Kawasaki – There were no songs or chants.
There were no drums beaten or flags waved.
But there was plenty of applause for Kawasaki Frontale on Saturday night, who rode veteran midfielder Akihiro Ienaga’s first-half brace to a 3-1 win over Kashiwa Reysol in the fourth round of the J. League’s first division.
Following Friday’s relaxing of government restrictions intended to prevent the spread of the coronavirus at sporting events, a maximum of 5,000 fans were allowed to enter Todoroki Stadium in Kawasaki.
“It was a tough restart, not just for me but for the players,” said Frontale manager Toru Oniki. “We weren’t used to playing without fans. Today we played in front of 5,000 fans instead of a full house. But playing in front of fans energized us and I’m happy with that.”
The match, which had an official attendance of 4,724, was the first in the J1 to welcome fans since the first round in late February, which took place shortly before the league suspended due to the virus’s increasing threat.
But in line with the J. League’s own regulations to reduce the risk of COVID-19, Frontale supporters — all wearing masks — were instructed to leave flags and banners at home, stay seated and refrain from singing or shouting.
Except for an occasional ooh or aah, those rules were followed for the most part — although an uncalled penalty after midfielder Kyohei Noborizato fell in the box in the 33rd minute was simply too much to bear for many.
Clapping was, however, on the table.
At times it came in staccato bursts — such as an earned corner kick, or when a Reysol pass was intercepted by a Frontale defender.
Other times it rolled across Todoroki in sustained waves, as the Frontale attack weaved through the Kashiwa defense.
“I want to thank everyone who worked hard to help us play in front of fans today,” said Oniki. “The circumstances are difficult but they’re still here supporting us and it’s wonderful that they could celebrate each time we get the ball.”
At last came Ienaga’s headed goal in the 40th minute, which inspired the briefest shouts of joy until fans remembered the approved method of celebrations — holding up their towels as the usual goal celebration song was piped in through the loudspeakers.
Those shouts of joy were a little louder and a touch longer just two minutes later as Ienaga notched his second through a low shot from just inside the penalty arc that Reysol goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu barely managed to touch.
Kashiwa manager Nelsinho Baptista seemed to realize the game was slipping out of reach at halftime, making three substitutions that included an early shower for frontline threat Michael Olunga.
But Reysol’s third straight defeat seemed all but assured in the 52nd minute when Leandro Damiao leapt up to head in Yasuto Wakizaka’s cross to make it 3-0.
“There were issues with our positioning,” Nelsinho said. When we earned possession, we didn’t pass the ball forward, instead we passed it back. They had a lot of players up front so when we gave up the ball they were able to create chances on the attack.”
A goal by halftime substitute Hiroto Goya cut the hosts’ lead to 3-1, but the visitors were consistently unable to create a consistent presence in the attacking third.
Even so, the result wasn’t enough to completely satisfy Oniki, whose team has won three straight since the J1 resumed on July 4.
“Everyone worked hard to get these results — the starters, the substitutes and the players who didn’t make the matchday squad,” said Oniki. “But we gave up the goal and we still have things to improve before our game next weekend (away at Yokohama FC).
In the night’s other top-flight game, Vissel Kobe jumped out to an early lead at Oita Trinita after Kyogo Furuhashi scored just 20 seconds after the opening whistle, but settled for a 1-1 draw after being unable to respond to Tomoki Iwata’s 29th-minute equalizer.