If last year was the dream, this year was definitely the awakening. Hiroshima had won three out of the last four J Leagues, clinching the title in a two legged playoff the previous weekend. They were in form, they’d had a whole season of winning. This wasn’t going to be Morocco.
We still sing about it, but matches like this show just how much our team has changed. Ivan Vicelich travelled as an assistant coach; Tim Payne, John Irving, David Browne, Fabrizio Tavano, Sanni Issa and Tamati Williams have all departed in the year since we played Moghreb Tétouan. In their place City have put existing squad members, the likes of Spoonley, Berlanga, Kim and Moreira, combined with new signings in Hudson-Wihongi, Lea’alafa and Mikel Alvaro.The signs were good though, well pretty good. Unbeaten in the league, goals flowing freely, it was possible we could pull off a shock. It was clear from the opening exchanges that Sanfrecce Hiroshima were determined to test us, pulling their wingers out so far wide one went for a pie and a pint midway through the first half, and having a dig from distance to test Spoonley with the slippery ball.
City on the other hand were metronomic, the ball ticking over around the back line. It was the only way you could play against a superior opponent, but given the exciting attacking trio of De Vries, Lea’alafa and Moreiria the faint air of discomfort at this cattenccio styled City was tangible among the viewers.
Then, disaster. A short corner and a well worked set piece. The replays show a marginal offside, but the whole sequence show all three attacking players very purposely lined up ready to make that run through our defence. The ball dipped in, Spoonley attempted a punch but the ball had swerved enough to ricochet off his body and onto the foot of the onrushing attacker. No replays are usually a sign that something iffy has gone down.
From then on, for the remainder of the game, the three times champions of Japan didn’t just park the bus, they parked all of the 1,002 buses running on the Yokohama public transport network. Which isn’t to say we didn’t have an opportunity. Their predilection for short passes to their keeper drew amazed scoffs from the night owls, but aside from a Moreira break there wasn’t a chance to really make it hurt.
The game was one of opportunity and it was pretty obvious that our opponents were much sharper when it came to taking advantage of misplaced passes or ricochets. Their counter attack was rapid, spreading the ball wide and switching play. By half time we’d had chances, Hiroshima more than happy to concede free kicks in that just quite not dangerous enough area of the pitch. Very professional.
Half Time 1 – 0 and Auckland City with 71% possession.
It would be good to point out that the pitch at Yokohama appeared to have a vicious hatred of the Sanfrecce players. Innocuous challenges saw substitutions early in the first half, and by about 70 minutes they’d made all of theirs – including substituting the first substitute who’d gone down injured. It would never have happened on green sand, I tell you.
Possession, passing. Sideways, backwards. Micah Lea’alafa had been dangerous whenever he had been on the ball, which is why whenever he received it he was swarmed with purple clad players like moths to a lightbulb.
What had changed was where play was happening. As the game had progressed, City had moved further forward, using the patient tick-tock passing to try and compress their opponents. The problem was that they were too compressed and despite close quarters wizardry, there always seemed to be one too many players in the way for our attack to really get into gear.
When moves did happen, they were through thrusting forward movement. Neat interplay between Alvaro and Moreira, getting between the regimented ranks of opposition players, brought opportunities but the shots weren’t coming off. Hiroshima were happy to sit in their own half and break with three or four players when their chance came. They didn’t need to force anything, they were already in front.
Our defence creaked under the pressure regardless. Kim was lucky not to be caught for a stud rake to an achilles, but equally Micah Lea’alafa caught a solid elbow to the face which went unpunished. Things even out I suppose. Except the scoreline.
Two nil came from a substitute, the wonderfully named Douglas, who was a menace from the minute he came on. Slipping a ball through to a defender, the deflected shot off Dordevic squirmed under Spoonley and trickled over the line. Bugger. Bugger. Bugger.
Three nil almost came from Douglas again minutes late, but a stretching one handed Spoonley special kept the ball out.
Two nil down and City were made to work hard, with Sanfrecce Hiroshima more than happy to send the buses on their way and start slipping the ball around the turf. A brave, brave tackle from Takuya Iwata saw the City left back cop a knee to the face at speed. The TV footage and replays made it look worse, but the huge cut and instantly swelling cheek – closing his right eye made it difficult to see how he could continue.
But he did. Despite needing 12 stitches later on, he returned to the field within a few minutes and was instantly in the thick of it. When he went up and won a header near the end of the game, I was sold. That sort of spirit and approach is exactly why I’m a City fan. The same applies to Jacob Spoonley who fronted up for the cameras after the game. That’s a measure of the team, but also the qualities of the individuals that make it up.
The final whistle went, and our boys were coming back home. While our visits to Japan have been relatively unhappy, we’ve learned something each time. See you next year, Japan!
Categories: Other Football Topics
John Palethorpe lives in South Auckland which is very far away from Fratton Park and Champion Hill. Having been told there was no football in New Zealand, he was delighted to find that there is.