* Not actually a shop

Thursday, February 25, 2016


This won't come as too much of a surprise, as I haven't posted for over two years, but as the new season gets started I've finally, officially, decided to pull down the shutters on On the Gas. Should've done it at the end of last season really, as I knew The J-Talk Podcast was still going to occupy almost all of my football-related free time, and that I wouldn't be able to post even semi-regular match reports or updates, but as the season carried on I guess I was hoping against hope we'd finish third, would go on and win the title, and I could sign off with a triumphant "We've Won The League!" post. An Emperor's Cup win would've served a similar, though not quite as fulfilling end, but that wasn't to be, either.

So thanks to everyone who visited the site over the years, your support is much appreciated. On Blogger I have the option to remove the site entirely from the internet, but I won't do that as every now and then I like to look back on some of the old posts, and you might like to do that from time to time, too. Obviously I'll continue on on twitter @OnTheGas1999, and there's not a lot else to say other than Up the Gas!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Obrigado Lucas

The big man wheels away in celebration
#Sniff# I guess we all knew this day was coming, but it's with heavy hearts that we have to farewell Lucas, who announced on Thursday that he's retiring (again) from football at the end of the season. He's made a massive contribution to the club in his two stints with us, and all we can do is say a massive thank you and wish him all the best for life off the pitch.

He helped us win our first-ever trophy, the Cracker Cup, in his first season with us in 2004, and his haul of 18 league goals in 2006 remains a club record in the J.League era (Kazuma has been stuck on 17 for six games now and doesn't look like breaking it). While we resented his move to Gamba after four seasons at Aji Sta, he was welcomed back with open arms after being coaxed out of a short-lived retirement with us floundering around in J2 in 2011.

His return seemed to invigorate a squad that had under performed in the season's first four months, and his nine goals in the second half of that season saw us ultimately cruise to promotion, with the icing on the cake a superb brace in the Emperor's Cup final on New Year's Day 2012, when we came from behind to beat Kyoto.

Honours with FC Tokyo

2004 - Nabisco Cup winner
2011 - J2 champions (I don't really want to count this but I guess I have to)
2011 - Emperor's Cup winner

Club Records

All-time leading scorer in J.League era: 68 J1 goals, 9 J2 goals, 94 in all competitions
Most goals in a single J.League season: 18 in 2006 J1 season

While Amaral will always be The King of Tokyo and his club record 181 goals in all competitions will never be eclipsed, Lucas has proven a worthy successor, first as the out-and-out striker we needed to fill The King's boots, and in the Ranko Popovic era as a wide midfielder still capable of banging in the goals.

He always played with a smile on his face (unless he was bawling at the ref) and his commitment to make himself better at training everyday made him an automatic choice in the XI. And while he's far from his pomp, just 12 players have scored more than his 20 J1 goals over the past two seasons. It would've been great to see him carry on for another year, but he's going out on his own terms while still making a worthwhile contribution to the team.

A model professional both on and off the pitch, a joy to watch and an FC Tokyo icon.
Obrigado Lucas.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Taxi for Popovic

I had planned to write about our ultimately convincing 2-0 home win over Niigata on Saturday evening, secured through second half goals from Kosuke Ota (a superb free kick up and over the wall from inside the D), and Lucas (the big fella's 10th of the year). And I guess I just did. But I'd planned to write about it in more detail until the club made the announcement on Wednesday morning that Ranko Popovic would not be retained as manager for 2014.

I'll go on the record here and say I'd heard strong rumours on more than one occasion (three, to be exact) that Popo's job was in jeopardy. The first time was before the final game of last season, incidentally, just two days after I had visited Kodaira to interview him, with whispers that the club were lining up Kenta Hasegawa to take over. Of course we destroyed Sendai 6-2 at home on the first Saturday in December last year, making it impossible for the front office to not bring him back.

And there have been two seperate times this season when the word on the street was that his number would be up. Despite all those rumours, I felt that there was a strong chance he would stay on for a third season in charge, but that hope was quashed with yesterday's press release from the club, coming five games before the end of the J1 season - they clearly wanted to get in early and avoid the possibility of another job-saving 6-2 when we again play Sendai at home in the final game of this year!

I called for his head of course after the loss to Tosu at Kokuritsu in late August, and have written several times before on here that I've disagreed with some of the decisions he's made from time to time, so I can't claim I've always been fully behind him, but I'm still finding the decision, especially the timing (my joke above aside), difficult to understand.

Apples & Oranges

It's impossible to compare the Popo era to those of our two most recent managers Hiroshi Jofuku and Kiyoshi Okuma: the former took us to our highest-ever league finish in a single-stage season (5th in 2009), but then was unable to arrest our alarming decline the following year and had to go; and the latter couldn't keep us up and then brought us back to J1 in a 2011 season in which we did the job but never dominated the second tier to the extent we probably should have.

Popovic came in at the start of 2012 (again, I didn't think he was a 'big enough name' at first) with an ACL campaign to worry about on top of settling us back into the top division, and he got us comfortably out of the group and up to fifth in J1 by the half way mark. We were unlucky in the ACL Round of 16 loss to Guangzhou (and look at them now, in this year's final), and were screwed over by the AFC's experiment with one-legged R.o.16 ties last year, and though our league season petered out and we ultimately finished 10th I don't think anyone was too despondent as we reestablished ourselves in J1.

Why Now?

Whether the 6-2 win on the final day of last season did save his job or not, Popovic returned for this season with a player he wanted to build around (Keigo Higashi) and an aim to take us back into the top half, and though there have been some horror shows throughout the year, we sit 7th in the league six points behind third with five games to go, through to the fourth round of The Emperor's Cup and yet the decision has already been made.

