Thursday, March 6, 2008

The J. League returns

The J. League returns.
The sixteenth season of the J. League gets under way on March 8, with Kashima Antlers kicking off their title defence with an intriguing clash against J2 champions Consadole Sapporo.

Sapporo have endured a difficult pre-season, which culminated in the departure of Brazilian midfielder Alceu just weeks after he had joined the club from Kashiwa Reysol. Rumours of financial turmoil continue to dog the northern outfit, whose preparation for the new season has also been hindered by the freezing conditions that continue to linger in Hokkaido.

Toshiya Miura's men will be keen to avoid a similar fate to Yokohama FC, who were champions of J2 in 2006 but who subsequently went on to record the lowest points tally since the top flight switched to a single-stage season.

The clash of the round takes place at Nissan Stadium, where Yokohama F. Marinos host bitter rivals Urawa Reds.

The Reds will be out to exorcise the demons of their last trip to Nissan Stadium, which saw them relinquish the J. League title as they were inexplicably beaten by relegated Yokohama FC on the final day of last season. That allowed Kashima Antlers to claim an improbable title win, and Urawa will be determined to get off to a winning start in 2008 when they make the short trip to the port city.

Just up the road the town of Kawasaki will brace itself for an emotional fixture, as Kawasaki Frontale host Tokyo Verdy at will be a packed Todoroki Stadium. The last time these two sides met was back in 2000 when Tokyo Verdy were better known as Verdy Kawasaki, but the fallen giants have since crossed the Tama River into Tokyo, where they spent the past two seasons languishing in J2.

These days Kawasaki Frontale are the premier team in the region and they'll be determined to put one over Tokyo Verdy, with many of the town's citizens still slighted by Verdy's decision to up sticks and cross prefectural lines.

Elsewhere Shimizu S-Pulse look set to welcome one of the largest opening day crowds in their history when they host Oita Trinita, Jubilo Iwata will be out to avenge a 4-0 drubbing to Kashiwa Reysol on the opening day last year when they travel to Kashiwa Hitachi Stadium, while Omiya Ardija host the weekend's final clash when they take on Albirex Niigata at Omiya Park Stadium.

In J2 Shonan Bellmare kick off the season when they host Vegalta Sendai, while relegated Sanfrecce Hiroshima travel to Thespa Kusatsu for their opening fixture. Fellow relegated side Ventforet Kofu are at home against J2 newcomers FC Gifu, while Yokohama FC start their campaign on the road at Tokushima Vortis.

Super Cup marred by refereeing controversy

J2 outfit Sanfrecce Hiroshima won the annual Japanese Super Cup when they beat Kashima Antlers 4-3 on penalties in front of 27,245 fans at the National Stadium in Tokyo on March 1, but the result was overshadowed by a controversial performance from referee Masaaki Iemoto.

Iemoto handed red cards to Kashima central defenders Daiki Iwamasa and Go Aiwa, as well as Hiroshima midfielder Ri Han-Jae. The first came as early as the twelfth minute when Iwamasa saw a second yellow for 'ungentlemanly conduct,' while Han-Jae earned his marching orders for his second innocuous-looking foul just before the half-time interval.

Kashima led the match 2-0 courtesy of sweetly taken strikes from midfielders Masashi Motoyama and Takuya Nozawa, however Hiroshima hit back through a hotly disputed penalty from new signing Tatsuhiko Kubo with ten minutes remaining. Kubo took the spot-kick twice after his first was ruled out for encroachment, and when Japan international Hisato Sato headed home an equaliser five minutes later, the match went to penalties.

Controversy erupted after referee Iemoto ordered a retake of Hiroshima's second spot-kick, after Kashima shot-stopper Hitoshi Sogahata had saved Ilian Stoyanov's original effort. The Bulgarian stepped up to convert at the second attempt.

Hiroshima captain Hisato Sato then had the chance to win the shoot-out when he stepped up with the scores locked at 3-3, only for Sogahata to tip his penalty around the post. That should have sent the match into sudden death penalties, however Iemoto once again ordered the spot-kick to be retaken, and Sato made no mistake from his second attempt.

Around 100 Kashima fans stormed the pitch in the ensuing chaos, while Go Aiwa earned a straight red card for comments he made to Iemoto as he trudged off the pitch.

After the match Antlers coach Oswaldo de Oliveira raged at the refereeing performance, with Kashima subsequently demanding an official enquiry into Iemoto's handling of the match.

In a rare concession J. League Chairman Kenji Onitake admitted that Iemoto had made some questionable decisions, and suggested that his performance would be reviewed by league officials.

Copyright © Michael Tuckerman & Soccerphile.com

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