Well, here we go again! With the recent 1-1 draw still fresh in everyone's memories, this coming Sunday we get to do it all again as two teams once again battle it out for the crown of Kings of Shizuoka: Shimizu S-Pulse versus Jubilo Iwata. This time the backstory happens to be the 4th game of the Nabisco Cup group stage. The Nabisco is the J. League's own league cup, and traditionally attracts crowds well below those of the league, but with everything to play for, one of our biggest ever league cup gates will cram into Nihondaira for Jubilo's second visit of the season. For whatever reason, it's yet another Sunday 1pm kick off. I may even start a petition about these for next season - noone should be forced to rise before 10am of a Sunday, even for the footer.
Jubilo won't be relishing their chances given they've only managed one win from the last ten derby day meetings, but S-Pa are without both Ichikawa and Teru through injury, both of which will hit the team hard (not to mention Okazaki, Honda and Aoyama who are all away on international duty). That said, Ichikawa didn't feature in two of our previous cup games, but Teru's presence will be sorely missed. Will this give like-for-like player Marcos Paulo his first opportunity to shine in the first team? So far only making the reserves, and with rumours flying around of discontent behind the scenes, who knows if we'll ever see the ex-Brazilian international grace Nihondaira?
Either way, we're going to miss Teru's influence. He'll be back in two weeks, but Ichikawa won't be seeing action for six - the mid-season Olympic break could not have been better timed! It will also give Kenta some much needed time to assess our horrific start to the season. OK, it's not been all that bad when looked at objectively, and we're only five points off 4th place (Reysol who we took apart with clinical efficiency earlier in the month, are sitting in 4th, which speaks volumes about the randomness of this season), but defeats like those at Albirex and Verdy are simply not acceptable for either the club or it's fans. If we'll be seeing some transfer action over the summer, or if wonderboy Genki Omae will be making his J. League debut any time soon remains to be seen...
So, anyway, yeah, back to the point - the League Cup. Here's how things currently stand:
Clearly in the driving seat, and with the 5-0 spanking of Verdy giving us a huge goal difference advantage, a win could put us through and Jubilo out. Three points on Sunday plus Verdy beating Tokyo, and we'd be in round two barring a goal difference disaster in the final two games. But lets not get ahead of ourselves - we're only half way through the group stage and this season has been nothing if not erratic! With a refreshingly big league cup crowd in attendance, it would be rude not to win our sixth derby from ten and leave Jubilo with just a relegation battle to worry about. My prediction? Not nearly as bullish as last time, but a decent enough 2-0 win for the mighty Oranges - just wait and see. :)
Urawa fans tear down the barrier and storm over to Gamba
So fair enough, a mob of Kashiwa Reysol hoolies attacking S-Pulse fans is never going to be headline news. Some Japanese would be hard pushed to even point out Kashiwa on a map, let alone care about any goings on there. Even for those who witness it, (the local police, for one) such incidents are quickly filed under the ignore-it-and-pretend-it-never-happened category. So when ugly scenes broke out at the home of Asian Champion's League winners and self-styled flagship side of Japan, Urawa Reds, there's clearly no avoiding the fact that hooliganism is a problem in the J. League. Well, so you might think. Since Saturday, the JFA denial machine has been working overtime to sweep another instance of supporter violence neatly under the carpet.
Fans clash after Gamba's 3-2 defeat of Urawa
The two old enemies Gamba Osaka and Urawa Red Diamonds met at the Saitama Stadium in what was always going to be a highly charged affair. To spice proceedings up further, Gamba's second goal of three came directly off the back of a refereeing cock up which saw a clear Reds throw awarded the wrong way. A quick throw in and pass later, and it was in the back of the net. Reds fans and players went ballistic as you might well expect. Fast forward to the end: Gamba complete the away victory 3-2 and understandably revel in winning away in front of a 57000 crowd. While they celebrate, Urawa players storm over and start mixing it up, which all soon spills over into the terraces. It was perpetual shit-stirrer Tulio who, after helping to start the melee in the first place, was later the one whining the loudest about a lack of fair play and respect - oh, the irony!
