Sunday, 6 March 2011

The Squirrel's Eye View: The Good, The Bad &... The Good & The Bad

Looking back on Sunday's action-packed J1 season-opener between Omiya and Kashima Antlers, it would be silly to pretend that Ardija deserved more on the balance of play than the point that they ended up with. The Squirrels may have taken the lead on no fewer than three occasions and then conceded the final equaliser in a thrilling 3-3 draw in the third minute of injury time, but making a case that they should have won the match is decidedly tough going. Where we are on much firmer ground is in saying that Omiya were responsible for all six goals in a match that swang backwards and forwards between absolute Ardija brilliance and total Squirrel disaster.

There was a warning as to the more disastrous side of things in the third minute, when a straightforward Antlers corner caused panic in the Omiya defence, which scrambled the ball away only after two desperate interventions by goalkeeper Takashi Kitano. The match then moved into a more balanced phase, as the Squirrels coped well enough with Kashima's movement while Daisuke Watabe caught the eye with his positive intent on the Ardija right-hand side. But the first instance of great skill took place when Kim Yong Gwon displayed extraordinary vision and technique to cut open the Kashima defence with a lengthy pass that left Lee Chun Soo with a simple task to beat Hitoshi Sogahata from close range.

Just eleven minutes in, then, and the Squirrels were a goal ahead at the home of one of the J-League's true giants: starts to a season don't get a whole lot better than that. For the rest of the first half Kashima had slightly the better of things, but a combination of excellent goalkeeping by Kitano and international forward Shinzo Koroki's mind-bogglingly poor display meant that Omiya kept their noses in front until the break. Ardija worked hard in midfield and tried to attack whenever possible, although at the same time there was a sense that the back four would find it difficult to keep up the energy levels and concentration required to deal with the Antlers' mobile front players.

In fact, the home side's equaliser two minutes after the re-start came as a result not of quick passing but from another routine Kashima corner that the Omiya defence failed to deal with, leaving Masahiko Inoha to fire the ball past Kitano. A soft goal, and one scored at a time that suggested the home team were all set to take control of the rest of the match. But just a couple of minutes later, to the astonishment of all, the Squirrels retook the lead through debutant Kota Ueda, whose truly world class free kick from 25 metres left Sogahata with not even the slightest chance. So beautifully struck was it that the ball was still curling outwards when it hit the inside of the side-netting.

Again, however, a moment of magic at one end was undone by feeble organisation at the other, as Daiki Iwamasa then exploited more sloppy Squirrels marking at a corner to power in a header for equaliser number two. And with Omiya tiring after the exertions of the first half, this time it really did seem as if Kashima would go on to take all the points: the pressure on Kitano's goal increased and the Squirrels' attack subsided, as Watabe was pushed back and the ponderous Rafael disappeared from view almost completely. But despite the flow of the play, in 64th minute Lee Chun Soo gained possession on the left touchline, advanced infield and then curled a magnificent shot into Sogahata's top corner - the third outstanding Omiya goal and the third time Jun Suzuki's team had gone in front.

For the rest of the game, Kashima threw everything at Kitano and his defenders, who it has to be said were given little assistance by their attacking colleagues. On three or four occasions Ardija had good counter-attacking opportunities only for the moves to break down due to sluggish play or poor co-ordination between Rafael, Lee and substitute Keigo Higashi. There was a palpable lack of certainty as to whether to go for goal and finish the game off or to try and simply hold on to possession. As such, of course neither occurred successfully and it was unfortunate but at the same time not exactly a surprise when in the third minute of injury time, Tsubouchi deflected a low cross into his own net to tie the game up at 3-3.

Positives to come out of the match? Well, even though the closing seconds were such a disappointment, there certainly are good things that Suzuki can use to motivate his players during training this week. It was a game illuminated by three pieces of Ardija play of top quality - the sorts of things that Omiya supporters normally have to wait years to see. Two of those highlights came from new signings Ueda and Kim, which suggests that there has indeed been a step up in the overall level of the squad. And of course we got a point at Kashima Antlers, which most fans would probably have been delighted with at kick-off.

