The Young Nadeshiko meet Germany in the FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup semi-final on 4 September, and the current holders of the Under-20 title and 2011 European Under-19 championship will pose the sternest challenge yet of Japan’s title credentials. Ahead of would should be an enthralling contest, here are five areas which could prove crucial in deciding which side advances to the final:
If the scale of the task facing Japan in their opening encounter at London 2012 could be made any more daunting, the list of honours and accompanying statistics achieved by Spain as a side and their Olympic squad’s individuals serves to underline just how fraught Thursday’s contest could be. They are the reigning 2011 UEFA European Under-21 champions, who lost just once in fifteen matches from the qualification stage through to taking the title. They have six wins in six matches to date in attempting to progress to the finals of the 2013 competition, scoring 21 goals in the process while conceding only two. The squad contains a 2011-12 UEFA Champions League winner, three Euro 2012 winners including two who were starters for the senior side in Poland and Ukraine, two of the summer’s most coveted players in Athletic Bilbao’s Javi Martínez and Iker Muniain, the former available for the not-insignificant sum of €40 million, and possess a forward who has scored two hat-tricks in his last three competitive matches. Eleven of the team which won the 2011 Under-21 title are included in the eighteen, and of the three over-age players, none exceeds 24 in a squad with an average age of 21.6.
The Bicolor Olimpica come into Group D and London 2012 confident and with the Honduran public anticipating a good showing, expectations heightened by three consecutive victories in their final three warm-up matches, and by a team which in the calendar year has lost only to Mexico, who are widely predicted to mount a strong challenge for a medal. With Spain favourites to top the group and together with Brazil most tipped to win gold, the final fixture between Japan and Honduras on 1 August will likely prove pivotal in deciding which side goes on to feature in the knockout stage.
Urawa Red Diamonds take their eight game unbeaten streak to Niigata in search of a result against an Albirex team whose plummeting attendance figures are just one of Masaaki Yanagishita’s worries. Having netted a meager four goals at the Tohoku Denryoku Big Swan Stadium, underlining why home supporters have only been treated to one win in eight matches, Albi lie in sixteenth place, but their past three matches provide hopeful signs as they took maximum points against Shimizu S-Pulse and Consadole Sapporo and battled to a draw with Kashima Antlers. The Reds are likely to prove too strong, however, Mihailo Petrović leading his team to third place in the table during a period in which he presided over one of only two shut-outs for Vegalta Sendai in the 2012 campaign to date.
Gamba Osaka travel to the Sapporo Dome for what could prove a critical contest in what is quickly becoming a fight to avoid relegation for the first time in their history. The Suita side, who have only finished outside the top three in J.League Division 1 on one occasion since the change to a standard league championship format in 2005, have already lost more matches at this stage of the 2012 campaign than in four of their past seven full seasons, and manager Masanobu Matsunami is yet to steady a defence which has yielded nineteen goals in their past nine matches, garnering only one clean sheet in that time. Yet to win away from The Osaka Expo ’70 Stadium, Matsunami will be hoping to take all three points against the division’s bottom side, Consadole currently eleven points away from even relative safety and wielding the J.League’s worst defence in an injury-blighted year.
Consadole Sapporo, whose ominous lack of form is predicted to result in a final tally of between ten and eleven points at the completion of the 2012 campaign, and subsequently end in their relegation by Matchday 27 should there be no improvement, have no respite from their battle against the drop as they travel to the Yurtec Stadium to meet league leaders Vegalta Sendai in Saturday’s early kick-off. Consa have failed to take a single point outside Hokkaido in Division 1, and their predicament is likely to worsen significantly as they take the poorest defence in the league to the home of a Vegalta side that has netted fifteen times in six matches.
