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October 2009

Frontale close in on seventh heaven

27 Oct 2009(Tue)

Fortunes for the J. League’s two ‘entertainers’ – and indeed the very aptness of this label – could hardly have been more different this past weekend. 24 hours after Gamba Osaka huffed and puffed and ultimately failed to break down an organised but otherwise very ordinary Yokohama F Marinos, leaders Kawasaki Frontale made a mockery of any suggestions they might bottle their title chances by reeling off a cool, cruel, and utterly ruthless 7-0 hammering of Sanfrecce Hiroshima.

 

Admittedly, they were given a rather large helping hand when the young Hiroshima defender Ryota Moriwaki was sent off for two bookable offences after just 25 minutes, but this should not detract from the manner in which they eventually destroyed a strong opponent still harbouring title hopes of their own. Having taken a point each from Gamba and Shimizu S-Pulse already this month, Sanfrecce showed enough ambition even with ten men to trouble the Kawasaki defence on several occasions with the score at 1-0. Once Chong Tese finally doubled the advantage after an hour, Frontale could have sat back, knowing the game was safe, and conserved precious energies for the challenges that remain. That they instead went and rattled in five more goals in 20 minutes was a devastating message of intent to any rivals scanning for signs of tiredness.

 

With only four games left to go and probably five teams still realistically in contention, the margin of victory also signifies a potentially decisive goal difference swing in the championship race. Kawasaki are a side that have long seemed on the cusp of something big without ever, as yet, managing to claim a major title, but it is easy to forget that barring a single season back in 2000, they have only been part of the J1 ranks for the last five years. Two second-place finishes in the last three campaigns have elevated their brand of football into the national consciousness, with the goalscoring prowess of Juninho and Chong Tese helping their team record the division’s weightiest ‘goals for’ column both times to boot.

 

While the luck needed to carry them that last step over the line has been similarly elusive in both domestic and international cup football thus far, a long-awaited first trophy could now be just seven days away, as Frontale line up in the Nabisco Cup final alongside 2004 winners FC Tokyo on 3 November. Ironically, their previous visit to the National Stadium for such a showpiece – a narrow 1-0 loss to Gamba in the same competition two years ago – came off the back of another 7-0 rout on the 30th league weekend, against FC Tokyo.

 

Meanwhile, for all Gamba Osaka’s good work in hauling themselves back into title contention from the depression of mid-table mediocrity, two points dropped at home to the Marinos have reawakened the fear that – right now – they do not quite belong at the very top table. Last week, I praised Gamba for attacking more as a team since the departure of Leandro, but in the face of strong pressing from the visitors, Akira Nishino’s side managed just eight shots in Saturday’s 0-0 stalemate. As pass after pass led to nothing, how the Banpaku crowd must have envied the striking focal points that Kawasaki seem to have in abundance.

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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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Fit for an Emperor

14 Oct 2009(Wed)

A short holiday in Shikoku over the three-day weekend meant I was unable to take my place at Banpaku to see Gamba Osaka’s Emperor’s Cup victory over Ryutsu Keizai University, but I did take the opportunity instead to pay a first visit to the Ningineer Stadium and check out the local J2 side, Ehime FC.

 

‘Second team’ is perhaps an exaggeration, but Ehime is a club that I’ve always kept an eye on ever since first coming across them during my university research six years ago. At the time, the Matsuyama side were about to finish third in the Japan Football League (one tier below J2) – a sign of steady progress having won promotion from the fourth-tier Shikoku Football League in 2000 – but of more interest was the efforts they were making off the field in order to turn the club fully professional and make the next step into the J. League itself a realistic possibility.

 

This goal was finally achieved in 2006, when Ehime FC stepped out for their first ever J2 match against Yokohama FC, and delighted a home crowd of 10,922 with a 1-0 win thanks to a late goal from Hironori Saruta. Results may not have been spectacular since, but Ehime have certainly added colour to the division, and were the talk of the nation in late 2007 when they knocked out Asian champions Urawa Reds en route to the Emperor’s Cup quarter-finals.

 

Ehimeavispa_2

 

The cup meeting with Avispa Fukuoka on Sunday was played out in front of an attendance of just 1,216. (Typically, Ehime FC attract around 3,000 people for J2 matches, and had nearly 13,000 in for the recent derby with Tokushima Vortis, but cup games in Japan are hosted by the JFA and not the clubs, meaning season tickets are generally not valid.) However, the atmosphere was in a way just as brilliant as the sunshine that flooded the stadium. My friend and I stretched out almost undisturbed on a patch of grass in the back stand reminiscent of the good old days at Banpaku. Children bedecked in orange played around us as their mums and dads sat attentively in the seats in front. The voices of the players were often as audible as the colourful language at my tiny hometown team, Taunton Town, before being drowned out by the calls of ‘mote koi!’ – ‘bring it on’, unless anyone more familiar with the Matsuyama vernacular than I wishes to translate it better – that resonated through the sparse stands from the small but determined group of ‘ultras’ behind the home team’s goal.