I have to ask: What were the front office's expectations for this season? Everyone says they want to win the league, to qualify for the ACL etc., but did they really think that was a realistic expectation in our second year back in J1? There's nothing wrong with aiming high of course, but I don't think they've given the manager the chance to let his project bear fruit before pruning back any progress and consigning it to the compost heap (ie. starting again, sorry that was a pretty horrible analogy). And everything the club says about wanting to become a 'big club' on the pitch is completely contradicted by the way we are run off it.

The point is there has been significant progress, we've played some excellent stuff at times, and Popo has clearly made his mark on the squad. I would've taken sixth at the start of the season, and there's still a decent chance we will finish higher than that, yet we'll begin next season with a new manager and uncertainty as to which direction he'll take us in. For me its almost always better the devil you know, and now we'll never know how far Ranko Popovic would've taken us.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Ups & Downs - The Big Catch-Up

Hey! Remember me? Been a long time between drinks as far as blog updates go, almost five months to be exact, but you can blame that on how much time I've been putting in to The J-Talk Podcast, which is still going strong. I encourage you to check it out if you haven't yet.

So why this update, now? Good question, and I have two reasons for you: 1) I have a very slow day at work today; and 2) Bloody Kashima.

You see, I was so disgusted at our second half capitulation in the 3-2 loss at their place at the end of May, that I just couldn't be arsed. And even though we were dreadful again against them at Kokuritsu on the 5th (On my birthday! How could we have been so shite on my birthday!!!), refer to 1), and the symmetry that the two losses against them provides. With those two losses as brackets, we'll get up to date and then I'll try and keep this going weekly# for the season's last six matchdays and however far we go in the Emperor's Cup.

# - no promises, though

We went into the Matchday 13 clash at Kashima seventh in the table, took a totally deserved 2-0 half time lead through Tadanari Lee (remember him?!) and a belter from Kazuma Watanabe, but then shat the bed after the break as they scored three times in 20 minutes and we showed a stunning lack of backbone.

That was followed by a heart-breaking 1-0 loss at home to Hiroshima, who we more than matched for the entire game before they were awarded a dubious free kick just outside our box in the 94th minute and sub Park Hyung Jin curled in the set piece.

Things picked up from there though, and we went six unbeaten, starting with yet another league draw against Urawa (2-2, even though we threw away a 2-0 lead in the last 10 minutes). A fast start at Niigata saw us cruise by them 3-0, and then we recovered from Kofu's goal in the first minute and tore them apart late on at home in a 4-1 romp. Two of the next three were drawn: away at Shimizu was a bit of a snooze-fest but the away Classico against Kawasucki was a belter - we twice came from behind and Kosuke Ota's brilliant free kick earnt us a point; those two were sandwiched around a regulation 2-0 home win over Oita, Watanabe bagging both to take himself top in the J1 golden boot race.

Despite that unbeaten run we ended it in the same position we began this update in - seventh - and failing to win in the next three, with the table so tight in the middle, saw us slide down to 12th. We were very poor in the final third and Yokohama made us pay with two well taken goals in a 2-0 home loss (we're up to Matchday 21 here, by the way), we stymied Iwata in a 0-0 that meant a lot more to them than it did to us, and then I called for Ranko Popovic's head after a horrendous first hour at home (Kokuritsu) against Tosu saw us 2-0 down, two late goals from Sota 'Lazarus' Hirayama and Watanabe saw us pull level but then a minute later we dozed off and Yohei Toyoda won it for them.

For the record my tweet was more in frustration, but I'd begun to think Popo had taken us as far (and it wasn't very far) as he could, but showing how much I know we then proceeded to win four on the spin, the first two against teams in the top three, which saw us shoot up seven spots to fifth. We won away at Hiroshima for the second straight year, 2-1 thanks to Takuji Yonemoto's winner, his first league goal in four years, beat Urawa 3-2 in a thriller at Kokuritsu for our first league win over them in nine years with Lazarus nodding in the winner in the 90th minute, then eased past Nagoya 2-0 away and rode a Lucas hat-trick, his first in J1, to a 5-2 triumph at Omiya.

So fifth with seven games to go, with five of them at home, had us buzzing and dreaming of the possibility of a return to the ACL, but standing in our way were ... Kashima. I was sat in the press seats for the first time ever at a J.League game, on my birthday, with Sean Carroll and Dan Orlowitz for company ahead of another first for me, an appearance on FOOT! Wednesday, and ... they destroyed us. Two goals in the first ten minutes, another two for good measure in the second half before Lazarus got the dictionary definition of a consolation goal with seven minutes to go (I used the same line on FOOT! too, if that sounds familiar).

So, not for the first time, Antlers put us back in our place, meaning we finished this catch-up where we began it: seventh in J1.

Somewhere in between that ruck of games we gained sweet, sweet revenge for getting knocked out of the Emperor's Cup last year by smashing JFL Yokogawa err... 1-0 in extra time, and then last Sunday we beat J2 Chiba on pens after a 1-1 draw to progress to the fourth round.

On to Niigata at home this Saturday evening, then.

Up the Gas!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Catch Up Time

It's been almost a month, so in this post I'll briefly round-up the five league and two Cracker Cup games since the home win over Nagoya.

Oita 0-0 FC Tokyo

Nabisco Cup Group B Matchday 5

Move along, nothing to see here. Our third 0-0 of the group stage meant qualification for the quarter finals was taken out of our hands.

FC Tokyo 2-0 Kawasaki

J1 Matchday 8

We got the river under control! And in some style too, as we played Kawasucki off the park, driven on by another superb performance in centre mid from Takuji Yonemoto. We took the lead in the 22nd minute when Lucas fired home first time from the edge of the box, finishing off a precise passing move that began when Hideto Takahashi played the ball out to Yuhei Tokunaga and also involved Kazuma Watanabe, Keigo Higashi and Aria Hasegawa (who slightly miscontrolled into Lucas' path).

