Tokushima Vortis vs FC Gifu

Tokushima Vortis vs FC Gifu

You want a preview of Gifu’s trip to Tokushima? No? Tough luck – you’ve got one anyway.

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Last 5 games:

  • FC Gifu
  • Kyoto Sanga (H) – 2-3
  • Roasso Kumamoto (H) – 0-2
  • Machida Zelvia (A) – 0-1
  • Omiya Ardija (H) – 0-1
  • Albirex Niigata (A) – 0-5

 

  • Tokushima Vortis
  • Montedio Yamagata (H) – 5-1
  • Fagiano Okayama (A) – 1-2
  • Oita Trinita (A) – 1-0
  • Kamatamare Sanuki (A) – 4-0
  • Tochigi SC (H) – 4-1

 

Head to head:

The reverse fixture this year was a 0-0 draw in Gifu back in April. The game itself was of a high standard and it was a little surprising that it ended goalless. I thought Gifu just shaded it, but Vortis midfielder Sisinio thought his side were slightly better. Whatever, it was a really good game to watch.

In general, Tokushima have had the better of this matchup, winning 10 of the 21 games between the clubs in J.League history, whilst at home they’ve won 6 of the 9 meetings, with Gifu emerging victorious twice.

 

The players:

  • FC Gifu
  • Top scorer – Junichi Paulo Tanaka – 7
  • Most assists – Takayuki Fukumura – 4 (Fukumura is suspended for this one)
  • Most important – Whoever plays as the striker. Gifu need a goal threat – it is THAT simple.

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  • Tokushima Vortis
  • Top scorer – David Barral – 7 (actually Yatsunori Shimaya is their top scorer, but he was sold to Sagan Tosu in the summer)
  • Most assists – Sisinio – 4
  • Most important – Ken Iwao. The midfielder is having another superb season under the tutelage of Ricardo Rodriguez. Scorer of five goals from his midfield position thus far for Vortis, he has benefitted from being pushed further forward during Tokushima’s summer reshuffle. After Vorits sold Shimaya and Ryogo Yamasaki (to Tosu & Shonan Bellmare respectively) Rodriguez decided to deploy Iwao in a more advanced position, leaving Sisinio to drop back into the holding midfield role, a role where he collects passes from defenders and gives him time to look up and pick passes. This in turn has given Iwao the license to spend a bit more time in attacking positions where his skill on the ball, his pinpoint passing accuracy in short areas and his eye for goal has been activated. Iwao’s current ranking in the attacking stats for Vortis are:
    • Goals – 3rd
    • Assists – 2nd
    • Shots – 1st
    • Chances created – 1st

The blossoming of Iwao has really come about in the second half of the season. Once he was pushed further forward, Vortis have embarked on a run of nine wins in twelve games. It is too simplistic to say that it is all down to Iwao, because of course that narrative forgets to include the signings of Peter Utaka and David Barral, but his importance to the style and implementation of Rodriguez’s footballing philosophy can’t be underestimated.

 

Tokushima Vortis playing style

I really like the way Tokushima play – incisive and easy on the eye. Predicting how they set up though is a difficult task because if there is one thing that manager Ricardo Rodriguez likes to do, it is tinker with his formations. Going by the stats on the excellent Football Lab site, Tokushima have employed no less than six different formations this year, but by far their most successful is the 3-3-2-2 set up that they’ve employed recently and it is that formation which I expect to see on Saturday

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The Vortis starting XI from their previous game

There might be some personnel changes to contend with given that Taro Sugimoto and Sisinio were left out/rested last weekend and they’ll both be itching to play in this one; Sugimoto is from Gifu and Sisinio was the 2017 player of the year for Gifu.