(In a fan video, Jungo Fujimoto sets Nagoya Grampus on their way with a 24th minute free-kick against Cerezo Osaka, a match they would go on to win 3-1 on Matchday Thirty-One of the 2011 season. Cerezo have won just once in Nagoya in a decade, and they visit Grampus in the 2012 campaign on Friday)
In the final round of matches before the national team takes to the stage with three consecutive 2014 FIFA World Cup qualification matches in June, the first sees Sagan Tosu, smarting from Kazuma Watanabe’s thirteen minute hat-trick which denied them their first away victory of the season, travelling to the Osaka Expo ’70 Stadium to take on a Gamba Osaka side without a win in a month, and wallowing in sixteenth position in the table.
The Suita side’s change in manager from Jose Carlos Serrao to Masanobu Matsunami has paid few dividends in absolute terms thus far, with an average of little more than one point per game in the J.League and four defeats in the AFC Champions League, but the playing style is a significant improvement and marks a return to the “football with movement” club President Kikuo Kanamori was so eager to see. Three points for Gamba won’t allow them to steer clear of the relegation places, but holding a game in hand they will be able to put pressure on Kashima Antlers, Cerezo Osaka and Kashiwa Reysol above them if they can take all three points. Join me from 10:30 on Friday 25 May when I’ll be live-blogging all the action.
Friday’s second game has Nagoya Grampus welcoming Cerezo Osaka to the Yamaha Stadium. After such a promising start to the season, Cerezo have fallen away of late, taking a single point from their last four J.League matches, and are set to lose star midfielder Hiroshi Kiyotake from 1 July when he completes his transfer to Bundesliga club 1. FC Nuremberg. Now a mere five points above sixteenth place, this has proven a particularly uncomfortable fixture for Cerezo, a single win in their fateful 2005 season accounting for the only points they have taken in a decade.
Grampus, meanwhile, will want to put the 4-0 defeat at the hands of Vegalta Sendai behind them, an impressive first period denuded by an inability to finish chances and eventually overcome by a supremely clinical Vegalta side. Three points would allow Grampus to climb as high as seventh in the table with a game still to play.
On Saturday Consadole will be hoping that the Sapporo Atsubetsu Park Stadium provides them with some good fortune, the scene of their only league victory in 2012 on Matchday Nine, but the odds are stacked against them as second-placed Sanfrecce Hiroshima make the trip to Hokkaido. While six sides possess better defensive records than Hajime Moriyasu’s collective, only two have netted on more occasions and a Consa team which has conceded a staggering 25 goals in twelve matches suggests there will be little resistance to the visitors.
Vegalta Sendai journey south down the coast to Kanagawa Prefecture and a meeting with Kawasaki Frontale. The league leaders remain unbeaten on the road, but Frontale are seemingly rejuvenated under new manager Yahiro Kazama, winning three of four matches in May and consequently rising to seventh in the table. What may count against Frontale is their worrying capacity to ship goals at the Todoroki Athletics Stadium, conceding eleven in six matches at home, against a team who have proven ruthless in exploting the slightest weakness in an opposition’s defence.
After their setback on Matchday Twelve against Urawa Red Diamonds, Shimizu S-Pulse take on Yokohama F-Marinos in a fascinating match-up at the Outsourcing Stadium Nihondaira. After slow beginnings under Yasuhiro Higuchi and amid growing rumours that he was likely to be sacked, Marinos are now unbeaten since 21 April, taking thirteen points from a possible fifteen in that time. While neither side has been prolific in front of goal, S-Pulse and Marinos scoring fifteen and fourteen times respectively, S-Pa’s home form comprises a large part of why they currently sit in third place, ten goals, no losses and thirteen points making the Nihondaira one of the more intimidating stadiums for an away team in the J.League.
The division’s top scorers host Omiya Ardija at the Yamaha Stadium, and if the Squirrels are to see any increase on their sole victory away from the NACK5 Stadium they will need to tighten up a defence which has allowed an average of two goals per game, to counter Masaaki Yanagishita’s men, who have four wins from five in Shizuoka. Jubilo Iwata boast multiple attacking threats, Hiroki Yamada, Ryoichi Maeda and Kosuke Yamamoto all counting in the division’s ten highest goalscorers, while South Korean central defender Cho Byung-Kuk, signed from Vegalta Sendai at the end of the 2011 season, has chipped in with three goals in twelve appearances.
