J.League Division 1: Wed, 1st July 2009
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Venue: Todoroki Stadium
Frontale's excellent form continued on Wednesday night as a 1-0 win at home to Gamba Osaka saw them scurry up to 2nd place in the table.
A first-half strike from Yabu - arriving late in the box to convert Renatinho's square ball - proved enough to separate the two teams. But it was another stand-out performance from old "safe hands" Kawashima that guaranteed the victory.
Frontale made a lively start to the game, but it was Gamba - no doubt intent on revenge after last week's ACL exit - who enjoyed the first spell of sustained pressure. And, while there was little to trouble the home goal unduly, the visitors were building up a worrying head of steam.
But, as so often, Frontale crept in like thieves in the night to snatch the lead against the run of play. A long, raking pass from Kengo (who else?) found Renatinho wide on the left. Juninho raced through the middle, drawing the Gamba defence with him. And, whether by luck or judgement, Rena picked out Yabu arriving unmarked on the edge of the box to send a low drive into the bottom corner.
Yabu has exceeded all expectations in recent weeks, filling in for the injured Vitor Junior. His arrival at half time in last week's ACL game was instrumental in turning the tide. And, while he may not offer the same attacking threat as Vitor, he gets the job done. Slightly unfortunate for him, then, that his cool, first-half finish was almost undone by a lapse of concentration after the break.
Quick quiz. For a team that's sitting back and defending a lead, is the sensible thing to do when a ball drops to you inside your own penalty area: a) welly it first-time and clear the danger; or b) control the ball, play it neatly out of defence and bask in the applause of the crowd? Well, Yabu got the answer wrong.
Maybe he had too much time to think about it, maybe he was tired, maybe he was just getting too big for his boots. Whatever the reason, his first touch was heavy, and as Takahiro Futagawa pounced on the loose ball, Yabu stuck out a leg giving the referee no option but to point to the spot.
Happily, Yabu strikes me as the kind of player who learns from his mistakes. Even more happily, Kawashima saved Endo's penalty. Hurrah!
As Frontale continued to sit back, further opportunities arose for Endo to exhibit his trademark dead-ball expertise. But Kawashima stood firm - most notably palming away a free-kick that was destined for the top corner - and the home team held out for the three points.
Having single-handedly earnt at least 4 of his team's last 6 points, I think Kawashima deserves a spell in the spotlight. The big, friendly giant has always been an excellent shot stopper. The main concern, especially regarding his potential at international level, has been his control of the penalty area, both in terms of communication with his defenders and his ability to deal with crosses.
Well, there have been definite signs of improvement in the latter department (is this the handiwork of new goalkeeping coach, Ica?) and his shot-stopping remains first-class. It now just boils down to consistency. Watch this space.
Next up, Frontale lock horns with a Kashima Antlers side buoyed by an 8-game winning streak and an 8-point cushion at the top of the table. They've looked pretty ruthless in the league of late, so not much hope of complacency just yet. And, while a loss would not be the end of the world for Frontale, you get the feeling that someone needs to knock the Antlers off their stride. And sooner rather than later.