Rabu, 01 Februari 2012

FC Tokyo aiming to step on the gas

What does a club do when it has just won the second division at a canter and has been crowned national Cup champions for the first time in its history? Sign a new coach, if that club is FC Tokyo.

The capital outfit celebrated beating Kyoto Sanga 4-2 in the Emperor's Cup final on New Year's Day by officially announcing Serb tactician Ranko Popovic as its new coach barely a day later. Popovic takes over after leading third-tier neighbours Machida Zelvia into J2, with former FC Tokyo Kiyoshi Okuma coach moving back to an administrative role within the club.

Popovic has some experience at this level. He arrived in Japan as an assistant to compatriot Mihailo Petrovic at Sanfrecce Hiroshima in 2006, before taking over the doomed Oita Trinita after their relegation from J1 had been all but confirmed in 2009. When the Kyushu side couldn't afford to retain his services, Popovic moved to western Tokyo to take charge of the upwardly Machida Zelvia.

Now he's has made the short hop over to Chofu to take on an FC Tokyo squad rippling with talent. Japan international and fan-favourite Yasuyuki Konno may have moved to Gamba Osaka, but 'the Gasmen' still have plenty of strikepower on their books. Goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda, winger Naohiro Ishikawa and towering striker Sota Hirayama are often on the fringes of national team selection, while the gritty Masato Morishige, veteran striker Lucas Severino and youngster Takuji Yonemoto - who is looking to re-establish himself after a couple of injury-riddled campaigns - would force their way into most top-flight squads.
Ajinomoto Stadium, home of FC Tokyo

Equally impressive is the fact the Gasmen have strengthened their squad with a couple of impressive signings. Bustling striker Kazuma Watanabe and Iranian-Japanese midfielder Aria Jasuru Hasegawa have both joined from nearby Yokohama F. Marinos after struggling to make an impact at the Tricolore last season. Both offer versatility and will increase the battle for squad places, as does youngster Hiroki Kawano, who joins from stadium co-tenants Tokyo Verdy. Add to that the fact Yohei Otake and Kentaro Shigematsu both enjoyed top-flight football on loan last season and the capital club should prove a formidable force on their return to the top flight.

But while FC Tokyo are looking to build on the performances of Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Cerezo Osaka and Kashiwa Reysol before them - who all qualified for the AFC Champions League just a season after promotion, the latter as J1 champions - the Gasmen already have Champions League football to contend with. They've been drawn in Group F of the Champions League alongside A-League champions Brisbane Roar, South Korean side Ulsan Hyundai and Chinese powerhouses Beijing Guoan, courtesy of winning the Emperor's Cup. And with the Champions League group stage once again jammed up against a packed J. League fixture list, rumours have already surfaced Popovic will field a second-string line-up for continental fixtures and play his first team in the league.

Whatever happens over the early rounds of the 2012 J. League season, the phrase "too good to go down" will reappear any time FC Tokyo take to the pitch. The club from the western outskirts of Tokyo city may only have a League Cup and now an Emperor's Cup trophy to show for their efforts, but they remain one of the more popular and better resourced outfits in the division. Yet such sentiment hasn't spared them before. They went down in 2010 despite being tipped as one of the favourites to win J1, and they'll hope history doesn't repeat itself when top-flight football makes a welcome return to Ajinomoto Stadium in March.

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