The negatives clearly came in the shape of woeful defending at set pieces and anonymous performances by too many players, such as Rafael and right-sided defender Arata Sugiyama, whose J1 calibre was again called into question. And the reality is that if instead of Koroki Kashima had fielded someone with even basic finishing ability, they may have scored six. Omiya also reacted badly to being put under pressure, even Kitano flapping aimlessly at a Yuzo Tashiro header in the closing seconds that almost stole a win for the Antlers. Still - if all the games are like this, 2011's going to be an incredible season.



Michael 7 March 2011 at 08:49  

Forgive me wheeling out my hobby horse, but surely Ishihara would have done a better job up front than Rafael (who looked like he was wading through treacle by the end of the game) in the last 10-15 minutes?

Matsu 7 March 2011 at 13:46  

I know you enjoy picking on Arata Sugiyama, but I have to disagree on one point when you say his J1 calibre is in question.

On the contrary, in terms of his ability to fake injury and waste time, he is definitely world-class - surely the best player on the team.

Furtho 8 March 2011 at 17:41  

Michael - the use of substitutes generally was rather exasperating. It was only to be expected that Higashi would replace Fujimoto (a pattern I anticipate will be repeated throughout the season), but unless there was some sort of minor injury the other two changes were more difficult to understand. On the one hand the cross that led to Tsubouchi's own goal came from the area of the field recently vacated by Murakami, and on the other the forward play in the last fifteen minutes or so was pathetic. Ishihara could realistically have come on for any of Rafael, Lee or Watabe, as the latter two seemed to have run out of steam by that time and Rafael was frickin' dreadful throughout the whole game. The opportunities were there to score a fourth and win the match, but Suzuki didn't let that happen.

Matsu - aside from the sad fact that his inclusion in the starting line-up tends to make the Omiya team weaker than it really needs to be, I don't care that much about Sugiyama. For the record, I also don't care that much about Ogasawara, the referee, Oliveira or Kashima Antlers. Your going round the internet shouting at people on this topic does not make you look clear-thinking, authoritative or fearless. It just makes you look a little bit nuts.

Matsu 9 March 2011 at 17:00  

Wow. I guess some people dont know how to respond to a joke, eh?

Look, this may come as a surprise to you, but there are some growing concerns throughout the world football community stemming from the fact that Japan's FA continues to employ a man who was banned for life by FIFA. It certainly isnt helped by the fact that he continues to make decisions that annoy and embarrass people with a fair amount of clout in football circles

(Oliveira who? Naaahhhh.... he couldnt possibly have any influence. Its not like anyone outside Japan has ever heard of him . . . much less his brother, father or uncle)

This is a problem that concerns me at least as much as the bad PR Japan is getting from the Maehara resignation. I live in this country and I care how it is viewed in the world (and particularly, how its football is viewed). Unless some "Japanese" voices are seen and heard saying and doing things to promote logic, reason and the rule of FIFA Laws of the Game, incidents like the one at the Kashima-Omiya match will only intensify the ridicule in which Japan is held by "outsiders". Believe it or not, the things that are written on BigSoccer, the Rising Sun News, and the like are read by many "not insignificant" people. As such, the opinions stated there - even when stated in a caustic or buffoonish manner - can influence overseas public opinion.

You might not agree with the way I choose to present myself on the internet. And you certainly would not be the first to criticise my occasionally caustic / occasionally childish "public persona". However, those who know me will tell you that you shouldnt assume the things I say or write on the internet are a good reflection of the "real me". What I do and say in public are means to an end. And if you think my approach is not effective at influencing people, then its a real mystery how I managed to become as successful as I am (and I dont mean in terms of my "fame" as a football blogger).

Im not saying that to try to impress you, nor to give you tit for tat for the above comments. However, I do view you as an intelligent and (usually) reasonable person, and I dont want you to make mistaken assumptions based on what (or how) I write on the internet. Nor to say things that might be hard to take back.

Furtho 10 March 2011 at 17:22  

Heaven knows you can't do jokes, Matsu, but it would take a heart of stone not to laugh when you take it upon yourself to do your Stern Disapproval schtick. Bravo.

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