Of the four competitions we're in, I guess there's least to say about the Levain Cup as, due to us taking part in the ACL, we are yet to play a game in this competition. Our first match will be on September 3rd and this will be the first of two legs in the quarter final.
We resume in the Emperor's cup shortly afterwards on September 20th. This will be a fourth round game. Location and opponents are yet to be decided. We've played two games in this competition so far and both have been reasonably comfortable for us. The first one saw us play some players who don't get much pitch time, but the second was with a team made up of much more familiar faces. It remains to be seen how we will be approaching this tournament in the next round. I think given that we are still yet to win our first trophy or title, we'll be trying our best in all competitions whilst we still have the chance. I'm slightly concerned that we are relying quite heavily on the same few players in all competitions at the moment as we still have a long way to go this season. Hopefully some of the fringe players will start making more of a claim to start games and then we can rotate a bit more. So far so good in this competition though.
In the ACL we have probably surprised a few people. I don't think anyone expected us to win our group. After four fairly tepid draws where we were solid if unspectacular, we grabbed our chance by winning in Korea and then finished off the job at home against Eastern in what was a memorably strange atmosphere at Todoroki. The first game was a cagey affair with neither us nor Suwon wanting to lose and consequently playing out a draw. The second has to go down as a bit of a disaster. I'm not sure if we picked too weak a team and underestimated the opposition. There's a case to be made for that, but it was the ref's insane decision to send off Nara very early in the game that really changed things I think. We managed to get a draw, but I think we still probably should have had enough to win the game. The two games against Guangzhou were again cagey affairs. Away, we were all over the place in the first half, mainly due to some strange selections and tactics from Oniki. But in the second half we really battered them and in the end could probably consider ourselves a little unlucky to not win. The home game was pretty dull and I guess a draw was a fair result, but I was really surprised that Guangzhou didn't seem particularly good. Presumably if we make it through the next round and end up playing them again they'll have improved hugely and make me eat my words. The most crucial group game was the away win at Suwon. It was a tense affair and we rode our luck at times, but we picked up a crucial win, mainly thanks to Sung-Ryong, who was returning to his old club. The last group game was a fairly comfortable and straight-forward victory at home against Eastern. In the knockout stage we faced Muangthong, who were being lauded by many. The victory away in Thailand was quite convincing though and pretty much finished off the tie in the first leg. We took a while to get going, but once we were moving we looked very good. We comfortably finished things off at home with a big victory. Our performances were largely overlooked it seemed. The news was focusing much more on Kashima going out than us going through. Previously Muangthong were apparently great (when they were beating Kashima), but when we were convincingly beating them it wasn't even worthy of a mention. Next up Urawa. It's a bit of a difficult one to predict as we never know which Urawa team will turn up, and how we might deal with them on the day. I have my fingers crossed.
Finally, the league. Third after 18 games is pretty satisfying. I guess I should probably have talked about things after 17 games for the sake of it being a halfway stage round up, but given that we are in a better position now than we were before the last game, and that the J League decided to have a break after playing the first fixture of the second half of the season, I'll use the after 18 games position instead. Last year we had a blistering first stage of the season and were playing great. We know how that ended though... This year we've not got as many points or scored as many goals but the league is much more open this time round so we're in a decent position, just three points off the top. We've haven't been playing with the swagger of last year, but we've done a decent enough job I think. Sure there have been some draws with teams that we probably should have done better against, but these kind of things happen. There are probably three real low points though and they are the defeats against FC Tokyo, Cerezo and Yokohama, all away from home with probably the lowest low being Cerezo away. Sure, they are doing well this season and currently sit at the top of the table, but we really didn't turn up that day and offered nothing. The FC Tokyo result looks bad, but they got us with a couple of sucker punches towards the end of the game when we were looking for an equaliser. At Yokohama we weren't great, but were mainly undone by a rotten ref and linesman. Judging by what I've read on twitter, this kind of thing seems to be happening more frequently recently in all J League games. The highlights were probably the win away at Kashima, home games against Urawa and Kobe, and because of the dramatic comeback, away at Sagan Tosu. If I had to give us marks out of ten so far in the league, I'd probably give us an eight.
I've had to split this post in half as it's got too long. The next part, also published today will be the stats from the season so far. You can read it here.