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Goalkeeper Yuji Kajikawa was actually second choice at the start of this year when Costa Rican ‘keeper Carvajal was brought in, but he reclaimed his place in the tenth game (not that Carvajal did anything noticeably wrong in my opinion) and has been a steady presence all year. In defence, since the departure of Leo Osaki to Vissel Kobe, Vortis have usually gone with Izutsu, Kotaro Fujiwara and the experienced Hidenori Ishii. In front of them they are really spoiled for choice. Sisinio can anchor the midfield, as can Taiga Maekawa – but Maekawa, much like Ken Iwao, is probably better utilized further forward. Against Tochigi the width was provided by Ryuji Sugimoto on the left and Genta Omotehara on the right. The departure of Yuki Omoto to V-Varen Nagasaki left a pretty big gap to fill on the right, and it was initially though that Rikuto Hirose (long a favourite of mine) would pick up the slack but he picked up an injury against Kamatmare Sanuki. Rodriguez gave Omotehara first crack at replacing him and the on loan Shonan man played very well in the win against Tochigi last time out.

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Up front are arguably the best front two in the league – Peter Utaka and David Barral. Most people probably know about these players but suffice to say that they are probably too good for J2 and if they are given half a chance, they will punish teams. Utaka took a little bit of time to get up to match fitness but since he’s come into the team, he has enjoyed the partnership with Barral. Barral, for his part, has done exceptionally since arriving in the summer. Seven goals from seven appearances and his excellent movement takes up a lot of attention so that others in the system can flourish.

In summary, this would have been a very difficult assignment in a normal situation. But given the form that both teams are in – completely at opposite ends of the spectrum – this is going to be very, VERY difficult for Gifu.

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Albirex Niigata vs FC Gifu

Albirex Niigata vs FC Gifu

Because last week’s preview was well received!

Last five games:

  • FC Gifu
  • Tochigi SC (A) – 1-4
  • Kyoto Sanga (H) – 2-3
  • Roasso Kumamoto (H) – 0-2
  • Machida Zelvia (A) – 0-1
  • Omiya Ardija (H) – 0-1

 

  • Albirex Niigata
  • Oita Trinita (A) – 0-4
  • Tochigi SC (H) – 0-3
  • Omiya Ardija (A) – 1-2
  • Avispa Fukuoka (H) – 0-3
  • Ehime FC (A) – 0-0

 

Head to head

The meeting between the clubs in May was the first ever meeting between the two sides, with Gifu running out 2-1 winners thanks to goals from Kota Kazama and Kyogo Furuhashi.

It is probably relevant to point out that when this game was played, Gifu were coming off a win at Omiya and had won three of their previous four. Kyogo Furuhashi was in the middle of his May MVP form and Paulo was playing really well on the wing. Niigata’s defeat in this game started their spiral towards relegation. Since the 2-1 defeat, Niigata have won only twice – both away from home. In fact, Albirex have only won once at home all year which is quite remarkable. What is somewhat less remarkable is the fact that Masakazu Suzuki, the manager at the start of this spiral, was sacked and so Niigata will have a different manager in charge for this meeting.

 

Players to watch:

  • FC Gifu
  • Top Scorer: Junichi Paulo Tanaka – 7*
  • Top Assist: Takayuki Fukumura – 4*
  • Important: Yuya Yamagishi. From watching Niigata’s previous games, going down the right might prove to be Gifu’s best bet for attacking joy. Ehime, Fukuoka, Oita & Tochigi have enjoyed attacking success and I hope Yamagishi brings his A-game, because I think he’ll end up being heavily involved. Taking advantage of spaces behind the full back and in between the full back and central defenders will be crucial if Gifu are to come away with a win from Niigata.

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  • Albirex Niigata
  • Top scorer: Arata Watanabe – 7
  • Top Assist: Yoshiaki Takagi – 3
  • Most important: Caue. It was quite difficult to pick out an important player for Albirex because, quite frankly, they’ve all been bad. I was tempted to put Arata Watanabe because he is the top scorer but he is also in and out of the side a bit too much, even though he plays well when he is selected. Veteran full back Michihiro Yasuda, who up until last week has been a virtual ever present for Albi this year, is important when he plays, but he’s been out of the line up in three of the last four games, so I’ve decided to go for Caue. Even though he’s new, I think he’s important because he will be the one providing the screen for the defence. Albirex have a habit of being VERY flat at the back and if they are exposed, like they have been numerous times this year, the results aren’t pretty. That is why having a strong, physical presence ahead of them – much like the vastly underrated Henik at Tochigi SC – is vital for Niigata’s chances. His ability to cover a large swathe if the pitch is going ot be difficult for Gifu’s more technical midfield to deal with, and so to circumvent Caue, Gifu will have to go wide.

