Monday, 21 February 2011

Agent Orange: Saitama City Cup, The Sequel - This Time, It's Personal

Sunday was a glorious day indeed for us on the good side of Saitama as we won the most important game in World Football: the Saitama City Cup. Let me hit you with some facts! We are now tied with Urawa for most wins in the Saitama City Cup and most goals all-time (two cup wins and eight goals scored). We managed to get these records in two games while Urawa has appeared in seven, but let's not be petty. We have yet to concede in City Cup action, something only Barcelona can boast.

We are the two-time, defending champions of Saitama! That counts for something... well, not really, but it was nice to see us actually play a game against Urawa that was not at Saitama Stadium 2002, even though I had to watch it on TV because tickets were sold out. The game itself was not one for the ages, as the first half was a very, very, hacktastic display of long ball and foul. Urawa had the more dangerous chances early as the pair of Kazuhiro Murakami and Arata Sugiyama were exploited by the fast but useless pair of Genki Haraguchi and Tatsuya Tanaka.

Our weakness this year and perenially is the two sideback positions. I'm not entirely sure that Daigo Watanabe is the answer there; I know Arata Sugiyama isn't, though. The eye-opener today was the play of Korean defender Kim Yong Gwon. Not only did he score the goal to win the game but he also got back and blocked an open attempt on goal. Of all the players Omiya signed during the off season he was the one I knew the least about, but it looks like the legacy of good foreign centerbacks is safe with Kim.

The two midfield acquisitions were in my opinion impressive for different reasons. Kota Ueda handled the center of the field with a calm professionalism not seen since the peak of Yoshiyuki Kobayashi. He was very efficient at breaking up play and getting the ball to attackers. Keigo Higashi looked like his first game was going to be a disaster after picking up a quick yellow for the takedown on Marcio Richardes (off topic, but I didn't realize how easily he goes down on contact. I like him as a player but he was a bit annoying). However, Higashi had a moment where he was able to dribble through three defenders and getting a clean shot off on goal and later he would wrap up the scoring off a nice assist from Naoki Ishihara.

The two players who were picked up in the off season but didn't appear today were schoolboy signing Shintaro Shimizu, who I really have high hopes for, and Yosuke Kataoka, who was the highlight of last season... when he left. I hope I don't have to mention his name again but you know the old saying: if he's on the roster, he's always a threat to play. Promising start... so now we wait for our trip to Ibaraki and the ever-annoying Kashima Antlers.

Yeah, you know me! Predictions time. I have been very cautious with my opinions on Omiya's offseason: I like it but I'm still not sure yet. However, I seem to have more definite thoughts on everybody else in the J-League, so let's peruse:

Kashima seem to be the real offseason winners with their pickups. I'm not sure what to expect from Carlao and I'm not real high on Daigo Nishi, but I love the pickups of Chikashi Masuda and Yuzo Tashiro back from Montedio Yamagata, and Alex is a player that everybody seems to like, me included. The big loss for them was Marquinhos, who in a shock signing went to Vegalta Sendai, who I will begrudgingly concede had a great offseason as well. The pairing of Marquinhos with another ancient Kashima forward, Atsushi Yanagisawa, should boost their scoring.

I am curious, though, why Marquinhos would choose a lower-table team and not a contender like Yokohama F Marinos, who could really use a professional scorer. Marinos picked up some useful players but really come across as losers in the whole offseason because they didn't get a slam dunk signing. They signed Yuzo Kobayashi and Masashi Oguro, one a foul machine who is always a threat to be red carded and the other a very proficient but very one-dimensional scorer who managed to help relegate the entire city of Tokyo.

Nagoya Grampus are champs and don't get criticized for their offseason. They picked up Jungo Fujimoto, who replaces Magnum - and why no-one has tried to sign him is beyond me. Gamba Osaka are not champs and they do get criticized because they did almost nothing to address the weakness in their ageing back line, instead opting to stick with their annual tradition of picking up a foreign forward from a fellow J-League team. As long as Yasuhito Endo is still able to take the field they will always be contenders, but that back four is porous.

Gamba's victim this year was crosstown rival Cerezo Osaka who lost not only goal scorer Adriano but also Akihiro Ienaga, who heads to Spain. Kawasaki Frontale are in similar circumstances to Gamba, but did a decent job shoring up their midfield with the acquisitions of Kosei Shibasaki and the always-dangerous Koji Yamase. They needed to address the back line as well and did so with the pickup of longtime Marinos player Yusuke Tanaka.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima lost two-thirds of their stellar back three with the ageing Ilyan Stoyanov headed to Fagiano Okayama and the flamboyant Tomoaki Makino off to Germany. They are trying to fill the void with Hiroki Mizumoto, who disappointed for Kyoto Sanga last year. Albirex Niigata went through another tumultuous offseason, losing half of their backline and the creative player in their offense in Marcio Richardes. They picked up a Brazilian player I know nothing about - with their track record he will score in double digits - a couple of defenders from Consadole Sapporo and Naoya Kikuchi, who seems to have recovered his standing after a scandal that nearly derailed his career.

Urawa was the big player in the offseason, picking up Richardes and Mitsuru Nagata from Niigata and Kazuki Hara from Shimizu S-Pulse, while importing a speedy wing in Mazzola. The team looks good on paper but after today's match, it's not clear how the pieces will fit. Not helping matters was the departure of key player Hajime Hosogai to Germany. They also seem to stick with guys developed in their system to their detriment. Reds' opening match is against miracle men Vissel Kobe, who seemed to do very little in the offseason. The one major signing they did have, Rogerinho, is out because of fitness issues.

Of the three promoted squads, Kashiwa Reysol look like they are the safest bet to stay up. They added a good number of players, including former Omiya guy An Yong Hak, although their big signing was Jorge Wagner, a silky smooth winger from Brazil. Ventforet Kofu look like they are following the 2005 Omiya Ardija blueprint, signing a bunch of old J1 castoffs to keep the squad afloat. Not surprising considering ex-Ardija Technical Director Satoru Sakuma and ex-Ardija coach Toshiya Miura are the two guys in charge. Avispa Fukuoka were the third team to come up and they seem to have lost more than they have gained, picking up a couple of nice midfielders from Jubilo Iwata but not much else.

Shimizu S-Pulse had arguably the toughest winter, losing no fewer than ten regulars in the offseason after longtime coach Kenta Hasegawa stepped down. They did manage to snap up our former icon Daigo Kobayashi after two seasons in the European wilderness. Jubilo looked to avoid the Nabisco Curse by adding a couple of college players and losing all of their midfield depth. Good luck with that. Finally, Montedio Yamagata had a head-scratching offseason, losing leading scorer Tashiro and midfielder Masuda back to Kashima. They added a very big former Champions League vet in Hugo. It could be very successful or it could be a disaster for them. I don't know.

Still trying to get the kinks out... climb the tree!



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