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J1 Round 4 Summary
Round 4

Kashima's Rigth sideback 17 yr old Uchida makes differenceKashima Antlers 3-1 Ventforet Kofu
KA: Uchida 26 min, Alex Mineiro 56 min, 76 min
VK: own goal, 72 min

>>Uchida goal clip

So, after Kashima's almost too-thrilling game against Sanfrecce in the opening round, they have been struggling to find that sense of strength. In the first round, the first goal (a PK) was awarded when 17 year old right sideback Uchida (pic) challenged the Sanfrecce defenders just inside the box. I was really proud of him because given his sudden promotion to the starting team and it being an important opening match, he took the risk and the challenge and instead of passing to someone else to make a play he took on the responsibility himself.

In this game, it was Uchida again who made the first goal and assisted the second. And in this team with all its veterans and players with international experience this teenager was the one to make the difference and has started to solidify a place for himself.

I am especially rooting for the youth generation of players who are playing/starting in side positions at their clubs (which is why I am putting this game review first today). Especially sidebacks. The Japan national team (and Japanese football on the whole) is sorely in need of experienced sideback specialists. This came from the fact that up until recently most J teams were playing with a 3-back defense line to stabilize defense and utilize the numerous quality midfielders. Sideback is a very difficult position, and even looking at other countries and clubs around the world, we see there aren't many truly stellar sidebacks. Currently in the J, we are starting to see vacancies in the sides get filled with the young players -- they are getting experience from an early age at the pro level, which is very good indeedy.

Back to the game: It was a warm spring afternoon at Kashima stadium -- in fact I think it was the official sakura (cherry blossom) blooming day in Tokyo (this is an announcement by the people who go around counting how many cherry blossoms are flowering in different areas of Japan, and declaring when the blossoms are officially "open for business"; in other words, when Japanese people can swarm the parks and eat and get drunk under the sakura trees to enjoy and celebrate the arrival of spring before the petals all flutter to the ground. For a sample photo, >>click here. This photo was taken in Nagasaki in a prior year, and looks like it was taken when the trees were in full bloom).

Okay, back to the game again...

Kofu's "Mr #10" Fujita returned to the starting squad, and Ishikawa who had been filling in for Fujita was able to return to his original position up front. Kofu started off with a 4-3-3 system similar to the one from the end of last year. Kashima's defensive half Fernando had reinjured his knee and was off the team altogether. Masuda filled the spot. It was actually good to see manager Autuori not push Ogasawara down to defensive half like Cerezo did last year when they needed someone to quickly fill in for Fernando. Though the circumstances are a little different now than they were back then, for Kashima's attack to work Ogasawara really needs to be close to the front.

Antlers dominated from the beginning with technique and elegant passing. But they couldn't quite find the space to move forward against a very defensively united Kofu who were waiting for the opportunity to counter. It was starting to look like the same old story of Kashima dominating the midfield but unable to find the final pattern for a clean shot on goal. Though Kashima were able to prevent Kofu from creating anything dangerous, they themselves were stuck as well, and it was starting to feel flat and uncomfortable.

It was then that Uchida cut through the stale air. At 26 minutes, he received a ball on the right side from Aoki, and slid around the oncoming defender while holding furiously on to the ball. He dribbled in towards goal, and took a nice left footed shot for the goal. With that goal, the team was able to revive its spirits.
Kofu were a different team from the one that played Frontale four days before. Perhaps it was the tighter scheduling (the first week where there was a game on Saturday followed by a Tuesday night match), or perhaps it was the self-consiousness of playing Kashima. Ventforet lacked their tough athletic persistence.

The second half Kofu manager Ohki changed Ohnishi for Hasegawa (who was puzzlingly off his game this match), and there was a chance for Ishihara to meet a Bare cross but the timing was off. Eleven minutes into the second half it was Kashima again -- a flattish fast cross from Uchida on the right just glanced off Alex Mineiro's head to rock the netting on the far side. It was after this that Kofu woke up, taking advantage of the fatigue beginning to show among the red jerseyed players.

