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[JAPAN SPORTS NOTEBOOK] Kawasaki Frontale Win the Fujifilm Super Cup

J.League rivals Frontale and Vissel staged an enticing duel in the Fujifilm Super Cup. Newcomer Sai van Wermeskerken lifted Frontale with a 48th-minute goal.

In an entertaining, hard-fought Fujifilm Super Cup, Kawasaki Frontale triumphed 1-0 over Vissel Kobe on Saturday afternoon, February 17.

Before an announced crowd of 52,142 at Tokyo's National Stadium, Frontale took the lead in the 48th minute on newcomer Sai van Wermeskerken's goal. The 29-year-old defender was in the right place at the right time, rushing toward the goal after a free kick.

Vissel's Daiya Maekawa, goalkeeper for the reigning J.League champions, was not in a position to grab the ball — he knocked it aside, though. Vissel defender Hotaru Yamaguchi then attempted to clear the ball and move it beyond any goal-striking opportunity for Frontale.

But Yamaguchi's clearance attempt went right to van Wermeskerken, who quickly shot the ball toward the left corner of the net.

Van Wermeskerken joined Frontale in January 2024. From 2015 until his move to Kawasaki, he plied his craft for several teams in the Netherlands.

Fujifilm Super Cup
Frontale's Sai van Wermeskerken celebrates after scoring in the 48th minute. (KYODO)

Reaction from the Lone Scorer in the Fujifilm Super Cup

"I'm happy to have made my debut appearance [in Japan] in an important match like this," van Wermeskerken was quoted as saying by Kyodo News. "The ball dropped where I hoped it would and I'm really happy to have scored."

Van Wermeskerken, whose father is Dutch and mother is Japanese, elaborated on his Frontale debut in a short interview posted on the J.League's English-language X (formerly Twitter) account.

Asked about his winning goal, he said, "Just to be honest, it's too perfect. I was thinking if I could score and [win] the title before the game. But I never expected that it would be true, you know."

Fujifilm Super Cup
Vissel Kobe's Yuya Osako (left) in action in the first half. (©SANKEI)

Fujifilm Super Cup
Frontale's Shin Yamada controls the ball as Vissel's Jean Patric looks on in the first half. (KYODO)

In a match featuring 14 shots for Vissel and 12 for Frontale, spirited competition for possession provided one of the top highlights.

"It was a tough game because they used a lot of long balls, so we had to win the duels and be compact," van Wermeskerken said on the J.League video on X. "But everybody on the defensive line and the midfield did hard work, so I appreciate everybody's performance as well."

Frontale finished eighth among 18 J.League teams in 2023.

In 2024, 20 teams will compete in J1. The second division, aka J2, will carry 20 teams, a reduction of two teams from the previous year.

Format of the Fujifilm Super Cup

The traditional curtain raiser for the J.League season is played between the reigning champion and the most recent winner Emperor's Cup. Also known as the Japanese Super Cup, the event has been held annually since 1994.

The Kashima Antlers have won the Super Cup the most times (six). 

On Saturday, Kawasaki claimed its third Super Cup title. Previous victories came in 2019 and 2021. And now the J.League season is up next, with the first matches to be played on Friday, February 23.

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Tomoru Honda swims to victory in the men's 200-meter butterfly final at the World Aquatics Championships on February 14 in Doha. (Clodagh Kilcoyne/REUTERS)

Swimming

Honda Captures Gold in Men's 200 Butterfly at World Championships

Tomoru Honda won Japan's first gold medal of the 2024 World Aquatics Championships on Thursday, February 15, touching the wall in 1 minute, 53.88 seconds in a runaway victory in the men's 200-meter butterfly final in Doha.

Honda and Italy's Alberto Razzetti were tied for the lead with 50 meters remaining.

After the final turn, the 22-year-old Honda picked up the pace and secured the world title.

Razzetti was clocked in 1:54.65.

Tomoru Honda reacts after winning the 200-meter butterfly world title. (Clodagh Kilcoyne/REUTERS)

"I've been wishing for this gold medal for so long, so I'm delighted," Honda said, according to Kyodo News. 

