So here in Part 2 we'll look at: our debut A.C.L. campaign and the effect it had on our league results (and you'll be surprised); crowd numbers in our first season back in the top flight; our outrageous injury list; the arrival of loan signing Edmilson; losing players to the Olympics; Mr. Popovic's impact in his first six months at the club; and expectations for the second half of the season. Some in more detail than others. Lets get going then...
- The A.C.L.
We were never going to win the competition, but we acquitted ourselves extremely well, impressed most observers and formed a bond with Brisbane that will hopefully endure regardless of if we meet them again in the coming years or not.
One thing I was worried about before the season started was how our league performances would suffer from A.C.L. play, but surprisingly, and Mr. Popovic deserves credit here, we were excellent in J1 games right after midweek Asian encounters. And this despite the J.League doing us no favours at all when it came to the fixture list.
FC Tokyo in J1 after A.C.L. games - W: 5 D: 0 L: 2 / Home W: 1 / Away W: 4 L: 2
Five wins from the seven weekend-after-A.C.L. games is a superb return, and its made to look even more impressive by the fact SIX of them were played away from home! Thanks for nothing, J.League. Omiya, Kobe, Kawasaki and Niigata were all beaten away, and the epic win over Tosu followed the disappointing loss to Ulsan.
Of course most of the squad are used to playing midweek in the Nabisco Cup, but the away trips in the A.C.L. are always taxing, even short-haul jaunts to South Korea and China, the latter of which we did twice this year of course. I would've taken a split of these games, but to come away with 15 points from 21 available was excellent, and was accomplished without mass rotation, a testament to how well prepared Mr. Popovic has the team each time out.
- Massive Injury List
Of course all of these absentees have given opportunities to some we thought might merely be squad players at the start of the year, as happened last season - Yonemoto's knee injury gave Hideto Takahashi a chance and he's been ever-present since. Here I'm referring to Aria and Mukuhara to name two, and all the injuries have kept Yazawa in the team (I remain to be convinced he's consistently good enough for J1), and as the big names gradually return - Ishikawa, Kaga and Yonemoto are currently fit - over the next month to six weeks the squad will naturally strengthen as we get set for the run-in.
A successful four months could see our new number nine sign permanently, and he would be a natural replacement for Lucas, who might be in his final season with us. Emphasis on the 'might' there because the old fella has certainly still got it, though not with the consistency he once had.
Gonda and Tokunaga are massive losses, having been ever-present in the league this season, and mean that us and Cerezo Osaka (who have lost their starting central midfield and returning-from-loan striker Kenyu Sugimoto) are the hardest hit clubs in J1. Hitoshi Shiota is a competent goalkeeper, and Kenta Mukuhara will cover for Tokunaga, but when you consider the top three and five of the top seven clubs after Matchday 17 have lost no players at all you see we are at a major disadvantage.
- Mr. Popovic's impact
He has embraced the club and its supporters, and from the one chat I've had with him at Kodaira I know he appreciates the warm reception the fans have given him from day one. His man-management is outstanding, as evidenced by the trust he's placed in Aria Hasegawa, and while we're not winning the league this season you can see he's laying the foundations for what will hopefully be a brighter Tokyo in the years ahead. More of the same, please, Popo-san.
A return to the A.C.L. would be brilliant, but that would mean finishing top three (or winning the Emperor's Cup again), and I don't think that is a realistic target when you consider how resilient both Sendai and Hiroshima have been, the quality of players Urawa have in important positions and the recoveries up the table by Nagoya and Kashiwa. Could we finish above one or two of those teams? Perhaps, if Edmilson hits the ground running and we get Casual, Ota and Kawano back by September, but three? No, I don't see it. If we can hold our midseason position and finish fifth, then that would be an outstanding result, and a realistic target as we re-establish ourselves in the top flight.