Kofu used both sides while the midfield added to numbers up near the Kashima goal. It was a much more aggressive display from Ventforet. That persistence paid off when a cross from Ohnish to Bare forced an own goal from defender Iwamasa. With that added confidence, Kofu kept up on the attack, with a great chance for Bare to score at 75 min when he found himself free in front of goal. Unluckily for Kofu, this was not Bare's day to be hero -- his shot flew very wide and they missed a golden opportunity to equalize.

A minute later it was Kashima on the attack, when Araiba's cross from the left was met by a nicely timed Alex Mineiro header. As Ogasawara said after the game, Kashima had a tendency to lose focus in the game when they got a head, so this third "extra" goal was an important one in terms of reflecting mentality.

round4_reds.jpgUrawa Reds 3-0 Cerezo Osaka
UR: Ono 47 min, Washington 57 min, Tulio 79 min
>>Ono goal clip

Four rounds have come and gone, and Cerezo Osaka have 0 points. It is too early to start wailing with despair, but from what I saw of Cerezo in this game again Urawa, they were at a loss for how to proceed. Shocking considering the wealth of experience on this team, and I can only propose that manager Kobayashi has not been making clear demands of the players, especially on attack.

Urawa's hurdle in the first half was to actually take shots at goal. They dominated with good stable possession, good movement and support, but like manager Buchwald commented after the game "the players were having so much fun passing and connecting the ball that they seemed to have forgotten the most important part of the game -- shooting." Though some close shots were taken by Washington and Tulio, overall one would have expected more shots on goal by Urawa given their domination.

At halftime, the players were instructed to prioritize the finish. Cerezo were not the same meaty opponents they were last year -- they played so defensively that even when the got the ball the team stayed put, with only two players moving to get involved on the attack. Cerezo was also unable to vary speed -- the medium speed they used for normal build-up was the same speed used on what should have been a bursting counter. Their passes did not connect, and overall they looked too quiet.

Urawa were able to get the goals they needed through some good individual finishing and passing -- the most notable was the first goal from Ono, a volley to the right upper goal taken off a poorly cleared ball. This was Ono's first goal in almost 5 years. After this Cerezo had to come out more, and Reds were able to find more space in midfield. Their individual technique came through for goals two and three. A combo play between Washington and Ponte gave Washington a shot off a spilled ball -- a fast clean shot to goal right. And the third goal came off a cross from Horinouchi on the left, which was gotten to by Tulio (who played more like a forward this game than a defender), dropped to Washington who kept the defenders blocked with his body as he handed the ball off to Tulio for the final shot.

Though all three goals allowed by Cerezo can be worked back to small errors in defense, I think manager Kobayashi would be kidding himself if he thought that was the entire breadth of the problem. Cerezo just looked like they had no ideas, and many times we saw players with the ball hemming and hawing about what to do next. Urawa had 18 shots to Cerezo's 4. Someone has to do something about the spirit of this Osaka team before they really slip into a funk.

Albirex Niigata 0-2 Jubilo Iwata
JI: Naruoka 29 min, Fukunishi 42 min
>>Naruoka goal clip

Because both teams are characterized by the desire to play with possession, it was a matter of which side could create the rhythm for themselves and finish properly in that window of opportunity. The home crowd at Niigata were as usual spirited and vociferous and thirty seven thousand strong. But in that away atmosphere, Jubilo actually, probably for the first time in months, over a year?... looked in control. The first goal came from a grounder cross from Murai on the left to Naruoka. And several minutes before the halftime whistle, Jubilo made it double when Kim's free kick was met by Fukunishi's head.

Albirex's dangerous Edmilson was not effective this day, unable to finish properly during what opportunities he got. At the beginning of the game, Niigata did take advantage of Iwata errors, once ending with Yano dribbling up to create; but the finish was lacking. And then Edmilson's two crucial misshots further took the air out of their sails.

It was the first win for Iwata this season, and I think well deserved. The players each contributed by picking up loose balls, aggressively intercepting, and putting pressure on the back line. There was not question this switcy in system would take time; so it was with a hint of relief that manager Yamamoto commented that "the results reflected our past week's training." Albirex plays a connecting-running game, and because of that they lose a little in the area of accuracy and quality on the final touches. Their style is interesting, and has shown it can work, now I guess it's a matter of improving consistency.

round4_jef.jpgShimizu S-Pulse 1-2 Jef Chiba
SS: Marquinhos 33 min
JC: Abe 29 min, Hanyu 87 min

>>Hanyu goal clip
>>Marquinhos goal clip

Given the record so far, there was some pressure for Shimizu to win this one and keep their consecutive winning streak going. And given they have been using the same 4-4-2 starting team as the past three rounds, it would be a difficult game for Jef. The visitors removed Hanyu from the lineup and switched the system to 3-5-2, with Krupnikovic in central midfield.

