Crucial failings in front of goal cost FC Tokyo victory both in this AFC Champions League match and in Group F, as an otherwise dominant performance was marred by a 37th minute Ulsan Hyundai goal which ceded home advantage in the Round of 16 to the South Korean side. The Gas now face the daunting prospect of a trip to the Tianhe Stadium where they will play the Chinese Super League giants Guangzhou Evergrande on 30 May for a place in the quarter-finals.
Fourteen shots to the opposition’s eight merely hinted at the J.League side’s control of this match, twice finding the woodwork and frequently foundering in excellent attacking positions. As early as the twelfth minute the Gas should have taken the lead, Hideto Takahashi’s rifled shot cannoning back off the right upright for Kazuma Watanabe to follow-up, but he could only send the rebound wide of the post with the goal gaping. Midway through the first period Jang Hyun-Soo had the Ulsan goal at his mercy, but somehow contrived to put the most straightforward of headers beyond the left post after a lovely hanging cross to the backpost from Tatsuya Yazawa.
With both sides opting to utilise a 4-2-3-1 formation, the early battle to establish authority in the midfield was crucial, and it was FC Tokyo who were in the ascendancy for all bar 15 minutes of this contest. Takuji Yonemoto and Aria Hasegawa, ably assisted by an outstanding performance in defence from Matsato Morishige, established a bulwark against which most Ulsan attacks distintegrated, their opposite numbers Go Seul-Ki and Julian Esteven Velez rarely able to find an outlet via their attacking midfield triumvurate of Kim Seung-Yong, Kim Dong-Suk and Lee Keun-Ho, leaving the Tokyo Verdy loanee Maranhao cutting a forlorn figure in attack.
However, it was the Horangi who would capitalise on their one clear goalscoring opportunity in the first period, and one which would subsequently deny FC Tokyo the point they needed to meet Kashiwa Reysol at the Ajinmoto Stadium. Despite loud and rancorous protests from manager Ranko Popovic, Yuhei Tokunaga’s challenge on Maranhao was certainly illegal, and positioned five yards outside and right of centre in the penalty area, provided an opening to either test Hitoshi Shiota directly or direct the ball to one of a host of waiting Ulsan players. Go Seul-Ki opted for the latter, drifting a cross to the back post that Kwak Tae-Hwi headed goalwards. Shiota saved, pushing the ball across his own goal, and while Maranhao’s diving headed came back off the crossbar, the Gas simply couldn’t clear and eventually Kang Min-Soo placed the ball into the empty net under the body of a diving Hideto Takahashi.
The story of the second half mirrored that of the first, the Gas contuinuing to create but unable to display the same sort of finesse which had taken them to twelve goals in the five previous group games. Yazawa, Hasegawa and substitutes Lucas and Kajiyama all came close to finding an equaliser, the latter’s left-footed swipe from distance finding the wrong side of the woodwork late on.
Despite the defeat Ranko Popovic should certainly consider his side’s debut season in the AFC Champions League an already unqualified success, not just in obtaining a berth in the latter stages of the tournament, but for the way in which he has given younger talents in the squad an opportunity to shine and who have almost without exception risen to the challenge. In a first-half cameo the 22-year old Hiroki Kawano sparkled, adding to notable appearances from Naotake Hanyu, Jang and Takuji Yonemoto across the group stage of the competition. While a one-off game against the Southern China Tigers could prove the insurmountable step in this year’s tournament, a domestic league which looks to be headed for a tight finish with a third of the matches completed provides the ideal opportunity for the Gas to complete qualification for the 2013 event.
|Ulsan Hyundai||FC Tokyo|