Monday 28 November 2011

J. League set for three-way title battle on final Saturday



The J. League title battle will go down to a three-way shootout on the final day after leaders Kashiwa Reysol were held to a 1-1 draw at home to Cerezo Osaka on Saturday afternoon.

After a goalless, error-strewn first half, the hosts had their status as championship favourites severely threatened when Cerezo took the lead three minutes into the second period. A Hiroyuki Omata corner from the left-hand side was headed on by Hiroshi Kiyotake for the unmarked Taikai Uemoto to fire in from six yards.

The goal sparked Kashiwa into life, with Koki Mizuno firing narrowly over and Junya Tanaka hitting the post as the players in yellow piled forwards in search of an equaliser. It finally arrived on 65 minutes; Tanaka laying the ball off for Leandro Domingues to slot home from inside the D.

Reysol were unable to find a winner but the draw at least allowed them to escape with a one-point lead over second-placed Nagoya Grampus, who ran out comfortable 3-0 winners at home to bottom side Montedio Yamagata.

All three goals arrived in the first half as the result of Jungo Fujimoto set pieces – Joshua Kennedy heading home a corner for his 19th league goal of the season on just seven minutes, before Marcus Tulio Tanaka was first to get a head, then a foot to two long-range free kicks in eight minutes before the interval.

Gamba Osaka retained their hopes of glory in third position with a tense 1-0 victory over Vegalta Sendai. South Korean forward Lee Keun-Ho scored the only goal with a header from Hiroki Fujiharu’s cross, but Gamba were given several scares in the dying minutes – Diego heading over a glorious opportunity from close range before young defender Kim Jung-Ya got in a terrific block to deny Yuki Muto.

Each of the three contenders face tricky away fixtures next Saturday, with Kashiwa travelling to Urawa Reds in search of the three points that will guarantee them a historic title in their first season since promotion from J2.

Any slip-up would let in Nagoya if they can win at Albirex Niigata, while Gamba will be on hand to climb two positions if both of their rivals drop points and they can clinch victory at Shimizu S-Pulse.

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Ventforet Kofu’s relegation back to the second division after just one season was all but confirmed when closest rivals Urawa carved out a narrow 2-1 victory away to already-relegated Avispa Fukuoka.

A 32nd-minute opener from the edge of the box by Hideya Okamoto had the Reds on the ropes, but momentum was recovered when Japan midfielder Yosuke Kashiwagi equalised with the help of a deflection right on half time.

Toshiya Suemoto then saw red for a tug on Tsukasa Umesaki just after the hour mark, presenting Marcio Richardes with the opportunity to give Urawa the lead from the spot. The Brazilian made no mistake and the visitors saw the game out to move to the brink of safety.

Kofu’s spirits appeared unaffected as they then thumped Niigata 3-0 on Sunday afternoon, despite the absence through suspension of top scorer Mike Havenaar, thanks to goals from Atsushi Katagiri, Yuji Yabu, and Yoshifumi Kashiwa. Their chances of survival, however, will depend upon an improbable 14-goal swing on the final day as Urawa enjoy a three-point cushion and a comfortably superior goal difference.

Elsewhere, Juninho said farewell to the Kawasaki Frontale fans who have worshipped him for nine years with two goals in a 3-0 victory over Kanagawa neighbours Yokohama F Marinos.

Kashima Antlers held onto sixth place after beating Shimizu by a similar scoreline, while Sanfrecce Hiroshima moved up to seventh with a 4-2 win against Omiya Ardija. Vissel Kobe beat Jubilo Iwata 3-1 to leapfrog their opponents into eighth.


TALKING POINTS
- The Japanese men’s Olympic side moved a step closer to a place in London next year with victories over Bahrain and Syria in Asian qualification. Yuki Otsu of Borussia Mönchengladbach was the hero with goals in each match.
- Sagan Tosu virtually assured their place in J1 next season with a 3-0 thrashing of Tokushima Vortis, who slip out of the final promotion berth behind Consadole Sapporo on goal difference with one match to play.

