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Thursday, March 21, 2013

On Our Way

Apologies for not updating this blog since the season got up and running, but the club have been doing well enough on the pitch regardless, so I didn't feel a particular sense of urgency.

In this post I'll run through the first four games of the season: the league wins over Oita and Kashiwa; the loss in Osaka against Cerezo; and the goalless draw in the Cracker Cup against Tosu yesterday. I'm not using any photos, because I shouldn't, according to the club's PR department.

Oita 1-2 FC Tokyo

J1 Matchday 1

We headed down to Kyushu for the first game of the season, and it turned into a happy return for ex-Oita folk Ranko Popovic, Masato Morishige and Keigo Higashi as we left the Oita Bank Dome with three points after an ultimately convincing 2-1 win.

After we dominated the opening 15 minutes, with Higashi looking particularly hungry on his Tokyo debut (he smashed a shot onto the bar in the 9th minute), we found oursleves behind in the 17th minute after Choi Jung Han took a pass from a short corner, whipped the ball across the box, and with Yasuhito Morishima's diagonal run distracting Shuichi Gonda, the ball bounced through the area and in at the far post. Oita suddenly had their tails up, and we almost fell two goals down after a dreadful attempted clearance/back pass from Morishige, but we were indebted to Gonda, who made a key one-on-one save.

We pulled ourselves level in the 26th minute after a superb flowing move that started on the halfway line on the right when Yuhei Tokunaga nicked the ball as Oita looked to counter. Lucas took a pass from Tokunaga and laid the ball off to Hideto Takahashi on the touchline, Takahashi played a square ball infield that looked to be heading Higashi's way before Kazuma Watanabe pinched it. Watanabe turned and darted towards goal, played the ball to Aria Hasegawa stationed dead centre on the edge of the box, took the return from Aria and curled a superb first-time shot with his left foot around the keeper and in at his right hand post. A brilliant finish from Kazuma, the sort of quality technique we didn't see much of from him in 2012.

Eleven minutes into the second half we took the lead thanks to a very alert piece of play and a composed finish from Aria that left Oita stunned. Following a strong run down the right from Tokunaga his shot was deflected out for a corner, and the threat looked to be over when Takahashi headed Higashi's corner right at the keeper. But when the keeper rolled the ball out through the middle to try and start an Oita attack, Aria nipped in, took a touch and stroked a shot with his left foot into the unguarded net.

In the last half hour Oita created several half-chances, but Gonda wasn't overly extended, and the major interest for us was Tadanari Lee's 20-minute cameo on his Tokyo debut. He almost scored with just his second touch, when he poked Lucas' low cross from the right on target but the keeper was simply in the way having known nothing about it. Lee then had two great chances in quick succession as the clock ticked down, but the keeper made a good one-on-one save on the first and then he screwed a shot just past the post.

That was just about it, and we ran out deserved 2-1 winners, getting our season off to a solid start.

FC Tokyo 3-0 Kashiwa

J1 Matchday 2

What a way to open the season at home! While it wasn't as exhilarating as the 3-2 comeback win over Nagoya in our home opener in 2012, this was as complete a 90 minute display as we've seen at Aji Sta in the past three or four years. On a glorious March afternoon the crowd of just over 26,000 was slightly disappointing, but those who rolled up saw a dynamic Gasmen performance.

We fielded an unchanged XI, and the first half was all about Watanabe, as he carried on from where he left off in Oita with two superb first-time finishes with his left foot that gave us a commanding 2-0 half time lead. The first came in just the sixth minute when Takuji Yonemoto nicked the ball in the centre circle and lifted a ball over the top for Kazuma to run on to. With the keeper hedging his bets and not committing to come for the ball, Watanabe simply rifled a low first-time shot through his legs and into the net to give us a dream start.

In the 28th minute it was 2-0 after Kosuke Ota did well to win a header on the edge of the box after his initial cross was half cleared. Ota headed down in the direction of Higashi, who shot first-time on the turn, miss hit the ball but it bounced perfectly into the path of Watanabe who slotted home at the keeper's near post with a minimum of fuss. We finished the first half in the ascendancy, and were great value for our lead.

Kashiwa improved as the second half got going, but new signing Cleo was unable to have much of an impact as key man Leandro Domingues was stifled by the strong pressing of Takahashi and particularly Yonemoto in the middle of the park. The better chances continued to come our way though, and Higashi was denied his first Tokyo goal twice in quick succession in the 58th minute, and then in the 74th minute, Lee, who had come on for Watanabe five minutes earlier, lashed a shot from the left side of the box out of the keeper's reach but off the junction of bar and post.

Four minutes later we put the game to bed thanks to a brilliant strike from Aria, which put a perfect end to a slick passage of play that also involved Tokunaga, Lee and Yonemoto. Aria picked up Yone's pass on the left just outside the box, cut onto his right foot inside a couple of defenders and picked his spot in the top corner at the keeper's near post. A superb goal and a fantastic way to cap a total team performance against one of the sides tipped to challenge for the title this season.