The second goal came in the 65th minute, and again Aria supplied the assist, this time a perfectly weighted through ball for Higashi, who took a touch to shift the ball onto his right boot and passed it through the 'keeper's legs and into the net.

The visitors never showed up, and we cruised through the last 25 minutes. River. Under. Control.

Tosu 2-3 FC Tokyo

J1 Matchday 9

We made it three straight league wins down in Kyushu, though it got a little hairy towards the end as we almost let a 3-0 lead slip. Higashi opened the scoring in the 28th minute with a goal straight from the training ground when Aria decided against crossing a free kick from just outside the box on the left and instead rolled the ball to Higashi in a more central area. Higashi shot low from 25 yards, and the ball snuck in at the 'keeper's near post.

Watanabe grabbed a quick-fire brace in the first four minutes of the second half, his first came on a counter when Higashi sent him away through the middle and he took the ball around the 'keeper before passing into the open net, and his second from a punt upfield by Shuichi Gonda, with Watanabe holding off a defender and dinking a shot that the 'keeper should've caught but only palmed over his head and into the net.

Tosu got one back when Yohei Toyoda converted a penalty in the 77th minute after a foul by Kenichi Kaga,  and as the game really opened up both teams hit the bar within a minute through Naohiro Ishikawa and Toyoda. In stoppage time Kota Mizunuma scored off a cutback from Toyoda but we hung on.

FC Tokyo 2-2 Iwata

J1 Matchday 10

Iwata had sacked their manager after the previous game, and they rolled-up to Aji Sta with longtime Tokyo coach Tetsu Nagasawa as their caretaker boss. And his charges certainly did the business for him in the first half, as they dominated and went in at halftime deservedly 2-0 up after Judas Inoha's header from a corner in the 29th minute and Yuki Kobayashi's emphatic finish five minutes from the break after he superbly controlled Yuichi Komano's cross.

We were clueless for the majority of the game, but it was the introduction of our three subs - firstly Tadanari Lee and Ishikawa in the 59th minute, and then Sota Hirayama 13 minutes later - which turned the game around. Just a minute after coming on Big Sota did brilliantly to cut the ball back from the byline on the left, and Ishikawa raced onto it and smashed through Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi's legs to give us hope.

After Lee had a header cleared off the line in stoppage time, Ishikawa crossed from the left, Hirayama and Kawaguchi jumped for the ball which ballooned into the air and ended up at the feet of Kosuke Ota. Ota played it across to Lee, who was in the right place at the right time to sweep the ball high into the net and earn us a point.

Shonan 3-2 FC Tokyo

J1 Matchday 11

On a horrible day weather-wise, our performance unfortunately matched the conditions, as promoted Bellmare played us off the park and fought back superbly from 2-1 down to claim just their second win of the season. While we were the architects of our own demise, with their equalizer and winner coming from our mishaps/mistakes, the fact that we only turned up for the first 15 minutes of the second half meant we could have no complaints.

Shonan took the lead in the 11th minute when midfielder Kaoru Takayama, and though we had a few half chances and near misses in the remainder of the first half they went in at halftime deservedly ahead. After presumably getting a rocket from the manager during the break we were noticeably better as the second half got going, and nine minutes after the restart Ota curled a free kick from the left through a ruck of players and inside the 'keeper's far post, and then three minutes later Watanabe stroked in a superb left-footed finish from the edge of the box to give us the lead.

Eight minutes later it all turned to shit when Takahashi controlled the ball but then slipped just inside our half and Kenji Baba raced away and chipped a delicious finish over Gonda to level it up. If we thought that was bad, there was worse to come when Aria took a Takahashi pass in a similar area of the park but was immediately dispossessed by Shonan captain Ryota Nagaki, who fired past Gonda to give them the lead again. We had brought the same three subs as the Iwata game on again, but in the last ten minutes we went Route 1 to little effect, a very disappinting loss.

FC Tokyo 2-1 Niigata

Nabisco Cup Group B Matchday 6

As this was our final game of the group stage ahead of our bye in Matchday 7, we knew we needed to win and rely on a lot of help on both of the final two matchdays to have any chance of going through to the quarter finals, but Kashima and Cerezo ended the suspense with late wins on the same evening.

With Masato Morishige rested for the first time this season, Aria Hasegawa captained us for the first time, but his night ended in just the 27th minute when he had to be replaced after injuring his right ankle. We expected Yonemoto to come on for him, but the manager took a punt and threw on Hiroki Kawano, with Sotan Tanabe shifting into the centre alongside Takahashi.

Niigata hit the bar in the first half, but we took the lead six minutes into the second half when Ishikawa smashed in first time from outside the box after Higashi's cut-back from the left, but Niigata equalized 14 minutes later with a header across Gonda. Youngster Hirotaka Mita scored the winner eight minutes from time, his first Tokyo goal a precise first-time finish into the roof of the net after a cross from the right from Tokunaga, but the win was in vain as Antlers and Cerezo sealed the two QF spots from Group B.

FC Tokyo 2-0 Shimizu

J1 Matchday 12

These had turned us over at home last season, scoring late on despite going down to nine men, but we got a measure of revenge on Saturday as we were indebted to their 'keeper Akihiro Hayashi for a couple of dreadful howlers. With Aria missing for the first time in this league campaign due to his ankle, Lee started behind Watanabe, with Higashi out on the left flank.

There wasn't a lot happening in the first half as we were stymied by their well-organized midfield, but the breakthrough came eight minutes into the second half when Higashi and Lucas tried to play a one-two down the right, the latter's return pass missed its target but rolled straight to Takahashi, who shot first-time from just inside the box. Takahashi didn't catch it flush but it zipped along the floor through defender Hiraoka's legs and then amazingly straight through Hayashi, who despite getting down in time allowed it to roll through his legs and into the net.

