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Friday, July 27, 2012

Mid-Term Report: Part 2

In Part 1 of this FC Tokyo mid-season report I gave you all the stats on our first half records at home, away and against teams who finished in the top and bottom halves of the table at the end of Matchday 17 (remembering that Kawasaki and Shimizu were replaced in the top half by Tosu and Yokohama in MD 18). Hopefully that didn't bore you too much.

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.
All things considered, our first foray in Asia's premier club competition should be considered a success. A rip-roaring start in the win over Brisbane and professional performances throughout saw us reach the last group stage game unbeaten and safely through to the knockout round, but a failure to take chances in that final group game away to Ulsan, and then again away to Guangzhou in the one-off Round of 16 clash saw our Asian adventure end.

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.
  • Crowds
Don't need to spend too much time here. After Matchday 17 we had the second-highest average home attendance in J1, 23,604, but though that sounds nice its well down from our 2010 average of 25,112 (we were over 25,000 our last four J1 seasons). There were some extenuating circumstances, mainly the weather for the first three home games, and we still have Kanto based Yokohama and Kawasaki to come at Aji Sta, but when you consider we've already hosted Urawa and Shimizu (always great travellers), that average is unlikely to rise much in the second half of the season.
  • Massive Injury List
This has been a massive strain on the squad, and again Mr. Popovic has done well to maximise results considering both established performers (Ishikawa, Kajiyama, Hanyu, Yonemoto and Hirayama) and important offseason arrivals (Kaga, Ota and Kawano) have all spent extended periods in the treatment room. Add in role players like Otake and Nakamura and you can see how tough it has been for the manager.

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.
  • Edmilson
We've made a big splash in the summer transfer window with the arrival of Edmilson, the scorer of 109 J1 goals in spells with Niigata and Urawa, and after the preseason departure of The Salad we still have a foreign player spot open if the manager feels he needs to strengthen further. I think thats unlikely, but going after and getting Edmilson is a great statement of intent, and if we can get him fit he could easily reach his target of 10 goals in the final 16 games. Kazuma Watanabe will suffer the most in terms of playing time, as you'd expect Lucas will play in the hole behind Edmilson, at least until Casual returns.

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.
  • Olympics
On the day the 18-man Olympic squad was announced we knew we were going to lose Shuichi Gonda and Yuhei Tokunaga for a few J1 games, and when Takuji Yonemoto was named as an alternate we assumed we'd be without him, too, especially after he travelled to the UK for warmup friendlies against Belarus and Mexico (and did well in substitute appearances). But Yone flew back right after the Mexico game and came off the bench for us at Sendai on Wednesday night, lessening the Olympic impact for the squad.

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
I admit it: I was pessimistic. I didn't think he was the right man. I thought we should've gone after a 'bigger name.' But what have we gotten? An absolutely perfect fit for FC Tokyo. While I haven't agreed with all his team selections or in-game substitutions, Ranko Popovic has been a charismatic, intense, totally committed breath of fresh air and he deserves a massive amount of praise for where we sat at halfway.

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.
  • Expectations
Finally, and massive respect if you've read down all this way, to what to expect from FC Tokyo for the second half of the season. I've written in the paragraph above that we won't win the league, and I think all rational-thinking Gasmen supporters would agree. The first goal at the start of the year was simply to maintain our J1 status, but the manager and players have made that a near-certainty at halfway. So what are our targets for the final four months of the year?

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.

Up the Gas!

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