The Yokohama native added, "I was determined to get through that last 50."

Honda, the Olympic silver medalist at the 2020 Tokyo Games, claimed back-to-back bronze medals at the world championships in June 2022 in Budapest and July 2023 in Fukuoka. 

From left, Takuma Inoue, Junto Nakatani and Kosei Tanaka are scheduled to fight in world title bouts on February 24 in Tokyo. (©SANKEI)

Boxing

Saturday Special: Three Title Fights to Shine Spotlight on Japanese Capital

Two bantamweight world titles and a super flyweight championship belt will be up for grabs on Saturday, February 24 at Tokyo's Ryogoku Kokugikan, which hosts three grand sumo tournaments each year.

In an event billed "Prime Video Presents Live Boxing 7," WBA bantamweight champion Takuma Inoue will make his first title defense against ninth-ranked Filipino challenger Jerwin "Pretty Boy" Ancajas.

The younger brother of four-division champion Naoya Inoue, the 28-year-old Takuma was supposed to fight Ancajas (34-3-2, 23 knockouts) in November 2023. But the fight was postponed due to a rib injury that the champ sustained in training.

Now, Inoue (18-1, four KOs) is ready to rumble.

"I had my injured part completely healed and have had enough sparring," Inoue was recently quoted as saying by Boxing News.

He added, "I'm in good condition.''

Super flyweight Junto Nakatani shadow boxes on February 9. (©SANKEI)

Also on the February 24 fight card: WBC bantamweight champion Alexandro Santiago of Mexico (28-3-5, 14 KOs) vs top-ranked challenger Junto Nakatani (26-0, 19 KOs).

Santiago said he is determined to emerge victoriously.

"I will not let Nakatani get in the way of my career because it took me a long time to become a world champion," Santiago told reporters on February 7, Boxing News reported. The WBC champ added, "I want to become the undisputed champion of the division.’’

In addition, No 1-ranked Kosei Tanaka (19-1, 11 KOs) and second-ranked Mexican Christian Bacasegua (22-4-2, nine KOs) are set to clash for the vacant WBO bantamweight title.

Boston Red Sox slugger Masataka Yoshida in a July 2023 file photo. (©SANKEI)

Baseball

Red Sox Plan to Make Yoshida the Team's Primary DH

After starting 87 games in left field and another 49 at designated hitter in 2023, his first MLB season, Boston Red Sox Masataka Yoshida will be adjusting to a new role in 2024, according to manager Alex Cora.

The Red Sox plan to give Yoshida a bigger role as the team's main designated hitter, Cora confirmed on Tuesday, February 13 in Fort Myers, Florida. 

"I'm not saying he's the DH," Cora was quoted as saying by the Boston Herald, "but he will get the most at-bats at that position." 

Yoshida, 30, is considered a below-average defensive outfielder. He is, however, more well-known for his batting skills, including a career .327 in seven NPB seasons. The former Orix Buffaloes star hit .289 with 15 home runs and 72 RBIs in 2023. And don't forget this: Yoshida established a World Baseball Classic record with 13 RBIs in 2023.

Boston acquired two-time Gold Glove winner Tyler O'Neill, a left fielder, from the St Louis Cardinals in the offseason.

The Red Sox play their first spring training on Saturday, February 24 against the Baltimore Orioles.

Auto Racing

Two-Time Indy 500 Winner Sato Returns to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing

Veteran race-car driver Takuma Sato spent the 2022 and 2023 IndyCar Series seasons with Dale Coyne Racing (in partnership with Rick Ware Racing) and Chip Ganassi Racing, respectively. He appeared in 17 races in 2022, followed by five the next year in a part-time role.

Now he's returning to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing for the 2024 IndyCar season, it was announced on Thursday, February 15. 

Sato, a two-time Indy 500 champion (2017 and 2020), previously raced for RLL Racing from 2018-21. His primary sponsor will be AMADA America, Inc, which is recognized as a leading global machine tool manufacturer and supplier in the sheet metal industry. 

