It is often remarked that a championship side has an extra gear to call on when the going gets tough, an overdrive they can shift into to propel them above the rest. Sanfrecce definitely look like such a team as they grabbed three points against title rivals Omiya Ardija to move clear at the top of the J League, their fifth league victory in a row. The win was fuelled by three goals from ISHIHARA Naoki, the Purple Archer who joined Hiroshima from Omiya in 2012.
Sanfrecce looked fresh from the start despite having five players involved in the recent EAFF tournament in which Japan emerged victorious (NISHIKAWA Shusaku, CHIBA Kazuhiko, AOYAMA Toshihiro, and TAKAHAGI Yojiro for Japan, plus HWANG Seok-Ho/FAN Sokko for Korea).
The home side wasted no time as they grabbed a swift lead on 3′ with the first goal from Ishihara. Takahagi had played what looked like a lazy long pass to the left wing for YAMAGISHI Satoru, who crossed for Ishihara to head in from close range.
After taking the lead, Sanfrecce seemed content to allow Ardija possession of the ball. Settling back to defend in numbers (classic “catenaccio”, as Cesare Polenghi has commented in the past), Sanfrecce were able to repel most of Ardija’s attacks. This style of play has become a trademark under manager Moriyasu and is one that is often misinterpreted as weakness on Hiroshima’s part by the uninitiated.
Mihael MIKIC attemped a rare shot for an even rarer goal on 12′, but his curling effort was relatively slow and easily saved by the keeper.
SHIOTANI Tsukasa misjudged a header on 15′, allowing Omiya’s CHO Young-Cheol in behind, but his cross/shot went out before it came in and the assistant flagged for a goal kick. Cho shot wide five minutes later and continued to be a threat during the first 45 minutes.
Ardija came very close to equalizing on 24′ as Hasegawa headed against the bar, and afterwards continued to add to the “shots” column without really threatening the Hiroshima goal. Meanwhile on 30′, MIZUMOTO Hiroki’s shot from ten yards was hastily beaten away by the Omiya keeper after Takahagi, Hisato and Ishihara had combined dangerously to win a corner for Sanfrecce.
Nishikawa proved why his acquisition in 2010 has been so instrumental to Hiroshima’s success as he saved point-blank from an Omiya shot on 33′, and did well to claim the ball from the air on 36′. While it is true that Sanfrecce qualified for the ACL in 2009 by finishing 4th, it was my opinion at the time that the fumbling and mistakes of NAKABAYASHI Hirotsugu (now of Fagiano Okayama) were a major cause of points dropped for Sanfrecce, and I am convinced that it is no accident that Sanfrecce are now able to sustain title challenges with a decent goalkeeper behind them.
Zombie Nation’s Kernkraft 400, Sanfrecce’s traditional end-of-halftime music (since I was there in 2008 at least), welcomed the two teams back out with Omiya making two changes, bringing on attackers TOMIYAMA Takamitsu and the Slovenian Zlatan LJUBIJANKIC. The change may have been planned since CHO Young-Cheol was withdrawn for the away side, though he was looking increasingly ineffective after Chiba began marking him more closely.
Sanfrecce responded with their own substitution on 52′, with SHIMIZU Kohei coming on for the tired-looking Yamagishi on the left. Soon afterwards Takahagi was barged over in the penalty area as he was pulling the trigger to shoot. On another day it could have been a penalty as the defender used his arm to push Takahagi while he was unbalanced, rather than his shoulder as the laws allow for, but it would probably have been a harsh decision. As it was, Takahagi was left frustrated as a prime opportunity to score a second goal evaporated.
Sanfrecce underlined why they have the best defense in the J League on 60′ as Chiba timed a delicious sliding-tackle to perfection to rob Tomiyama of the ball when he was through on goal. Takahagi blasted a free kick well wide minutes later, after having done the same just before half-time. Passing the kicking duties on to Shimizu for the next free kick, the mousy 24-year-old wasted another chance by doing the same.
