AFC Champions League - Group H: Wed, 18th March 2009
|1 - 1|
|KIM JAE-SUNG 12'||TERADA 24'|
Venue: Steelyard Stadium
Frontale maintained pole position in Group H with a hard-fought draw away to Korea's Pohang Steelers on Wednesday night.
Sekizuka called for an improved defensive performance from his team and, despite a nervy start, that's what he got.
It was clear from the choice of personnel and formation that the main priority here was to avoid defeat. Renatinho, Yamagishi and Igawa made way for Murakami, Mori and Yokoyama in what looked on paper like a return to the old 3-5-2. In fact, Terada and Ito were the only out-and-out defenders with Mori and Murakami playing increasingly restrained roles on the flanks and Yokoyama and Taniguchi sitting deep in the middle.
In the opening stages, this unfamiliar formation looked unlikely to help a team already short on self-belief. Kawashima was in action almost immediately to deny Pohang after they found a man in acres of space on the right of a lop-sided Frontale defense.
Then, with just 12 minutes on the clock, the home team took the lead. Exploiting another hole between Murakami and Ito, midfielder Kim Jae-Sung ran onto a well-weighted pass and poked the ball past big Eiji.
But, to be fair, that was as bad as it got. The Frontale players grew into their defensive roles and looked far more controlled for the rest of the match than in any of their previous outings.
And at the other end, Pohang were displaying frailties of their own. Keeper, Shin Hwa-Yong, was called upon to make fine saves first from Ito and then Kengo. But he was powerless in the 24th minute when Vitor Junior delivered a corner perfectly onto the head of Shuhei Terada, who made no mistake from 6 yards out.
The visitors could well have been in front by half time, with both Vitor and Taniguchi squandering good chances. The Brazilian, who's still not quite firing on all cylinders, misplaced his pass when he had the Pohang defense in disarray. Taniguchi, who'd recently had his nose burst by a stray boot, can be forgiven (just this once) for fluffing his shot in front of an open goal.
Pohang came out fighting in the second half, but never really troubled a relatively resolute Frontale defense. A slew of free kicks awarded by the whistle-happy Omani referee provided the home team's best opportunuties.
Frontale, on the other hand, were happy to sit back and play on the counter - Murakami and Mori rarely straying beyond the halfway line.
Their best chance of the second half fell to Kurotsu, on for Chong, but he could only direct his volley, from a Juninho cross, straight at the Pohang keeper.
Although Frontale could have taken all 3 points, this performance should have given their confidence a much-needed boost - at least defensively. And while Sekizuka's tactical approach doesn't quite have the dazzle of last season's all-out attack, one gets the feeling that the team will benefit from the former in the long, congested season ahead. (I reserve the right to reconsider that opinion if Yamagishi starts at right-back against JEF on Sunday!).