The official line states that Gamba fans began by throwing empty plastic bottles into the neighbouring Reds supporters. Apparently the crushing weight of a water balloon (a water balloon!!) injured a young fan so badly that Reds supporters felt justified in tearing down the dividing barrier in an effort to reach the Osaka area. As parts of the demolished plastic wall and more bottles rained down on the Gamba fans, they too rushed the barrier. When thousands of home fans blockaded the away stand exit and started tearing down and destroying Gamba flags, it took several hours before the visitors could be evacuated past the baying mob to safety. A statement from Gamba this morning apologised for their fans' provocative behaviour, and a lengthy release from Urawa said much the same. There has so far been no word from the JFA or J. League regarding punishments for either team. Will they have the balls to hit Urawa or Gamba with anything other than a nominal fine?
Whoever started it and why, and whoever retaliated and why is all academic. The fact is hooliganism in alive and well in the J. League. This isn't news for many of us, but for some this is yet another incident which needs to be talked away and quickly forgotten. It wasn't even mentioned on the national news on Monday morning, and will likely not be heard of again in the mainstream media. I very much doubt either team will be disciplined in any meaningful way, as that then admits the problem exists - something noone seems willing to do. And yet there it is, on the biggest stage of the national league: barriers being smashed up, fans charging each other and missiles raining down.
I'm often reminded in Japan of England's hooligan problem. Yes, it still sometimes happens in the UK, but I honestly can't remember the last time I saw anything like that inside an English ground. There was no real fighting, but the JFA needs to start dishing our substantial punishments now before things escalate. How many Reds hoolies are now going to be buying tickets for the return fixture in November? On the video below one supporter is seen having fallen a pretty hefty drop into the dry moat. He got away with just a broken ankle, so I guess we'll have to wait until fans start getting more seriously hurt until people start waking up and taking action. JFA - prove me wrong.
Moments after goal number four (or was it number five?)
It was a special night at Fortress Nihondara as a rampant S-Pulse side ran riot over hapless Verdy. Coming off the back of one of the team's worst ever starts to a season, S-Pulse's confidence was at a low and pressure from supporters to turn things around was immense. Things hadn't been running well thus far, but the Nabisco Cup is always a good opportunity to rest your best players and tinker with those on the fringes as you try to find the perfect formula.
So it was with our line up, with a number of first teamers rested or moved to the bench for the visit of the J. League's most nomadic (and schizophrenic given how many times they've changed their name) of teams. S-Pa's nightmarish start to the season was temporarily forgotten as we proceeded to give the visitors a lesson in the game of football. 3-0 by the break, it was 5-0 at full time, and the bewildered Verdy were lucky to get nil. Had our strikers been more interested or bothered, it could well have been double figures. As the midweek league cup mini-crowd partied after the full time whistle, and as Palchan cartwheeled his way around the penalty area, the hundred or so travelling Verdy fans (had they come down from Kawasaki, or did their supporters move to Tokyo when the team did?) trudged dejectedly down to the bottom tier of the away stand to berate their hopeless heroes.
A hugely reduced crowd nevertheless revels in a 5-0 demolition job
The result leaves The 'Pulse realistically only needing four more points from the remaining three games to secure our way out of the group stage. Next up are local toe-rags Jubilo Iwata on Sunday May 25th, and as the Nabisco Cup goes, there's going to be a halfway decent crowd packed into 'Daira. Having lost only one derby from ten, we're looking solid enough favourites to see off Jubilo and as good as seal our progress to round two. That's in the future - for now we'll remember the goals as they flowed freely into the Verdy net, we'll slightly rue the fact we could have had a cricket score if we'd been trying harder, and we'll look forward to doing much the same against Jubilo on Sunday. :)
(In other far less interesting news, Verdy turned us over 4-1 today. The match was played out as 11000 people rattled around inside the 50000 seater, windswept souless bowl that is the Ajinomoto Stadium. S-Pulse triumph 6-4 on aggregate. :-D )
What's the best cure for a stinking hang over? Well, with the usual option of 'huge fry-up and mug of sugary tea' unavailable, sending the Japanese champions packing pointless back to Kashima comes in a clear number one.