Three minutes later Gonda was called into action to tip Bare's back header out for a corner, and then in the 61st minute we couldn't believe our luck when Watanabe crossed from the left, Hayashi (perhaps slightly distracted by Lee's dart across the box) came out to punch when he really should've caught, and the ball bounced off Lucas's chest and into the unguarded net.

In the 64th minute Bare smashed a shot against the bar (but had already been flagged offside), but that was about all Shimizu could muster, as they managed only four shots over the course of the 90 minutes. An ultimately comfortable win that kept us seventh, with this Saturday's visit to Kashima the last league game before J1 takes a six week break.

Up the Gas!

Friday, April 26, 2013

Steadying the Ship

Memo to the home end: these are fine at 3-1 up. At 0-0? Not so much.

FC Tokyo 3-1 Nagoya

J1 Matchday 7

Well, did we ever need that! FC Tokyo's run of four straight league defeats ended after an ultimately convincing 3-1 win over Nagoya last Saturday afternoon. After recovering from the shock of going behind after we had completely controlled the first 25 minutes, The Gasmen fought back thanks to two Lucas penalties and a clinical finish from the otherwise-profligate Kazuma Watanabe.

The team sheet showed no surprises, but we were able to welcome Jang Hyun Soo back to the matchday squad after around a month out, and with Tadanari Lee, Nemanja Vucicevic and Naohiro Ishikawa also among the subs we had an impressive array of talent in reserve (some would argue all three of those should be in the XI).

Nagoya were fourth coming in, but they had benefitted from a fairly soft early fixture list, and their three wins so far had come against Kofu, Shonan and Niigata: all teams most league observers think will finish in the bottom half of the table. We were immediately on the front foot, and Lucas created two great chances in the first five minutes: first Watanabe's volley on the turn from Lucas' cross came back off the bar, and then Keigo Higashi first-timed a shot wide after a neat cut back from the right from our no.49.

Nagoya had not had a sniff in the first 25 minutes, but Kenichi Kaga had to be alert on their first meaningful foray when he headed the ball out for a corner after Kisho Yano crossed from the right. And then, in the 30th minute, we went behind after Shuichi Gonda punched a corner out of the area, the ball found its way to Danilson and he crossed from the left, with Josh Kennedy rising between Hideto Takahashi and Masato Morishige to plant a header back across Gonda and just inside his right hand post.

Watanabe almost gave us the perfect response three minutes later, but couldn't make a proper connection on Yuhei Tokunaga's cross, and then in the 39th minute our players surrounded the referee screaming for a penalty after Tulio used his arm to deflect Watanabe's blast from just inside the box away. In first half stoppage time the ref did point to the spot, after Tokunaga went down fairly easily after a tug from behind by their left back Yuki Honda. Lucas stepped up, Seigo Narazaki guessed the right way, but couldn't get enough on the ball to keep it out and we went in at half time level.

In the third minute of the second half we should've taken the lead, but Watanabe, who intercepted a loose back pass just inside the Nagoya half and raced in on Narazaki, fired across the face of goal when he HAD to hit the target. We didn't have to wait long to go ahead though, and again Lucas netted from the spot after Morishige, who made several surging runs forward throughout the game, was brought down by Hayuma Tanaka on the left side of the box.

In the 59th minute Watanabe, culpable of some poor misses earlier, made amends with a screamer from his most difficult chance of the day. Lucas headed an Aria Hasegawa cross straight at Narazaki from around the penalty spot, with the Nagoya custodian looking to start a counter attack by throwing the ball out to Yoshizumi Ogawa on the left. But when Ogawa dawdled on the ball, Tokunaga nicked in, squared to Kazuma about 25 yards from goal, and after a touch to sort his feet out he curled a superb shot on the turn just inside Narazaki's left hand post.

Lucas almost grabbed his hat trick goal in the 68th minute but hit the post after a one-two with Keigo Higashi, and the major talking point in the last 20 minutes was the continuous stream of yellow cards handed out by the ref, who overall had a terrible game. That culminated with Taishi Taguchi being sent off for his second yellow in the 85th minute, and with a two-goal buffer and a man advantage we just passed the ball around until the final whistle put Nagoya out of their misery.

So a much needed three points for us, but perhaps a wake-up call for Nagoya, who were disappointing to say the least. On Saturday we host Kawasucki Kawasaki in the first Tamagawa Classico of the season, and this win was hopefully the perfect tune-up for getting the river under control.

Up the Gas!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Panic Button Time?

Sendai 2-1 FC Tokyo

J1 Matchday 6

Another odd-goal loss last Saturday, our fourth in a row in the league, saw us tumble into the bottom half of the table, and makes our consecutive wins to start the season feel like months ago. Two quality second half finishes from Kakuda and Wilson gave Vegalta a 2-0 lead by the hour mark, and though Tadanari Lee (benched for what reason?) pulled one back with 12 minutes to go we couldn't make our late pressure count and find an equalizer.

The overall performance wasn't bad, and I don't think we've played particularly badly in any of the run of defeats to be honest, in fact I'd argue we didn't get the rub of the green in the first two of them, away at both Cerezo and Yokohama, but we appear to be fairly brittle mentally, especially after going behind in games. There seems to be a lack of calmness in the team after conceeding, Oita in the league and Kashima in the Cracker Cup aside, with players pressing just a little too hard to play the perfect pass, or missing the target on presentable chances, when it seems our opponents always take theirs when they come (get your violins out).

Despite the title of this post, I don't think we need to panic, but a few things need to be ironed out formation and personnel-wise, and it might be time for Mr. Popovic to make some tough decisions.

I love the manager, and have had several great chats with him since he took over, but I feel at times his blind loyalty to the likes of Lucas and Aria Hasegawa has gotten in the way of him putting our best XI on the park. I know there have been mitigating factors, like yet another injury to Naohiro Ishikawa and the failure of Hiroki Kawano to carry on his preseason form, but it seems like he's trying to fit round pegs into square holes at times.

