Fuji Xerox Super Cup
The curtain was raised on the 2012 J.League season yesterday when Kashiwa defeated FC Tokyo 2-1 in the Super Cup at Kokuritsu. Over 35,000 supporters turned out on a lovely early spring afternoon, and were treated to an entertaining game that was as encouraging for The Gasmen as the result was frustrating.
I knew the team I posted last week was unlikely to be our actual XI for this game, but Mr. Popovic threw me for a loop by opting for five in midfield, with Aria Hasegawa handed a first Tokyo start in the hole behind Lucas, while he also started Hitoshi Shiota in goal and Yuhei Tokunaga at centre back, though the latter move allowed Kosuke Ota to make his debut for us on the left side of defence.
The first 25 minutes were enough to convince me that we'll be extremely competitive back in the top flight, as we snapped at the champions' heels, giving them little time on the ball, countering aggressively (with Naohiro Ishikawa prominent) and generally just having the better of things everywhere apart from their final third, where there was a serious lack of end product to make our dominance count where it mattered most: on the scoreboard.
And then, in the 26th minute, with their very first shot of the game, Kashiwa took the lead thanks to a 30 yard screamer from Jorge Wagner. As we built play starting another attack a ball from Ota up to Lucas was scrambled clear and thumped upfield by a sliding Kashiwa defender, right into the path of Wagner who was dawdling on the edge of the centre circle. With our central midfield bypassed by the clearance, Wagner ran at our backline, set himself to fire and launched a rocket to the left of a slightly flat-footed Shiota.
A fantastic goal, but one that should be entered into the dictionary as the very definition of "against the run of play." Things evened out after the goal, but while we never mounted a sustained assault on their goal, we certainly didn't deserve to go in at half time two goals down, though thats what happened after a frankly ridiculous decision by "Japan's best referee" (according to me, on twitter, on Friday), Yuichi Nishimura.
Shiota produced a brilliant low save to deny Wagner's header from a Leandro freekick, and when Tokunaga hacked the ball away from goal to the edge of the box Masato Morishige bustled Hideo Kitajima off it and headed away, though Kitajima took a rather theatrical tumble and clutched his neck, prompting the ref to blow up and point to the spot for one of the softest penalties of all time. No raised arm from Morishige, no push, and the type of natural coming-together of defender and forward that happens dozens of times a game was deemed a foul, and Leandro fired home from the spot for 2-0.
If we in the away end were feeling rather aggrieved by that decision, then that feeling was multiplied four minutes into the second half when we were denied a pen after Hiroki Sakai brought down Tatsuya Yazawa. In truth if he had stayed on his feet Yazawa might have been able to screw the ball back into an empty net after he dribbled from right to left across the box, but he chose to leave his leg there for Sakai to clip, which he duly did, but the ref ignored the obvious contact, booked Yazawa for diving and ensured he won't be on Ranko Popovic's Christmas card list this year.
Kazuma Watanabe replaced a tiring Ishikawa 13 minutes into the second half, which saw Aria drop back to right midfield and give us our third debutant on the pitch. Seven minutes later the Yokohama old boys were both involved in the goal that breathed life back into the game. Watanabe took Aria's pass, waited for Hideto Takahashi to join the attack on the left then found his man with a lovely weighted pass. Takahashi crossed low and hard first time right across the six yard box where Aria had continued his run and met the ball in between defenders, only for Kashiwa 'keeper Takanori Sugeno to flick out his arm and make a frankly miraculous save. Those defenders then comedically undid their keeper's good work though by both leaping to clear and making contact at the same time, causing the ball to pop up invitingly for Aria to head home from 10 centimetres out.
We continued to push forward, they were content to try and hit us on the counter, and with 17 minutes to go the manager decided to introduce Naotake Hanyu, and within two minutes, shortly after coming on, Roswell had two golden opportunities to draw us level. The first he'll be having nightmares about for weeks, as he headed wide with the goal at his mercy, wasting an excellent run and cross by Kenta Mukuhara, then almost immediately afterwards firing right at Sugeno after excellent set up play by Watanabe.
There was a five minute cameo from Hiroki Kawano, but he wasn't able to concoct anything and the final whistle sounded after three minutes of stoppage time, the 2011 J1 Champions taking the trophy back to Chiba, but we could also take several things away from the game, most importantly the knowledge that we matched the defending champions for large stretches of the game, while there were excellent individual performances from Takahashi and Mukuhara in particular.
To Brisbane on Tuesday night then, when we'll make our A.C.L. debut, minus Lucas and new captain Yohei Kajiyama, who are being left at home with Saturday's J.League opener in mind.
Up the Gas!