I've said it before and I'll say it again - o'clock kick offs are horrendous for all concerned. I very much doubt me and Fuz were alone in nursing sore heads from Saturday night, but along with 16000 others Nihondaira rocked and rolled to the to the sound of our first victory over Antlers since 2003. It wasn't undeserved either. Both teams had plenty of chances, and Nishibe had to be at his best on a couple of occasions to deny the champions, but we controlled the game for long spells, and out-shot the best team the country (as of last December, anyway). Our goal came courtesy of Takuya Honda after the ball broke free in the area and he slammed it home in front of Kashima's travelling army. Honda's really starting to find his feet, and is becoming a crucial starting member. Great time to get his first goal, too!
It was a long hour until the final whistle, with each jump, each clap and each chant like a hammer to an already pounding head. Kashima kept pressing but there was no way through past our final line of defence, and when the end finally came and we grabbed another three points, the party behind the goal could start once again:
Something entirely unrelated to today's game:
So today was the first league game this season I wasn't able to watch, and all I can say is thank God for real life getting in the way. While we got sent packing from Niigata with our tales firmly between our legs, I was far from any TV screen, drinking in the history, admiring the architecture and chatting up the maiko girls of Japan's most ancient city.
So fair play, I wasn't at match, but with the 36000 fans who were there, including the as-always sizable Orange Army, it seems the only people who didn't bother turning up was the S-Pulse team. I didn't see the game, and I know scorelines don't always tell the whole story, but it comes as no surprise in checking the stats to learn we matched them on shots, destroyed them on the corner kicks, yet still came away pointless. The lack of penetration up front is crippling us, and we're looking at a season of horrendous mid-table mediocrity the rate things are going.
Amid the very few positives after today are the facts that we're amazingly still only two wins off the top five, Jubilo got turned over 4-1 at home, and... and... No, that's it. It's double winners Antlers at home on Sunday, and fingers crossed we can capitalise on their champions league exhaustion to start clawing our way back up the table. Here's to that, but in the meantime, here's to remembering that having important stuff to do with people important to you is a shite sight more rewarding than watching 11 men chase a pigs bladder around. Amen to that.
While on my short trip, despite attempting to keep football as far from my mind as possible, it had a funny way of finding me:
Two S-Pulse fans spotted in the grounds of Kyoto's Kinkakuji. They also wisely opted to avoid the trek to Niigata:
If there are any nutters out there who want to see where it all went wrong, here's the "highlights":
So my three nil prematch prediction was always going to be case of the heart ruling the head! There's not been a three goal derby winning margin since 1999, and yesterday neither team looked like breaking that record. When the final whistle blew there was a distinct feeling of anti climax around Nihondaira, particularly as Jubilo had played out the last 25 minutes with just ten men.
More about the game later. The UK Ultras experience is never just about the football, and yesterday was no different. The derby fun an games started on Friday with a 15 mile round trip to Nihondaira to reserve our space in the queue. We weren't alone, with around two hundred other die hards standing in line from 10pm. Midnight rolled around and we taped our plastic sheets down and headed home. It was a trip well worth having made, as when we arrived Saturday four hours before kick off, the line was colossal. It was a familiar story inside the ground with a full house meaning hundreds of people were left seatless. Where so many seats disappear to is a mystery, but with ours secured, we settled in and demolished a few prematch cans in the balmy May sunshine.
