Despite coming off a disappointing performance in the pre-season Super Cup, spirits were bouyed amongst the Tricolore faithful in the lead up to F.Marinos’ much anticipated return to the inter-continental stage. Hundreds of supporters made the trek across the Sea of Japan, and whilst expectations were difficult to form – we knew both that the opposition would be tough and that it was difficult to judge our own ability playing in a higher level competition, the mood could be described as one of cautious optimism. Shunsuke himself understood the difficulty of the task ahead of them, saying before the game that although they’d like to play positively, an away draw would be a good result.
When the whistle blew to start the game, however, it soon became apparent which team was ready for the contest and unforunately that was not the team wearing white, blue and red. Despite Higuchi starting three defensive midfielders – Nakamachi, Tomisawa and Mikado – the home team dominated the centre of the park and spreading the ball wide they consistently out-paced us down the flanks. Whilst the defence kept a clean sheet in the first half, there was a visible air of desperation in the back third as we scrambled to clear the ball from danger, and with most of these clearances going straight back to the opposition, there was little let up in the pressure on our backline.
With the ball, our fortunes fared no better as we struggled to deal with Jeonbuk’s defensive press that extended right across the ground. The players in green rushed to close down every Marinos player as soon as he received a pass, they bustled us off the ball, and we resorted to low-percentage 20 metre-plus passes out from the back half which were too easily cut off. Additionally, despite the Jeonbuk’s defence comfortably seeing off chips and high crosses directed towards the front third, we kept at it throughout the game.
Hence the story of the night for us was turnovers and all of the goals we conceded were directly created from Marinos turnovers in the defensive half. Firstly, Shimohira missing his target in an outlet pass from the penalty area, the ball rebounded directly into the box after which Kurihara Yuzo made a complete hash of his attempt to stop the scorer. For the second, Kurihara’s lethargy and lack of movement to provide a passing outlet for Enomoto resulted in a rushed punt upfield, straight down the opposition’s throats and they punished us with a neat three-man combination and a smashing finish by Lee Seung-Gi. The third, well, although the less said the better, Kurihara’s lax pass from 15 metres inside the centreline was cut off, the resulting counter attack creating the opportunity for Jeonbuk’s Leonardo to well and truly bamboozle the referee by tripping on thin air, already well past Enomoto’s outstretched arms.
Looking over the match statistics one might think that it was a three goal burst in ten minutes that did us in, yet that wasn’t the case at all as we simply weren’t in it for any of the ninety minutes. The most disappointing thing was we were unable to assert ourselves into the game whatsoever, that we didn’t try to play the short passing, technical football that served us so well for the first two-thirds of 2013. With Shunsuke aggressively marked (no real surprises there), no-one else – coaching staff incuded – seemed to step up to the challenge of the Champions League. We all knew prior to the match that the Korean team was going to be fast and press energetically, why were the players so unprepared? At least Shunsuke had the grace to apologise to those who had traveled for the match and supported right til the end.
Guangzhou Evergrande’s promotional banner for their ACL clash with F.Marinos
So what should we expect from tonight’s game against mainland powerhouse Guangzhou Evergrande? Whilst Evergrande’s first half at home against Melbourne Victory in Match Day One might give us hope, the second half is likely the more instructive to consider. Slow out of the blocks, in the first stanza the Chinese team gave the Australians enough space and time on the ball to be able to play well-worked combinations from one end of the pitch to the other, looking like world-beaters in doing so. The underdogs could have even been even more than two goals ahead at the break if they’d made the most of their opportunities.
However Marcello Lippi made his changes at half time, tightening up the midfield and defence by taking off third striker Muriqui for defender Liao. Given the way they came out in the second period with more purpose and desire to shut the visitors out of the game, the Italian may have given the team as a whole a good roasting in the changerooms to boot. With time on the ball more limited, Victory struggled to execute to the same level as they had in the first half, leading to turnovers and increased pressure in the back third. Evergrande didn’t take long to force errors in the A-League’s brittlest defence and brilliant finishing in a twelve minute spell turned the two goal deficit into a one goal lead.
It sounds somewhat familiar, doesn’t it? Yet comparing the two matches, I’d say that Jeonbuk had the far higher intensity off the ball than Guangzhou, even when the latter did decide to step out of first gear. It may be simply a case that the Chinese Super League champions underestimated their A-League opponents, yet for this match are evidently motivated, drawing directly on nationalistic ferver – the (in)famous Asian Cup final loss to Japan to be specific (see above)*, to promote the match.
Much of the attention on Guangzhou centres on their multi-million dollar imported strikers. Whilst Lee Seung-Gi for Jeonbuk was no slouch in the finishing department, Evergrande will field up to three strikers his match and better in Muriqui, Elekeson and now, of course, this year’s biggest signing in Asia: Alessandro Diamanti. The latter started to repay the generosity of his employers immeditately with a sensational brace in the opening match day, whilst Muriqui is the reigning tournament Golden Boot and MVP, and Elkeson selected to the ACL ‘Dream Team’. These three will punish us even more than Jeonbuk for the kind of defensive mistakes we made two weeks ago.
Yet as Higuchi pointed out in a press conference in the lead-up to this match, aside from the top-shelf imports, Evergrande’s local players are all of ‘Representative Class’. So Marinos will have their work cut out for them across the park, not just in the back third, and go into this one firmly as underdogs despite being at home. I expect that Evergrande supporters will travel in numbers, along with encouraging overseas students and the like based in Tokyo to come to support them. The traditionally lower mid-week crowd will need to be on-song as well as the players. Much will depend upon how the visitors approach the away tie, will they seek to take the upper hand from the start or perhaps more likely play the longer game of waiting to seize upon our mistakes before trying to assert their dominance in the second half?
Either way, after the disappointment of Match Day 1, tonight’s tie is a must-win for F.Marinos. Let’s hope Shunsuke gets another Man of the Match in this encounter.