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The good, the bad, and the ugly

6 Dec 2010(Mon)

So it is warm congratulations to Dragan Stojković and Nagoya Grampus, champions of Japan for the first time ever after a near-flawless pursuit of glory – keeping pace throughout the first half of the campaign before simply motoring away from the rest in the second. The final winning margin of ten points is a J. League record, and represents the most dominant single-year performance since Jubilo Iwata obtained a combined 16 more points than any other club over the two stages of the 2002 season.

 

Every previous title race since the J. League adopted a single-stage programme in 2005 had gone down to the final day (and often still involving three or more clubs); Grampus had their crown tied up with three matches to spare, another all-time record. 72 points was an equal best ever tally from 34 games. They were spectacular mainly for their mental strength and sheer ability to win – 16 of their 23 league victories came by a one-goal margin – but in Joshua Kennedy possessed a goalscorer that suited their style perfectly, contributing 17 goals to share the J1 golden boot with last year’s winner, Ryoichi Maeda of Jubilo Iwata. Goalkeeper and captain Seigo Narazaki was a deserving recipient of the J. League’s MVP award.

 

Gamba Osaka will be delighted to have finished second despite a difficult year overall. A terrible start saw them languishing near the foot of the table in early spring, before breakthrough performances from Shoki Hirai, Takashi Usami, and even 31-year-old defensive midfielder-cum-goalscorer Hideo Hashimoto kickstarted the recovery following elimination from the AFC Champions League (ACL) and the break for the World Cup. However, a lot of the wins in the latter third of the campaign disguised performances that suggested that this Gamba team is rapidly reaching the end of an era. While J. League Young Player of the Year Usami will play more of a key role next year, winter reinforcements will be more vital than ever.

 

In finishing third and securing automatic ACL qualification in their first season back up from J2, the pound-for-pound achievements of Levir Culpi’s Cerezo Osaka outweigh even anything accomplished in Nagoya. This year was supposed to be about reaping enough points before Shinji Kagawa’s inevitable departure to ensure survival; instead, they thrived more as a team without their undoubted star to climb five places from eighth in his absence. Cerezo boasted neither the best attack nor defence, but a goal difference of +26 was comfortably the best in the division (despite still being zero after matchday 12, the last of the Kagawa era). This was a team that could draw 0-0 with three of the eventual bottom five, but win 5-0 at Sanfrecce Hiroshima and record a 9-2 aggregate score against Jubilo Iwata. The only worry is that success may have arrived too soon – Cerezo’s squad is far thinner than most to have tried and failed to combine J. League and continental football thus far, and losing Brazilian marksman Adriano would exacerbate this problem significantly.

 

For deposed champions Kashima Antlers, the rot probably set in when they lost five games on the bounce in autumn 2009 (even if they did just about recover sufficiently then to hold onto their title), and not unlike Gamba, they must deal with an aging squad infused with young players who are not quite ready to replace the old heroes. My title tips, Kawasaki Frontale, coped well a pre-season managerial change to start the season strongly, only to have their side decimated by injuries and the post-World Cup departures of several key players. Shimizu S-Pulse started so well that they actually led at the halfway stage, but in an eerie parallel to last year, self-destructed when it mattered to lose nine of their last 17 and slip down to sixth – a sad end to Kenta Hasegawa’s reign in charge.

 

At the bottom, it was little surprise to see Kyoto Sanga and Shonan Bellmare drop a division, but it was astonishing that they were both quite that bad. Neither achieved even half the points tally that would have kept them up, while Shonan’s record of 16 points and a goal difference of minus 51 (with an staggering 82 goals conceded) is worse even than the atrocious Yokohama FC side of 2007.

 

FC Tokyo, however, must take the wooden spoon as J1’s biggest failures of 2010. Having finished fifth (just three points adrift of the ACL places) and won the Yamazaki Nabisco Cup last season, this was supposed to be the year that they made a proper title push. Instead, they simply never got going, and the punishment for their ‘too good to go down’ syndrome was accepted in suitably pathetic manner with a 2-0 defeat to ten-man Kyoto Sanga – yes, that Kyoto Sanga – on the final day. Yuto Nagatomo deserved his big opportunity in Serie A with Cesena after the World Cup, but one wonders what will now become of the various current and former Japan internationals who were unable to halt the decline. While Masashi Oguro was unlucky to suffer relegation with a second Tokyo club, Sota Hirayama is surely running out of chances. If only for the entertainment they provided in going seven games unbeaten to snatch survival at the last, Vissel Kobe will be far worthier of their top flight place next year.

 

 

2010 J1 final standings

1. Nagoya Grampus - 72

2. Gamba Osaka - 62

3. Cerezo Osaka - 61

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4. Kashima Antlers - 60

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5. Kawasaki Frontale - 54

6. Shimizu S-Pulse - 54

7. Sanfrecce Hiroshima - 51

8. Yokohama F Marinos - 51

9. Albirex Niigata - 49

10. Urawa Reds - 48

11. Jubilo Iwata - 44

12. Omiya Ardija - 42

13. Montedio Yamagata - 42

14. Vegalta Sendai - 39

15. Vissel Kobe - 38

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16. FC Tokyo - 36

17. Kyoto Sanga - 19

18. Shonan Bellmare - 16

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