The Football Japan Minutecast’s Ben Mabley tells the story of Japanese club football through eight previous thrilling title races in Issue Three of The Blizzard, which is out later this week. Visit www.theblizzard.co.uk for details.


J1 results (matchday 33)
Kashima Antlers 3-0 Shimizu S-Pulse
Kashiwa Reysol 1-1 Cerezo Osaka
Kawasaki Frontale 3-0 Yokohama F Marinos
Nagoya Grampus 3-0 Montedio Yamagata
Gamba Osaka 1-0 Vegalta Sendai
Sanfrecce Hiroshima 4-2 Omiya Ardija
Avispa Fukuoka 1-2 Urawa Reds
Ventforet Kofu 3-0 Albirex Niigata
Vissel Kobe 3-1 Jubilo Iwata

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Monday 21 November 2011

Kashiwa get one hand on the title



Four points from their remaining two matches will be enough to secure a historic J. League championship for Kashiwa Reysol in their first season after promotion from J2, following a dramatic 2-1 win away to Shimizu S-Pulse on Sunday afternoon.

Afshin Ghotbi’s home side were on a good run of late season form, having won their previous three matches at Nihondaira, and looked to have thrown a spanner into the Reysol works with the game’s opening goal shortly before half time. Fredrik Ljungberg was felled by Ryoichi Kurisawa, providing Australian centre-back Eddy Bosnar with the opportunity to smash home a trademark low free kick from almost 35 yards.

But Masato Kudo levelled with a low header just after the hour mark as Kashiwa laid siege to the Shimizu goal in search of the result that would reaffirm their position at the top, after Nagoya Grampus had temporarily risen to the summit on goal difference with victory at Yokohama F Marinos 24 hours earlier. Kudo thought he had found the scoresheet again from another header on 69 minutes only to be denied by an offside flag.

The winning goal finally arrived with five minutes remaining. Jorge Wagner’s powerful shot from the left-hand side of the penalty area was well parried by S-Pulse ‘keeper Kaito Yamamoto, but Leandro Domingues was able to quickly adjust his body position and skilfully head the ball into the empty net.

Gamba Osaka went into the antepenultimate weekend in second position but their hopes of a first league title in six years suffered a heavy blow with a 2-2 draw at Albirex Niigata that sees them drop four points off the pace.

It could have been worse for the Kansai side as goals from Yuta Mikado and Bruno Lopes put the hosts into a 2-0 lead with just 20 minutes remaining. Rookie striker Shota Kawanishi saved Gamba’s blushes with two expertly taken goals in an explosive substitute appearance, but despite near-constant pressure until the final whistle they were unable to complete the comeback.

This allowed reigning champions Nagoya to establish themselves as the closest challengers to Kashiwa, three points off the lead, after their tight 2-1 win in Yokohama. A controversial free kick by Shunsuke Nakamura – taken while the Grampus wall was still lining up – looked set to earn Marinos a point before Joshua Kennedy headed home the winner on 83 minutes.

Victory for Reysol at home to Cerezo Osaka next Saturday would seal the title if Nagoya fail to beat Montedio Yamagata. Both Nagoya and Gamba have, however, now ensured their places in next season’s AFC Champions League.

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Urawa Reds inched closer to survival with a goalless draw on a near-waterlogged pitch against Vegalta Sendai, as third-from-bottom Ventforet Kofu went down to a painful 2-1 defeat at Jubilo Iwata.

Hidetaka Kanazono converted low crosses from Gilsinho and Yuichi Komano to score twice in the opening ten minutes for Jubilo, and while a first professional goal for Atsushi Izawa quickly reduced the deficit to one, Ventforet were frustrated thereafter as they struggled to create the chances that might have rescued a point or better.

Their disappointment was further aggravated in second half stoppage time with a second yellow card for star striker Mike Havenaar – although, perversely, the dismissal will actually free the Japan international to play on the final day of the season. The red card triggered an automatic one-match ban, overriding the two-game suspension Havenaar would have received for his eighth caution of the year.

