Text by Paul Freelend
Three of Japan’s AFC Champions League representatives picked up momentum ahead of their pivotal mid-week matches with victories in Round 3 of the Meiji Yasuda J1 League.
FC Tokyo, Gamba Osaka and Urawa Reds all won at home to remain near the top of the First Stage leaderboard. All three next take on sides from the Chinese Super League, the subject of much fevered speculation and beneficiary of even more fevered spending during the winter transfer window.
Tokyo made heavy work of beating Vissel Kobe 1-0 at Ajinomoto Stadium on Friday night, needing 88 minutes to fashion a breakthrough. The only bright spot of a mostly tame first half came when Kobe goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu was booked for time-wasting after just 20 minutes. The hosts were livelier in the second half, but it was not until two minutes from the end that Yuhei Tokunaga found an unmarked Takuma Abe at the far post for the winner.
Tokyo next host Jiangsu Suning in Group E of the Champions League. Jiangsu drew worldwide attention with their spending ahead of the new season, breaking their transfer record twice as they acquired Trent Sainsbury, Ramires, Jo and Alex Texeira. They top Group E with four points, one ahead of Jeonbuk Hyundai and Tokyo.
Also on Friday, Gamba held on to beat Omiya Ardija 2-1, earning their first league win at Suita City Football Stadium. Goals from Yasuyuki Konno and Hiroyuki Abe proved to be enough for the hosts, while Akihiro Ienaga’s 92nd-minute strike was not enough to sustain Ardija’s 100 per cent record to start the season.
Gamba, who opened their Group G campaign with two draws, travel to China to face Shanghai SIPG on Tuesday. While they haven’t spent as lavishly as Jiangsu, Sven-Goran Eriksson’s side have splashed out for three proven performers on the Asian stage in Asamoah Gyan, Elkeson and Dario Conca. Shanghai are second in the group on three points, one behind Melbourne Victory.
Urawa saw off Avispa Fukuoka 2-0 on Saturday thanks to two goals from Shinzo Koroki. The 2007 Asian champions have perhaps the most daunting task of the three J-League sides facing Chinese competition as they travel to Champions League holders and five-time defending Super League champions Guangzhou Evergrande on Wednesday. Guangzhou made one of the biggest moves of the off-season in signing Jackson Martinez from Atletico Madrid, but they are off to a slow start in Group H with one point from two matches.
Sanfrecce Hiroshima, meanwhile, needed a 95th-minute own goal to salvage a 2-2 home draw with Shonan Bellmare on Saturday. The 2015 J1 champions are winless in five competitive matches to start the season and have a chance to turn around their fortunes when they host Thai Premier League winners Buriram United on Wednesday. Sanfrecce and Buriram are joint-bottom of Group F on zero points, with FC Seoul and Shandong Luneng both on six.
Elsewhere in J1 on Saturday, Vegalta Sendai made Jun Kanakubo’s eighth-minute goal stand up as they beat Kashima Antlers 1-0 on an emotional afternoon at Yurtec Stadium. The match, like others across the league, marked the five-year anniversary of the March 11 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Manabu Saito scored a minute from full time to give Yokohama F Marinos a 2-1 victory at Albirex Niigata, while Ventforet Kofu earned a 1-1 draw at Sagan Tosu.
There was drama on and off the pitch at Kashiwa Reysol, where Junya Tanaka’s 78th-minute goal had the hosts on course for a point before Nagisa Sakurauchi scored at the death to earn Jubilo Iwata a 2-2 draw. Kashiwa manager Milton Mendes shockingly resigned his position during the post-match news conference, citing health problems in his family.
In the late kick-off, Kawasaki Frontale went top of the table with a 3-2 win over Nagoya Grampus at Todoroki Stadium. Yoshito Okubo brought the hosts level with 15 minutes to go – pulling level with Hisato Sato on 158 career J1 goals – and Kengo Nakamura scored the winner six minutes from full time. Frontale sit in first place with seven points after three rounds, with six teams even on six points.
J-League First Stage, Round 3
FC Tokyo 1-0 Vissel Kobe
Gamba Osaka 2-1 Omiya Ardija
Sanfrecce Hiroshima 2-2 Shonan Bellmare
Vegalta Senda 1-0 Kashima Antlers
Urawa Reds 2-0 Avispa Fukuoka
Albirex Niigata 1-2 Yokohama F Marinos
Sagan Tosu 1-1 Ventforet Kofu
Kashiwa Reysol 2-2 Jubilo Iwata
Kawasaki Frontale 3-2 Nagoya Grampus
Asian Champions League fixtures
Tuesday (all times Japan Standard Time)
FC Tokyo v Jiangsu Suning, 1930
Shanghai SIPG v Gamba Osaka, 2030
Sanfrecce Hiroshima v Buriram United, 1900
Guangzhou Evergrande v Urawa Reds, 2030