More used to being behind the microphone hosting the acclaimed J-Talk Podcast, Ben Maxwell uses his computer for other purposes by giving us a run-down on the big story lines in this weekend’s games. Take it away Ben…..

 

If your DAZN stream wasn’t constantly buffering (but it almost certainly was), J1 Match day 1 was actually a very exciting and entertaining round of matches to kick off the 2017 season. A couple of genuine surprises, some pre-season dark horses living up to the hype, and a rough start for last season’s top six, with only Kawasaki winning.

Too early to jump to any conclusions of course, but with no clashes between Matchday 1 winners on the slate this weekend, the possibility that a couple of teams could stage a mini-breakaway at the top of the table and leave some likely title contenders playing catch-up early doors is very real.

Urawa v Cerezo Osaka: Saitama Stadium, Saturday 2pm

Leading the (small) list of surprise results from Matchday 1 was Urawa’s failure to take anything from their visit to the Nissan Stadium, particularly after Rafael Silva’s quick-fire brace, his first goals for the club, turned the game on its head just past the hour mark. The defeat to F.Marinos made it two losses in as many games domestically in 2017 for Reds (following on from the Super Cup reverse at the hands of Kashima), with late goals allowed their undoing on both occasions, but in Asia they’ve been imperious, swatting aside Western Sydney and FC Seoul in their opening ACL Group F fixtures.

If Urawa can replicate their ACL form Cerezo Osaka will be in for a torrid afternoon on Saturday, and it’s easy to imagine the Cerezo coaching staff cringing as they watched Reds tear the Seoul backline to shreds in the first half on Tuesday night, but if they can learn from how effective Yokohama (and in particular, Manabu Saito) was at attacking from the flanks, they may be able to have some joy. Having a fit and firing Hiroshi Kiyotake would obviously help in that regard (the having joy part, not necessarily from wide areas), and after he returned to training in midweek you’d have to expect he’ll play some part in proceedings at Sai Sta, but the loss of Kota Mizunuma for up to a month will be a blow to Yoon Jong Hwan’s plans.

You’d have to expect Urawa to score, but can Kenyu Sugimoto and Yoichiro Kakitani (after drawing a blank in their opener at home against Iwata) match or outdo whatever Shinzo Koroki, Yuki Muto and co. can produce?

Kofu v Kashima: Yamanashi Bank Stadium, Saturday 2pm

Kofu were just a couple of minutes away from a famous smash and grab victory at Suita City Stadium last Sunday, only for Yasuyuki Konno’s stoppage time header to snatch a point for Gamba. Every point will be precious for Ventforet this season, so the players and staff will have been deflated to drop two so late on after it appeared Masaru Matsuhashi’s superb first-time strike ten minutes into the second half would be enough to claim the win, but hopefully when the dust settled and the players returned to training on Tuesday Tatsuma Yoshida was able to reinforce the positives of the performance and begin to build for the visit of the suddenly wobbly champions, who after their Super Cup win and ACL Group E Matchday 1 victory over Ulsan of South Korea, have lost two on the spin: the J1 opener at home against FC Tokyo, and away at Muangthong United of Thailand in stunning fashion in the ACL on Tuesday.

I said in the intro it was too early to jump to conclusions, so to call Antlers wobbly is perhaps an overstatement, and truth be told there were extenuating circumstances in both games – Akihiro Hayashi’s superb save to deny Pedro Junior, then Yuto Misao’s unfortunate own goal in the Tokyo game, not to mention Yuma Suzuki dragging his late penalty wide in the ACL before Xisco Jimenez’s late, late winner – but Masatada Ishii will be after a response, and after he rang the changes in Thailand, expect the cavalry (Mu Kanazaki, Shoma Doi and Yasushi Endo) to be recalled to make it a very testing afternoon for Ventforet.

Hiroshima v Shimizu: Edion Stadium, Saturday 2pm

Sanfrecce got a debut goal from Masato Kudo early in the second half of their home opener against Niigata, but another league debutant for the Purple Archers, goalkeeper Ryotaro Hironaga, was rooted to the spot as Tatsuya Tanaka lashed in Albirex’s equalizer with 20 minutes left. The connection between Kudo and fellow offseason signing Felipe Silva is clearly still a work in progress, and one of them may emerge as the prolific ‘system striker’ that has seen Douglas and Peter Utaka bang in the goals in the past two seasons for Hiroshima, but it may be a Sanfrecce old boy who has a big say in this clash as new Shimizu signing Gakuto Notsuda returns to the Edion with a point to prove.

