Monday 23 January 2012

The winter so far



Just three weeks after FC Tokyo brought the curtain down on the last campaign with a 4-2 victory over Kyoto Sanga in the final of the Emperor’s Cup on New Year’s Day, Japan’s professional footballers are back at work this week as the J. League clubs begin their preparations for the 2012 season.

Having skippered the capital side to a cup and J2 title double – and scored to level things up at 1-1 in the final – Japan defender Yasuyuki Konno completed his long-rumoured move to Gamba Osaka last week, commenting “I felt a change of environment would enable me to step up another level.”

The transfer completed a rush of winter activity for the third best team in Japan last term, with Brazilian forward Paulinho the biggest other arrival from relegated Ventforet Kofu, while experienced names like Satoshi Yamaguchi (JEF United Chiba), Hideo Hashimoto, Kazumichi Takagi (both Vissel Kobe), and Lee Keun-Ho (Ulsan Hyundai) were all allowed to leave. Long-term loanees Daiki Niwa, Shinichi Terada, and Shu Kurata also return to Banpaku – in Niwa’s case, for the first time in an incredible five years.

Kofu also lost their star striker, 194cm Japan international Mike Havenaar, to Vitesse Arnhem of the Netherlands.

Urawa Reds have begun the rebuilding process after narrowly escaping relegation last year with the signing of Konno’s occasional international defensive partner Tomoaki Makino on a year’s loan from 1. FC Köln in Germany, where he has struggled to hold down a first-team place. The 24-year-old will link up with his former coach at Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Mihailo Petrović; and also most likely with Japan teammate Yuki Abe, who reportedly left Leicester City yesterday.

Reigning champions Kashiwa Reysol have been relatively quiet in the transfer market – thus far avoiding a looting of the players that achieved their historic success but with Jubilo Iwata utility man Daisuke Nasu the only established new signing. Nagoya Grampus will look to regain the title with their ranks bolstered by the arrival of defender Yosuke Ishibitsu from Vissel Kobe and a permanent deal for Colombian midfielder Danilson.

Two prolific Brazilian veterans will also line up in new colours this season, as Juninho joins Kashima Antlers following 214 goals in nine seasons with Kawasaki Frontale, while former Kashima man Marquinhos re-signs for Yokohama F. Marinos – with whom he won the championship in 2003 – after an abortive stint at Vegalta Sendai last year.

The domestic season will begin as per tradition with the Fuji Xerox Super Cup between Kashiwa and FC Tokyo on 3 March, before J1 kicks off the following weekend with a number of tasty fixtures – including an early return to Hiroshima for Makino and Petrović with Urawa, a Tokai derby between Nagoya and Shimizu S-Pulse, and a Kansai derby as Gamba host Kobe.

Before then, however, Alberto Zaccheroni will lead the Japan national team into battle twice in late February, with a friendly against Iceland in Osaka on the 24th preceding a World Cup qualifier at home to Uzbekistan in Toyota five days later.


TALKING POINTS
- Hiroshi Kiyotake, Kensuke Nagai, and Hiroki Sakai have all been named in Takashi Sekizuka’s Japan U-23 squad to face Syria in Olympic qualification on 5 February.
- 197cm forward Hiroshi Ibusuki made his debut in the Spanish top flight with Sevilla yesterday, coming off the bench to play the final six minutes of a 1-1 derby draw at Real Betis.


Emperor’s Cup final result
Kyoto Sanga 2-4 FC Tokyo

Semi-finals
Yokohama F Marinos 2-4 Kyoto Sanga (after extra time)
FC Tokyo 1-0 Cerezo Osaka

Quarter-finals
Nagoya Grampus 0-0 Yokohama F Marinos (after extra time; Marinos win 4-3 on penalties)
Kyoto Sanga 1-0 Shonan Bellmare
FC Tokyo 1-0 Urawa Reds
Cerezo Osaka 2-2 Shimizu S-Pulse (after extra time; Cerezo win 6-5 on penalties)

Fourth round
Nagoya Grampus 3-3 Kashiwa Reysol (after extra time; Nagoya win 9-8 on penalties)
Yokohama F Marinos 4-0 Matsumoto Yamaga
Kashima Antlers 0-1 Kyoto Sanga
Kawasaki Frontale 0-1 Shonan Bellmare
Mito HollyHock 0-1 FC Tokyo
Ehime FC 1-3 Urawa Reds
Cerezo Osaka 1-1 Vegalta Sendai (after extra time; Cerezo win 4-2 on penalties)
Shimizu S-Pulse 2-0 JEF United Chiba
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