Monday, November 9, 2009

JEF United Chiba 2 at Kawasaki Frontale 3 - November 8, 2009

With the end of the soccer season approaching and Kawasaki Frontale barely holding on to their lead atop the J1 standings, I thought I'd revisit Todoroki Stadium on a sunny day to see them take on JEF United Chiba.

There's not much background to give here. I've seen both teams already this season; Chiba has had a terrible season and lies 17th out of 18 teams, while Kawasaki is hoping to rebound from their Nabisco Cup loss.

Before I get to the game, a slight aside. This blog is really supposed to be about traveling to watch sports - reports on more than just the game, but the whole experience - how to get there, what else to see, and any other tidbits that readers might find useful. But I haven't done much in the way of travel in the past few months as I needed a job first to secure my visa. So to keep things interesting, I tried to see as many sports in Japan as I could, visiting new stadiums, learning about different teams and even checking out new sports. But I don't want the blog to devolve into a simple recap of games I've seen - if there's no useful to pass on, the post is not warranted.

I think that this is the first time when there's no new information. The only thing different between this visit to Todoroki and the previous one in April is the competition. Today it's the J League, then it was the Champions League. As it turns out, this is a big difference for fans - attendance today was over 18,000 so good seats were difficult to find. You really need to show up when the gates open to secure your favored spot. Back in the Champions League, there were only 8,000 fans, and in my head, I expected it be just as easy to find a decent seat today. Well, it wasn't - I ended up at the goal line, down low - not a great spot to watch the game, as you can see below.

What surprises me is how the league games are so much more popular than the Cup competitions. Personally I prefer the sudden death nature of an elimination game, but it seems like most fans enjoy the regularly scheduled league contests. Not sure why that is, but I now know to show up much earlier or get a fixed seat ticket whenever I go to the J League.

The Game

This was a surprisingly good game. I'll avoid the shot-by-shot recap here to save us all a bit of time. Chiba took a shock lead in the first half, only to have Kawasaki tie it on a Renatinho penalty early in the second. A few minutes later, Renatinho added another, and it looked like Frontale was on their way. But Chiba tied it with just two minutes to go after a goalmouth scramble and the Frontale faithful saw their dreams of a title slipping away. But as the clock turned into extra time, Juninho raced down the left side and crossed to Renatinho who headed home the winner and garnered himself a hat trick in the process. An amazing finish with 2 goals in the last 5 minutes as Kawasaki wins 3-2!

Renatinho might have had 4 goals had he not missed a header in the first half. In the picture below, it looks like the ball is in, but it's just gone wide. Renatiho is the Frontale player at the right of the picture, slightly hunched. When this ball hit the side netting, the fans in my section started cheering - it really did look like a goal. Obviously it wasn't, but that was about the only blemish in Renatinho's near-perfect game.

With the loss, Chiba is officially relegated to J2 next season. This might not sound like a big deal, but their fans were devastated and the players came to their cheering section to bow in contrition. A TV interview tonight showed one of their players crying as he tried to explain the embarrassment of dropping down a level.

Meanwhile Frontale maintains their 1-point lead on Kashima with just 3 games left. Kawasaki is home to Niigata, a top-5 club, and away to Oita and Kashiwa, who are two of the worst teams in the league.

Final Score

The big news for Japan's national team is that Kengo Nakamura has pulled out of their next two matches against Hong Kong and South Africa after being injured late in the game. We'll have to see how this affects Frontale over their last 3 league games and the Emperor's Cup.

Nakamura corner

Other thoughts

I wasn't a huge soccer fan until I worked at the 2002 World Cup. But even after that, I found the J League somewhat difficult to follow. Over the past few months though, I've become much more interested in the league and its various competitions. I've been lucky with the games I've seen; all have been fast-paced with some good goals. No doubt if I had seem some 0-0 stinkers, I'd be complaining about how dull soccer is. But I didn't, so I'll definitely be looking to follow the league more closely next season.

For now, that looks to be it for live sports in 2009. My job takes up too much time during the week and I'm exhausted after seeing two games this weekend. I might try to catch one more J League game on the final match day, or maybe an Emperors Cup fixture somewhere, but we'll see how things develop. The job should be over in December, at which time I'll let you all know of a great road trip that starts in mid-January in Atlanta.

It's been a great year for sports watching for me. I've seen 61 events comprising 8 sports in 4 countries (would have been 5 except I was rained out in Korea). It's been a lot of fun, especially discovering the minors here in Japan. Not sure where I'll be next year, but you can bet that I'll be somewhere watching sports.



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