Lucas is an icon of the club, second only to Amaral amongst foreign players in the eyes of all supporters, but the fact he is still being asked, no, counted on, to do so much out on the flank is a huge worry, when by this stage of his career he should really be the sort of player we can bring off the bench, up front, in bursts. Aria is just a massive enigma, capable of the sublime (his finish for the 3rd against Kashiwa for example) but also still prone to going missing for large stretches of games. He's still young-ish, but again, he's not a wide player, and the manager will just stick him anywhere to get him in the team.

The elephant in the room is the form of both Hideto Takahashi and Yuhei Tokunaga. You can't drop either of them, especially Tokunaga as Hokuto Nakamura is injured and Kenta Mukuhara, a better defender than Hokuto, is with Cerezo on loan this season, but both have been uncharacteristically sloppy, and Takahashi, who really seemed to be coming on as a passer, has gone miles backwards in that area of his game.

Up front, the solution is simple to me: Tadanari Lee MUST start up front, and Keigo Higashi MUST play in the hole behind him. Sorry Kazuma Watanabe, you've got five goals in the league already, but you'll have to get used to coming off the bench again. Mr. Popovic has fallen into the same trap as last year with Kazuma, when his (fairly) fluky hat-trick against Tosu saw him get a run of starts in which he did absolutely nothing. On his day he is a good-to-excellent J1 striker, but he's too hit-and-miss to be a permanent fixture in the XI.

Lee is the best striker, and natural goal-scorer, we have, and he needs to be the focal point of the attack, with Higashi, who has produced a couple of excellent performances in the hole but looked lost when played out wide, behind him. Now we don't know the reasons behind Lee's benching at Sendai, or whether he's had any problems with the manager etc., but for us going forward he and Higashi will give us the best chance to score goals, and win games.

There have been positives of course: Kosuke Ota has been generally sound at left back and Takuji Yonemoto has continued his development into one of the better holding mids in J1, but there is room for improvement almost everywhere else, and hopefully that, along with three points, will come this Saturday afternoon at home versus Nagoya.

Up the Gas!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Can't Take A Trick

Been too long between posts again, but I'll try to bring you up to date on our last five games: three in the Cracker Cup and two in J1, where we now find ourselves in a bit of a rut after three straight losses. After the first of these games we were buzzing, but four games later we're scratching our heads about how we can turn things around...

Kashima 2-4 FC Tokyo

Nabisco Cup Group B Matchday 2

This was a game of two halves if ever there was one, as Kashima controlled the first half and deservedly took the lead, but after we equalized on the stroke of half time we went on to boss the second 45 minutes and strolled to victory thanks to three excellent finishes.

Yuichi Maruyama made his first start of the season for us at left back, and was culpable for the opening goal in the 28th minute when he tried to dribble out of defence, Yuya Osako nicked the ball away, and then smashed a narrow-angled finish high into the net past Hitoshi Shiota after taking Davi's pass in stride. We levelled it up in first half stoppage time when Kazuma Watanabe turned in Yuhei Tokunaga's blast from the edge of the box, and after Keigo Higashi's half time introduction for an ineffectual Hiroki Kawano we ran the second half, taking the lead in the 57th minute when Lucas took Higashi's pass, feinted clear of a defender and lashed past the keeper.

Twenty minutes later the moment we had been waiting for, Tadanari Lee's first goal for the club, arrived in some style when his intelligent run from deep was timed perfectly to meet Kosuke Ota's cross from the left, and he glanced a diving header home for 3-1. Just a minute later Davi pulled a goal back for them when Kenichi Kaga's slight touch to his close range shot took the ball out of Shiota's reach, but we saved the best til last with the icing on the cake etc in the 81st minute, when Lee's cut-back from the right was met superbly on the volley by Higashi for his first FC Tokyo goal.

Yokohama 3-2 FC Tokyo

J1 Matchday 4

This was brutal. No way we deserved to lose this, but Yokohama are top of the league for a reason, and they showed it in a superb game that see-sawed back and forth throughout. We took the lead in the 27th minute when the Ota-Lee hotline resumed service, Tadanari showing brilliant technique to volley home Kosuke's cross from the left.

We held the lead fairly comfortably through the end of the first half and the first 15 minutes of the second, before Yokohama got very fortunate with their equalizer, when Shunsuke Nakamura's deep free kick took a wicked deflection off Higashi in the wall and Shuichi Gonda tried to scramble across but couldn't get to the ball as it bounced into the net. In the 68th minute Yoshihito Fujita headed in a cross from the right to put F.Marinos ahead, and as the game entered the last ten minutes it didn't seem as if we'd be able to find a way back into it. That was until Aria Hasegawa led a counter attack from the centre circle in the 82nd minute, passed to Higashi and stepped over the return pass which ran to Watanabe, who finished past the keeper via a deflection off a defender.

Unfortunately for us there was a late sting in the tale in the 90th minute, when Fujita stayed just onside, took a pass from Shingo Hyodo and finished past Gonda and off the inside of the far post to win it for the hosts. Gutting.

FC Tokyo 0-0 Nagoya

Nabisco Cup Group B Matchday 3

Can't believe we didn't win this one either, even though our performance was well short of our best, and it felt like a defeat after we didn't take all three points when they were there on a plate at the end. With the last kick of the game Higashi should've won it, but he tried to be too cute from the penalty spot after Hayuma Tanaka handled a ball into the box, and his attempt at a panenka came back off the bar. After a brief scramble in the six yard box Higashi had the ball at his feet, but his off-balance shot ballooned over the bar, with the ref blowing for full time immediately after.

FC Tokyo 0-1 Omiya

J1 Matchday 5

For the second straight year this lot returned up to Saitama with all three points, but these are not your father's Omiya Ardija, as, full of confidence, they abandoned the blueprint and took us on from the opening kickoff. Riding a 15-game unbeaten streak, they kept the ball well, and though they were unable to create many clear cut chances in the first half, it was refreshing to see them come to play football, rather than stifle the game.

