KAWASAKI – After winning two straight J. League first division championships, Kawasaki Frontale was favored by many to become just the second team in the league’s 26-year history to pull down a third.
The Kanagawa Prefecture club’s quest to join Kashima Antlers in the history books got off to a slow start on Saturday with a scoreless draw against Tamagawa Clasico rival FC Tokyo at a sold-out Todoroki Stadium.
“It’s disappointing that we couldn’t win at home with such a big crowd,” Frontale boss Toru Oniki said after the match. “It ended in a draw but it wouldn’t have been unexpected for either team to win. We didn’t play our way for as much time as we would have liked, so we need to move on to the next game.”
Seeing no reason to experiment with a side that one week earlier was the comfortable victor over Urawa Reds in the Fuji Xerox Super Cup, Oniki sent out an unchanged 11 that included frontline threat Leandro Damiao.
On the opposite side, two of Tokyo’s more promising offseason signings, Korean playmaker Na Sang-ho and 20-year-old striker Kyosuke Tagawa, started on the bench.
Making his Clasico debut instead for the visitors was Takefusa Kubo, the highly anticipated midfielder who is reportedly set for a return to Barcelona soon after he turns 18 in June.
Kubo impressed early with his improved physique, weaving through several Frontale players along the goal line to set up a corner kick in the fourth minute.
The player who Japanese soccer fans hope can lead the host nation to glory at Tokyo 2020 threatened again late in the half, clanging a free kick off the post in the 41st minute.
“He did a fantastic job today,” said Tokyo manager Kenta Hasegawa. “If you can’t create an advantage, you can’t create (chances). He was able to create time with the ball and frustrate Frontale’s defenders.”
Damiao, who scored the lone goal in the Super Cup, was an imposing presence in the attacking third for Frontale, bullying defenders and setting up several big chances until his substitution in the 73rd minute.
The Brazilian, who took home the Golden Boot as top scorer of the men’s soccer tournament at the 2012 London Olympics, frequently teamed up with Frontale captain Yu Kobayashi, who saw three successive chances on goal denied early in the second half by Tokyo goalkeeper Akihiro Hayashi.
“Of course (Damiao) is tall and he’s strong, but today against a team defending with four or as many as eight players, it’s about finding those spaces for him to get into and we all have to make adjustments,” Frontale midfielder Kengo Nakamura said.
“When he goes into the middle of the pitch he draws defenders and makes space on the sides. If we can get more players near him, great. If not, he’s strong enough to maintain possession.”
Tokyo found some chances through counterattacks as the game lurched toward its conclusion, but both teams were likely content to return to the locker room with a point when referee Nobutsugu Murakami blew the final whistle after three minutes of stoppage time.
“Getting one point away isn’t a bad result,” Hasegawa said. “We trained hard during our winter camp and wanted to start the season with three points. But as you’d expect, Frontale pressured us in their home and we spent a lot of time in the back foot.”
Elsewhere on Saturday, Shimizu S-Pulse’s Koya Kitagawa scored the opener at Edion Stadium but Emil Salomonsson netted the 1-1 equalizer in his J. League debut for Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
Vegalta Sendai and Urawa Reds finished tied at 0-0, but Nagoya Grampus rode a Jo brace and goals by Yuki Soma and Ryuji Izumi to a 4-0 win at Sagan Tosu.
Promoted clubs both found points on the road — Oita Trinita winning 2-1 at Kashima Antlers thanks to a pair of Noriaki Fujimoto goals, and Matsumoto Yamaga took the lead at Jubilo Iwata through Yuzo Iwakami only for Kengo Kawamata to rescue a 1-1 draw for the hosts.
Yokohama F. Marinos won 3-2 at Gamba Osaka in a match that featured two goals exchanged in the opening three minutes. Edigar Junio and Koji Miyoshi both scored in their debut for the Tricolore, while Gamba experienced its first league loss at home since manager Tsuneyasu Miyamoto took over last July.
In Saturday’s final game, Shonan Bellmare won 2-0 over Consadole Sapporo as Kosuke Taketomi delighted the BMW Stadium crowd with a pair of goals late in the second half.
On Friday, Tatsuya Yamashita scored in the 77th minute to propel Cerezo Osaka’s 1-0 win over star-studded Vissel Kobe.