The loss for Kofu also ensured the survival of four other sides – Omiya Ardija, who drew 1-1 with Kashima Antlers; Kawasaki Frontale, who came from behind to win 3-2 at Sanfrecce Hiroshima; Cerezo Osaka, despite a 3-0 home drubbing by Kansai rivals Vissel Kobe; and Albirex Niigata.

Relegated Avispa Fukuoka moved off the bottom of the table for the first time all season with a crushing 5-0 rout of Montedio Yamagata.


TALKING POINTS
- FC Tokyo secured promotion back to J1 at the first attempt with an easy 5-1 win away to Gainare Tottori on Saturday, and were handed the J2 title 24 hours later as closest challengers Sagan Tosu slipped to a surprise 3-2 home defeat at the hands of Giravanz Kitakyushu.
- Matsumoto Yamaga of the third-tier Japan Football League will be the sole non-J. League side in the last 16 of the Emperor’s Cup after beating Albirex Niigata 1-0 last Wednesday. J2 strugglers Mito HollyHock and Ehime FC also created shocks with wins away to Gamba Osaka and Sanfrecce Hiroshima, respectively.

That’s all for today – join me again next week for news from the penultimate weekend, in which the title and relegation battles could be decided. Bye for now!


J1 results (matchday 32)
Urawa Reds 0-0 Vegalta Sendai
Yokohama F Marinos 1-2 Nagoya Grampus
Albirex Niigata 2-2 Gamba Osaka
Jubilo Iwata 2-1 Ventforet Kofu
Sanfrecce Hiroshima 2-3 Kawasaki Frontale
Montedio Yamagata 0-5 Avispa Fukuoka
Omiya Ardija 1-1 Kashima Antlers
Shimizu S-Pulse 1-2 Kashiwa Reysol
Cerezo Osaka 0-3 Vissel Kobe


Emperor’s Cup third round results
Nagoya Grampus 1-0 Giravanz Kitakyushu
Kashiwa Reysol 6-1 Ventforet Kofu
Yokohama F Marinos 3-0 Tochigi SC
Albirex Niigata 0-1 Matsumoto Yamaga
Kashima Antlers 2-1 Kataller Toyama (after extra time)
Montedio Yamagata 2-3 Kyoto Sanga
Kawasaki Frontale 4-0 Oita Trinita
Fukuoka University 0-3 Shonan Bellmare (after extra time)
Gamba Osaka 2-3 Mito HollyHock (after extra time)
FC Tokyo 2-1 Vissel Kobe (after extra time)
Sanfrecce Hiroshima 0-1 Ehime FC
Urawa Reds 2-1 Tokyo Verdy
Cerezo Osaka 3-0 Fagiano Okayama
Vegalta Sendai 3-1 Avispa Fukuoka
Shimizu S-Pulse 5-0 Gainare Tottori
Jubilo Iwata 0-1 JEF United Chiba

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Wednesday 16 November 2011

Japan surrender to North Korea (but are through to the next round of World Cup qualifying anyway)



Japan secured their passage to the final round of Asian qualifying for the 2014 World Cup with two games to spare following a comfortable 4-0 win in Tajikistan on Friday, but their 16-match unbeaten run under Alberto Zaccheroni came to an end with a 1-0 defeat away to North Korea yesterday evening.

The Samurai Blue embarked on a historic first visit to Pyongyang since the Italia ’90 qualifiers fully 22 years ago in the knowledge that the result of their fifth Group C match would be inconsequential. After goals from Yasuyuki Konno, Ryoichi Maeda, and a brace by Shinji Okazaki had made light of a difficult pitch in Dushanbe, Uzbekistan had beaten the North Koreans 1-0 to ensure progress for both themselves and Japan; meaning that the Chollima were eliminated just 17 months after appearing at the World Cup finals in South Africa.

