JEONJU, SOUTH KOREA – Kashiwa Reysol flew the flag high for Japan on the J. League’s 20th birthday on Wednesday with a 2-0 first-leg win away to South Korea’s Jeonbuk Motors in the Asian Champions League round of 16.
Kashiwa, the only Japanese team left in this year’s competition, went in front through an early header from Masato Kudo. Goalkeeper Takanori Sugeno pulled off a string of fine saves to protect their lead, and Tatsuya Masushima powered home the second with 16 minutes left to put the 2011 Japanese champions firmly in the driver’s seat ahead of the second leg at Hitachi Stadium next Wednesday.
“It was a great cross from Jorge and although heading is not my strong point, my goal helped us relax,” said Kudo.
“But we are only at halftime now and leading 2-0. Hopefully we can take advantage of being at home in the next game and finish the job.”
From 2009-2012 the round of 16 featured one-off matches hosted by the winners of the eight first-round groups. From this season it is played over two legs with the group runners-up hosting the first leg.
Kashiwa got the better of the South Korean club in two matches last year, winning 5-1 at home and 2-0 away to edge them out by a single point in the group phase to reach the last 16 on their ACL debut, before being knocked out by eventual winners Ulsan Hyundai.
Nelsinho’s side made a dream start and took the lead with the game less than three minutes old. Jorge Wagner lofted a ball over from the left and Kudo beat his marker and headed into the top corner from 12 meters for his fourth goal of the tournament.
Wagner was again involved in some neat approach play as Kashiwa nearly doubled their lead on 15 minutes, Cleo forcing a diving catch from Jeonbuk keeper Kwoun Sun Tae, who then denied Kudo moments later.
Jeonbuk, the 2006 ACL champions, gradually found their feet and Park Hee Do tried his luck at the other end, but Sugeno showed a safe pair of hands to a 20-meter drive on the half-hour mark.
The home side finished the first half the stronger of the two teams, and Eninho nearly caught Sugeno off guard with a dangerous inswinging corner with nine minutes left.
The South Koreans continued to look dangerous going forward and Sugeno was called on the make a super double save from Park and Lee Dong Gook before again denying Park with another fine stop on 68 minutes.
But Kashiwa put themselves into a strong position to reach the quarterfinals when Masushima was left completely unmarked to head in Wagner’s corner.
Niigata loses, advances
Hirotaka Mita came off the bench to net the winner in FC Tokyo’s 2-1 victory over Albirex Niigata on Wednesday but Ranko Popovic’s were still eliminated in the group phase of the Nabisco Cup.
On the J. League’s 20th birthday and at its birthplace in the National Stadium, Tokyo were sent packing after Cerezo Osaka beat Sagan Tosu 2-1 and Kashima Antlers won 1-0 away to Oita Trinita.
Naohiro Ishikawa opened the scoring early in the second half for Tokyo, with Hideya Okamoto netting for Albirex shortly past the hour.
As he did 20 years ago, inaugural J. League Chairman and former Japan Football Association President Saburo Kawabuchi addressed the crowd prior to kickoff, raising the bar for Japanese soccer in the future.
“It was on May 15 in 1993 here at the National Stadium that I declared the start of the J. League,” said Kawabuchi, now the JFA’s senior advisor.
“We couldn’t have accomplished what we have over the last 20 years without the support of everyone involved in football. But we still have a lot to accomplish in the next 20 years and beyond.”
“We need to win the Club World Cup, an Olympic gold medal and the FIFA World Cup. We need to work to be recognized as one of the top leagues in the world.”
In the opening half, both teams struggled over the last third of the pitch, failing to stay on target before the halftime whistle put an end to a dull 45 minutes.
Ishikawa injected some badly needed jolt into the game in the 51st minute, pouncing on a Keigo Higashi cross from outside the box to push Tokyo in front.
Niigata leveled five minutes past the hour, when Okamoto glanced a header past a lead-footed Shuichi Gonda with his third goal of the competition.
Yet victory belonged to Tokyo on this night as Mita swept in the cut-back by Yuhei Tokunaga eight minutes to time — though the result was rendered useless after Cerezo and Kashima prevailed.