Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Beijing Guoan 0 at F.C.Tokyo 3 (AFC Champions League Matchday 4) - April 17, 2012


Last year, F.C. Tokyo won the Emperor's Cup, gaining them admittance to the 2012 AFC Champions League competition. This is the Asian equivalent of UEFA's Champions League and although it doesn't rate nearly as highly, it does provide some interesting games for local fans. Tokyo was drawn into Group F along with Australian champs Brisbane Roar, Korean runners-up Ulsan Hyundai, and Beijing Guoan, who finished second in the Chinese Super League last season.

Each team plays the other at home and away over 2 months from early March, resulting in six games each. The midway point was hit two weeks ago with Tokyo and Ulsan leading at 5 points apiece from a win and two draws. Tokyo had visited Beijing then, coming away with a point from a 1-1 result and the return match was held yesterday in Ajinomoto Stadium, a venue I had yet to visit. With time running out on my life in Japan, I decided to take advantage of the midweek contest and headed to west Tokyo to check out both the stadium and the game.

Ajinomoto Stadium



One of the city's hidden jewels, Ajinomoto Stadium was originally called Tokyo Stadium before becoming the first venue in Japan to sell its naming rights. It is located a short 5-minute stroll from Tobitakyu Station on the Keio line, which is about a half-hour west of Shinjuku. The stadium currently hosts F.C. Tokyo in the first division and Tokyo Verdy in J2.



The stadium was opened in 2001 and surprisingly wasn't used in the 2002 World Cup despite holding over 50,000 fans when full. Having two larger stadiums in nearby Yokohama and Saitama was the primary reason for this, but one has to question the logic of building another huge white elephant in the distant countryside of Oita when this would have been more than sufficient. It was the training ground for the Saudi Arabia team that year though and a plaque notes as much just outside the main gate.



As you approach the stadium, you walk up a set of stairs to the main gate, where you will find the ticket windows off to your right. There are two categories of games but ticket prices don't differ by more than 500 yen. My advice is to get the unreserved home seats at 2,500 yen which give you the whole lower deck in the back stand to choose from.



If you prefer the upper deck, it will cost you an extra 1,000 yen, a surprising twist on the usual pricing policy. The benefit of sitting up top is that the entire bowl is covered by the roof, while only the last three or four rows in the lower sections are similarly protected from the elements. This is supposed to be a multipurpose facility and as such, the seating area is somewhat far away from the pitch even though there is no running track currently separating them (below). Most fans prefer to sit in the upper rows of the lower bowl as the angle from down low is not that good.





Before you enter, you might want to wander around the stadium and take note of the countless plants along the walls (below). I don't know why they are here but someone has a tough job watering them. There are also lots of trees in the area including some cherry blossoms trees that were just coming off bloom.



The very spacious concourse circles the outside of the stadium and this is where you will find a decent variety of concessions. Fried food dominates, with a rolled taco one of the relatively rarer finds. At 300 yen, it's not much but it whets the appetite for heartier fare such as the fried chicken and draft beer combo for 800 yen. Avoid the kushiage (deep fried meat on a stick) as they dip it in sauce before giving it to you and by the time you reach your seat, it is a soggy mess. That's too bad because at 100 yen per stick, it would normally be a bargain.



As this was a Champions League game, only 9,537 fans showed up, about half the average for a J.League match here. Unlike Europe where the Champions League is big business, these international club competitions don't get much respect here in Japan, which surprises me. I personally appreciate the opportunity to see a team that I would not otherwise be able to witness live and can't understand why the Japanese think differently.



Despite the low attendance, those supporters who did make it out were loud and proud and kept chanting throughout the game. All of them were wearing the club's signature blue and red striped kit and it made for a cool sight. I'd love to see this place sold out but I don't think that's going to happen anytime soon.



There are video scoreboards at each end that showed replays. Otherwise there is little of note. It is a very nice stadium, but as is often the case here, purely functional, without a lot of bells and whistles.



After the game, your best bet is to head east to the city. There are a few eateries between the stadium and the station but they are generally just chains and not worth your time. Two stops away from Tobitakyu is Chofu, a reasonably-sized suburb that might be interesting if you've seen the rest of Tokyo. For visitors though, Shinjuku is the better destination, with Golden Gai the late night spot if you are of such a mind.



Overall, Ajinomoto Stadium is worth visiting simply because it is a very cool structure. It is certainly too big for its current purpose, but I always enjoy seeing a game where fans are not crammed in like cattle. The supporters here are good and the atmosphere doesn't suffer much with a smaller crowd, so if you notice an FC Tokyo (or Tokyo Verdy) game here when you are in town, make an effort to check it out.


The Game

Tokyo began attacking from the outset and had a couple of quick chances. In the 7th minute, Hyun-Soo Jang was fouled and the free kick was chipped forward from about 25 metres out. Kazuma Watanabe leapt to head it just past a diving Sen Hou and off the inside of the post and into the net (below, Watanabe is #11).



Tokyo continued to press and had a few close calls while the visitors were only able to muster a single scoring opportunity which was easily saved by Hitoshi Shiota.

It looked like Tokyo would maintain their one-goal advantage but they managed to score another during the single minute of extra time. Watanabe dribbled into the box from the right side and lobbed a pass across to a wide-open Yohei Otake who headed the ball into the empty net at the strike of halftime.



That pretty much decided things, but early in the second half, F.C. Tokyo added an insurance marker. After Takuji Yonemoto was stretchered off due to injury, Tatsuya Yazawa came on as a substitute. His fresh legs were evidenced a few minutes later when he received a ball down the left flank and darted across the box, hurdling a tackler (above) and chipping the ball past Hou for the third and final goal of the game (below).



The rest of the affair was of little consequence. Beijing put the ball in the net near the end, but it was correctly ruled a "late" offside. In soccer, there is a rule that you can be offside as long as you are not part of the play. In this case, the eventual scorer was offside when the pass was made to another forward. If that player had scored after receiving the pass, the goal would have been legal, but he passed to the offside man and the flag immediately went up.

A fairly entertaining game for Tokyo fans as their club showed good technical skills throughout the match. With the win, Tokyo move first in the table with 8 points and need just 1 point from their remaining two games to clinch a spot in the quarter-finals. Highlights are here.



Notes

The AFC Champions League has 8 groups with A to D representing West Asia and E to H the eastern part of the continent. Not surprisingly, there are few competitive nations at this level, and both Japan and South Korea have teams in each of the four groups in the east, while China and Australia have 3 teams apiece. A squad from Thailand (who beat J.League champs Kashiwa Reysol last month) and Uzbekistan round out the field.

There was a small group of Beijing supporters, perhaps 50 in all. I felt for them, knowing how painful it is to travel to another country to watch your favourite team only to have them come up empty (this is a reference to my journeys to see the Leafs lose on the road in several NHL rinks).



One of Guoan's players is named Wang Xiaoling. This becomes Wang XL on his jersey. Hey, I never promised to stay away from juvenile humour!



Next Up

I'm in Nagoya where I will see another AFC Champions League game tonight featuring Nagoya Grampus and Tianjin Teda from China. The following two days will see me attend both a major  and minor league Chunichi Dragons game. I'll being updating as usual here before taking a break for the big move, so check back often.

Best,

Sean

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