Friday, April 11, 2008

The cherry blossoms may be over, but the title race is just beginning

Cherry blossoms outside a wet Nihondaira Stadium
The sixth round of the J. League throws up two significant clashes, with the eleventh Tokyo derby competing for headlines along with the eternal classic between Urawa Reds and Kashima Antlers.

Fallen giants Tokyo Verdy host their Ajinomoto Stadium co-tenants FC Tokyo on April 12, with Verdy having only just registered their first win in the league since winning promotion back to the top flight. They won away at Vissel Kobe in Round 5 thanks to 18-year-old Hiroki Kawano's volley, but it is the return of striker Hulk that could prove key to Verdy's chances of maintaining their top flight status.

The 21-year-old Brazilian propelled Tokyo Verdy to promotion by scoring 37 league goals in 42 appearances in J2 last season, but after failing to settle at Kawasaki Frontale, Hulk has made a permanent switch across the Tama River for a reputed fee of around 500 million yen.

On Sunday the highlight clash of the day undoubtedly takes place at Saitama Stadium, when bitter rivals Urawa Reds host defending J. League champions Kashima Antlers.

There is plenty of history between these two clubs, but another chapter was added on an extraordinary final day last season when Kashima pipped Urawa to the post to lift the league trophy in thrilling circumstances.

The Reds will be aching for revenge against their arch-nemesis, although they will have their work cut out for them against a Kashima side that has won all five of their league fixtures at a canter this season.

In other highlight Round 6 fixtures, Consadole Sapporo look to crack their first home win of the season in the league when they host Jubilo Iwata at the Sapporo Dome, struggling JEF United welcome Omiya Ardija to the Fukuda Denshi Arena, Tokai rivals Shimizu S-Pulse and Nagoya Grampus face off at Nihondaira Stadium, while there's a Kansai derby between Kyoto Sanga FC and Vissel Kobe at what will be a packed Nishikyogoku Stadium in Kyoto.

Relegated Sanfrecce Hiroshima lead the way in J2, although they are level on points with Sagan Tosu as the early jostling for promotion places kicks off in earnest. Yokohama FC and Vegalta Sendai are hot on their heels, but it has been a disappointing start for Pierre Littbarski's Avispa Fukuoka, with the Kyushu outfit currently lying in ninth following their latest 3-1 loss away at Tokushima Vortis.

This weekend Fukuoka host newcomers FC Gifu at Hakata no Mori, while the other highlight clashes see Vegalta Sendai take on Tokushima Vortis, Shonan Bellmare welcome relegated Ventforet Kofu to Hiratsuka, while there's a clash of the big guns when Sanfrecce Hiroshima take on Cerezo Osaka at Big Arch Stadium in Hiroshima.

AFC Champions League

Kashima Antlers look set to cruise beyond the group stage of the AFC Champions League, after the Ibaraki side maintained their one hundred percent record with a 1-0 victory over Beijing Guoan FC on April 9.

Former Sao Paulo midfielder Danilo scored the only goal of the game as Kashima notched up their third straight win in the competition, although there was a blow for coach Oswaldo de Oliveira as Japan international Atsuto Uchida was forced to leave the field with a back injury late in the second half.

Meanwhile a last-minute winner from substitute Lucas Severino saw Gamba Osaka beat Melbourne Victory 4-3 in a thriller watched by 23,857 fans at the Telstra Dome in Melbourne.

The A-League side raced out to an early lead through Danny Allsopp, however Gamba pegged back the hosts thanks to goals from long-range specialist Takahiro Futagawa and the predatory Bare.

There was controversy when Gamba captain Satoshi Yamaguchi appeared to be fouled in the build-up to Melbourne's equaliser - which Roddy Vargas headed home, and Bare then had a goal ruled out after officials judged that his header had not crossed the line after bouncing down off the crossbar.

Melbourne retook the lead midway through the second half through the ubiquitous Allsopp, but Gamba roared back as Yamaguchi equalised with a trademark header. The stage was set for a winner, and Gamba duly conjured it as teenager Michihiro Yasuda crossed for substitute Lucas Severino to head home in the final minute.

The victory leaves Gamba three points clear of Chonburi FC at the top of Group G, with Melbourne Victory and Chunnam Dragons both locked on three points at the bottom of the group.

The next round of fixtures scheduled to take place on April 23.

Japan National Team

Japan slumped to a 1-0 defeat in hot and humid conditions in Bahrain on March 26, in their second qualifying game for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

Takashi Okada spared Celtic star Shunsuke Nakamura the trip to the Middle-East, while Urawa Reds striker Naohiro Takahara picked up an injury on the eve of the match.

Their absences failed to mask a desperately poor showing from the Blue Samurai, with many questioning why not a single Kashima Antlers player was used despite the Ibaraki side lifting last season's J. League trophy.

Japan now turn their attention to the annual Kirin Cup, where they will face the Ivory Coast at Toyota Stadium on May 24, before taking on Paraguay at Saitama Stadium three days later. Their World Cup campaign resumes on June 2 when they take on Oman in Yokohama.

Japanese players overseas
Takayuki Morimoto : Catania
19-year-old Takayuki Morimoto has spent most of the Serie A season on the sidelines through injury, but the former Tokyo Verdy starlet could feature in Catania's upcoming Sicilian derby away at Palermo.
Tsuneyasu Miyamoto : Salzburg
Former Japan captain Tsuneyasu Miyamoto will miss the rest of the Austrian season after tearing his hamstring in two during a training session with his club Salzburg. Miyamoto's side are just a point behind Rapid Vienna, despite suffering a recent 7-0 home thrashing at the hands of their league leading rivals.
Makoto Hasebe : VfL Wolfsburg
Ex-Urawa Reds midfielder Makoto Hasebe has found his opportunities limited at an-inform VfL Wolfsburg, where he continues to battle for a place in Wolfsburg's cosmopolitan midfield with Paraguayan international Johnathan Santana.
Shinji Ono : VfL Bochum
After making an excellent start to his Bundesliga career, the highly-experienced Shinji Ono has since struggled in a Bochum jersey. He came off the bench in Bochum's recent 3-3 draw with local rivals Borussia Dortmund, but did not feature in Bochum's subsequent defeat away at Bayern Munich.
Takayuki Suzuki : Portland Timbers
Former Japan international Takayuki Suzuki has signed for second-tier US side Portland Timbers. After a failed spell at Red Star Belgrade, the lanky Suzuki was equally disappointing at Yokohama F. Marinos last season, where he featured in just three games.

Copyright © Michael Tuckerman & Soccerphile.com

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