All that said, we had the better chances in the opening 45 minutes, and should have taken the lead two minutes before half time when Lucas' cross from the right found Watanabe, but Kazuma somehow directed his free header wide of the post. Puzzlingly (as against Yokohama), Lee was our first change, just eight minutes into the second half, but Omiya began to fashion the better chances, and we all breathed a sigh of relief when Zlatan shot wide on the turn in the 64th minute when it seemed certain he would score.

And then, in the 78th minute, he did. Kaga was adjudged to have fouled out by our right touchline, the free kick was swung over into the middle of the box, Gonda flapped at a punch after leaving his line too late, and Zlatan held off Hideto Takahashi, heading into the unguarded net. We threw on Hirotaka Mita and Nemanja Vucicevic immediately after, and went excrutiatingly close to an equalizer in the 88th minute when Ota crossed to the far post, Watanabe headed down but the keeper pushed the ball onto the post and a defender hacked it away. Much frustration.

Cerezo Osaka 2-1 FC Tokyo

Nabisco Cup Group B Matchday 4

I wasn't able to watch this game, but for the second time this season we returned from Osaka with an odd-goal loss. Hopefully things will turn out better when we return to face Gam... Oh wait. Yeah. Shiota replaced Gonda in goal, and Tokunaga and Lucas were rested, with Kaga starting at right back, Hideto Takahashi at centre back and Takuji Yonemoto and Aria in centre mid, while further forward Mita and Kawano started on the flanks.

Brilliant youngster Yoichiro Kakitani gave the hosts the lead 10 minutes into the second half, but Lee equalized for us just six minutes later. With 20 minutes left Fabio Simplicio made it 2-1 to Cerezo and we were unable to break through again, despite the introductions of Naohiro Ishikawa, back from injury, and Nema. Right at the death Cerezo sub Ryuji Bando made history, getting sent off for a second yellow card just four minutes after coming on, but though there was some amusement in that for us, a fourth straight game without a win has us searching for answers.

We slid to fourth in Group B, and we'll need to win our last two, away at Oita on the 23rd and then home against Niigata in mid-May, to progress to the quarter finals.

And that's our latest update done. I'll try and do a report after our league trip to Sendai this Saturday, and following that we host Nagoya on the 20th.

Up the Gas!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

On Our Way

Apologies for not updating this blog since the season got up and running, but the club have been doing well enough on the pitch regardless, so I didn't feel a particular sense of urgency.

In this post I'll run through the first four games of the season: the league wins over Oita and Kashiwa; the loss in Osaka against Cerezo; and the goalless draw in the Cracker Cup against Tosu yesterday. I'm not using any photos, because I shouldn't, according to the club's PR department.

Oita 1-2 FC Tokyo

J1 Matchday 1

We headed down to Kyushu for the first game of the season, and it turned into a happy return for ex-Oita folk Ranko Popovic, Masato Morishige and Keigo Higashi as we left the Oita Bank Dome with three points after an ultimately convincing 2-1 win.

After we dominated the opening 15 minutes, with Higashi looking particularly hungry on his Tokyo debut (he smashed a shot onto the bar in the 9th minute), we found oursleves behind in the 17th minute after Choi Jung Han took a pass from a short corner, whipped the ball across the box, and with Yasuhito Morishima's diagonal run distracting Shuichi Gonda, the ball bounced through the area and in at the far post. Oita suddenly had their tails up, and we almost fell two goals down after a dreadful attempted clearance/back pass from Morishige, but we were indebted to Gonda, who made a key one-on-one save.

We pulled ourselves level in the 26th minute after a superb flowing move that started on the halfway line on the right when Yuhei Tokunaga nicked the ball as Oita looked to counter. Lucas took a pass from Tokunaga and laid the ball off to Hideto Takahashi on the touchline, Takahashi played a square ball infield that looked to be heading Higashi's way before Kazuma Watanabe pinched it. Watanabe turned and darted towards goal, played the ball to Aria Hasegawa stationed dead centre on the edge of the box, took the return from Aria and curled a superb first-time shot with his left foot around the keeper and in at his right hand post. A brilliant finish from Kazuma, the sort of quality technique we didn't see much of from him in 2012.

Eleven minutes into the second half we took the lead thanks to a very alert piece of play and a composed finish from Aria that left Oita stunned. Following a strong run down the right from Tokunaga his shot was deflected out for a corner, and the threat looked to be over when Takahashi headed Higashi's corner right at the keeper. But when the keeper rolled the ball out through the middle to try and start an Oita attack, Aria nipped in, took a touch and stroked a shot with his left foot into the unguarded net.

In the last half hour Oita created several half-chances, but Gonda wasn't overly extended, and the major interest for us was Tadanari Lee's 20-minute cameo on his Tokyo debut. He almost scored with just his second touch, when he poked Lucas' low cross from the right on target but the keeper was simply in the way having known nothing about it. Lee then had two great chances in quick succession as the clock ticked down, but the keeper made a good one-on-one save on the first and then he screwed a shot just past the post.

That was just about it, and we ran out deserved 2-1 winners, getting our season off to a solid start.

FC Tokyo 3-0 Kashiwa

J1 Matchday 2

What a way to open the season at home! While it wasn't as exhilarating as the 3-2 comeback win over Nagoya in our home opener in 2012, this was as complete a 90 minute display as we've seen at Aji Sta in the past three or four years. On a glorious March afternoon the crowd of just over 26,000 was slightly disappointing, but those who rolled up saw a dynamic Gasmen performance.