A third free kick on 68′ almost connected with captain Hisato, who unfortunately slipped before he could reach the ball. The free kick was conceded by Omiya’s WATANABE Daigo, who body-checked Shimizu, pole-axing him while he was looking the other way and earning a deserved yellow. (Replays show that Watanabe made a bee-line for Shimizu and didn’t move from his direct path despite the departure of the ball, so it is clear what was on Watanabe’s mind.)
Shimizu and Sanfrecce are not ones to be intimidated by other teams though, as Shimizu demonstrated when he fought his way though the Ardija defense on 71′ to shoot wide. Chiba shot over from the resulting corner.
All seemed to be going well for Hiroshima as Omiya had barely been near the home side’s goal and were leaking free kicks, but disaster struck on 74′ when WATANABE Daigo leveled to score for the visitors. At fault was TAKAHAGI Yojiro, whose at-times lackadaisical defending can throw a real wrench into Poichi’s defensive masterplan, as was the case here. Takahagi allowed Watanabe to cut inside him on the left (ALWAYS a no-no for a defender), didn’t bother to track him towards his own goal, and watched as Watanabe took three more steps into clear space before curling a shot into the far corner from 19 yards. Shimizu seemed to know exactly who was to blame, immediately pointing into the space that Takahagi should have been covering, but the rest of the defense seemed resigned to the knowledge that they will always have to work just a little harder when the play is in Takahagi’s zone of defense.
Sanfrecce went ahead with a substitution on 75′, with Korea international HWANG Seok-Ho (FAN Sokko) replacing Mikic. The replacement was interesting since it was planned before the goal, and Hwang is a defensive player, but Poichi was unmoved by the changing circumstances.
Sanfrecce had a slice of luck on 78′, and this time it was Shimizu’s defending that was suspect. Trying to usher the ball out for a goal-kick, Shimizu turned himself inside-out and allowed IMAI Tomoki to lay the ball back for Tomiyama to strike the ball against the post.
This was all the spur that Sanfrecce needed to wrestle control of the match back from Ardija, as they immediately ramped-up their attempts to keep possession with more aggressive pressing as they brought the game to the visitors once again.
A foul on Takahagi on 81′ was all the ammunition Sanfrecce needed to pull ahead, as Takahagi lobbed the free-kick foward for Ishihara to head his second of the game from six yards out. Ishihara seemed dazed after scoring as the ball appeared to strike him on the side of his head, but he was soon fit to continue.
Omiya were finished minutes later on 83′, when Omiya’s KANAZAWA Shin slid in with his foot up against Hiroshima’s AOYAMA Toshihiro, who was standing, and was shown the red card for his reckless challenge. I wasn’t convinced at the time that it deserved red, and in fairness I think that Kanazawa withdrew his foot soon after making contact with Aoyama, so he clearly didn’t intend to hurt him. Still, the tackle was certainly deserving of a yellow for its recklessness and it doesn’t seem that red was necessarily an incorrect decision, just a harsh one.
After returning to the field, Aoyama inherited the captain’s armband on 86′ as SATO Hisato made way for OKAMOTO Tomotaka. Although he started as an attacking midfielder at Sanfrecce, Okamoto spent his time on loan at Sagan Tosu as a volante, so the substitution was a defensive one.
Sanfrecce made the most of the generous five minutes of additional time by wrapping up the three points in style. The hosts began to submit Ardija to near-relentless pressure, with Okamoto shooting over at one point. The breakthrough came at 90+4′, as Takahagi lobbed a bouncing diagonal ball from the right ahead of Ishihara, who side-footed the ball with his left foot against the opposite post from a tight angle and into the goal to complete his hat-trick. The goals were Ishihara’s fifth, sixth and seventh for the season.
Sanfrecce’s next test is against bitter rivals Urawa Reds in Saitama.
Regular readers (which you must be, if you’ve made it this far) will have noticed my absence for the past few months, for which I apologize. I will be busy for the next three years however, as I have moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan to join the JD Class of 2016 at the University of Michigan Law School. I will update the site when I have the time. Wish me luck!
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