(1) Quite simply, Kashima Antlers have championship quality
Their Jenson Button-esque stumble over the finishing line (42 points from the first 17 games, followed by just 24 in the last 17), their playing style, and their attitude may not always win them many friends, but there is little doubt that Kashima Antlers are deserving champions yet again this year. After blowing a 10-point lead with five straight defeats in autumn, Kashima recovered their form to go back on top two weeks ago, but the visit of third-placed Gamba Osaka and a trip to Urawa Reds was just about the hardest conclusion they could have asked for. While everyone around them were losing their heads, Oswaldo de Oliveira’s side once again kept theirs.
(2) Marcus Tulio Tanaka remains a difficult customer both on and off the pitch
One man who didn’t enjoy the Antlers’ scenes of celebrations in Saitama was Marcus Tulio Tanaka, whose six-year Urawa Reds career ended in defeat on Saturday. As well as expressing his bitterness over Kashima’s title win, Tanaka’s final appearance in red was notable for his refusing to shake hands with Reds chairman Mitsuo Hashimoto, whom he accused of forcing him out of ‘his’ club. Wigan Athletic have been mentioned amongst his potential suitors, but while Tanaka would surely strengthen a defence that has conceded 38 goals in 16 games this season, one wonders how much a player who clearly fancies himself as a born winner would enjoy a Premier League relegation battle.
(3) Ryuji Bando is truly a man of the people...
No league goals and just 421 minutes of action all year meant the announcement of Ryuji Bando’s departure from Gamba Osaka came as little surprise, even if one of the two goals he did manage this season was a dramatic last-ditch winner against Urawa. Nevertheless, while some may have criticised his recent performances, the fans at Banpaku will always hold a special place in their hearts for the former Japanese international forward. Not content with the traditional bows and farewell speeches after Gamba’s 2-0 win over JEF United Chiba on Saturday, Bando decided instead to climb the wall into the stand behind the goal for a properly personal goodbye. Now you don’t see that in the cash-flushed Premier League.
(4) ...but giving someone the bumps on a packed terrace is not really a good idea
As part of the hardcore at the front of Banpaku’s Curva Nord, I was right in the thick of things when Bando came up to lead an impromptu song or two, which was brilliant until someone had the smart idea of giving him the bumps there and then. Thrown off-balance by some overenthusiastic supporters on the opposite side to me, our number 11’s flailing elbow cracked me square on the face – leaving me bruised, bloody, and scrabbling around on the floor for my glasses before they got even more trampled out of shape. Still, at least I can say that Bando genuinely did leave a lasting impression on me.
(5) If Japan want to make the last four next year, they’ll have to do it the hard way
Tweeting on the World Cup draw as part of the Guardian’s fans’ network, it grew progressively harder to remain positive about Japan’s chances of realising their dreams in South Africa next year. In order just to make it out of Group E, they will most likely have to beat either Cameroon or Denmark, not lose to the other, and then just keep their fingers crossed and see what happens. The physical strength of each of Japan’s opponents is little help either, and while Takeshi Okada’s side may win a midfield battle against the Danes on technical merit, one fears for the chances of his famously indecisive strikers against a defence that conceded just five goals in qualifying.
(6) TV pundits should really just be honest
Aside from their general end-of-season cheer, the dozens of Japanese fans I spoke to over the weekend all had two things in common – a dismissive attitude towards the national team’s chances of making the last 16, and a sense of anger towards Takeshi Okada and the national media for repeating Japan’s objective of a place in the semis. Certainly, it is hard to imagine the press in any other country remaining quite so supportive – or, more likely, scared of being contradictory – about a target as outlandishly optimistic as this. I don’t know if this column counts as ‘punditry’ but, just for the record, I’ll say it anyway – miracles aside, Japan have no chance of making the last four in South Africa, and it will be a massive achievement just to get through their group.
* This column will now take a short break until the New Year, during which time it will be extolling the virtues of Japanese football to the good people of Somerset, England. In spite of what it just said at the end of point number six.