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Two examples of Niigata’s very flat back four approach. In the lower picture against Ehime FC, Caue has been deployed a bit deeper in order to track runners and to screen the defenders. Caue played really well in helping Niigata gain a 0-0 draw in that game.

Albirex Niigata playing style:

The perceived wisdom is that Niigata are a 4-4-2 side, but from watching their games against Avispa Fukuoka and Ehime FC it seems that they have begun to deploy in a 4-2-3-1 set up, with Caue and Yohei Kajiyama as holding midfielders. Last week against Ehime, defender Seitaro Tomizawa was scheduled to play, but he pulled up with an injury in the pre-game warm ups and instead it was ex-Nagoya defender Shun Obu that partnered regular centre back Song Ju-hun. Obu actually played quite well, more or less nullifying the effect of Ehime forwards Fujimoto & Kazuhisa Kawahara. I’m unsure as to why Michihiro Yasuda was on the bench for the Ehime game after being a virtual ever present up to that point. Deployed as both a right back and a left back, Yasuda gives Niigata an aggressive attack-minded threat down either flank. It was noticeable that early on, Ehime concentrated their attacks down the right to test out Niigata’s promising, if raw, left back Taiki Watanabe. They had a bit of success there, so if I were Gifu I’d look at making the right hand side of attack a focal point – Yuya Yamagishi would be an important player for Gifu if this strategy was to be deployed.

Caue was presence all across the field, but did his best work as a screen in front of the back four. He likes to get forward when possible, and his stamina and speed allow him to cover a lot of ground should he have to get back in a hurry. His midfield partenr for the Ehime game, ex-FC Tokyo holding midfielder Kajiyama, came off with what look like a knee injury sustained in a first half challenge. He played on until the hour mark before making way for Masaru Kato and one wonders whether the injury might keep him out of the line up on Saturday. Kajiyama’s replacement Kato was a regular under previous manager Suzuki, but has found appearances harder to come by under new boss Koichiro Katafuchi. Kato is predominantly an attack minded player that may have been sacrificed in order to try and make the team a bit more solid, but he has the ability to open up defences with his range of passing. Keep an eye out for Kajiyama’s injury status during the week.

Up front, the evergreen Tatsuya Tanaka had a couple of really good chances at Ehime, but fluffed his lines both times. The 35 year old showed lots of enthusiasm in tracking the ball down and pressuring defenders, but didn’t look very dangerous with the ball at his feet. He often dropped into the left wing position, moving more centrally when the ball was out on the right. Atsushi Kawata and Arata Watanabe seemed very fluid in their positioning at the weekend, with them taking turns at being the one top, and the other dropping out to the wing. Watanabe looks a good player, and he certainly has eye for goal as he is Albi’s top scorer this year with seven goals. Thalles, Albi’s perennial Brazilian forward signing hasn’t really adapted to life in J2, scoring just three times in his 26 appearances, although to be fair to him, a lot of those appearances have been off the bench.

Relegation Watch: Week 2

Relegation Watch: Week 2

Because why would you want to look at the top of the table?

Results from last weekend:

  • FC Gifu 0-1 Omiya Ardija
  • Ehime FC 0-0 Albirex Niigata
  • Yokohama FC 3-1 Kyoto Sanga
  • Montedio Yamagata 2-1 Roasso Kumamoto
  • Kamatamare Sanuki 0-4 Tokushima Vortis

 

The bottom of J2 now looks like this:

  • 17. Ehime FC – 35 (-14)
  • 18. FC Gifu – 32 (-9)
  • 19. Albirex Niigata – 30 (-18)
  • 20. Kyoto Sanga – 26 (-18)
  • 21. Roasso Kumamoto – 26 (-20)
  • 22. Kamatamare Sanuki – 24 (-32)

