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Full-blooded competition a fitting tribute to Matsuda


Staff Writer

Last weekend’s J. League fixtures were always going to be difficult so soon after the shock death of former Yokohama F. Marinos and national team defender Naoki Matsuda, but in the event the passion and determination on show were a fitting tribute.

Yokohama’s players could hardly have been blamed had their minds been elsewhere heading into Saturday’s top-of-the-table clash with Kashiwa Reysol, coming as it did just two days after Matsuda passed away after collapsing in training with his JFL club Matsumoto Yamaga.

But that would never sit right with the memory of a fierce competitor who never shirked a challenge and expected his teammates to do likewise. Matsuda demanded high standards in his 16 seasons with the Yokohama club, and although Reysol ran out deserved 2-0 winners on Saturday, Marinos’ commitment to the cause was never in doubt.

“We can’t use what happened as an excuse,” said manager Kazushi Kimura, and indeed he could have few complaints after ceding first place back to Reysol. The Chiba side gave yet another masterclass in how to take the lead and then defend it, with the irrepressible Leandro Domingues adding to his growing player-of-the-year-candidate credentials.

But Marinos’ efforts were to be applauded after one of the most traumatic weeks in the club’s history, and that attitude was echoed around the league as every team wore black armbands and observed a moment’s silence in Matsuda’s honor.

“His passion and his refusal to give up kept me going right until the very end,” said Vissel Kobe’s Takayuki Yoshida, who was born on the same day as his friend Matsuda and scored two goals against Urawa Reds on Saturday.

Following the solidarity shown after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, Japanese soccer has once again proved its indomitable spirit when it needed it most.

Gamba Osaka stayed hot on the leaders’ tails with a 2-0 win over Avispa Fukuoka on Sunday, but it was, remarkably, the Kansai side’s first clean sheet of the season.

Thirty-five goals conceded in 19 games is not the kind of statistic readily associated with a team that can go top of the league if it wins its remaining match in hand, and Gamba defensive midfielder Tomokazu Myojin knows it.

“It’s great not to have conceded a goal, but they had a lot of chances and we have a lot of things to reflect on,” Myojin said. “We were giving away the ball as soon as we won it, and we made a lot of mistakes.”

Omiya Ardija’s search for a home win continues.

Jun Suzuki’s men went into Sunday’s match at Nack5 Stadium against Vegalta Sendai still waiting to taste victory in front of their own fans — a full 19 games into the season — but first-half goals from Rafael and new signing Rodrigo Pimpao suggested the hex was about to be lifted.

Second-half replies from Vegalta’s Shingo Akamine and Naoki Sugai soon burst the bubble, however, leaving Pimpao with mixed feelings as his new team dropped to 15th in the table.

“It’s nice to score on my debut, but this result is disappointing,” said the Brazilian, who began the season at Cerezo Osaka. “A win for the team is more important than me scoring a goal.”

Urawa Reds’ eight-game unbeaten streak came to an end on Saturday night, and it was no great surprise to see Vissel Kobe claiming the scalp with a 3-2 victory at Saitama Stadium.

Vissel have proved to be something of a thorn in Urawa’s side in recent times, with a 1-0 victory on the opening day of the season following on from a 4-0 thrashing on the final day of the 2010 campaign.

With Yoshito Okubo preparing to take an injury-time penalty with the score at 2-2 on Saturday, not even a hail of boos from the home crowd could break the stranglehold.

“It actually felt good,” Okubo said of the noise that greeted his spot kick. “I was confident that I was going to score, and I wanted to shut them up.”

Quotable: “We fought until the end, but I have to apologize to the fans who have come out and given their support.”

Shimizu S-Pulse captain Shinji Ono faces up to his team’s third 4-0 defeat in a row after Saturday’s loss to Albirex Niigata.