Friday, October 26, 2007

All eyes on Urawa

All eyes on Urawa.
Round 30 of the J-League has thrown up some fascinating fixtures, but all eyes will be on a Urawa Reds side that takes on Nagoya Grampus Eight in a blockbuster at Saitama Stadium.

Urawa qualified for the final of the AFC Champions League in midweek, and Nagoya will be hoping to take advantage of any hangovers by putting one over the Reds in what is traditionally a hotly contested affair.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima kick off the weekend with what could be an ill-tempered clash against JEF United. Not only will Japan striker Hisato Sato come up against a team captained by his twin brother Yuto, but Hiroshima recently signed Bulgarian defender Ilian Stoyanov.

Stoyanov was sacked by JEF United for claiming that coach Amar Osim was "clueless" and would lead the Chiba outfit into the Second Division. Ironically it's Hiroshima who could be destined for J2 - if they lose this match, they are in danger of being overtaken by a fast finishing Omiya Ardija.

In other highlight matches Kashiwa Reysol and Vissel Kobe will slug it out in a battle between two sides promoted from J2 last season, Omiya Ardija will be fighting for their lives away at a hapless Yokohama FC, Ventforet Kofu will be desperate to take all three points from Yokohama F. Marinos at home, there should be a near-capacity crowd at Nihondaira Stadium as fourth placed Shimizu S-Pulse take on second placed Gamba Osaka, and the Tama River Derby between FC Tokyo and Kawasaki Frontale will be another hotly anticipated affair.

Yokohama FC relegated in record timeYokohama FC were relegated in record time, after their 3-0 loss away at Vissel Kobe in Round 29 condemned the port city strugglers to Second Division football next season.

Having picked up a meagre eleven league points, the fan-created club look certain to finish with the lowest points tally since the J-League introduced a single stage season in 2005.

Yokohama FC have lost an embarrassing eight matches in a row, and their last point came in a 1-1 draw with Gamba Osaka back in Round 21.

That run of losses has been overseen by Brazilian coach Julio Leal, who was brought in to replace the sacked Takuya Takagi, with Leal yet to pick up a single point in charge of the embattled club.

Omiya Park Stadium open for business
After two seasons playing out of the home of their local rivals Urawa Reds, Omiya Ardija have finally vacated Komaba Stadium to return to their Omiya Park Stadium.

The compact ground has been undergoing extensive refurbishment and will host Omiya's final two home games of the season against Oita Trinita and Kawasaki Frontale.

The 12,500 capacity stadium features both seated and standing terraces and looks set to attract capacity crowds for Omiya's remaining two home fixtures, as the Squirrels of Saitama struggle to retain their J1 status.

The naming rights to the stadium have been sold to local FM radio station NACK5, and as such the stadium's official title is NACK5 Stadium Omiya.

Nabisco League Cup
The Nabisco League Cup Final will take place at the National Stadium in Tokyo on November 3, between Gamba Osaka and Kawasaki Frontale.

Gamba qualified courtesy of the away goals rule, after they lost 3-2 to Kashima Antlers in the second leg of their semi-final tie. Crucial goals from Ryuji Bando and Sidiclei fired the Osakans into the final, after Gamba won the first leg 1-0 thanks to a disputed Yasuhito Endo penalty.

Kawasaki Frontale came out on top of their clash with local rivals Yokohama F. Marinos, winning 6-3 on aggregate. Brazilian striker Juninho scored three goals in the tie, to add to his league-leading total of eighteen goals in the J-League.

AFC Champions LeagueUrawa Reds became the first Japanese side to reach the final of the revamped AFC Champions League, following their dramatic penalty shoot-out victory over Korean champions Seongnam Ilhwa.

With the scores deadlocked at 4-4 after 210 minutes of pulsating football, goalkeeper Ryota Tsuzuki was the hero for Urawa, standing tall to save Choi Sung-Kuk's nervy penalty.

Reds midfielder Tadaaki Hirakawa then stepped up to drill home the decisive spot-kick and send the majority of the 51,651 strong crowd into raptures.

Urawa will now play Iranian side Sepahan in the final, who knocked out Kawasaki Frontale at the quarter-final stage.

Since the current AFC Champions League format was introduced in 2003, no J-League side had progressed beyond the knock-out stage of the competition. Jubilo Iwata, however, reached three successive finals of the old Asian Club Cup between 1999 and 2001 and were crowned continental champions in 1999, following their win over Iranian giants Esteghlal FC.

Japan National TeamJapan recorded a resounding 4-1 win over Egypt in their friendly at Nagai Stadium in Osaka on October 17.

The Blue Samurai were inspired by a superb performance from Vissel Kobe striker Yoshito Okubo. He opened the scoring with a stunning long-range drive, before heading home his second before the half-time interval.

Jubilo Iwata striker Ryoichi Maeda produced a cool finish just after the break, before Gamba Osaka full-back Akira Kaji rounded out the scoring for Japan, driving home a low strike from just inside the area.

Mohamed Fadl scored a consolation goal for a heavily depleted Egyptian side.

Japan Olympic TeamIn a country that holds bad memories for Japanese football fans, Japan's Under-22 National Team lost 2-1 to Qatar in their most recent qualifying match for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The result could come back to haunt Japan's conservative coach Yasuharu Sorimachi, particularly after Japan opened the scoring through Shimizu S-Pulse defender Naoki Aoyama's scrappy finish.

Qatar equalised through Hasan Al Haydos with just twelve minutes remaining, and with the Qatari's marauding forward in search of a winner, FC Tokyo midfielder Masahiko Inoha was adjuged to have handled inside the area deep into stoppage time, and midfielder Majdi Siddiq made no mistake from the spot to fire Qatar to a 2-1 win.

The loss brought back memories of Japan's dramatic collapse against Iraq in a qualifier for the 1994 FIFA World Cup, when they conceded a stoppage time equaliser to the Iraqi's in Qatar, with the 2-2 draw ultimately costing Japan a place at USA '94.

All eyes on Urawa.
Copyright © Michael Tuckerman & Soccerphile.com

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