Cerezo Osaka 1-0 FC Tokyo

J1 Matchday 3

Did this feel familiar? Yes, yes it did. After two straight wins to start the season we headed down to Kansai to try and make it three-from-three against another team with a 100% record, just as we had done in 2012 when we knocked off Kobe after a tight away win (over Omiya) and a great display at home (against Nagoya). Unfortunately history didn't repeat though, and we returned home with nothing, though we had good reason to feel aggrieved after several borderline decisions went against us, with the players and coaching staff venting their frustrations with the referee at the final whistle.

Unchanged again, we roared out of the gate, with Watanabe looking to carry on his red-hot form with a shot into the side netting in the first 30 seconds, and there were other chances for Hasegawa and Tokunaga in the first five minutes. Our first gripe came in the 21st minute, when Higashi was adjudged to have controlled Ota's cross from the left with his arm as he laid the ball down for Lucas, who smashed home on the volley. One replay angle suggested the ball had come off Higashi's shoulder, another that the ball may have flicked his hand on the way down, but it was a difficult one to call and unfortunately it set the tone for our frustration with the officiating the rest of the way.

In a cagey game our next clear-cut chance came in the 37th minute, when Aria stepped in front of a pass on the halfway line and surged forward, with Watanabe on his right and Higashi making good ground on his left more centrally. Aria chose to try to play in Watanabe, who probably should've taken a shot on but instead slid to ball across the box but behind Higashi, who had carried on his run too far.

Two minutes into the second half we fell behind, as a loose pass from Tokunaga out on the right touchline was punished as Cerezo countered at speed, though there was controversy here too. Their Brazilian striker Edno, who did nothing much else all game, flicked a ball out to the left to find fullback Yusuke Maruhashi, who had come on at half time for Kenta Mukuhara, on loan from us of course. With an extra man over Maruhashi slid in teenage winger Takumi Minamino, who rolled the ball across the box to a totally unmarked (though possibly offside) Hotaru Yamaguchi, who tapped home.

Yamaguchi may well have been level with the last man, Morishige, who was caught between running at Minamino and covering Yamaguchi, but the lack of a TV replay suggests that he was probably off. Regardless of that though, it was concerning to see us caught out so badly on the counter again, something we saw way too much of last season.

Seven minutes after going behind we again felt hard done by after putting the ball in the net, and again Higashi and Lucas were involved, as the former was deemed to have failed to hold his run as he tapped in the latter's cross along the six yard box. If it felt like it wasn't going to be our day after all that, then a double stop on Lee in the 68th minute all but confirmed it. Morishige hoisted a perfectly-weighted ball over the top for Lee (on just two minutes earlier) to run on to, and one-on-one with keeper he first lashed a shot that was parried away, then fired the rebound on target only for a covering defender to block the ball away with his legs.

Hiroki Kawano replaced Lucas with 13 minutes left but was unable to have an impact, and a Lee header straight at the keepr from Naohiro Ishikawa's corner a minute later was as close as we came as Cerezo did just enough to keep us out. It all went a bit mental right at the death as Higashi was booked for a tumble in the box looking for a penalty in the 95th minute, and then Gonda was yellow carded after the match had finished for not lining up to shake hands in a timely manner. The ref was acting like a right twat by this stage, and the manager came out to give him a piece of his mind as our frustration really boiled over. Not a pleasant end to an afternoon that we can only hope will sting the players until Yokohama away on the 30th.

FC Tokyo 0-0 Tosu

Nabsico Cup Group B Matchday 1

The manager rung the changes for our first Cracker Cup group stage game since 2010, giving first starts in red and blue to Lee up front and Hirotaka Mita on the right flank, with Kenichi Kaga replacing Jang Hyun Soo (away with the South Korean national team) in central defence, and Hitoshi Shiota and Sotan Tanabe deputising for Gonda and Takahashi (away with Japan: Aria moved into centre mid; Tanabe played on the left). We also brought Yohei Otake and Hideyuki Nozawa into the 18, with Lucas, Ishikawa and Vucicevic not in the matchday squad.

In a very strong wind, and with the pitch in far from ideal condition, the game never hit any real heights, with Tosu looking at their most dangerous whenever Kota Mizunuma or Koki Kiyotake were on the ball, while we looked to Higashi and Lee for inspiration. Tosu had the wind at their backs in the first half, but apart from one punched save of a long range free kick Shiota didn't have a great deal to do.

In the second half Mita came into the game more, and he had probably our best moment when he made a clever diagonal run, controlled Aria's lofted ball between two defenders on his chest and lashed a first-time shot which skimmed the bar on its way over.

Otake came on for the last 20 minutes and had some nice touches but was unable to find much space around the box, and Sota Hirayama (on with 13 minutes left) and Watanabe (on for the last three) suffered from the same problem as we struggled to make our late domination count. The 0-0 draw was the first such result we've had in all competitions since October 2011 in J2 Matchday 31, when our opponent was...Tosu.

Up to Kashima this Saturday then for another Cracker Cup engagement, before we make the short trip to Yokohama for J1 Matchday 4 on the 30th to take on table-toppers F.Marinos.

Up the Gas!

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