed psychologically from last year's mentality. Instead of losing motivation, they pushed on through the period of bad rhythm. There was a period of twenty minutes when the game was at an impasse, both teams smothering each other's play.

tamada_nagoyarnd1.jpgFinally the speedy forward duo from Nagoya broke the standstill. Sugimoto on the left passed to Tamada (pic), who then kept the speed going with some dribbling and sent it through to the sprinting Sugimoto for an angled shot that deflected off the goalie's hand but still went in.

Toyoda came on for Sugimoto after this, and he did not waste time. He ran to catch up to the vertical feed, flicked it sideways to get past the defender and immediately took the shot while he was still open. It was positively carnival mood for Nagoya, 2 goals ahead and gunning forth. But again, a dangerous time for those on top. Cerezo were able to get a second goal off a corner, another nice bicycle kick this time from Nishizawa.

Cerezo gained back some momentum from this goal, and all Nagoya's coaching staff could do was shout encouragement from the sidelines, yelling "only 5 minutes, hang on!" Which they did.

For Cerezo Osaka, who were this close to being league champs last season, it is not a great start. For Nagoya, who were generally in hysterics (not the players or coaches so much as everyone else) before the season started, the win was an indication that it was okay to hope.

The Sophomores

Omiya Ardija 4-2 Jef Chiba
JC: Saito 12 min, Maki 15 min
OA: Tomita 13 min, OG 60 min, Kobayashi 62 min, Toninho 68 min

Another interesting multi-goal game, and a very nice beginning for the second years Squirrels. Sophomores have traditionally had painful seasons, and this year I wonder if that superstition will
prove true.

Omiya's starters listed 5 who were new to the team, and Chiba were off with all familiar faces. Ardija were clearly awkward in the first half, when the new members could not find smoothness in their slightly altered 4-1-4-1 formation. Chiba's quick pressure denied them much hope for chances, and even Sakurai who started on the bench, commented that his team looked sloppy. Chiba took control and lead with a goal -- a corner kick from Haas ended with defender Saito (my personal favorite on the Jef team) kicked it home. But only a minute later Omiya equalized. Then another for Jef. Both of these also from corners.

Aside from the allowances, Omiya generally showed weakness in their defense against a speedy wave of Jef players, from the sides, from the middle, they were overwhelmed. It was extremely lucky for Omiya that they gave up only those two corner kick goals.

Despite the "very disappointing performance of the first half" (Omiya manager Miura), the strength of the team was shown in their ability to adjust and reorganize for the second half. Miura told the players their attempts at long balls to Martinez were not working so they should try and control the midfield. Last year, they couldn't really do this, their play being rather lacking in options. But their ability to shift their play was very encourageing, and we saw Omiya play fluid passing football. The players commented after the game that they were really having fun.

Jef meanwhile were falling apart. Defender Saito got two yellows and left the pitch, and that was a big handicap -- Chiba lost their momentum altogether. And from there started Omiya's incredible resurgence -- forcing one own goal, and hitting two more in via headers.

If Omiya are able to play their second half game for the full 90 minutes, they have a very bright future indeed. But that is difficult, and there is still the awkwardness to smooth out as well as problems on defending during set pieces.

Jef manaager Osim had harsh words for his men after the game, accusing his players of being cocky in their position in the team. Certainly they may have relied too heavily on experience and not bringing anything new to the game. Lukewarm efforts will not be tolerated on this team, and I will be interested to see how they play next weekend.

Kawasaki Frontale 6-0 Albirex Niigata
KF: Ganaha 26 min, Ganaha 40 min, Ganaha 66 min, Nakamura 87 min, Juninho 89 min, Marcus 89 min.

You would not have guessed it from the score, but Albirex actually put on a fierce attack in the beginning of the game, especially with their mid-range shots. With new manager Suzuki having carefully prepared the team in the preseason, the mood was good for the visitors going in. Under Suzuki, the players are essentially free to move as they please in midfield, and Kawasaki were forced to endure a barrage for a period of time.

The fork in the road was probably the difference between whether Kawasaki could somehow keep Albirex from scoring during this period. If Albi had scored, it may have opened up a new can of worms. But Kasawasaki target to bring more focus to their zone defending kept things nil -- against a team where the midfield moves around like Albirex, the zone defense clicked nicely.

ganaha_hattrick.jpgAt 26 mins, goal-getter Ganaha (click pic to enlarge, Ganaha in center) got his first goal of the day via a header off a cross from Marcao. Fifteen minutes later it was Ganaha again. The first half ended 2-0.

Albirex moved players to the right to care against Marcao (who sent up both assists for Ganaha), and looked to regain their rhythm. But it was Kawasaki over and over again until the whistle blew and the whole painful thing ended.