We fielded an unchanged XI, and the first half was all about Watanabe, as he carried on from where he left off in Oita with two superb first-time finishes with his left foot that gave us a commanding 2-0 half time lead. The first came in just the sixth minute when Takuji Yonemoto nicked the ball in the centre circle and lifted a ball over the top for Kazuma to run on to. With the keeper hedging his bets and not committing to come for the ball, Watanabe simply rifled a low first-time shot through his legs and into the net to give us a dream start.

In the 28th minute it was 2-0 after Kosuke Ota did well to win a header on the edge of the box after his initial cross was half cleared. Ota headed down in the direction of Higashi, who shot first-time on the turn, miss hit the ball but it bounced perfectly into the path of Watanabe who slotted home at the keeper's near post with a minimum of fuss. We finished the first half in the ascendancy, and were great value for our lead.

Kashiwa improved as the second half got going, but new signing Cleo was unable to have much of an impact as key man Leandro Domingues was stifled by the strong pressing of Takahashi and particularly Yonemoto in the middle of the park. The better chances continued to come our way though, and Higashi was denied his first Tokyo goal twice in quick succession in the 58th minute, and then in the 74th minute, Lee, who had come on for Watanabe five minutes earlier, lashed a shot from the left side of the box out of the keeper's reach but off the junction of bar and post.

Four minutes later we put the game to bed thanks to a brilliant strike from Aria, which put a perfect end to a slick passage of play that also involved Tokunaga, Lee and Yonemoto. Aria picked up Yone's pass on the left just outside the box, cut onto his right foot inside a couple of defenders and picked his spot in the top corner at the keeper's near post. A superb goal and a fantastic way to cap a total team performance against one of the sides tipped to challenge for the title this season.

Cerezo Osaka 1-0 FC Tokyo

J1 Matchday 3

Did this feel familiar? Yes, yes it did. After two straight wins to start the season we headed down to Kansai to try and make it three-from-three against another team with a 100% record, just as we had done in 2012 when we knocked off Kobe after a tight away win (over Omiya) and a great display at home (against Nagoya). Unfortunately history didn't repeat though, and we returned home with nothing, though we had good reason to feel aggrieved after several borderline decisions went against us, with the players and coaching staff venting their frustrations with the referee at the final whistle.

Unchanged again, we roared out of the gate, with Watanabe looking to carry on his red-hot form with a shot into the side netting in the first 30 seconds, and there were other chances for Hasegawa and Tokunaga in the first five minutes. Our first gripe came in the 21st minute, when Higashi was adjudged to have controlled Ota's cross from the left with his arm as he laid the ball down for Lucas, who smashed home on the volley. One replay angle suggested the ball had come off Higashi's shoulder, another that the ball may have flicked his hand on the way down, but it was a difficult one to call and unfortunately it set the tone for our frustration with the officiating the rest of the way.

In a cagey game our next clear-cut chance came in the 37th minute, when Aria stepped in front of a pass on the halfway line and surged forward, with Watanabe on his right and Higashi making good ground on his left more centrally. Aria chose to try to play in Watanabe, who probably should've taken a shot on but instead slid to ball across the box but behind Higashi, who had carried on his run too far.

Two minutes into the second half we fell behind, as a loose pass from Tokunaga out on the right touchline was punished as Cerezo countered at speed, though there was controversy here too. Their Brazilian striker Edno, who did nothing much else all game, flicked a ball out to the left to find fullback Yusuke Maruhashi, who had come on at half time for Kenta Mukuhara, on loan from us of course. With an extra man over Maruhashi slid in teenage winger Takumi Minamino, who rolled the ball across the box to a totally unmarked (though possibly offside) Hotaru Yamaguchi, who tapped home.

Yamaguchi may well have been level with the last man, Morishige, who was caught between running at Minamino and covering Yamaguchi, but the lack of a TV replay suggests that he was probably off. Regardless of that though, it was concerning to see us caught out so badly on the counter again, something we saw way too much of last season.

Seven minutes after going behind we again felt hard done by after putting the ball in the net, and again Higashi and Lucas were involved, as the former was deemed to have failed to hold his run as he tapped in the latter's cross along the six yard box. If it felt like it wasn't going to be our day after all that, then a double stop on Lee in the 68th minute all but confirmed it. Morishige hoisted a perfectly-weighted ball over the top for Lee (on just two minutes earlier) to run on to, and one-on-one with keeper he first lashed a shot that was parried away, then fired the rebound on target only for a covering defender to block the ball away with his legs.

Hiroki Kawano replaced Lucas with 13 minutes left but was unable to have an impact, and a Lee header straight at the keepr from Naohiro Ishikawa's corner a minute later was as close as we came as Cerezo did just enough to keep us out. It all went a bit mental right at the death as Higashi was booked for a tumble in the box looking for a penalty in the 95th minute, and then Gonda was yellow carded after the match had finished for not lining up to shake hands in a timely manner. The ref was acting like a right twat by this stage, and the manager came out to give him a piece of his mind as our frustration really boiled over. Not a pleasant end to an afternoon that we can only hope will sting the players until Yokohama away on the 30th.

FC Tokyo 0-0 Tosu

Nabsico Cup Group B Matchday 1

The manager rung the changes for our first Cracker Cup group stage game since 2010, giving first starts in red and blue to Lee up front and Hirotaka Mita on the right flank, with Kenichi Kaga replacing Jang Hyun Soo (away with the South Korean national team) in central defence, and Hitoshi Shiota and Sotan Tanabe deputising for Gonda and Takahashi (away with Japan: Aria moved into centre mid; Tanabe played on the left). We also brought Yohei Otake and Hideyuki Nozawa into the 18, with Lucas, Ishikawa and Vucicevic not in the matchday squad.

In a very strong wind, and with the pitch in far from ideal condition, the game never hit any real heights, with Tosu looking at their most dangerous whenever Kota Mizunuma or Koki Kiyotake were on the ball, while we looked to Higashi and Lee for inspiration. Tosu had the wind at their backs in the first half, but apart from one punched save of a long range free kick Shiota didn't have a great deal to do.

