A strangely subdued and lacklustre FC Tokyo failed to hit the heights of their mid-week AFC Champions League victory, a goal conceded just before the interval culminating in a second-half collapse which saw Vegalta Sendai race to a 4-0 victory. Manager Ranko Popović rewarded the performance of two of his young forwards with places in the starting line-up, Kazuma Watanabe and Yohei Otake chosen at the expense of Lucas and Tatsuya Yazawa respectively. It was a bold and admirable selection which failed to pay dividends, the attacking flair on display in the 3-0 win over Beijing Guoan stifled by the muscular athleticism in the Vegalta Sendai team. Shingo Tomita and Makoto Kakuda in particular were always on hand to close down the Gas’s three advanced midfielders, and they were aided by the excellent pressing of forwards Wilson and Shingo Akamine, who regularly shut down supply routes out of the Tokyo defence, forcing them to play an unfamiliar long-passing game on a number of occasions.
The first period was largely a scrappy affair, Vegalta more comfortable in possession but neither side creating any opportunities of note, and 25 minutes passed by with little incident except for referee Minoru Tojo’s odd decision-making, the quality of play summed up by a wild and speculative effort from Tajuki Yonemoto which only troubled the Yurtec Stadium’s advertising hoardings. Indeed, Tojo would go on to hand out seven yellow cards in a match largely free of malicious or reckless challenges, and although a physical contest and occasionally niggly, the officious nature of the referee was entirely out of keeping with a match conducted mainly in good spirit. An additional 23 minutes had passed before the overzealous official became less of a talking point, replaced instead by a superb piece of judgement from assistant referee Toshiyuki Nagi. Jiro Kamata, eight yards inside his own half, floated a long free-kick towards the FC Tokyo penalty spot. Spotting defender Hyun-Soo Jang level with Shingo Akamine, the assistant allowed play to continue, and the forward’s perfectly timed run ended with him controlling before slotting past Shuichi Gonda into the bottom left, the Gas’s appeals for offside to no avail. The goal, three minutes into first-half stoppage time, was the last action before Tojo drew proceedings to a close.
Vegalta opened the second period strongly, and Yoshiaki Ota had the ball in the net two minutes after the restart only to find his finish ruled out correctly for offside. Ten minutes later, however, they had doubled their advantage, a pass from Makoto Kakuda 15 yards into opposition territory sliding through three FC Tokyo players to find an unmarked Yoshiaki Ota, and his superb cross met with an equally superb finish from twelve yards by Kunimitsu Sekiguchi, who bravely headed with Naohiro Ishikawa’s boot in close proximity. Gonda was given no chance as the ball few into the top left.
The Gas were struggling to piece together any passes, and the appearance of substitutes Sotan Tanabe, Tatsuya Yazawa and Lucas failed to make any difference. Vegalta nearly made it three when a long-range Toshihiro Matsushita free-kick in the left channel came close to deceiving Gonda, and the keeper adjusted well to push the ball on to his crossbar and behind for a corner with all players beyond the midfielder seemingly expecting him to cross. Vegalta were not to be denied a third, however, and Popović will rue some casual defending from Hideto Takahashi which led to the goal. Takahashi first failed to block a Kakuda cross close to the Gas goalline, and although Jang headed clear, it fell to Shingo Tomita 25 yards out. His attemped shot was heading wide when it was controlled by Ota, who had been played onside by Takahashi in having made no effort to join his defensive line. Ota turned simply and sent his finish under the body of Gonda to make the scoreline 3-0.
FC Tokyo’s misery was complete three minutes from time. Kakuda took a set piece from the right touchline, which an unfortunate Jang nodded into Lucas’s path. Although his volley was blocked superbly by Gonda at close range, the rebound fell kindly for Jiro Kamata to smash home from two yards.
Vegalta’s finish in the top four last year, which took place amidst the backdrop of the 2011 Tohuku Earthquake and Tsunami, was a sign of the enormous strides the Miyagi Prefecture outfit had taken under the shrewd management of Makoto Teguramori, who masterminded their promotion to J.League Division 1 in 2009 with a staggering 106 points, and then consolidated their status in the top-tier of Japanese football in finishing fourteenth a year later. What 2012 holds for Vegalta is not yet clear, but it is certainly reasonable to mark them out as genuine title contenders.
|Vegalta Sendai||FC Tokyo|
|Makoto Kakuda||20||Yohei Otake||45+2|
|Jiro Kamata||37||Kosuke Ota||50|