After beating Sanfrecce Hiroshima away on October 3rd it looked as though FC Tokyo were on course for a spot in the post-season play-offs, only for Massimo Ficcadenti’s side to stutter in its next two games, losing consecutive home matches against Shonan Bellmare and Urawa Reds.
The Gasmen recovered well from that setback, however, and put in an assured and solid display against Kashiwa Reysol in their penultimate J1 game, winning 1-0 and jumping back up above Gamba Osaka into third place heading into the final round of the season.
“The team got the win they needed and now it is in our own hands whether or not we are able to challenge for the title,” Ficcadenti said after Masato Morishige’s penalty had secured all three points at Kashiwa Stadium. “We have some great players, the majority of whom I have worked with for two years and am very proud of. I’ll continue to be proud of them until the end.
“We knew that not everything would be decided in [the Urawa] game and were able to fix certain things and become compact again and put in a good performance. I think we were very good.”
Despite coming into Round 16 knowing that Gamba had their noses just in front, Ficcadenti insisted that he and his players hadn’t been concerned with goings-on elsewhere, and weren’t aware of the score at Banpaku – where visiting Hiroshima ran out as 2-0 winners.
“No, I didn’t know,” the 48-year-old said. “It will be the same in the next game. We knew we had to win both of our last two games, and the next game will be difficult too. First of all we knew we needed to get six points. Afterwards we can look at the other scores.”
Even a draw against Sagan Tosu on November 22nd could see Tokyo progress to the play-offs, although with Gamba only two points behind with a superior goal difference and at home to already-relegated Montedio Yamagata it is unlikely that a point will be enough.
Tokyo have the third-best defensive record in J1, however, (33 goals conceded, just behind Sanfrecce Hiroshima (30) and Yokohama F.Marinos (32)) and have won eight games 1-0 this year – more than any other team in the top flight. If they can produce another disciplined and professional performance against a Tosu side with nothing at stake, a play-off semi-final should be in the bag.
If things do go according to plan then their opponents will almost certainly be Urawa Reds – who have been something of a bogey team of late. Tokyo haven’t won any of their last four meetings against Mihailo Petrovic’s side in the J.League, and contrary to their strong defensive record have conceded four times in each of their last three meetings, including the 4-3 defeat at Ajinomoto Stadium on October 24th.
“In the Urawa game all of the errors that we usually try and avoid came up,” Ficcadenti admitted. “Having said that, it was a very open game in which we scored three goals, and you didn’t know until the very end what was going to happen.”
Indeed, the margin between success and failure is incredibly slim, and in effect the two games between the sides in the league have determined their respective places in the table – if Tokyo had won both then it would be them in 2nd and Reds in 3rd, although ultimately the only difference that would make would be to give them home advantage in the semi-final.
Kento Hashimoto insists the Tokyo players have no fears about another clash with Urawa, and for the time being are merely focused on getting to the play-offs.
“There isn’t really any feeling of nervousness, and it’s now become a simple situation whereby if we win [against Tosu] then we’re there,” he said after the win over Reysol, in which he won the penalty converted by Morishige.
“I think the atmosphere will be different in the Championship [compared] to that in the league, so I don’t think we will go in [against Urawa] feeling as though we are not up to the task.”
Vlada Avramov, who had a shaky time between the sticks against Urawa, concedes that they represent a formidable opponent, but like Hashimoto is confident Tokyo can emerge victorious.
“I think personally that they are the best team that I’ve played against since I came here,” the Serbian said after the win over Kashiwa. “Since I came to Japan I think the only game in which I haven’t played to my true level is the Urawa game. Before that in four games I only conceded one goal.
“The most important mentality to have is to respect the opponent and do everything you can to win. If we come into the game with the right mentality then I personally think it is possible for us to beat a strong team like Urawa.”
Of course, in order to earn that opportunity first of all he and his teammates have to make sure there are no more uncharacteristic errors on the last day of the regular season.