It was a weekend that could have been worse for bottom club Kamatamare Sanuki. The bad side of the coin is that they were thumped 4-0 by a rampant Tokushima side in the “Higashi Shikoku Clasico”. They were two down after 20 minutes and were on the receiving end all game, standing firm until additional time when they conceded two more goals. When Vortis click like they did on Saturday, they will beat much better teams than Sanuki, but the worry for Makoto Kitano must be that the game was over before it really started, as once David Barral opened the scoring, no-one thought that they were getting back into it.

I said it could have been worse, and that is because no-one else in the relegation fight won this weekend. Immediately above Sanuki, Roasso Kumamoto went down 2-1 at Montedio Yamagata and, quite frankly, couldn’t have done it in worse circumstances as they conceded the winning goal in the 94th minute. Those kinds of defeats have a huge effect on teams’ morale.

Kyoto Sanga went into their match with Yokohama FC in good form and spirits, but left with a chastening 3-1 defeat. In form Yokohama took the lead through Ibba, but Kyoto equalized midway through the second half through their promising midfielder Takuya Shigehiro. This was where Kyoto folded though, as only two minutes after equalizing they were undone by a quick fire Kengo Kitazune double which left them trailing 3-1 and, ultimately, unable to get back into the game.

FC Gifu looked set for a very welcome point as their game ticked over into the 88th minute, but promotion chasing Omiya Ardija had a dagger up their sleeve, and pierced Gifu in the form of a Masanori Abe own goal which gave the squirrels all three points, and extended Gifu’s losing run to eight consecutive games.

Albirex Niigata arrested their own losing streak by taking a point at fellow relegation battlers Ehime FC in a goalless game that while high on effort & endeavour, didn’t really have that many clear cut chances.

 

This week’s foot of the table slate:

  • Albirex Niigata vs FC Gifu
  • Ehime FC vs Kamatamare Sanuki
  • Kyoto Sanga vs Zweigen Kanazawa
  • Roasso Kumamoto vs Oita Trinita

Relegation eyes (a real thing, I’ll have you know) are immediately drawn towards the top two fixtures on that list. Albirex Niigata (lost eight of the last ten) host FC Gifu (lost eight straight) in a Saturday night game with huge ramifications at the foot of the table. In another high stakes match, Ehime FC welcome Kamatamare Sanuki to the Ningineer Stadium for a Shikoku derby (I don’t think they’ve given it a flashy name just yet) in which you feel that if Ehime win, they’ll take a huge step to safety. If the home side were to prevail, it would take them 14 points clear of Sanuki, and depending on how Kumamoto & Kyoto get on, could take them 12 points clear of the relegation play-off zone.

Speaking of Kumamoto, they have a tough home assignment at home against neighbours Oita Trinita. Oita have lost a couple of close games against promotion candidates recently, but they still have a lot of good players and they are outside the playoff zone only on goal difference. Roasso will be without the suspended An Byong-jun will is a big hit to their chances and they’ll do well to get three points here.

Given the games this weekend, Kyoto Sanga have a huge chance to give themselves a leg up when they host Zweigen Kanazawa on Saturday night. As mentioned before, Kyoto’s good recent run came to an end last weekend at Yokohama FC, but that was a much tougher game than this one will be. For some reason Renzo Lopez and Rui Koyamatsu were on the bench last weekend (maybe there were injured, or dropped but I think they were being rested) and I expect them to be inserted back into the lineup for this game. Kyoto haven’t beaten Kanazawa at home in their previous three attempts (losing one and drawing twice) so this would be a very good time to rectify that situation.

FC Gifu vs Omiya Ardija Stat pack

FC Gifu vs Omiya Ardija Stat pack

Because knowledge is power!