Overall, it was not a well played game by either side. Jef's man defense was more or less effective, but the team continued to rack up errors in passing. Shimizu looked likewise off, and the game was a ping pong game of each team taking turns at picking up on each others' errors. At three minutes Fujimoto received a through pass and took it to a loop shot that was nicely flicked out by goalie Tateishi. Five minutes later Maki had a good header off a cross from the left, but the shot was slapped out by goalie Nishibe. Chiba's Abe had one midrange shot that went too high, but made up for his miss by chasing a Haas pass through the defense and getting tripped up by the S-Pulse GK. Abe converted for the goal.

Four minutes later, Marquinhos got a PK of his own when trying to receive a cross from the left, and converted that for an equalizer.

The second half was a bit better in flow, and both sides kept very compact, so a lot was going on in midfield. It was quite interesting to see Jef's man defense side by side with Shimizu's well-balanced zone defending. Despite the differences in style, the game was proceeding in a mirror-like fashion -- both teams at first with errors and off their game, both teams getting PKs, both teams improving in the second half, both teams creating equal number of chances. A 1-1 score would have been reasonable.

But again a very surprising chain of events led to a rather dramatic end to the match. A few minutes before the end of the game, Fujimoto's backwards pass near the centerline caught Ito off; he made to go for the ball but slipped and fell. Chiba's Hanyu (who was substituted in the second half for Krupnikovic, pic left getting a big thank you hug from Haas after the game) was just slipping into a high gear run, and was just at the perfect place to pick up the ball and follow it through to a very nice finish past the goalie. If anything Chiba needed the win more, and perhaps that small degree of difference was what tilted the balance in the end.

Oita Trinita 1-2 Yokohama F Marinos
OT: Shibakoya 78 min
YFM: Kurihara 3 min, Shimizu 30 min

>>Shibakoya goal clip
>>Shimizu goal clip

After beating Gamba 3-1 in the previous round, I was looking forward to seeing how they would match against the mighty Marinos. Things started off dynamically for Oita when at 1 minute Osmar got a great chance at goal with a chest trap and bicycle kick combo that was caught by the goalie. Unfortunately for the home crowds, it was Marinos who pounced into the lead -- a Dutra free kick from the right streaked to the far where Kurihara volleyed it into a narrow opening. Oita still had the opportunity to get back into the game, but Marinos' ability to carry the game kept Oita at arms length with short intricate passes and quick pressure. If they were able to feed the ball forward quickly to Osmar or Takamatsu, the Yokohama defenders were on top of things winning the ball in the air.

At 30 minutes, a Marques cross to from way on the left to the far post was met by the outstretched leg of Shimizu for another difficult volley shot. It was also interesting to see Marque run around the pitch in all areas, being a free-range player who created pass routes with his movement while Shimizu filled the holes Marques left. Oita's offensive half Nishiyama was using up his energy trying to defend against the Marinos Brazilian triangle on the left, and Oita lost that connecting piece in midfield between them and the forwards.

Marinos continued to create good chances in the second half though they were showing a decrease in overall energy. A Dutra cross to Shimizu's header was caught. A dribble and cross from Marques to Ohshima's head just missed. Oita added speed against Marino's waning energy with Matsuhashi in as offensive half; this allowed Oita better structure on offense with more players involved on attack. At 75 minutes, Oita put on a quick attack that allowed Osmar a shot; but a defender got his body on it. At 78 minutes, Oita's free kick from Nemoto gave Shibakoya one goal to close the gap. But that was all they could come through with.

Kawasaki Frontale 2-2 FC Tokyo
KF: Taniguchi 39 min, Nakamura 85 min
FCT: Jean 63 min, Kawaguchi 74 min

>>Kawaguchi goal clip
>>Nakamura goal clip

Frontale's loss at the hands of Kofu in the last round, and the ban on Marcao, kept things less than optimistic. But FC Tokyo were far from on top of things, their players clearly not confident on their attack. New manager Gallo wants them to play possession style football, but the players have been unable to go forward with the ball, wasting time passing around meaningless in midfield. Tokyo's attacks are also to come via the sides, but any less than on target crosses and good positioning and height from the receivers would be meaningless against the tall Frontale defense.

