Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Agent Orange: The Day After Derby Day Derby

If you had told me earlier in the week that I had to choose between attending the big Saitama Derby match on Saturday night or going to a training match a day later, I most likely would choose the Derby, but it would be a tough decision. Usually the training matches are not an option for me because they are either located at places that are not feasibly accessible without a car (like Akiha forest), or they are at shitholes that are not feasibly accessible without a car (like Shiki).

I managed to hit paydirt though when our crosstown rivals, the Urawa Reds, were hospitable enough to invite us for a ninety-minute battle of B-level players at an attractive little ground just a fifteen-minute walk from the Saitama Super Arena. Ohara ground is a two-field complex with a two-storey clubhouse staffed by a set of guards wearing red usher jackets and stovepipe hats, like extras from the local theater group's performance of The Nutcracker. Automatically, I'm envious that the Reds' fans and squad have access to a very nice facility.

I thought that there would be a bigger crowd but the slight drizzle and the events of the previous night at NACK seemed to keep a lot of the Urawa faithful away. The last time I went out there, I had to stand behind people who decided that the best place to put their head was right in my sight line of the game. The most noteworthy thing to happen that day was watching Rodrigo Pimpao end his J-League career with a leg injury and unceremoniously (some would say ironically) get hauled off the field in the gardener's refuse cart. Sunday I got a seat in the front row and directly in the center of the field. Best seat in the house!

It was stunning to see the makeup of crowd, an eclectic mix of older couples and teenage girls that would seemingly be a more fitting audience if Akiko Wada ever teamed up with Arashi for another awful Fuji TV variety show. One older man was surprisingly excited to see big Serbian forward Ranko Despotovic, shouting out "Ranko, good luck Ranko!" Despotovic seemed far less excited to see his number one fan. Urawa had a trio of U23 internationals out on the field, Genki Haraguchi teaming with Mizuki Hamada and Shunki Takahashi to form the core of a fairly intriguing lineup. Old faces were also on display as nineteen-year veteran Nobuhisa Yamada continued to wait until Yokohama FC knocks him out with a can't-miss offer.

Omiya played the usual suspects, starting eleven guys who looked eerily similar to the awful 2009 squad that took us to fourteenth place. Captain Yuki Fukaya continued the trend of team captains using their leadership abilities to guide practice squads in B teams. He teamed with Yosuke Kataoka - the man who never fails to fail.

Early on it was Ardija who took the offensive initiative, with Hayato Hashimoto getting left wide open twice and having a one-on-one situation with the keeper. The first time he crossed to nobody in particular instead of taking a shot. The second time he eschewed the shot again and found a target along the goal line. Unfortunately it was one of the ballboys. It's comforting to know that he is as good in practice as he is in games. Jun Kanakubo came close to scoring with a rocket shot off the crossbar.

The star of the show in the first half, however, was  Despotovic. Deemed a bust by nearly every pundit in the Japanese media, the big striker played the game like it was for a championship. He got back on defense, he muscled Omiya guys off the ball, he slid for loose balls and ran non-stop for a good sixty minutes. When the linesman called him offside, he gave him an earful in Serbian, probably making him the only one in attendance who understood what he was saying.

Reds head man Mihailo Petrovic was conspicuously not in attendance. Maybe I'm the only one (not involved in personnel decisions for Urawa, anyway), but I didn't think it was a bad idea to bring Despotovic back for another go with a coach who seems to be able to... how do I put this delicately?... coach. The big guy did nearly everything right except for one thing: shoot. His targeting was way off. He did manage to get the ball in the net one time. Unfortunately for him it was the net pushed off to the side of the field and not the one located immediately behind Omiya's goalkeeper.

Halftime and the teams were knotted at 0. All the teen girls gathered around the fence near Urawa's bench and snapped shots of Haraguchi. Superfan snapped shots of Despotovic, who snarled at him. Norio Suzuki took his shirt off and it looked like he is on the Kataoka diet. The guy is ripped. He looked like a WWE wrestler. I always thought he was kinda waif-like, but no. He's deceptively a monster. Fukaya came off and it was Hayato in the back as a sideback. That was never gonna end well.

The second half saw Shintaro Shimizu come on to play at his old stomping grounds as a member of Urawa Youth. I can criticize Jun Suzuki for a lot of things, but not including Shimizu on the first team bench is not one of them. The kid doesn't look ready. In fact Masahiko Ichikawa looked better than him by a substantial margin. 

Kota Ueda had a rough day, turning the ball over on numerous occasions and failing to connect with his attacking players. It makes me sad because this time last year he was probably the best player on the team and now his confidence seems to be completely gone. I guess that's why Suzuki is the fourth-highest paid manager in Japan!

However, Yu Hasegawa surprised me with some very skillful play. He linked well and was rewarded with a very easy opening goal. Watching him in this game, I kind of understand why he was signed. He's a little more Yoshihito Fujita than Hiroshi Morita. Ichikawa was pulled off for a youth team player I don't know. I looked him up on the official website and still don't know him. He was kind of anonymous.

Urawa equalized on a set piece when Hamada managed to slip the man marking him and get his head on the ball. The slack Ardija defender? Jun Kanakubo... haha, just kidding! Yosuke Kataoka, of course! Near the end of the game, one of the few number twelves in the league, Koji Noda, managed to dribble around a stationary Omiya defender and score the winner past long-time squad keeper Keiki Shimizu. The statue-like Squirrel? Yosuke Kataoka... haha, just kidding! Yosuke Kataoka, of course! Wait, really?

Game over, but I gotta admit it was the best time I've had at a match that Urawa won. Hasegawa and Kanakubo looked good, Hayato and Kataoka looked like garbage and it didn't cost us any points in the standings! Good day indeed! I have thoughts about the slightly more important Saturday affair but I'll leave those for another post

More training matches please! Orange! HAPPPPPPPPPPPPPY!! Football!!!

Don't make me stop the bus!   



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