Kawasaki Frontale started the 2018 season with completely different campaigns in their two competitions. In the AFC Champions League, the team is close to an early group stage exit after three losses and one draw in four matches. In the J1 League they have managed the opposite, jumping to the top of the table on three wins and one draw following Sunday’s 1-0 win at Nagoya Grampus. These results make the club’s priorities clear.
It is not as if Frontale intentionally threw the ACL away, at least in the beginning. They went full-strength in the opening match, losing to Hulk’s Shanghai SIPG at Todoroki Stadium. In ensuing rounds they gradually rested some regulars, and in their most recent defeat at Melbourne Victory manager Toru Oniki fielded several reservists. As always, it is difficult to imagine why Frontale did not start the ACL with their best players in order to book a spot in the knockout round before resting their regulars in the last one or two matches. As they say in Japan, mottainai! (what a waste!)
Luck has also taken its toll, for better or worse. Yoshito Okubo is the greatest example of this. Following a year to forget at FC Tokyo and a return to the club where he was the J1’s top scorer for three straight seasons, he has disappointed in the ACL with no goals in his three starts. But as a back-up in the J1, the 35-year-old veteran scored his first goal of the season against Grampus just 26 seconds after replacing Akihiro Ienaga. Okubo headed home the cross from Kengo Nakamura, luckily avoiding a potential offside call in the process.
ACL Frontale play desperately, commit errors in defence, struggle to create chances, and seem to be in a parallel dimension when entering the opposing penalty area: their legs are heavier, the ball runs faster, the defenders become stronger and everything goes wrong.
J.League Frontale, in contrast, are a team with composure and patience, who impose themselves and control the match from start to end, whose offense has worked well and whose defence rarely concedes.
Mind you, their two main players are not even in their best form yet. Yu Kobayashi’s start to the season is not at the standard of a league MVP, and it would not be strange if he were to miss out on Vahid Halilhodzic’s World Cup squad behind others that are playing better, such as Kashima Antlers’ Mu Kanazaki or Mainz’ Yoshinori Muto. In addition, Kengo Nakamura has been overshadowed by Akihiro Ienaga in the playmaker role.
Okubo, who updated the “Yoshi Meter” to 180 career J1 goals, was Sunday’s hero for Frontale. But there have been other good displays in the side. Ryota Oshima, who performed well on both sides of the ball, was rightfully called up to the Samurai Blue for their March friendlies. Jung Sung-ryong is always a reliable presence between the posts. Shogo Taniguchi, who arguably deserved a man of the match award on Sunday in the opinion of this writer, helped shut out Jo and contributed with a last-minute clearance on the line.
Lastly, Kyohei Noborizato marked Gabriel Xavier tightly throughout the whole match and, as if glued to him, followed closely the Brazilian number 10 everywhere on the pitch and did not allow him to be decisive in the final third. Consequently, the ball rarely went to Jo. With a lacklustre performance and just one shot recorded, Grampus’ big signing from Brazilian champions Corinthians made way for 17-year-old rookie Shumpei Naruse with 15 minutes remaining.
Toru Oniki, the pupil, won the duel against his master Yahiro Kazama in an overwhelming way. Grampus, even after one goal down, could barely muster any response and did not create a dangerous play except for a desperate 95th-minute scramble which featured even goalkeeper Mitchell Langerak. If Frontale can maintain their form and their luck in the J1, their embarrassing ACL campaign will be soon left aside and forgotten.