"I'm absolutely thrilled to make my return to the 108th Indy 500 with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing," Sato said in a news report on IndyCar's official website. "A heartfelt thank you to Bobby [Rahal], Mike [Lanigan] and David [Letterman] and the entire organization for this incredible opportunity."

Plans are in place for Sato to drive RLL Racing's No 75 car this season, including the Indy 500 on May 26 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. If all goes as planned, it will be his 15th appearance in the Indy 500.

"My journey with RLL spans over a decade, marked by shared successes and rejoining the team fills me with immense excitement. Here's to reconnecting with familiar faces and forging new alliances. I just can't wait to get to work."

Ryoyu Kobayashi competes at a Ski Jumping World Cup meet in Sapporo at Okurayama Ski Jump Stadium on February 17. (KYODO)

Ski Jumping

Kobayashi Earns Runner-Up Finish in Sapporo

At Sapporo's Okurayama Ski Jump Stadium, Ryoyu Kobayashi placed second in an FIS Ski Jumping World Cup meet on Saturday, February 17.

Kobayashi received 262.2 points and had jumps of 128.5 and 138.8 meters. It was the Sapporo resident's fourth runner-up finish in five events in February.

Austria's Stefan Kraft placed first with 263.0 points to win his ninth World Cup event of the 2023-24 season. Germany's Andreas Wellinger finished third (256.9). Junshiro Kobayashi, Ryoyu's older brother, was 10th.

"It was a very exciting competition," Kobayashi was quoted as saying by NHK. 

The 2022 Olympic gold medalist in the normal hill event added, "It was a little frustrating, but it was a lot of fun, and I got to see some good things."

Also Saturday, eight-time Olympian Noriaki Kasai competed in his first World Cup competition since 2020. The 51-year-old, a native of Hokkaido Prefecture, had jumps of 117 and 104 meters.

"It's big that I was able to earn a point," Kasai said, according to Kyodo News. "For the first time in five seasons, it's been a long time coming."

Watch highlights of the competition on the FIS ski jumping home page.

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Naomi Osaka in action during her quarterfinal match against the Czech Republic's Karolina Pliskova at the Doha Open on February 15. (Ibraheem Al Omari/REUTERS)

Tennis

Osaka Reaches Qatar Open Quarterfinals

Former world No 1 Naomi Osaka recorded straight-set victories in the first and second rounds of the Qatar Open. After a walk-over in the third round (Ukraine's Lesia Tsurenko was scheduled to play Osaka), she faced another former world No 1, Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals on Thursday, February 15.

Pliskova prevailed 7-6 (8-6), 7-6 (7-5) in Doha. 

Osaka saved three match points in the intense match.

Returning to the WTA Tour in January after giving birth to her first child, daughter Shai in July 2023, Osaka's performance in Doha appears to be an encouraging sign, something to build off in the coming weeks and months. 

In her comeback, Osaka's first big test took place in the spotlight of a Grand Slam tournament. She lost her first-round match at the Australian Open in January.

Briefly…

The Altiri Chiba, a B.League second-division team, improved to 37-3 with a 105-96 road victory over the Aomori Wat's on Saturday, February 17. With 20 games remaining in their basketball season, the Altiri clinched a spot in the B2 playoffs.

After the game, Chiba coach Andrej Lemanis told reporters: "As a coach, I aim for a perfect performance every time, but things don't always go my way. However, you can find a way to win through muddy play, and today was a game where we saw that."

Los Angeles Lakers forward Rui Hachimura leaps in the air and attacks the basket in the second quarter against the Utah Jazz on February 14 in Salt Lake City. Center. (Chris Nicoll/USA TODAY SPORTS)

Quote of the Week

"I want to impact the game. My goal is to be the X-factor for the team, offensive or defensively. Be aggressive and use my size." 

―Los Angeles Lakers forward Rui Hachimura, on being a catalyst for his team after scoring a career-high 36 points in a 138-122 road victory over the Utah Jazz on February 14.

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Author: Ed Odeven

Find Ed on JAPAN Forward's dedicated website, SportsLook. Follow his [Japan Sports Notebook] on Sundays, [Odds and Evens] during the week, and X (formerly Twitter) @ed_odeven.

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