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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Halfway Home? Part 1

I'd like to start Part 1 of this mid-season recap with a question to all FC Tokyo fans (don't worry, it's not a tough one, and your answer will be the same as mine was). OK, ready? Here we go: Before the season started, did you think FC Tokyo would be top of J2 at the halfway point? You did, right? Of course you did, we all did. And we were all right, thanks in part to Sunday's 2-0 away win over FC Gifu (but mostly to Kitakyushu, who stunned Tokushima on Friday night).

But if I'd asked you the same question after Matchday 2, when we lost 3-0 away to Chiba, or after Matchday 6's horror 2-1 loss at Kusatsu (we lost to Kusatsu!), after which we had scored just three goals in six games, would your answer have been the same? Maybe, maybe not (mine would've been different).

Now I wasn't one of the people who thought we'd win every game, or score 100 goals - I'm on record as saying several times I didn't think promotion would be a piece of cake for us - but even I've been surprised by how difficult/tricky/unpredictable J2 is this season, and while this is called 'Halfway Home (to J1)' I'm not counting any chickens that we will go up, as there'll be many more twists and turns until the first weekend in December.

It took us a looooong time to get going, and a lot has gone on since the first weekend in March, but we've reached the halfway point in first, so in Part 1 we'll look some of the big incidents that contributed to our slow start, and the players who have stepped in to cover for our injured stars....

The Injuries
No one's going to feel sorry for us, and I don't expect them to as we've got the deepest squad in the league, but we've had to overcome an awful lot injury-wise this season, suffering long-term injuries to several key players.

The hammer blows started in the enforced break after the earthquake and tsunami, when our main striker Sota Hirayama had his leg broken in a 'friendly' against Tochigi SC, a game that also marked the last appearance for the holding midfielder Roberto, who we saw for a grand total of four minutes as a sub in the season opener, injured his knee in training and returned to Brazil at the start of May.

Those two injuries started an unbelievable chain reaction that saw two other key players (in the same positions) suffer identical injuries. The big one was of course our midfield anchor Takuji Yonemoto, who blew out his knee after landing awkwardly 40-odd minutes into the first game after the resumption, then Hirayama's natural replacement Daiki Takamatsu, who returned to fitness during the break and made five starts up front without a goal, had his leg broken in the now infamous 2-1 loss at Kusatsu.

While Takamatsu was in the team we saw one of our new Brazilians, Pedro Junior, make his first two appearances, both off the bench, before he too got hurt and was eventually released at the end of June, leading to the return of.........no, I'll save that 'til later.

Add to that Naohiro Ishikawa's slow start (unsurprising as he needed to be careful in his return following his injury last November) - five sub appearances starting from Matchday 9 before another injury kept him out until last Sunday - and it's clear our squad depth has really been tested.

So in summary: we've had a full 90 minutes from Hirayama once, 43 minutes from Yonemoto before his injury, and a total of 126 minutes for Ishikawa in six substitute appearances...

Filling the breach
Luckily though, some of our younger players have stepped up to fill those injured players' boots, most notably Hideto Takahashi and Sotan Tanabe. And they've done it playing out of their natural positions.

After coming through the ranks as a central defender, Takahashi was a surprise choice to fill in for the suspended Yonemoto and start the season opener against Tosu, but he was then overlooked as Yuhei Tokunaga was again tried in the holding role first alongside, then instead of Yone. Once Mr. Okuma finally realised that Tokunaga is a defender and not a holding midfielder though (Matchday 8), Takahashi has been ever present, doing a very passable impression of Yonemoto as he's provided an effective shield for the defence, and has been a pleasant surprise when we go forward, contributing two goals, both excellent finishes too.

Tanabe is only 21 but has waited years (well, two) for his chance to stake a claim as a first team regular, and had to wait until Matchday 7 to make his first appearance of the season. While hardly a natural winger, he's done a fine job on the flanks, and the manager has kept faith with the youngster as he's made 13 consecutive starts, netting four times, my favourite of them his second against Kyoto in our 4-1 demolition there.

Up front, you could hardly say that Roberto Cesar is 'filling the breach,' as he was brought to the club to be a first XI striker and score a hatful of goals, but he should be mentioned here, as with Hirayama and Takamatsu out for so long he has led the line on his own pretty much all season, despite not being suited to the role of a target man. After a shaky start, that included a redcard in the first Derby, his return to the XI in Matchday 7 saw him score his first Tokyo goal, and coincided with the start of our recent 11-game unbeaten run. The Salad is up to six goals at halfway, and I'd have money on him getting to 15 by the end of the year.

Three other players have played differing roles in covering for our injury (or unavailable) absentees: Tatsuya Yazawa was expected to be merely a squad player but got his chance and has taken it, having played in every game (14 starts) and contributed three goals, including the scrambled winner on the first day of the season and the second goal last Sunday; Takumi Abe started the first six games of the season at left back as Hokuto Nakamura struggled with his fitness early; and Jade North made one start in central defence when Yasuyuki Konno was away on national team duty.

Oh, yeah, and there's one more.........

Pedro Junior's release turned out to be a blessing in disguise for The Gasmen and all Tokyo supporters, as the club sent out an S.O.S. to Lucas, the newly-retired club legend (despite him nicking off to Gamba four years ago). Thankfully the big man was up for the challenge of helping us back into J1, and you know all about the excitement we all felt when his return was rumoured, and then confirmed.

We were in the middle of a long unbeaten run when he was unveiled (against Tottori at Aji Sta), but his return added to the feel-good factor around the club, and his first sub appearance, against Gifu at home, and then his first goal, against Kumamoto at Kokuritsu, saw Tokyo supporters as loud as I've heard them, absolutely joyous in celebrating the return of the prodigal son.

In Part 2, I'll go through the season so far month-by-month, with my picks for our best players so far and the numbers that matter to this point. Keep your eye out for that, later this week.

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