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J.League - Vissel Stay Top, classic ends in stalemate and Ardija continue their winless run

Thursday 23rd March 2017
The fourth week of the J.League continued the thick and fast pace of football; as all the teams were in action again this round; which included the Japanese classic between Gamba Osaka and Urawa Red Diamonds.

Early Start

The standardised 5 am kickoffs started the J.League weekend off with Yokohama FM hosting Albirex Niigata. Despite an exceptional start to the season for the Marinos; they've slumped in recent weeks. Losing to Kashima Antlers last weekend, another loss mid-week in the cup against Cerezo Osaka and this weekend they couldn't get the best of Albirex; as they only drew 1-1. That said, they certainly dominated the game with two-thirds possession of the ball throughout the match; and showed that by going ahead via Quenten Martinus' effort which put the home side ahead. Although moments later the Yokohama FM were asked some difficult questions by Albirex attacker Roni, who barged past the backline and caught Iikura off his line and equalled the score from close range. After that, the game petered out and chances came at a premium; Babunski came the closest via play from a free kick but couldn't put them ahead. It ended all square as Albirex picked up just their second point of the season.

The next match in the J.League was the epic encounter between Shimizu S-Pulse and Kashima Antlers. The first half may not have done the rest of the game justice, but the deadlock was broken when Ueda was unable to keep up with Kaneko's surging run which saw him fire home the home side. With the IAI Stadium, rocking S-Pulse went in at halftime with the lead. The defensive errors continued from the Antlers in the second half as Kakuda slipped and could only gift the ball to Kaneko who unselfishly set up Shirasaki only for him to make it 2-0.

Two down and less than twenty minutes to play, last year's champions needed to show some resolve to get anything out of the game. Ueda who had previously allowed the opponents to score; atoned for this by heading the team back into the game from a perfect free kick delivery from Endo, to make it 2-1. Smelling blood, Kashima ploughed forward when Suzuki netted the equaliser from the side.; his second of the season. Ishii was somewhat jubilant that there back on level terms, but saw the opportunity to win the game and kept his forward. Mu Kanazaki was the recipient of a from wide in the box; he scrambled to the ball put it home to put Kashima ahead for the first time in the match. With just minutes to go, the game ended 3-2 in favour of the Champions. Game of the season candidate this early on, although the defensive bottling is something that Shimizu and their fans will want to forget.
Highlights from the J.League game of the weekend, S-Pulse vs. Kashima.

The pride of Hokkaido's sports is undoubtedly is Consadole Sapporo and their return to J1 football after a four-year absence.

Their trouble is sustaining this status, given that their longest stint in the top tier is two years when in 2001 the team stayed up but were relegated the following season. Something Shuhei Yomoda will want to change during his managerial tenure at the club. They welcomed a struggling Sanfrecce side who are winless all season. Tokura put the home side in front early on as the 12,000+ in attendance roared with delight. Sanfrecce Hiroshima has shown a lot of fight in their game in all their games, but not managed to convert any of it into a win. The same happened here, they got back on level terms with a goal from Mizumoto – although conceded a late half time own goal to shift the score back in favour of Sapporo. The visitors continued to get forward but with yet again, no end product. Something has got to change for Hiroshima, and fast if they want to avoid a relegation scrap this season.

The J.League meeting between Ventforet Kofu and Omiya Ardija wouldn't have had too many fans excited, given that both sides were winless before the game and both teams had only scored three league goals between them in as many weeks. The game wasn't too much of a spectacle as largely expected, with only twelve attempts on goal and just eight of them even on target. Spectators did, however, see a goal as Brazilian Wilson, scored from the penalty spot. This was his first goal for Ventforet from after arriving at the club in January. The spot kick secured the club's first win of the season and firmly rooted Omiya Ardija to the bottom of the table, the only team to lose their first four games.

Prior to the weekend, Vegalta Sendai hadn't had a great seven days. Losing their first game in the league last weekend, followed by a 6-0 thrashing at the hands of F.C. Tokyo in the first round of the J.League Cup. Looking to bounce back; Vegalta took the game to Kashiwa Reysol despite being away from home. This pressure eventually wore off as Kashiwa began to dominate in front of their home fans especially in the first half, forcing Kentaro Seki into a good save to keep it level. The game did see a winner though as Hiroaki Okuno scored his second of the campaign in injury time to seal the win for the visitors and put them back into the top four.