 

After being pegged back to 2-2 by an Avispa equaliser 18 minutes from the end of normal time, Ehime missed both of their first two penalties to eventually surrender 4-2 in the decisive shootout, but the home players received warm applause for their efforts nonetheless. Local men, women, and children of all ages had enjoyed their afternoons, and just as the J. League’s 100 Year Plan calls for football to play a central role in communities everywhere, isn’t that what it’s really all about?

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Grampus keep the red flag flying high

2 Oct 2009(Fri)

A hard-fought 3-1 victory in the second leg of their all-Japanese quarter-final with Kawasaki Frontale on Wednesday allowed Nagoya Grampus to overturn a one-goal deficit from the previous week’s meeting and secure a place in the last four of the AFC Champions League (ACL) at the very first attempt. In the end, Frontale’s quadruple assault was probably their own undoing – following an energy-sapping defeat at Gamba Osaka last weekend while Grampus, without the pressure of a title challenge, were able to rest players away to leaders Kashima Antlers and still win 4-1 – but no credit should be taken from the victors, whose performance on the night and clinical opportunism in front of goal were worthy both of the result and of the country’s congratulations.

 

Grampus’s run to the last four bears eerie similarities to the ultimately glorious Gamba side of twelve months ago. Victory over a domestic rival mirrors Gamba’s deposal of reigning champions Urawa Reds in last year’s semi-final. Like Gamba, strong away form has been key to Nagoya’s progression, with wins at Ulsan Hyundai Horang-i and Newcastle United Jets in the group stage, before Joshua Kennedy’s away goal in Kawasaki kept their chances alive ahead of the second leg this week. Finally, their continental form comes in spite of a mid-table struggle back home, made all the more difficult by the departure of their star Brazilian striker.

 

Ironically, the final of this year’s ACL could even present an immediate opportunity to show Davi if his mid-season move to Umm-Salal of Qatar was indeed a good idea or not. The absence of any ‘cup-tied’ restraints allowed the former Consadole Sapporo forward to appear in both legs of the quarter-final for his new club against FC Seoul, despite having featured for Grampus as recently as their last 16 victory over Suwon Bluewings. Davi’s new striking partner, incidentally, is Magno Alves, who may have sparked something of a trend by quitting Gamba at the end of 2007 to initially join Al-Ittihad of Saudi Arabia – Nagoya’s opponents in the semi-final.

 

The outflux of Brazilian stars to rival leagues in the Middle East is a subject of concern for J. League followers at present, but I always wonder why the implications of living so far from the homes they grew up in are routinely ignored when it comes to overseas footballers. A sportsman’s salary may cushion the blow, but living abroad is inherently challenging, and either way, the absence of truly natural, deep-rooted attachment to their new locales makes it only normal to seek moves back home or elsewhere once all curiosity has been sated.

 

That said, it is a huge shame when players are clearly attracted more by money than by emotions or professional ambition. Gamba have perhaps been hit worst of all by the recent trends, but it was one thing for Araújo to push for greater recognition back in Brazil with Cruzeiro after winning the J1 title in 2005, and another entirely for Leandro to up sticks in the middle of this season to Al-Sadd of Qatar, who didn’t even qualify for this year’s ACL. Bare had been the subject of a €3 million bid from Paris Saint-Germain twelve months before he left the Osaka club high and dry in July last year, suggesting he must have had better offers professionally than the contract he did sign with Al-Ahli of Dubai (one draw and five defeats in the ACL group stage this spring).

 

It now falls to Dragan Stojković to lead Nagoya Grampus to what would be a third consecutive ACL crown and place in the FIFA Club World Cup for a Japanese side. In contrast to the more obvious dominance the English clubs have enjoyed in Europe, it is a shame that the draw pitted Japan’s representatives together so early on – Kashima Antlers are still the only Japanese team to have been eliminated by a foreign rival in the last two years – but the nation should surely now unite behind Nagoya as they bid to underline the J. League’s continental superiority. With Kennedy (seven goals from 11 matches so far) clearly a far better replacement for Davi than Roni (three goals in 12) was for Bare last year, the signs still look pretty promising.

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