Three hours before kick off
When the game finally got underway, Jubilo came out the stronger and when on the 34th minute they breached S-Pulse's defences to go one up, the shower of four letter words masked the feeling deep down that it had kinda been coming. Fast forward to the second half and we didn't have long to wait for the goal we needed. As Hara scrambled the ball over the line I was still stuffing my face with my half time chicken pasta salad, and what was left of it went flying as I steamed down the stand and into the mosh pit. Despite Jubilo having Kawamura sent off on 64 minutes, we couldn't find a way through for a second, and even with the introduction of Okazaki and Yajima on 72, the barrage of S-Pulse attacking came to nothing. As we got stuck into an incredible post-match £2.50 all-you-can-drink deal, we knew all too well that the beer would have tasted that much better had we made more of our one man advantage.
A late Jubilo free kick Jubilo came to nothing (thank f**k)
While we were left wondering what the Japanese was for 'anti-climax' we knew its only three weeks until we get to do it all again in the league cup. I doubt we'll be seeing another full house, but there should still be a decent enough crowd down 'Daira to cheer us on to the second round. Victory would pretty much ensure our path through the group stage while defeat for Jubilo would leave their chances hanging by a thread, so there's all to play for. After yesterday, frustrating as it was, we've now lost only one of the last ten derbies. Can't be too unhappy with that, but it'll be a whole lot better should we knock them out of the cup on the 25th.
Next up is Niigata away on Tuesday. As far as I know, no Ultras will be in attendance, with this one nipping off to Kyoto for two days of temples and suchlike. There's no Sanga home game sadly (I checked) although it's probably just as well as the better half looked none too impressed when I jokingly suggested we take in a game at the Nishiyogoku stadium... I'll leave you with the choreography from yesterday. We were in the centre of the second 'E'. :)
Derby Day comes but twice a year - or four if you're drawn together in the League Cup. A year to the day since we ran out to an orange and white stadium packed to the rafters, so it will be again. Cast eyes left for today's Japanese lesson: 完売 (kanbai) = SOLD OUT. Three days before showtime there was not a ticket to be had, save for at a price on Yahoo Auctions. The 20000 capacity at Nihondaira will again be tested to the limit, no doubt making some wonder why, with the 50000 seater Ecopa down the road, we don't play the game there. The reason is simple, and it's a good one: It's so far "down the road" that it's a mere stone's throw from Iwata City. Like last year, we'll be able to make full use of home advantage, as 18000 oranges voices drown out the murmurs which will occasionally emanate from the away end.
I'm a big fan of manipulating statistics to prove my point, but a quick glance over recent meetings reveals not much effort is needed to show we've got reason to be confident. Going into tomorrow we're unbeaten in four with an aggregate score of 8-1. We saw off Jubilo both home and away last year, and have won six of our last ten meetings with two ending in draws. Need some more? With Kenta at the helm, we've lost just one derby from seven, winning four. We've not lost a home derby in five years (and while I wasn't there the last time we got turned over, I'm pretty sure the ref was on their side and that we woz robbed).
In reality, Jubilo will also fancy their chances. Since JaeJin left, we're without the man who last year almost single-handedly ended their Derby Day dreams, and the blues are also on a good run of form with Gilsinho slamming in the goals. One thing the visitors won't be looking forward to is returning to the cauldron that Nihondaira unquestionably is when it's full to bursting:
Expect more choreographed fun and games tomorrow!
An impassioned plea on the official club homepage warns against a repeat of the above, even hinting at disciplinary action from the J. League. I say ya boo sucks to that. Home advantage is all about intimidating the visitors, derbies are all about riling your opponents, and that's all this is. Everyone knows not to cross the line by physically attacking the coach, so it's all good clean fun in my eyes.
The Ugly involves a certain member of the UK Ultras falling drunkenly off his seat into the person in front. Fortunately no video exists.
So if you're still ticketless, too bad. The forecast points to sunshine, the stadium's going to be heaving, and Jubilo are once again entering the lion's den as lambs to the slaughter. My prediction? 3-0 to the mighty oranges. :)