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.