Ineligible to face his former team while on loan at Niigata last season, Notsuda is capable of the spectacular, and will be counted on to produce by manager Shinji Kobayashi, alongside the prolific new captain Chong Tese, as S-Pulse’s striking stocks look markedly thinner without the departed Genki Omae. Shimizu were unlucky to lose on the opening day, as Kobe defender Wataru Hashimoto appeared to be clearly offside before firing in the only goal of the game at the back stick, and if they can keep it as tight at the back as they did for the majority of that game, they may be able to return to Shizuoka with at least a point and make it a very unsatisfactory start to the season for Hiroshima – two straight home games against likely strugglers they’d have been expecting to win.

FC Tokyo v Omiya: Ajinomoto Stadium, Saturday 3pm

(Full disclosure: I’m an FC Tokyo fan) Tokyo’s win at Kashima on the opening day of the season broke a 10-year duck away to Antlers, and now they’ll try to snap another streak: Omiya have won at Ajinomoto Stadium on their last five visits in the league, and all by a 1-0 scoreline. The Gasmen debuted all five of their major offseason acquisitions against Kashima, with goalkeeper Akihiro Hayashi (whose save from Pedro Junior I referenced above) and central midfielder Yojiro Takahagi the two most impressive, but then made it six late this week with the addition of the afore-mentioned Peter Utaka, who appears nowhere near fit but could begin to become a factor by the end of the month. The headline signing, three-time Golden Boot winner Yoshito Okubo, will surely be looking forward to linking up with 2016 co-Golden Boot winner Utaka, but first things first he’ll look to get his first competitive Tokyo goal under his belt after a prolific preseason and going close a couple of times in the opener.

The Squirrels have been tipped by many to slide down the table after their brilliant 2016, in which they overwhelmingly exceeded expectations to soar to their highest-ever J1 finish (5th, and had they not lost to at home to Tokyo on the final day, 1-0 of course, they’d be currently playing in the ACL), with the departures of Akihiro Ienaga and Jin Izumisawa cited as a key reason, and the people of that opinion won’t have had their minds changed after the 2-0 home loss to Kawasaki on the opening day. But the arrival of Omae from Shimizu and Akimi Barada from Kashiwa, and factoring in the continued development of Ataru Esaka, should just about balance that out over the course of the season. Former Tokyo players Hitoshi Shiota and Aria Hasegawa return to Aji Sta for a clash that Omiya will probably win 1-0, because they always do.

Iwata v Sendai: Yamaha Stadium, Saturday 3pm

Iwata brought in two well-known, experienced players with points to prove in the offseason, and even though Shunsuke Nakamura and Kengo Kawamata failed to have an instant impact in the season-opening goalless draw away at Cerezo, they’ll be the most likely sources of creativity (Nakamura) and goals (Kawamata) for Jubilo this term. Both have the perfect opportunity to flash their wares in the first home game of the season against Sendai, who rode Naoki Ishihara’s fortuitous, but well-taken, finish to edge them past Sapporo last Saturday.

Vegalta will again (as they will for much of the season) rely on the drive of Hirotaka Mita from central midfield to create chances, and though Ryang Yong Gi’s delivery from set pieces remains stellar, the departures of Wilson and Ramon Lopes, coupled with new signing Sota Hirayama’s injury, makes that somewhat less of a threat. Not sure there’ll be a ton of goals in this, and Iwata will be driven to produce a performance in their first competitive game at the Yamaha this season.

Kobe v Niigata: Noevir Stadium, Saturday 4pm

Kobe were rocked by the injury to Leandro (knee; out for up to six months), but were able to return from Shimizu will all three points in Matchday 1 thanks to Wataru Hashimoto’s goal, as mentioned above. The loss of the co-reigning Golden Boot winner will be heavily felt, and places more pressure onto the shoulders of captain Kazuma Watanabe and offseason arrival Junya Tanaka, who hasn’t looked the same player since returning from Sporting Lisbon. This is still a team with plenty of quality in all areas of the pitch, though, and Vissel should be able to hang around at least in midtable until the summer arrival of Lukas Podolski, whose transfer from Galatasaray was confirmed late this week.

