#Unpopular opinion alert! I'm going to have a few goes at Mr. Popovic in here, too.
FC Tokyo 1-1 Urawa
J1 Matchday 13
HAVE THAT!Both photos from FC Tokyo Official Website
Hat-trick hero Kazuma Watanabe started, as did the man who set up two of his goals against Tosu, Naohiro Ishikawa, which meant Takuji Yonemoto and Tatsuya Yazawa were dropped to the bench, with Lucas shifting out to the left of midfield.
The first half was full of incident, Watanabe was just unable to connect with a couple of teasing Lucas crosses and Ishikawa clattered the post with a left-footed shot in the 32nd minute, but we went in level thanks to Shuichi Gonda, who made two outstanding saves to deny Tsukasa Umezaki and then Marcio Richardes, the latter an astonishing reflex shot from the Brazilian's volley.
We had two outstanding chances just past the hour mark, first Yohei Kajiyama volleyed inches past the post from Kenta Mukuhara's cut back, then the overlapping Yuhei Tokunaga blazed across the face of goal after a pass from the captain found him in space on the right side of the box.
We continued to control things into the last twenty minutes, but its here I feel Mr. Popovic blew a golden opportunity to introduce fresh legs as he waited until the 85th minute to make a substitution. I seem to always be plumping for Hiroki Kawano, but it should've been plainly obvious to the manager that a spark of creativity was needed, and the glimpses we've had of Kawano so far have shown he has that in spades.
But as it was we saw the introduction of Yazawa instead late on, and in the 88th minute the visitors took the lead after Yosuke Kashiwagi dribbled into the box, lost the ball, we failed to clear and Genki Haraguchi tapped it back for Richardes to lash home at Gonda's near post.
They've done us again, we thought, but in the first minute of stoppage time Ishikawa swung over an outswinging corner, Masato Morishige outjumped Tomoaki Makino and planted a header past a static Nobuhiro Kato in the Urawa goal to get us back on level terms.
There was almost a sting in the tail, but luckily for us Haragauchi's very late header came back off the post and was cleared, with the ref blowing up on a 1-1 draw, which felt like a win after we went behind so late.
Guangzhou 1-0 FC Tokyo
A.C.L. Round of 16
How the hell did that not go in.....
Guangzhou were sure to prove formidable opponents though, the defending Chinese Super League champions had Brazilian forward Muriqui back from injury (he had terrorized Kashiwa, scoring twice back in April) and had just employed Italy's World Cup winning manager Marcello Lippi as their new gaffer.
For such a big game Mr Popovic took a pretty big gamble, naming Hideto Takahashi at centre back, the first time in his professional career he'd started in defence, which enabled Tokunaga to return to right back and meant he was able to pair Yonemoto and Aria Hasegawa in central midfield. For the record, I'm not having a go at the manager for those moves, I was glad to see Tokunaga at full back.
We gave an excellent account of ourselves in the first twenty minutes, but once Guangzhou had settled into the game we were suddenly put under the cosh, and a sustained period of pressure bore fruit for the hosts in the 31st minute, when a momenatry loss of concentration from Mukuhara cost us dearly. Muriqui dinked the ball over the top of a ball-watching Mukuhara, Gonda had to come but wasn't in time and Cho Won Hee played the ball across the six yard box to the Brazlian striker Cleo, who bundled the ball home with his knees despite Takahashi sliding in trying desperately to clear.
We suddenly had a long road to hoe, and chances came at both ends in a frantic second half. Ishikawa fired just over almost straight from the restart and later Watanabe headed onto the roof of the net from Ishikawa's cross. Guangzhou were always a threat to kill us off though, Muriqui was outstanding (until it came to finishing) and gave Tokunaga fits all night, while Yonemoto and Aria couldn't get near Conca, the little Argentine running the show for the hosts from midfield.
Mr. Popovic was more proactive than against Urawa and made a change in the 55th minte, but again it was Yazawa coming on for the off-colour Yonemoto, when surely Kawano would've made more sense (anyone interested in becoming vice-president of the Hiroki Kawano Fan Club?). He then waited for HALF AN HOUR, in a 1-0 game, to make another change, finally introducing Kawano and then Yohei Hayashi, and the wee man came on and crossed from the left for Lucas, who headed against the post. Could've used something like that ten, fifteen, twenty minutes earlier? YES.
As the game entered stoppage time Hayashi had a great chance, Kawano was involved in the setup again, but the young striker couldn't get his body shape right to shoot before being closed down, and in the clash of bodies a Guangzhou defender was injured causing a five minute delay before play could resume (the ref blew up for a non-existent foul on the 'keeper, who had been run into by his own defender, but I won't mention the 'keeper by name because he's a cheating twat).
We won a corner right at the death, Gonda came up, the ball was cleared but we kept it in and around the box, Lucas crossed from the left and Gonda rose completely unmarked eight yards out....and headed just past the post.
And that was it, 1-0 and we were out.
This is not intended as a hard luck story, because in truth the Chinese side deserved to win, and Muriqui might've had five goals if he had his shooting boots on. And I'm not going to complain about the one-off-game nature of the Round of 16, because we should've won the group, but to come so close to scoring on several ocassions, and in thinking about what might've been if the manager had brought Kawano on earlier....I was just sick in my mouth. Again.
There's now a two-week J1 break while the national team plays three World Cup qualifiers.