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Forecast unclear

19 Oct 2009(Mon)

Attempting to predict anything that goes on in J1 is clearly a mug’s game. Just when it looked like Shimizu S-Pulse’s superior consistency had put them in pole position to win their first ever J. League title, they go and lose to Oita Trinita – a team so bad that any other result would have confirmed their relegation to J2 with five matches still remaining. This was only Shimizu’s fifth reverse all season, but in a league as topsy-turvy as this, it remains quite conceivable that this year’s eventual champions will have recorded losses running into double figures.

 

The greatest symptom of all this unpredictability and, indeed, the whole reason we have a title race in the first place is the quite catastrophic collapse suffered by long-time leaders Kashima Antlers. After initially recovering impressively from defeat in the last 16 of the AFC Champions League to reach the halfway point of the season with 42 points from a possible 51 – and, soon afterwards, hold a clear 10-point lead at the top – Oswaldo de Oliveira’s side have lost seven of the 12 league games since, including a club record run of five losses on the bounce. Kashima’s early-season cushion meant they were only overhauled two weeks ago and are still just a point off the top, so home fixtures against two struggling sides (JEF United Chiba and Montedio Yamagata) on the next pair of matchdays could yet offer some kind of foothold for a late recovery and a third straight title. With no league wins anywhere since 23 August, however, fans will not be holding their breath.

 

New leaders Kawasaki Frontale have arguably the easiest run-in of any, with matches to come against all three sides that currently look set for relegation, and the other two fixtures both at home. Their form is decent, too, with 19 points from the last 30, but losses at crucial times – September reverses against Urawa Reds and Gamba Osaka spring to mind – have prevented them from taking full advantage of Kashima’s nightmare thus far. Ahead of their Nabisco Cup final with FC Tokyo on 3 November, next Sunday’s meeting with Sanfrecce Hiroshima is a tricky one, and while Kawasaki are probably just about the best team around right now, the pressure of what was, until recently, a quadruple assault may well prove their toughest opponent.

 

All this had allowed Shimizu – fully 17 points adrift at the halfway stage – to come up along the rails and go top of the league this month, until their shock loss in Kyushu yesterday. The setback was their first in 14 league games since a 2-1 reverse on 27 June at FC Tokyo, who visit Nihondaira on Sunday having still not given up on their own title ambitions. It is vital that Kenta Hasegawa’s side bounce back immediately to prove that the Oita result was merely an aberration, but goals are a worry – the 5-1 derby win over Jubilo Iwata was the only time in the ten league fixtures played since July became August that S-Pulse have netted more than once.

 

Meanwhile, the real Gamba Osaka have finally stood up over the last couple of months. Which is just as well, really, after a slump in late spring/early summer that saw them lose five home matches on the spin – falling 19 points behind Kashima and being knocked out of two cups in the process – and things getting so bad that fans fought with the chairman and writers who clearly didn’t know what they were on about questioned the desire of several key players. Now, with 21 points from the last 30, Gamba are right back in contention, and even the shock departure of top scorer Leandro has seemingly served to reduce their reliance on one player and work more as a team. Just like in the good old days, Akira Nishino’s side are the division’s top scorers, while conceding more goals than anyone else in the top eight. Three easy-ish home fixtures (against Yokohama F Marinos and Kyoto Sanga on the next two matchdays, then against probably-relegated-by-then JEF United Chiba on the final day) are all must-win, however, as Gamba have trips to both Shimizu and Kashima to contend with in November.

 

The latter two fixtures probably give Gamba the hardest run-in of all, but equally, mean that even if the Osaka side do not win their first J1 title since 2005, they will probably get the biggest say in deciding who does. If it wasn’t enough that the top four are separated by just two points with five games left to go, the quartet immediately below – Albirex Niigata, Sanfrecce Hiroshima, FC Tokyo, and Urawa – are all just six points behind Kawasaki and eager to pounce on the kind of slip-ups that, by now, they have every reason to expect.

 

 

THE CONTENDERS

 

Kawasaki Frontale (currently 1st, 52 points, goal difference +15)

Form (last 10): WWLWDLLWWW (19 points)

Remaining matches: Hiroshima (h), Chiba (h), Oita (a), Niigata (h), Kashiwa (a)

 

Kashima Antlers (2nd, 51 points, GD +10)

Form (last 10): LWLWLLLLLD (7 points)

Remaining matches: Chiba (h), Yamagata (h), Kyoto (a), Gamba (h), Urawa (a)

 

Gamba Osaka (3rd, 50 points, GD +15)

Form (last 10): DWWLWWDWWD (21 points)

Remaining matches: Yokohama (h), Kyoto (h), Shimizu (a), Kashima (a), Chiba (h)

 

Shimizu S-Pulse (4th, 50 points, GD +13)

Form (last 10): WDWWDWWWDL (21 points)

Remaining matches: FC Tokyo (h), Kashiwa (a), Gamba (h), Yokohama (a), Nagoya (h)

 

Albirex Niigata (5th, 46 points, GD +12)

Sanfrecce Hiroshima (6th, 46 points, GD +11)

FC Tokyo (7th, 46 points, GD +8)

Urawa Reds (8th, 46 points, GD +3)

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