Last five games:

FC Gifu

  • Oita Trinita (H) – 0-2
  • Tochigi SC (A) – 1-4
  • Kyoto Sanga (H) – 2-3
  • Roasso Kumamoto (H) – 0-2
  • Machida Zelvia (A) – 0-1

Omiya Ardija

  • Roasso Kumamoto (H) 2-1
  • Tokyo Verdy (A) – 1-2
  • Ehime FC (A) – 5-1
  • Albirex Niigata (H) 2-1
  • Renofa Yamaguchi (H) – 4-4

 

Head to head in the J.League

The clubs have only played each other three times in official games. Two of those came in Omiya’s previous stint in J2 back in 2015.

  • May 24, 2015: FC Gifu 0-5 Omiya Ardija
  • July 26, 2015: Omiya Ardija 5-0 FC Gifu
  • May 19, 2018: Omiya Ardija 0-2 FC Gifu

 

Players to watch:

FC Gifu

  • Top scorer: Junichi Paulo Tanaka – 7*
  • Top assist: Takayuki Fukumura – 4*
  • Important: Masanori Abe – right back. He’s going to be (presumably) going up against Omiya’s left winger Mateus, who is an absolute flyer. Abe is going to have ot be on his game throughout, and he is going to have to avoid picking up an early yellow card, which is always possible in the cases where he plays against speedy wingers.
  • *Kyogo Furuhashi actually leads Gifu in goals & assists, but he has moved to Vissel Kobe

Omiya Ardija

  • Top scorer: Genki Omae – 19
  • Top assist: Mateus – 7
  • Important: Genki Omae – forward. A relatively easy choice as he is the division’s form man at this moment. With a ‘unique’ figure for a professional footballer, his low centre of gravity allows him quick movement in small spaces and his excellent touch allows him to take things from there. I was surprised to see him have only three assists this year as his his link up play when he drops a bit deeper is good, although I’ve seen at least two instances where Omae makes a clever run which makes space for a teammate to run into. It isn’t an assist in the pure sense of the word, but those runs are crucial in the creating chances and, ultimately, goals. He’ll be confident of netting his 20th of the year in the game against Gifu.

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Omiya’s playing style

It depends. Ardija usually set up in a standard 4-4-2 formation, but in the last two or three games Masatadi Ishii has tried a three at the back formation – indeed, the stats site Football Lab has predicted a 3-3-2-2 formation for the game. The switch has produced 11 goals for the team in those three games, but they’ve also conceded six. I’m not sure which formation he’ll go with tomorrow, but the personnel won’t be too different either way. Up top, J2 top scorer Genki Omae should definitely start with one of Robin Simovic or Takamitsu Tomiyama partnering him. In midfield, expect Keisuke Oyama and Yuta Mikado to patrol the centre, while Mateus (left) and Akimi Barada (right) provide the attacking impetus. Barada can be replaced by Shintaro Shimada if a change is needed.

At the back, Takashi Kasahara won the goalkeeper battle in pre-season and has mostly distinguished himself – although he did have a game to forget last time out against Renofa Yamaguchi. In front of him it is usually a back four with Yamakoshi and Komoto at the heart of the defence – Kosuke Kikuchi is still out with a foot injury. On the sides, Noriyoshi Sakai and Kawazura patrol the right & left respectively.

Omiya like to utilize Mateus’ pace on the left hand side to get past opposing full backs so he can put crosses into Omae & Simovic/Tomiyama. It works well because low crosses can pick out the shorter sized Omae while high balls can Simovic/Tomiyama giving goalkeepers & defences two different things to think about. Omiya are the league’s joint top scorers and average 14 shots per game in league action – you feel it is going to be a long evening for Gifu’s defence.

A possible weakness for Omiya is crosses – three of Renofa’s four goals last week came from crosses out wide – but unless Ryan De Vries plays (which I don’t think he will) then Gifu don’t really have the requisite height or power to take advantage. As a general rule, Omiya aren’t great defending crosses – they’ve conceded 26 goals from crossed balls so far this year and they look vulnerable against them.

  • I’ve taken the stats from Football Lab. It really is an excellent tool for those that want to dive a bit deeper into the stats & trends in the J.League.