It was a bit of a clumsy start to the game, with lots of fouls, and lots of stopping and starting. The difference between Fronatle in the 3rd round and Frontale in this round was the vertical movement for Taniguchi, who went out of his position to add some zest to the attack. At 39 minutes, Taniguchi scored off a set piece. Minutes after this, Tokyo watched Richieri leave the pitch with injury, and things looked like they would take a downturn -- but instead Kawaguchi brought a good tempo to his team, and in the second half threatened the Frontale defense with numerous vertical dashes.

At 63 minutes, a free kick from Miyazawa gave Tokyo's Jean the equalizer. Kawasaki came forward to attempt another goal, but it was Tokyo that took advantage with a sharp counterattack that ended with Kawaguchi dribbling past the defense and goalie for the goal.

Gallo decided here to switch players around in defense, in order to put in a fresh body in front of the back line. Up until then, Tokyo was keeping a good watch over Juninho, especially Inoha. But just after Inoha was moved up to offensive midfield and Masushima put in, Frontale put on a superb rolling sequence of Yoneyama - Juninho - Nakamura - Juninho - Nakamura to finish with a goal. Kawasaki put on a stronger attack after this, but could not find the goal.

Frontale Midfielder Arrested
Meanwhile, shockwaves resonate through the Kawasaki clubhouse as it was announced this week that midfielder Takehito Shigehara (24) was arrested for allegedly breaking into a single woman's apartment. There has been no word on exactly how much and what kind of evidence they have, though I heard something about a fingerprint on a window. Still, this kind of news is chilling, and actually puzzling as well, if it is true. The only question being "why?" on so many levels.

Avispa Fukuoka 0-1 Nagoya Grampus
NG: Tamada 35 min
>>Tamada goal clip

It was an unsettling performance from Avispa. They hit a bit of a speed bump in this game, lacking in speed and cohesion. The usual quickness with which they switched from defense to offense was also absent. And most of all the organization of team defense was askew.

Nagoya resorted to long balls to bypass any pressure from the midfield, having placed tall forward Toyoda up front as a target man. But even this one dimensional idea was lacking in Nagoya's inability to follow up on the loose balls dropped from the long feeds. Yawn.

But in true football fashion, you never know when one sudden event can make or break things. 34 minutes into the game, Avispa defender Chiyotanda and Nagoya's Toyoda took a tumble together responding to a looped pass; the play awarded Nagoya with a PK, converted by Tamada.

Being a goal behind now, Avispa had to throw themselves forward. Alex was pushed forward to the front line, and several other players shifted around and forward as well, leaving a 3-back defense line and Robert to take care of things in back. For Nagoya, a win was more important than anything else, so throwing aside any pride, they packed their goal area and withstood the onslaught.

For Avispa it must have been a frustrating game -- not just the loss, but the fact that they were unable to play the kind of football they want to play. Avispa makes up for what deficiencies they have in terms of individual talent with a unified team mechanism. But if they get into the habit of losing the focus or the discipline (especially if they get tired), the whole thing can fall apart. Nagoya, I'm still waiting to see what they really have to show for themselves in terms of creativity. So far, it is probably one of the least seductive teams in the league.

Kyoto Purple Sanga 2-2 Sanfrecce Hiroshima
KPS: Saito 3 min, Hayashi 76 min
SH: Sato 43 min, 47 min

>>Sato goal clip
>>Hayashi goal clip

Purpley. I heard a bit of a bad taste left when during injury time Sanfrecce goalie Shimoda was sent off for an offense against Alemao. (Omura had to don the keeper gloves since Hiroshima had used up its substitutions.)

I have not seem any of this game, so can't comment.

Gamba Osaka v Omiya Ardija
(due to Gamba's ACL duties, this game will be played on the 29th)

Update:
Gamba Osaka 3-1 Omiya Ardija
GO: Fernandinho 21min, Magno Alves 83min, Bando 89min
OA: Sakurai 54min





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