This afforded Zaccheroni the luxury of rotating his line-up, making fully six changes to the side that had seen off Tajikistan. In came Shusaku Nishikawa in goal, Masahiko Inoha and Yuzo Kurihara in defence, Hajime Hosogai and Hiroshi Kiyotake in midfield, and Maeda as the lone striker.

Previous ‘away’ meetings, such as the 2006 qualifier in Bangkok, had been played on neutral territory, but on this occasion a small pocket of heavily-guarded Japanese fans and journalists were allowed to witness a game of football preceded by the playing of their national anthem, Kimigayo, at the Kim Il-Sung Stadium.

Unsurprisingly, given the historical and political relationship between the two countries, the anthem was roundly jeered by the 50,000 home crowd. An atmosphere of unique hostility and choreography ensued from the kickoff, with North Korea immediately bursting forwards and pressing the rattled Japanese defenders with terrific intensity – in stark contrast to the side that had largely defended with eleven men when the teams met in Saitama back in September.

Japan, the Asian champions, barely made it into the attacking third of the field throughout a first half in which their hosts won a succession of corners and were generally superior throughout. The novelty for the international audience was only enhanced by the sight of one of Pyongyang’s famous ‘mass games’ displays, with thousands of North Koreans holding up coloured cards to fill the main stand with enormous messages of support for their side.

The pressure finally paid off on the pitch when the game’s only goal arrived five minutes into the second period. The Korean number four, one of two players named Pak Nam-Chol in the starting eleven, beat Yuichi Komano to a flick-on from Pak Kwang-Ryong and sent a low-powered header inside the post beyond a slow-reacting Nishikawa.

Zaccheroni responded by switching to a 3-4-3, with Atsuto Uchida brought on for Kengo Nakamura and Mike Havenaar later replacing Maeda, but Japan were only really able to take charge of the game after the persistently tough-challenging North Korea were reduced to ten men on 77 minutes with the dismissal of Jong Il-Gwan.

Even then, the visitors were unable to find the killer touch as the Chollima held on to celebrate a landmark victory.

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The Japan manager offered a candid assessment in the first losing press conference of his reign.

“North Korea played very well and were highly concentrated on this game. Because their elimination had already been confirmed, they could play without worrying about collecting several yellow cards, which we could not. The desire that they showed to win this particular match was on a different level to ours.”

Japan will host Uzbekistan in their final third round match on 29 February 2012, with the fourth and final round set to kick off on 3 June.

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The third round of the domestic Emperor’s Cup will be played on Wednesday evening, with details to follow in next week’s Minutecast.


World Cup qualification results (AFC third round)
Group A
Iraq 1-0 China
Jordan 2-0 Singapore
Singapore 0-4 China
Jordan 1-3 Iraq
Jordan and Iraq both through to fourth round

Group B
United Arab Emirates 0-2 South Korea
Kuwait 0-1 Lebanon
Lebanon 2-1 South Korea
Kuwait 2-1 United Arab Emirates
United Arab Emirates eliminated

Group C
Tajikistan 0-4 Japan
Uzbekistan 1-0 North Korea
North Korea 1-0 Japan
Uzbekistan 3-0 Tajikistan
Uzbekistan and Japan both through to fourth round

Group D
Oman 1-0 Australia
Saudi Arabia 3-0 Thailand
Thailand 0-1 Australia
Saudi Arabia 0-0 Oman
Australia through to fourth round

Group E
Bahrain 1-1 Iran
Qatar 4-0 Indonesia
Indonesia 1-4 Iran
Qatar 0-0 Bahrain
Iran through to fourth round; Indonesia eliminated

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Friday 04 November 2011

Status quo maintained as leaders Reysol refuse to feel the pressure



The status quo at the top of J1 was maintained on Thursday’s Culture Day holiday with all three title contenders winning – but leaders Kashiwa Reysol can be satisfied that their bid to win the title as reigning J2 champions is now a game closer to realisation after their emphatic 4-0 thrashing of Albirex Niigata.