From what I hear from supporters, Ganaha is one of those players that you have this incredible urge to expect big big things but somewhere in the back of your mind you have serious doubts. So this hattrick must have been a very satisfying one, especially for fans.

As for Albirex, though the supporters showered the team with boos after the game (understandably), I don't think their direction should be discouraged. At least as a third party observer, I think the fluidity and movement of their midfield is very interesting. The only problem being that because the midfield moves around so much, when they lose possession they are unbalanced and tend to be caught at a disadvantage. We shall see if Suzuki decides to keep at his ideal style and for how long -- it is too early to give up on it yet, but adjustments clearly need to be made.

The Promoted

Ventforet Kofu 0-2 Shimizu S-Pulse
SS: Cho 14 min, Edamura 81 min

The attacking style of Kofu was still very evident in their first game back in the J1 against Shimizu. If anything, the Kofu play was more sophisticated, and over and over they set up some good plays. The problem of course was that the last shot just did not go in. Shimizu scored at 14 mins when a long feed from Yamanishi allowed Jae Jin Cho to sprint through on his own and slap in a goal. Then 36 mins into the second half, a low fast cross from the right met Edamura's head; his shot hit the right post, ricocheted around and ended up with Edamura again for a final shot that went in. Given that Kofu were able to set up good plays, the players commented with confidence after the game, and don't seem to be disheartened by the result. My personal thanks go to Kofu forward Bare who got a haircut and chucked that annoying headband...

Yokohama F Marinos 4-1 Kyoto Purple Sanga
YFM: Magrao, 3 min, Kubo 30 min, Kubo 37 min, Marques 80 min
KPS: Paulinho 81 min

One of the things Kyoto manager Hashiratani pointed to after the game in explaining the score was the vast difference in 1st division experience between his and the Marinos players. He said while the Marinos players were on the pitch to play an opener game that they treated as any other, his own group go intimidated and froze. At halftime, when they were trailing 0-3, he told his players 'it's not like you're going to die, or that you won't be able to keep living, there's nothing to fear.' And perhaps in response to his words, Kyoto came back in the second half with much better plays -- a through pass from Hoshi to Paulinho, a set up that went from Saito to Nakahari for a cross to Tahara for a header that unfortunately went right at the goalie. They claimed about 15 mins of good rhythm, but could not convert, and eventually Marinos pulled the rhythm back in their favor through a set of player substitutions.

It was very good to see Yokohama with their best members lined up ready for play. Manager Okada had said that he was planning to change things around this year, play more of an attacking philosophy because it would be boring for them to play the same football so many years in a row.

And they dominated the midfield with a very interesting variation of passes -- short passes sides to side that led to crosses, dribbling into crowded areas and breaking through still in possession, good side changes. And into the space they created as the attack is pushed up, run Oku and Yoshida. Right defender Matsuda was practically a midfielder for most of the game, and this year's Marinos danger zone is undoubtedly the triangle of Brazilians on the left -- Dutra, Magrao, and Marques.

The news that got the biggest exposure of course was Kubo's two goals -- both headers, one a diving header for a cross from the left at the near post, and the other a good show of body balance as the goalie deflected a lobbed cross. This is the first time since 2003 that Kubo has scored more than one goal in a game.

Jubilo Iwata 1-1 Avispa Fukuoka
JI: Tanaka 86 min
AF: Miyazaki 36 min

The impression from this game: Avispa was a spunky engine revving for their return into the 1st division after 5 years. No nervousness, no being intimidated. They had great positioning, kept Jubilo wobbling with quick pressure, had a definite plan of action that showed in their surefootedness and quickness on the attack. This resulted in their goal: two accurate and long one touch passes vertically zigzagged up the right half of the pitch to allow a running Miyazaki to receive on the right corner of the Jubilo box. He punched it in from an angle.

Jubilo had more possession, and despite a very good effort from forward Cullen, overall they dawdled and overthought the process, couldn't find people to pass to, and barely took it the ball to the final shot. Though Jubil found some promising chances through set pieces (and eventually Iwata scored their sole goal via a corner), compared to Avispa, they seemed to lack a unity of thought overall... nothing seems to have changed for Jubilo, and no wonder their home crowds ended the game with much booing.

Jubilo had a few excuses last year -- it was manager Yamamoto's first year there, they had the added commitments to the ACL. But this year, they will have to show both the elegant football traditional to the club and a passion in proportion to their history and club pride. So far we aren't seeing it.

Avispa is off to a good start, and if one were to make any demands it would be that they should have scored more -- in fact they did have two other shots hit the woodwork, so the opportunities were there.
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