J1 Weekend preview

He once told me that his weekly previews would start off long and then get gradually shorter – but no sign of that just yet as @JTalkPod goes deep into the J1 fixture list for this weekend. Strap yourself in….

With Matchday 3 of the ACL group stage taking place this midweek, and the Nabisco Levain Cup kicking off on Wednesday, all J1 clubs, with the exception of Omiya and Kobe (who had Levain Cup byes in Groups A & B, respectively) were in action, lessening somewhat the midweek-to-weekend disadvantage that the four ACL clubs have had through their first two continental matchdays.

I say somewhat because clearly most top flight teams view the league cup as a chance to rotate heavily and start players on the fringes of their squads (Cerezo Osaka and Yokohama, for example, both changed their entire XIs from last weekend for their Levain Cup meeting at Kincho Stadium), but nonetheless a competitive game involving travel (for half the teams, at least) requires regular preparation and a break from training ahead of the upcoming weekend. The ACL clubs will obviously still feel a greater impact through their final three group stage games (due to higher stakes and the need to use more regular first-teamers), but the imbalance is somewhat reduced, at least.

Game of the Week: Gamba Osaka v Urawa: Suita City Stadium, Sunday 5pm

Satisfaction after thumping league wins last Saturday was replaced by disappointment for these two in the ACL on Wednesday. Gamba again went all Jekyll and Hyde on us – after outplaying FC Tokyo they stumbled to a 1-0 home loss to Jiangsu – while Reds, after cruising past Kofu at home, saw their late fightback at Shanghai SIPG fall just short.

Kenta Hasegawa fielded the same outfield ten that did for Tokyo against Jiangsu, but his one change, in goal – though not an impact on the result (few ‘keepers in the world are saving Ramires’ curler) – was hugely significant for Gamba in the coming weeks, as Masaaki Higashiguchi faces a spell on the sidelines after breaking his left cheekbone, a massive price to pay for his first career penalty save (he was injured in a collision with Yoshito Okubo, who was following-up after his spot kick was denied).

It’ll be interesting to see who takes Higashiguchi’s place for the visit of Urawa. Hasegawa plumped for Ryota Suzuki, he of exactly zero J1 appearances, in the ACL on Wednesday, but could also (re)turn to Yosuke Fujigaya, a risky proposition some would say, at least those of us with memories of Gamba’s 2013 relegation season. Whoever it is between the sticks, they’re sure to be in for a busy evening against free-flowing Reds, while up the other end Shusaku Nishikawa should also see plenty of work in this, a battle of the league’s two highest scoring teams through three games.

Gamba won the corresponding fixture 1-0 last season, but I’d wager there’ll be more goals this time around. The hosts will be hoping Ademilson can build on his superb solo effort that opened the scoring against Tokyo, while again Mischa Petrovic has envious decisions to make up front, with Yuki Muto and Rafael Silva likely to return to the XI after starting on the bench in Shanghai.

Sapporo v Hiroshima: Sapporo Dome, Saturday 2pm

Sapporo have broken a few early-season ducks in the last week, with Ken Tokura’s 73rd minute equalizer, their first goal of the campaign, securing a first point of the season at home against Cerezo Osaka on Saturday, and they followed that up with a first win of 2017, 2-0 in the league cup away at Iwata, despite making nine changes.

Hiroshima, meanwhile, can’t buy a win. They were undone by another Riki Harakawa special in their second straight 1-0 league loss at Tosu last Saturday, and then a much-changed side was held 0-0 at home by Kofu in the Levain Cup. Now I’m going to be hard-pressed to confidently pick Consadole to win any J1 game this season, especially against a team with Sanfrecce’s pedigree, but could I see them picking up another point from this, and maybe, just maybe, all three? Yes, yes I could.

Yokohama v Niigata: Nissan Stadium, Saturday 2pm

Yokohama’s fast start to the campaign came to an end away at Kashima last Saturday, but they have the perfect opportunity to bounce right back to winning ways against visiting Niigata, who disappointed in their home opener, losing 2-0 to Shimizu. The home cause would obviously be helped by a return for captain Manabu Saito, but up the other end they’ll have to be wary (at least from around the hour mark) of super sub Tatsuya Tanaka, who bagged a brace – from his only two shots – off the bench in the league cup draw at Tosu, to give him four goals (Niigata’s entire tally thus far) from four shots in four appearances this season.

Kofu v Omiya: Yamanashi Bank Stadium, Saturday 2pm

Both of these sides endured a rough Matchday 3 – Kofu were tonked 4-1 at Urawa, and Omiya’s dreadful start continued when they were beaten at home by Iwata. The one bright light for Ventforet was the return of Dudu, and his goal was hopefully the first seed of a fruitful partnership with Wilson, and also a reminder of how important he was for them in the 2nd stage last season. Speaking of reminders of 2016, Hiroki Shibuya could do with sitting down the entire Squirrels defence for a few home truths, because after conceding just 36 goals all of last year, letting in two goals a game thus far is not going to cut it. Both of their league meetings ended in draws last season, and as much as both sides need a first win of 2017, it’s easy to see the same result here.

Shimizu v Kashima: Nihondaira Stadium, Saturday 2pm

Shimizu made it two wins (and clean sheets) on the spin up in Niigata last Saturday, and all S-Pulse supporters have to be delighted with a haul of six points from the first nine available. That means they’re somewhat playing with house money here against the reigning champions, who rode yet another late Yuma Suzuki goal to put a halt to Yokohama’s perfect start last Saturday, followed up by a 3-0 cruise against Brisbane in the ACL that sent them top of Group E. You wouldn’t bet your house on another S-Pulse clean sheet here, but they’ve shown enough in all three league games so far to suggest Antlers will have to be approaching their best to take all three points home from Shizuoka.