My second live blog of Matchday Thirteen has Vissel Kobe playing Kashima Antlers at the HOME’S Stadium. Vissel are the J.League’s current model of inconsistency, three wins counterbalanced by three defeats in Kobe. The Antlers have struggled for any form outside the confines of the Kashima Soccer Stadium, fifteen goals in their last four matches in Kashima separated by a failure to score at all away from home, and reflected by just one victory on their journeys around Japan. Join me at Football Japan from 08:30 BST/16:30 JST for team news and full coverage.
Albirex Niigata, rudderless in seventeenth position and in search of a permanent managerial appointment after Hisashi Kurosaki resigned on Matchday Twelve, travel to the Hitachi Kashiwa Soccer Stadium in the hope that temporary boss Nobuhiro Ueno can galvanise a squad which has won twice all season. A crumb of comfort for Albi is that the Sun Kings have only won once in front of their home support, and manager Nelsinho continues to prove incapable of coaxing any reliability from his talented but surprisingly fragile players.
Saturday’s final encounter is at the Ajinomoto Stadium, and the pick of the weekend’s fixtures gives FC Tokyo and Urawa Red Diamonds the chance to burnish their J.League title and AFC Champions League qualification credentials. The two teams are separated only by goal difference on 21 points, though the Gas do have a game in hand owing to their ongoing Champions League participation. Victory for either side could take them into second place in the league at the end of Matchday Thirteen.
|J.League 1, 25 May|
|19:00||Gamba Osaka||vs||Sagan Tosu||Osaka Expo ’70 Stadium|
|19:30||Nagoya Grampus||vs||Cerezo Osaka||Toyota Stadium|
|J.League 1, 26 May|
|14:00||Consadole Sapporo||vs||Sanfrecce Hiroshima||Sapporo Atsubetsu Park Stadium|
|14:00||Kawasaki Frontale||vs||Vegalta Sendai||Todoroki Athletics Stadium|
|14:00||Shimizu S-Pulse||vs||Yokohama F-Marinos||Outsourcing Stadium Nihondaira|
|16:00||Jubilo Iwata||vs||Omiya Ardija||Yamaha Stadium|
|17:00||Vissel Kobe||vs||Kashima Antlers||HOME’S Stadium Kobe|
|18:30||Kashiwa Reysol||vs||Albirex Niigata||Hitachi Kashiwa Soccer Stadium|
|19:00||FC Tokyo||vs||Urawa Red Diamonds||Ajinomoto Stadium|
|J.League 2, 26 May|
|13:00||Kyoto Sanga||vs||Giravanz Kitakyushu||Nishikyogoku Athletic Stadium|
|J.League 2, 27 May|
|13:00||Thespa Kusatsu||vs||Matsumoto Yamaga||Shoda Shoyu Stadium Gunma|
|13:00||Gainare Tottori||vs||Yokohama FC||Tottori Bank Bird Stadium|
|13:00||Avispa Fukuoka||vs||Fagiano Okayama||Level-5 Stadium|
|13:00||Oita Trinita||vs||JEF United Chiba||Oita Bank Stadium|
|16:00||Tochigi SC||vs||Tokyo Verdy||Tochigi Green Stadium|
|16:00||FC Machida Zelvia||vs||Mito HollyHock||Machida Athletic Stadium|
|16:00||Shonan Bellmare||vs||Tokushima Vortis||Shonan BMW Stadium Hiratsuka|
|16:00||Roasso Kumamoto||vs||Montedio Yamagata||KKWing Stadium|
|16:00||FC Gifu||vs||Ventforet Kofu||