*Gulp* – A Look at the J2 Relegation battle

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t really want to write something like this, and hopefully it will just be a temporary thing, but given that FC Gifu have lost the last seven games – the worst run in club history – I think it is probably about time to have a look at the state of the bottom of the table. Here goes….

Current table:

  • 17 – Ehime FC                       34pts, -14
  • 18 – FC Gifu                           32pts, -8
  • 19 – Albirex Niigata             29pts, -18
  • 20 – Kyoto Sanga                  26pts, -16
  • 21 – Roasso Kumamoto       26pts, -19
  • 22 – Kamatamare Sanuki   24pts, -28

 

Kamatamare Sanuki are really up against it. That -28 goal difference is worrying enough, but the fact that it has come about because they’ve only scored 23 goals so far leaves me to wonder if they’ve got the firepower to be able to pull themselves out of trouble. As it goes, I feel that a spell out of J2 might not be the worst thing for Kamatamare. They could take time to re-evaluate what it is that they bring to the J.League and, more importantly, how they connect to their local community. They regularly attract attendances of less than 3,000 which is not too clever at all. Maybe they should change their name to actually include their location – most people recognise Sanuki as the form of thick udon noodles but not many people could actually point to where it comes from on the map. If they included their home prefecture of Kagawa, or the local big city of Takamatsu it might give locals more incentive to get behind the team. Of course, watching losing football week in, week out doesn’t help but they need something to arrest the spiral that they seem to be stuck in.

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Kyoto Sanga have been boosted by the double Sendai arrivals of Yoshihiro Shoji and Jun Kanakubo, as well as the form of Uruguayan striker Renzo Lopez. In fact, Sanga were only a Ventforet Kofu penalty away from making it four wins in a row last weekend, but a return of 10 points from 12 is an excellent return for a team that looked down and out less than two months ago. For a team that was in such trouble, it was a bold move to decide to go with attacking intent but, in my opinion, it is the completely correct decision and the signings of Shoji & Juninho in particular have paid handsome dividends. Both of them are excellent footballers in the purest sense of the word and both of them are capable of picking out key passes. If Renzo Lopez can keep his shooting boots ready, he will get a decent amount of chances provided to him by his midfield. Lopez has scored nine times this year and I think he could double that tally before the season is done. If he does, Sanga will almost certainly have avoided the drop.

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If I had written this two months ago, Ehime FC would have been front and centre of this piece. They looked awful, played awfully, and were getting hammered. After parting ways with Shinichi Mase, they appointed the relatively inexperienced Kenta Kawai and suddenly the results took off. After winning just three games in the first three months of the season, under Kawai the team have picked up seven wins since June. Yuta Kamiya has been excellent as an attacking midfielder, while Gifu supporters will be happy (I think) to see midfielder Hideyuki Nozawa doing well too. Ehime’s Lazarus-like rise has been exceptional.

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In many ways, Albirex Niigata are the story of the season in J2. Relegated from J1 last year, they were widely expected to challenge for a play-off spot (not by me, I have to say) and very few people expected them to be THIS bad. But bad they have been, and then some. They sacked Masakazu Suzuki after a 4-0 defeat at Oita, and new boss Koichiro Katafuchi hasn’t done anything to arrest the slide – currently Niigata are on a six game losing streak, and have lost eight of their last nine. Their sole victory in that sequence? A derby win at Montedio Yamagata. Looking back at their recruitment and their season thus far, I think it is fair to say that they didn’t expect the J2 environment to be this tough. Their main Brazilian import Thalles hasn’t settled, while compatriot Alex Santana can be erratic between the sticks. The signings of Yohei Kajiyama (FC Tokyo) and Caue (Omiya) might give them a bit of impetus, while young midfielder Ryoma Watanabe has come back from a relatively productive spell in Germany with Ingoldstadt’s second team. The support is still there, the stadium is still beautiful, but they need to get some wins otherwise they could be staring down the barrel of a second straight relegation. It is that serious.