Any possibility of nerves was removed on just eight minutes when Leandro Domingues netted from the spot after Masato Kudo had been felled by Kazuhiro Chiba. The Brazilian then doubled the advantage ten minutes before half time, latching onto a beautifully lofted through ball from compatriot Jorge Wagner to fire past Yohei Takeda.

Wagner got on the scoresheet himself ten minutes after the interval, heading home a cross from the overlapping left-back Wataru Hashimoto, and a comfortable afternoon was rounded off with a fourth by Junya Tanaka in stoppage time.

Gamba Osaka remain two points adrift in second following a professional 1-0 victory at home to Yamazaki Nabisco Cup winners Kashima Antlers. The visitors were a regular threat throughout the first half – going closest when Yuya Osako’s curling effort struck the woodwork – but Gamba found the only goal early in the second with a classic breakaway. Hiroki Fujiharu’s left-footed cross found an unmarked Rafinha for the mid-season arrival to nod in his 11th goal in 15 appearances.

Title-holders Nagoya Grampus are still just a point further back in third thanks to a 3-1 win over Cerezo Osaka. Jungo Fujimoto expertly curled home a free kick to open the scoring, and though Rui Komatsu levelled from the spot soon afterwards, J1 leading scorer Joshua Kennedy restored the Grampus advantage with a fine header three minutes before half time.

Substitute Kensuke Nagai made sure of the points late in the second period.

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Montedio Yamagata had their long-inevitable relegation confirmed after three seasons in the top flight with a 2-0 defeat at Vissel Kobe, while Ventforet Kofu threw away a great opportunity to escape the relegation zone in a crazy last five minutes at home to erstwhile title challengers Yokohama F Marinos.

Leading 1-0 through Mike Havenaar – who joins Kennedy on 17 goals for the season – the Kofu resistance broke on 86 minutes when Shunsuke Nakamura picked out former Japan teammate Masashi Oguro to head home a deserved equaliser.

But the hosts only had themselves to blame three minutes later when defender Daniel failed catastrophically in his attempt to shepherd the ball out of play, allowing Yuzo Kurihara to beat both him and goalkeeper Hiroki Aratani before cutting back to Kentaro Moriya. The Marinos substitute made no mistake in converting a dramatic winner into the empty net from 20 yards.

The result ought to have been a boost to fourth-from-bottom Urawa Reds, whose home meeting with Jubilo Iwata kicked off an hour after full time in Kofu. But once again the 2007 Asian champions crumbled in embarrassing fashion, going down 3-0 thanks to two Ryoichi Maeda goals either side of a smart lofted finish from Ryohei Yamazaki.

Urawa therefore remain just two points clear of safety, albeit with a considerably superior goal difference to Ventforet. Meanwhile, Saitama neighbours Omiya Ardija gained an invaluable 1-0 victory away at Kawasaki Frontale to all but secure their survival – moving eight points ahead of the drop zone with just nine left to play for.

Already-relegated Avispa Fukuoka came from two behind to draw 2-2 at home to Shimizu S-Pulse – with all four goals coming inside a seven-minute spell in the second half – while Vegalta Sendai played out a goalless stalemate with Sanfrecce Hiroshima.


TALKING POINTS
- Ryoichi Maeda’s two goals in Urawa were the perfect way to cap a recall to the Japan squad for next week’s World Cup qualifiers in Tajikistan and North Korea. Hiroshi Kiyotake and Atsuto Uchida both return from injury, but Keisuke Honda remains sidelined with a knee problem.


J1 results (matchday 31)
Kashiwa Reysol 4-0 Albirex Niigata
Kawasaki Frontale 0-1 Omiya Ardija
Ventforet Kofu 1-2 Yokohama F Marinos
Nagoya Grampus 3-1 Cerezo Osaka
Gamba Osaka 1-0 Kashima Antlers
Vegalta Sendai 0-0 Sanfrecce Hiroshima
Urawa Reds 0-3 Jubilo Iwata
Vissel Kobe 2-0 Montedio Yamagata
Avispa Fukuoka 2-2 Shimizu S-Pulse

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