Kashiwa v Sendai: Hitachidai Stadium, Saturday 3pm

After back-to-back losses, the opening day 3-1 win at Tosu surely feels like months ago for Kashiwa, but considering the reverses came against two of last season’s top four they can be somewhat forgiven, especially last Saturday at Kawasaki, where they were stung by two quick goals just before half time and couldn’t quite complete their comeback after Kosuke Taketomi cut their arrears in half on the hour.

Sendai finally saw their defence breached, and their perfect record ended, when they were also hit by a quick-fire barrage, from Kobe last Saturday, Vissel netting twice in five minutes at the start of the second half. If Cristiano and Diego Oliveira are in the mood this Saturday the Vegalta defence will have to again be on their toes, and the whole Reysol side will be eager to put their dire performance in their home opener, a 3-1 loss to Gamba two weeks ago, behind them.

Cerezo Osaka v Tosu: Kincho Stadium, Saturday 3pm

We finally saw Hiroshi Kiyotake back in the Cerezo side last Saturday, but he spent most of the highlights I saw with his head in his hands after missing chances that would’ve seen the pink half of Osaka return home with all three points from their trip to Sapporo. As it was they had to settle for a second point of the campaign after Ken Tokura cancelled out Matej Jonjic’s 13th minute opener, the Croatian defender having scored both of their league goals through three games.

Tosu midfielder Riki Harakawa has the same goal haul, his second of the season a brilliant free kick from distance that was all Sagan needed to defeat a disappointing Hiroshima in Matchday 3 and claim their first league win of the season. Tosu have four points on the board, without a scoresheet contribution from Yohei Toyoda thus far, and the big man is definitely due, he only went more than three games without scoring once last season, so the Cerezo backline will have to marshall him carefully, and he may have some more help alongside him on Saturday, with new signing Victor Ibarbo rumoured to be going straight into the side after his arrival on loan from Cagliari of Serie A.

Kobe v Iwata: Noevir Stadium, Saturday 4pm

Kobe are sitting pretty, alone on top of the league, after seeing off fellow perfect-record side Sendai in Matchday 3, and watching Yokohama and FC Tokyo fall to first defeats. That they’ve been able to win three on the bounce, in the much talked about absence of Leandro, and with the arrival of Lukas Podolski still months away, is a testament to the squad Nelsinho has assembled – their five league goals have been scored by five different players (none of them strikers), all of whom have arrived at the club since the start of the 2016 season (three of them in the last offseason).

I said in my Matchday 2 previews on this site that Shunsuke Nakamura and Kengo Kawamata were likely to be Iwata’s “most likely sources of creativity (Nakamura) and goals (Kawamata) … this term”, and both came through in Matchday 3, leading Jubilo to their first win of the season away at Omiya, and they’ll be called on again to produce against a Vissel backline who have allowed just one goal in 2017.

I wouldn’t wager against another piece of dead-ball (or open play, for that matter) magic from Shunsuke, but Kobe will fancy their chances to keep on rolling and reach the international break on top of the pile.

FC Tokyo v Kawasaki: Ajinomoto Stadium, Saturday 7pm

As an FC Tokyo supporter, it was tempting for me to pick this as the game of the week, and had the Gasmen put up a better showing away at Gamba Osaka last Saturday night I would’ve had a stronger case to do so. But as it was, I was left hugely frustrated at a very disappointing showing, and also angered by new signing Yoshito Okubo’s petulance after the post-match bow to the away end, when he wheeled away ahead of the group, took off his shirt and kicked it along the floor before tossing it aside. As frustrated as he must have felt personally after seeing his penalty, and a late point-blank header saved by an inspired Masaaki Higashiguchi, that’s simply not on.

An apology on his blog followed on Monday, and hopefully he’ll be able to get his head right before this, his first Tamagawa Classico in blue and red against Kawasaki since crossing the river in the offseason. And an in-form Frontale side it is too, Yu Kobayashi and Kengo Nakamura have both netted twice in the league as they sit third, one of three unbeaten teams remaining, and they arrive on the back of their third-straight ACL draw, but this one a hugely creditable result away at Asian powerhouse Guangzhou Evergrande, who they outplayed for pretty much the entire second half, though it took until the 95th minute for their equalizer to come, Kobayashi showing nerves of steel to score from the spot after a stoppage time handball.

Frontale have won the last three Classicos, and have a dominant record overall in clashes between the two sides. Tokyo have to cast their minds back to May 2015 for their last success in the fixture, when a certain Yoshito Okubo scored Kawasaki’s goal in a 2-1 Gasmen triumph, how his new side would love to have him on the scoresheet again this time around, breaking his Tokyo duck. Their cause may be helped by the inclusion from the start of Shoya Nakajima, who took his chance in midweek, making his first start of the season and bagging a brace (Takuma Abe did the same) in a 6-0 romp over Sendai, while Peter Utaka also made an encouraging Tokyo debut, scoring from the spot not long after coming off the bench and then laying on the assists for the sides final two goals.

You’re not nailing me down for a prediction here, the form book goes out the window etc. etc. in a Classico, but this should be entertaining, the Okubo factor alone guarantees that, and there should be goals in it.

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