Speaking of teams in poor runs of form, FC Gifu currently ‘better’ Niigata, having lost their last seven games, and nine of the last ten. Talisman Kyogo Furuhashi was sold to Kobe; Junichi Paulo Tanaka suffered a knee injury against Yokohama in the middle of July and is still out; Yoichi Naganuma is away with the Japan U21 team in Indonesia. Those sound like excuses, but they’re not. Mitigating circumstances, maybe. But Gifu have looked a shadow of the side that dominated in May and produced one of their best ever performances against Renofa Yamaguchi back in June. They haven’t played well enough, the defence looks tired and there isn’t enough dynamism up front. Supporters are pinning their hopes on an injection of youth up top via Tohma Murata (a high schooler that might not be able to play due to school commitments, but I’m not 100% sure on that), Daichi Ishikawa – 7 months removed from a serious knee injury and made his first J.League start against Machida Zelvia last weekend, and untried, unproven Brazilian forward Michael. It’s a big leap of faith, but supporters have to believe that those three, with the return of Paulo & Naganuma, might give them just enough to stay afloat in J2.

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Roasso Kumamoto have only won once since the end of May, but that was a crucial 2-0 at fellow relegation battlers Gifu. Kumamoto do, however, possess one of the unsung players of J2 in diminutive winger Tatsuya Tanaka. Tanaka has scored five times from the right wing, and has assisted eleven – good for second in the lead (only behind Machida’s outstanding Taiki Hirato). Tanaka is quick, direct and his low centre of gravity (he’s only 170cm tall) allows him to manoeuvre and change direction quickly. With Tanaka, Yusuke Minagawa (10 goals) and An Byong-jun (9 goals), going forward isn’t Roasso’s problem. It is at the back. 56 goals conceded is the second worst record in the division and they’ve kept just three clean sheets all year. It is interesting to me that Roasso Kumamoto and Kamatamare Sanuki’s records contrast greatly, but they both find themselves in severe trouble.

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This weekend

Here are the relevant games this coming weekend at the foot of J2:

  • FC Gifu vs Omiya Ardija
  • Yokohama FC vs Kyoto Sanga
  • Kamatamare Sanuki vs Tokushima Vortis
  • Montedio Yamagata vs Roasso Kumamoto
  • Ehime FC vs Albirex Niigata

On current form, it is difficult to see Gifu, Kumamoto and Sanuki getting anything from their games, and while Kyoto are bang in form, they run into a Yokohama FC team that came from behind to beat (then) league leaders Matsumoto Yamaga away from home. The match in Ehime could be crucial to this season. Should Ehime win, they’ll put eight points between themselves and Niigata and well on track for safety. Should the visitors win, it would give them an injection of hope.

All to play for starting this weekend.

Del Piero & Giffy: A match made in anime heaven

Del Piero & Giffy: A match made in anime heaven

Alessandro Del Piero is a giant of modern football. The man who made his debut at Padova and then went on to become one of the very best players of his generation is an icon of the game. Serial trophy winner at Juventus and a World Cup winner winner with Italy in 2006. A successful spell with Sydney FC ended a stellar playing career.

Giffy is FC Gifu’s mascot, who was “born” in August of last year. He’s popular, can skateboard, and can dance better than you or I.

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But why are they appearing on the same poster, advertising Del Piero’s upcoming visit to Gifu? What could possibly link two very different beings? This is a question I’ve had a lot over the past few days since the ADP’s visit to Gifu was announced. The answer is a combination of Captain Tsubasa and a very forward thinking FC Gifu promotional department.

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Captain Tsubasa, for the uninitiated, is a wildly popular football manga authored/illustrated by the great Yoichi Takahashi. The main character, Tsubasa Ozora, is the epitome of what Japanese players aspire to be – fast, energetic and able to do crazy skilful things with the ball. The manga follows Tsubasa and his group of friends as they move from their local Nankatsu elementary school all the way through until they are playing in various leagues and big clubs around Europe. It is, essentially, the Japanese footballer’s dream. I won’t go into too much detail because if you (the reader) is interested in Japanese football then you’ll more than likely have come across Tsubasa and friends.