Niigata roll up to the Noevir for their second straight away game to begin the season buoyed by Tatsuya Tanaka’s goal that earnt them a point at Hiroshima, and though the double Silva-sized gaps in their lineup makes them one of most people’s picks to be relegated this season (and tipped to finish bottom by many), they will work their socks off for Fumitake Miura, and another point on the road would make their start to the season perfectly acceptable. They will have to make do without striker-turned-full back Kisho Yano here, though, after he was sent off against Sanfrecce.

Yokohama v Sapporo: Mitsuzawa Stadium, Saturday 7pm

As mentioned above, Yokohama sprung one of the Matchday 1 surprises, as new captain Manabu Saito drove his side to their take-the-lead-but-then-come-from-behind win against Reds in Match day 1. Credit must go to Erick Mombaerts for identifying a weak spot in Urawa’s set up, one that Saito cut inside and exposed both for the opener, brilliantly stroked home by new signing David Babunski, and the winner, precisely finished by Naoki Maeda in the 92nd minute.

F.Marinos will clearly fancy their chances of making it two home wins from two to begin the season when Sapporo visit the cozy confines of the suburban Mitsuzawa Stadium on Saturday night. Most that aren’t tipping Niigata to finish bottom have plumped for Consadole, which would make them the first J2 Champions to go straight back down since, well, themselves, back in 2008. There’s a lot of water still to go under the bridge before teams begin to worry about their futures, though, and there were flickers in the 1-0 loss at Sendai on the opening day that Sapporo might, just might, be more competitive than their previous spells in the top flight. If Ken Tokura can rely on a steady supply line from the likes of Macedo and Julinho, then his goals will give them a fighting chance on Saturday night, and going forward.

Kashiwa v Gamba Osaka: Hitachidai Stadium, Sunday 3pm

Kashiwa’s three Brazilian amigos made a bright start to life playing together in the opening day come-from-behind win at Tosu, with two of their new-look front three, Cristiano (sporting a very ordinary new look – stay away from the hair dye, mate) and Diego Oliveira netting from the spot, with Kosuke Taketomi coming off the bench to put the icing on the 3-1 win cake. Ramon Lopes got through an hour on his Reysol debut, and their undoubted, proven J1 firepower makes them genuine hopes, not merely dark horses, of finishing in the top four.

And this just might be the perfect time for that potent Reysol strike force to face Gamba, who after looking the goods in easing past Adelaide United 3-0 away in their ACL Group H opener, then needed Yasuyuki Konno’s stoppage time header to rescue a point at home against Kofu in J1 Matchday 1, before laying another egg in front of their home support on Wednesday in the ACL, stuffed 4-1 by Jeju United of South Korea in a performance generously described as shambolic and truthfully as a word that we shouldn’t use on this, a family website. Kenta Hasegawa’s ‘experiment’ of a three-man defence was brutally exposed, was he trialing it in preparation for Reysol? If so, back to the drawing board, fella

Kawasaki v Tosu: Todoroki Stadium, Sunday 5pm

The only team from last season’s top six to win in Matchday 1 (2-0 at Omiya), Kawasaki’s start to the season is in direct contrast to Urawa’s: strong domestically (though its only one game); not so flash in Asia – where Frontale’s return to the ACL has seen them draw their opening two Group G games 1-1, at home against Suwon of South Korea and then away at Eastern of Hong Kong on Wednesday.

Key players Yu Kobayashi and Kengo Nakamura got the goals against Omiya, and will obviously be counted on even more than in previous seasons following the departure of Yoshito Okubo, but Akihiro Ienaga’s arrival from last Saturday’s opponents should help fill some of the void, if not the number of goals, whenever he feels like showing us how good he actually is.

Sunday’s visitors to Todoroki, Tosu, made the perfect start to their second season under Massimo Ficcadenti when Riki Harakawa curled in a superb free kick past future-Japan-and-quite-possibly-the-best-goalkeeper-ever Kosuke Nakamura, but then had no answer once Cristiano leveled things from the spot for Kashiwa three minutes into the second half. So a disappointing start, and a tough first away game to negotiate, but once new no.1 ‘keeper Shuichi Gonda is up to speed with his defence, and fellow returnee from Europe Yuji Ono beds in on the right of midfield, their exciting left hand side of full back Yutaka Yoshida and winger Daichi Kamada will be given more room to flourish.

Gracias Ben! You can follow him (if you don’t already – and if not, ask yourself some pretty serious questions) at @OnTheGas1999

 

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