In the second half Mita came into the game more, and he had probably our best moment when he made a clever diagonal run, controlled Aria's lofted ball between two defenders on his chest and lashed a first-time shot which skimmed the bar on its way over.

Otake came on for the last 20 minutes and had some nice touches but was unable to find much space around the box, and Sota Hirayama (on with 13 minutes left) and Watanabe (on for the last three) suffered from the same problem as we struggled to make our late domination count. The 0-0 draw was the first such result we've had in all competitions since October 2011 in J2 Matchday 31, when our opponent was...Tosu.

Up to Kashima this Saturday then for another Cracker Cup engagement, before we make the short trip to Yokohama for J1 Matchday 4 on the 30th to take on table-toppers F.Marinos.

Up the Gas!

Monday, February 25, 2013

FC Tokyo 2013 Season Preview

This blog post is brought to you by Mori Building Group. (No, it isn't really. Please don't sue me Mori Building Group. I've been to Roppongi Hills several times. I liked it.)

Very interesting, and welcome, news that they've come on board as a club sponsor though, hopefully an indication that the club is taking its blinkers off and looking at central Tokyo more.

This will be a very biased look at how FC Tokyo will get on in 2013, to read a more balanced piece check out my Gasmen preview over on Angus MacLeod's excellent website JapanFooty.com link here.

The J-Talk Podcast is back for 2013, and last week two episodes were released previewing all of the J1 teams in order of their finish in 2012. Episode 1 features last seasons top six, while Episode 2 covers all of the other teams, including FC Tokyo of course, as well as the three promoted sides (Jofuku!).

Right, thats all my plugs out of the way.

Continuity and Depth

Those are the two words that I believe Ranko Popovic stuck to when constructing his squad for his second season in charge. With the exception of Yohei Kajiyama, who wanted to take his chances in Europe, and fair play to him, and Kenta Mukuhara, who I really rate and was surprised to see go on loan to Cerezo Osaka, all of our important players from 2012 have been kept on (sorry Roswell, but that definition didn't apply to you anymore).

As we all know Keigo Higashi was signed as a direct replacement for Kajiyama, and the early signs have been promising: his first-time through ball for Aria's winner in the friendly against Jeju United was superb; and he got on the scoresheet himself in the draw against Sendai last Tuesday. With Nema waiting in the wings I believe the loss of Casual can be sufficiently overcome.

Elsewhere on the park we are pretty much set, though either Jang Hyun Soo or Kenichi Kaga will have to display a greater level of consistency in central defence alongside new captain Masato Morishige, and there's a debate to be had on whether Takuji Yonemoto or Aria Hasegawa will be the regular partner for Hideto Takahashi in centre mid. We might see the more tenacious Yonemoto play mostly away from home, when we tend not to dominate possession as much; though the evidence from last year is that when he isn't suspended, Aria WILL start (in XI for all 28 games he was available for in 2012), either centrally or out on a flank.

On the second of those key words, have a look at how we shape up in each position with a formation I drew on this11.com (if it doesn't load properly you can view the web version here):

football formations

While there's obviously a lot of youth in that second XI (white kit), it also contains established (though not outstanding) J1 players like Kazuma Watanabe, Aria, Kenichi Kaga and Hitoshi Shiota, and it doesn't include the likes of Sota Hirayama, Yohei Hayashi, Yohei Otake and Kento Hashimoto, who could all play a part at some stage this year. On top of those names Casual is of course a possibility to come back at the end of June, too, further strengthening us through the middle.

The addition of Tadanari Lee instantly changed my expectations for the upcoming season. I went from thinking top six was an outside chance, with us relying on Lucas' aging legs and the inconsistent Watanabe to get us goals, to believing that we could crack the top four with a top class J1 striker leading the line. Lee scored 15 goals for Hiroshima just two years ago, and we've only had two players get that many in the last eight seasons (Lucas scored 18 in 2006 in his first stint at the club, and Naohiro Ishikawa banged in 15 in his magical 2009 season).

He offers us a different type of threat to our two main incumbents up front, and ironically Casual might've moved on at the right time for Lee, as Higashi will move the ball on quicker than our former captain ever did, allowing Lee to play on the shoulder of the last defender more. Lucas and Watanabe are more hold-the-ball-up types, but Lee's movement and pace should allow him to play closer to goal, and providing he settles relatively quickly, he could easily match his 2011 goal mark.

The elephant in the room is obviously the possibility that Lee could return to Southampton at the end of June, but if he finds his feet quickly, bangs a few goals in and returns to national team manager Alberto Zaccheroni's plans, then I believe he'll see the sense in staying for the full year, and the Saints staying up in the Premier League would certainly help us out in that regard, as it appears they don't believe he's physically equipped to be a regular in the Prem. They could of course move him on elsewhere, but if he's happy with us then we should be able to sign him permanently at the end of his loan.

Apart from Lee, Hiroki Kawano is another player who could take us to the next level, and push us up the table. The wee wing wizard was a non-factor for most of last season, as injuries totally ruined his year, but he's been the stand-out player throughout preseason, and his trickery and burst of pace will cause problems for even the sternest of J1 defences. All that remains now is for the manager to put his faith in Kawano, as it seems to me he's been thought of in a similar way to Otake: a flair player who perhaps doesn't do enough the other way to warrant a regular spot in the first team.

With four of our first six games away, including trips to Yokohama and Sendai, I don't think we'll be charging out of the gates, but if we are hard to beat on the road, and take our chances at home, then we'll hopefully start well, and if we can reach the 'mid-season break' (after Matchday 13) in or around the top six then we are set up perfectly for the second half and the end of the season, as five of our last seven are at home.

There's a lot of water to go under the bridge before then of course, and it all starts on Saturday night in Oita, before we host Kashiwa on March the 9th.

Up the Gas!