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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

To Kokuritsu And Beyond

Sota: "Yeah, I probably won't even be playing."
All of our preseason friendlies have been played, we've looked for clues on how the combinations Mr. Popovic has experimented with will affect our formation and the way we'll set up, now its time to gaze into the crystal ball and have a go at predicting the FC Tokyo XIs for the Super Cup on Saturday and our A.C.L. debut, away to Brisbane, next Tuesday.

This is an exercise fraught with danger, and I'm bound to end up with egg on my face (I know, nothing new there), as no one knows the answers to two important questions:
  • How much will the manager rotate the squad, especially in A.C.L. weeks?
  • How much priority is he placing on the A.C.L.?
I'm guessing the answers are: Quite a bit; and, A fair amount, but not as much as our league campaign, of course. And its for insight like that, folks, that they pay me the big bucks.

XEROX SUPER CUP v Kashiwa: Saturday 1.35pm
Its our first appearance in the Super Cup, the glorified friendly that serves as the traditional J.League curtain-raiser in the mould of the Charity Community Shield in England, and I'm expecting a strong XI, most likely largely consisting of the players who won J2 and the Emperor's Cup for us in 2011.

Therefore I expect Kenta Mukuhara to start ahead of Kosuke Ota at left back, and either Tatsuya Yazawa or Naotake Hanyu to play on the left of midfield over Hiroki Kawano. One big change from last season looks likely to come in central midfield, with all of the preseason signs pointing to Aria Hasegawa getting the nod over Hideto Takahashi to start alongside Yohei Kajiyama.

football formations
Yeah, still blue & pink.
Nothing I can do about it...
The biggest change of all though of course is that we look certain to switch back to 4-4-2 after almost a full season of 4-5-1, which hurts Hanyu's prospects of regular games the most, as I'm not sure he's fit enough at this stage of his career to get up and down the wing for 60 minutes every week (before his early bath of course).

The possibility of switching back to five in midfield at times (away against the 'bigger teams'?) is still there, though Mr. Popovic strikes me as the sort of manager who will trust his players to do the business by taking the game to the opponent, not having his formation or lineup dictated to him by whoever we happen to be playing on the day.

All of the players appear fit and raring to go (with the exception of Takuji Yonemoto, who has had a couple of setbacks in the preseason), and the thing I'll be watching with most interest is how the three new combinations down our spine (Morishige/Kaga, Casual/Aria and Watanabe/Lucas) work together.

This XI gives us the opportunity to use the varied talents of Kawano, Sota Hirayama and perhaps even Kentaro Shigematsu off the bench in the second half to spruce things up.

A.C.L. Matchday 1 v Brisbane: Tuesday 6.30pm (Japan Time)
If I'm anywhere near right on the Super Cup team (firstly, it'll be a miracle), then I'd expect at least three changes for our first A.C.L. appearance. Kawano, Ota and Takahashi could all come in, and if there are any concerns about Lucas playing two games in four days this early in the season (with Omiya away four days later of course), then we may see Hirayama come in to give us two-thirds of our Kunimi connection in the XI.

football formations
Five changes!
One thing I thought we could've seen more of in the preseason was Takahashi and Hasegawa playing together in the middle, as the manager obviously sees Aria as more than just a holding player - remember he started in the hole behind Watanabe in the friendly against FC Seoul.

Casual won't be able to play every game, and there's a chance Mr. Popovic could rotate the three game-by-game, for example starting Aria and Hideto here (as I can't imagine Casual won't start the league opener), but my best guess is our regular central duo from 2011, perhaps reverting back to Aria and Casual for Omiya.

I also have some slight concerns about Naohiro Ishikawa playing too many games right at the start of the season, though he did look very fresh and up for it in his national team cameo last Friday night. If Nao starts the Super Cup I'd expect him to come off the bench and cause some late havoc in the Brisbane defence.

I have Kawano on the right, as thats where he seems to prefer to operate, and Hanyu also coming in for Yazawa to make five changes in all - justifying my answer to the first question above. Again, its a great unknown, but I feel the manager will be more prepared to trust his whole squad than Mr. Okuma ever was.

One thing that could work against this XI taking the park is the more physical nature of the A League, with Brisbane likely to be more aggressive in the challenge than any J.League team we'll face (though they are far from brutes and play perhaps the best brand of football in Australia). On that note Kawano and Hanyu are perhaps not the best two I could've chosen on the wings, but they bring a lot to the table creatively and should be able to stay out of harm's way.

So there you have it. My best guess on how a manager I know next-to-nothing about will set up a team for two games in four days. I'll probably be spectacularly wrong, but at least after reading this you are 10 minutes closer to the season starting.

Up the Gas!

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