Buoyed by their midweek cup game against Yokohama, Cerezo Osaka lined up at the KINCHO stadium with a certain swagger; the away fans of Sagan Tosu were equally eager for game – in very good spirits and voice before the game. The home side's confidence shuns through; evident by Kiyotake's effort which could be a goal of the season contender should it have gone in. The game then broke down into a flair match where both Sagan Tosu forward Toyoda tried a bicycle kick which was just a little wide. Two potential goals of the seasons; in one-half – but neither were able to make a mark on the score before the half time whistle. The game for its quality deserved a goal and just that: Cerezo earned a corner; the delivery went deep and the opposition couldn't get the ball out of the area. Yamamura gained possession of the ball and blasted it home to score the only goal of the game. This ensured Cerezo's first win of the season.

Vissel Kobe is looking the real deal this season, played three, won three. Whilst they don't score too many their defence has only conceded one goal so far, the lowest in the whole division. Key defensive players like Hashimoto have really ensured that the team keep the opposition out. This weekend they welcomed Júbilo Iwata to the NOEVIR stadium. The game saw relatively few cut-edge chances, but Kobe fans will have been pleased with the team's ability to neutralise the opposition. Yet the fans will have even more pleased at Kotaro Omori's ability to deceive his defenders and fire off a truly wicked shot which separated the two teams. This 1-0 victory for Kobe means they are the only team to win all their games and sit at the top of the table.

Tamagawa Classico

Meetings between F.C. Tokyo and Kawasaki Frontale are known as the Tamagawa Classico, due to the two teams being based within Greater Tokyo separated by just 18 kilometres and the Tama river. It makes for one of the most followed rivalries in Japanese football. Yoshito Ōkubo infamously made the switch from Kawasaki to Tokyo at the start of the season and has been playing a pivotal part in their season. The visitors took well to playing at the Ajinomoto and found themselves having a fair few shots, Nakamura and Taniguchi, however, couldn't cease their early opportunities. It's fair comment to say that the home side couldn't find much of a groove in the first half, having no shots on target at all.  Their fortunes would, however, change in the second half as Takuma Abe struck the ball goalwards and the Frontale keeper bundled the ball into his own net, counting as an own goal. The goal had rattled the away side and now Tokyo was full of life, on-loan Peter Utaka who had been introduced earlier in the game found himself in receipt of an excellent ball from Ota. Given his experience and eye for goal, the result was now assured as he blasted the ball away to make it 2-0. To really add salt to the wounds, it was Ōkubo who finished the evening's scoring. An excellent one-two play with Utaka; worked his way past a sprawled keeper and made it 3-0 just before time. An empathic win for F.C. Tokyo as this inspired form continues.
Footage from the Tamagawa Derby in the J.League.

The Classic

The Sunday kick-off in the J.League was reserved for another classically contested game: The Classic. Played between two of the most iconic Japanese and decorated teams, Gamba Osaka and Urawa Red Diamonds. The teams are chalk and cheese, one from Osaka another from Greater Tokyo (Saitama to be precise), one wears blue the other red. It's Japan's national football rivalry contested over success. Prior to the match, both teams will have wanted to win – after all the prize of getting back into the top four and chasing Kobe was available to both of them. Urawa certainly had the run of the Suita Stadium in the first half, Makino had two guilt-edge chances but wasn't able to convert either. Kenta Hasegawa's words at half time may have stirred Gamba, as they came out for the second-period fight and revitalised. Just two minutes into play, they had scored through Konno's header making it 1-0. Avid celebrations followed the team and supporters. They were ultimately cut short as the referee called for a handball and awarded a penalty to the visitors in injury time. The duty fell to the league's top scorer, Rafael Silva. Like many Brazilians before him, he was cool, collected and even a little cocky from the spot as he put the ball away to end the game 1-1. Not the result either would have wanted, but Gamba remains unbeaten and Urawa rescue something from the game.
Highlights from the Classic which ended 1-1.

The J.League now observes the international break for one weekend and will kick off again on the 1st of April, meaning that Vissel Kobe will lead the pack during that time. They've got fierce opposition; as several teams line up behind them with nine points. At the other end, Omiya Ardija is the only team to lose four consecutive league games; Sanfrecce is still winless but did draw on an opening day giving them a lone point. It'll be a welcome break for those teams; the players who don't join their respective national sides will almost certainly be working hard to ensure they can turn their seasons around.
Warren Smith

Yokohama F•Marinos supporter. Seen it all in the J.League, relegation fights and being crowned champions. Play five-a-side, pretty good too. Once scored an overhead kick.

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