In Japan, Tsubasa is credited with inspiring a number of new generation players – the headliner being Hidetoshi Nakata. Nakata is on the record saying that when he was growing up he, like many other boys of his age, faced a choice between baseball, which was on TV almost everyday, and football, which had minimal media saturation. Nakata picked up Captain Tsubasa and was immediately in by it, and that helped him make his choice to focus on football. The rest, as they say, is history. Similarly, speak to any current J.League player and they will most likely tell you that they grew up reading/watching Ozora & friends’ exploits and, much like Tsubasa himself, the manga made its way overseas and started to influence people far beyond Japan.

The list of players who have name-checked Tsubasa as an influence on their footballing life is pretty extraordinary. Footballing luminaries such as Lionel Messi, Zinedine Zidane, Andres Iniesta, Fernando Torres (currently both plying their trade in Japan these days) and Alessandro Del Piero.

In Italy, a young Del Piero watched Tsubasa – titled Holly and Benji in the country – and was, like many other children across the world, inspired by it. Later, he would have the ultimate honour of a character being based on him. In the series, Juventus’ ace forward Alessandro Delpi is based on the real life Juventus superstar. Del Piero’s love of Tsubasa and his relationship with creator Yoichi Takahashi is well documented.

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Fast forward to January 2018. FC Gifu release their 2018 kits, with an added surprise. On the sleeve is the image of Ozora, part of a sponsorship campaign with a local futsal court/enterprise (you can find details of it here) and designed to appeal to the local Gifu public that, while a little unsure of the local team (!), would definitely respect Captain Tsubasa. I was told at the kit launch by more than a few members of Gifu’s PR team that they hoped to use Ozora to broaden Gifu’s appeal. Little did they, nor I, know that that appeal would snare a legend of the game.

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In April of this year, FC Gifu mascot Giffy wrote a letter to Del Piero and enclosed a personalised FC Gifu shirt with ’10 – De Piero’ on it. A bold move from our promotions department, but if you don’t ask, you never get. But Giffy did ask, and a reply he did get – a very gracious reply actually, and behind the scenes work started in order to try and persuade Del Piero to come to this beautiful, but out of the way, part of Japan.

A lot of work has gone into this, not mention a lot of cooperation from different factions. Obviously the first contact has come from FC Gifu to ADP’s representatives but I expect that the J.League has also been involved. On the same day, J.League big brass Hiromi Hara is also coming, as is football talent/commentator/presenter Keiji Hirahata which speaks to some league coordination. Also, the game (and lest we forget that there IS a game on that day in which Tokyo Verdy come to town) is the annual NGK “Thanks match”. NGK is the main sponsor of FC Gifu, and have put a lot of money into he club and by scheduling the Del Piero visit on their most prominent advertising day, they are looking at maximum publicity for themselves.

As for Gifu supporters, we’ve seen big names here before. We had Ruy Ramos as manager and Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi as goalkeeper. We had Diego Forlan play here for Cerezo Osaka (as did Shinji Kagawa & Takashi Inui back in the day). King Kazu often makes appearances at Nagaragawa as have other legends of the Japanese game, such as Yasuhito Endo (Gamba Osaka). Del Piero is a step up in level and I expect the place to be full to capacity as football supporters from all across Japan try to get their hands on tickets. And they are special tickets, of course. Four different designs showcasing Del Piero’s undoubted handsomeness.

Finally, it is a testament to the popularity of Giffy that he is able to project so positively. Gifu, on the pitch, are in a bit of a funk (to put it nicely) but off the pitch things are going really well. The introduction of Avex-Trax cheerleaders Triple G has been a huge success, as was the invitation extended to idol group SKE48 members for the match against Mito earlier this year. This ADP visit is just the latest venture that will be successful in promoting the club and the sponsors.

So bravo to the people that made this happen, and bravo to Giffy – the mascot that has captured the imagination not just in Gifu, but in Japan as a whole. And when “Giffy’s friend, Mr. Alessandro Del Piero” (a direct quote) turns up in Gifu, Giffy could have his 15 minutes of global fame.

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