|After winning a dance-off, birthday boy Dorompa whisks Hello Kitty away...|
This game in hand on both Tosu and Sapporo would see us move four points clear with a win, but going in we knew Kitakyushu would be a tough nut to crack, as we discovered when we travelled there at the end of July, when Casual's saved penalty and Tomoki Ikemoto's wonder strike earned them a famous 1-0 win.
Unsurprisingly, we were unchanged, even though the players had had only two full days to recover from Sunday's win over Yokohama FC. And the man I suggested we rest, Sotan Tanabe, started off like he had read my preview and had a point to prove, buzzing around the flanks and linking play effectively.
There was early drama though, when an attempted cross-field pass by Masato Morishige clattered into Hideto Takahashi 's head, releasing Ikemoto, who raced forward with Yasuaki Oshima in support. Oshima received the ball and lashed a shot that may have been creeping in at Shuichi Gonda's far post had the big 'keeper not got his fingertips on it.
Aside from that there wasn't much else in the way of entertainment first half, apart from the Kitakyushu 'keeper Yuya Sato rushing 25 yards out of his goal to throttle left back Yuki Fuji, following his lapse in concentration that allowed Yuhei Tokunaga to get around the back and get a cross in, in the 19th minute.
That, and, of course, Tatsuya Yazawa flinging himself to the floor at the first hint of contact, most notably in the 28th minute when he screamed for a pen when 'upended' in the box, but the ref (who we'll get back to later) was having none of it. Yazawa has a lot to like about his game, and he's undoubtedly been a key player for us this season, but his tendency to go down very easily is one trait I wish he'd drop from his bag of tricks.
There were a few other half chances for us as the half wound down, but we could have few complants with the 0-0 half time scoreline, especially after Gonda's early save.
If there were nerves at half time, they were quickly settled two minutes into the second half by a fantastic strike from Kenta Mukuhara. Following good work down the right by Casual and Yazawa, the scrambling Kitakyushu defence scrambled the ball clear...or so they thought. It broke to the on-rushing Mukuhara about 30 yards from goal dead in front, and with no time to think he thumped the ball low and hard right at Sato.
The ball seemed to travel in slow motion from our side-on vantage point but was really well struck, and would've been a regulation save for the keeper, but a defender stuck his foot out right in front of the keeper and deflected it into the net. A bit of luck, but you never know if you don't have a go, and Mukuhara's second of the season gave us the lead.
Now back to the ref! We'd commented in the first half that he'd had a decent start to the game, letting the game flow and not blowing up for every tackle as so many other J2 refs seem to do, but after the goal the crowd got right on him as the visitors didn't hold back in the challenge and he kept his whistle in his pocket. Then he appeared to award a few soft free kicks to them, and booked Tanabe (his 4th yellow, he's suspended for Sunday) for a barge from behind in the centre circle, which got the home end really incensed.
Things calmed down after a while, and though they always looked some sort of threat on the counter, we continued to enjoy the majority of the possession, but our cutting edge was missing as we searched for the killer second goal.
Enter Naohiro Ishikawa. Once again Tanabe made way for Nao, this time in the 69th minute, and while it took him only five minutes to set up Naotake Hanyu's first goal on Sunday, this time we had to wait six for a brilliant contribution from our No.18, the architect for one of the best team goals we've ever scored.
Morishige played the ball out to Nao on the right, and he cut inside a defender before exchanging passes with Hanyu before playing it across the edge of the box to Yazawa, who reached into his bag of tricks and backheeled the ball to Lucas to fire past a helpless Sato. It all happened in an instant, and that sentence probably didn't do it justice, but that four-pass move after Nao took possession was absolute class, and meant we were great value for our 2-0 lead.
Kitakyushu were gallant, and you could see why they've done so well this season, but there was no way back for them after going two goals down, and we were content to sit on our lead as victory was sealed, our fourth on the spin.
That's us four points clear of Sapporo then, and on a night of more shocks, which included Kyoto winning at Chiba and Tochigi losing at home to FC Gifu (What. The. F#ck?), we took care of business. On Sunday we head to Tokushima, who rose to 3rd by beating Kumamoto (taking advantage of Chiba's loss and Tosu not playing) in what shapes as a massive test. We won't have Tanabe, so this looks like the perfect chance to give Ishikawa his first start of the season.