Friday, December 18, 2009

Sulking in a Winter Wonderland

Actually, the prolonged radio silence hasn't been all sulk. Global financial circumstances have forced a return to the UK, and a relentless torrent of life admin. It then took the best part of a month for my ISP to get me online. So the final weeks of another thrilling, but ultimately disappointing, J.League season have passed me by.

In some ways I'm glad I didn't get to witness the anticlimax too closely. It was pretty much a carbon copy of what happened the previous year anyway, and I'm not really one for repeats. The loss away to Oita sounded the death knoll (much like the loss away to Omiya in 2008). Again Kashima needed to drop points in their final game for Frontale's title hopes to remain alive. Again, when it mattered, the Antlers of Ibaraki were too good.

Would Frontale have made worthy champions had Urawa managed to take something off Kashima on that final fateful day? I'm undecided. After another terrible start to the season, the warmth of spring seemed to breathe new life into the team. But some uncharacteristically toothless performances pervaded the latter stages of the year. And, in stark contrast to the earth-shuddering, seat-of-the-pants excitement of the 2008 season, 2009 has left a rather underwhelming aftershock.

Maybe pre-season expectations were too high? Maybe Takahata's all-out attack of 2008 played better to the team's strengths than Sekizuka's more measured approach in 2009. Maybe Kashima's inexplicable mid-season slump gave false hope? It's always easy to criticise with the advantage of hindsight, but there's certainly work to be done if Frontale are finally to shed their "also-ran" status in 2010.

That said, does anyone else wonder how much difference a fit Vitor Junior might have made this year?

So, what's new?

The big story is Sekizuka's departure. The club offered their long-time helmsman a contract extension but he's turned it down.

The man who transformed the team from J2 minnows to regular J1 title challengers and ACL globetrotters believes he has done all he can, and that somebody else's skills are required to take the club that one final step to glory. It certainly speaks volumes about his achievements that finishing second in the league, as well as reaching a cup final and two quarter-finals, comes across as a failure.

Who will fill the void? It's by no means the least desirable job in Asian football. But does the club have the means to attract the top talent? Perhaps Takahata will once again be asked to step up to the plate.

Whatever happens, it needs to happen fast. After last year's inactivity in the transfer market, the squad has been left looking pretty anorexic at times. It would be absolutely criminal if this problem was addressed too late due to boardroom indecision.

Another notable departure is Satoru Yamagishi - off to Sanfrecce Hiroshima on loan. To say the midfielder has been a success, since his arrival from JEF two years ago, would be entirely inaccurate. He played a fair bit in 2008, but in a wingback position that didn't really suit his defensive frailty. He was then tried at right back at the start of 2009, which proved an unmitigated disaster.

Mid-season he had a few chances to impress in his preferred role on the wing, but he looked like a player short on confidence and all too aware of his peripheral position in the squad. It's probably in everyone's best interests that he's looking to rejuvenate his career elsewhere. Good luck to him.

Kengo and big Eiji were both named in the Best Eleven at the J.League's 2009 Awards. An honour which I'm sure they'll view as scant compensation for their failure to lay hands on real silverware.

Looking ahead to next season, the groups for the 2010 AFC Champions League have already been decided. Frontale have not had the best of luck, being drawn in Group E alongside Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma (K-League runners-up), Melbourne Victory (A-League Premiers and Champions and current league leaders) and Beijing Guoan (Chinese Super League winners).

And what's to happen about the blog?

Well, I'd like to say it'll be business as usual in 2010. But it's going to be a lot harder to follow Frontale's progress from the UK. Let's just say I'll do what I can with the resources available.


Post a Comment