Once Kashima Antlers and Gamba Osaka have played their game in hand on Wednesday – rearranged from its original May date to allow Gamba to get to Australia and back for an AFC Champions League clash with Melbourne Victory – every team in J1 will have completed the first half of their respective league programmes. Here are a few thoughts on the season as it stands.
1) A win for Avispa would have been far more entertaining for the rest of us
Let’s be honest. Avispa Fukuoka have been a bit of a laughing stock since returning to the top flight as the third-best team in J2 last year. That’s what nine – NINE – straight defeats from the start of the campaign will get you. But even throughout that run there was something slightly endearing about them as, albeit without ever looking very good for an entire 90 minutes, they always kept their chins up and showed more than an occasional flash of brilliance.
There have been blitzing, excitable counterattacks – not least when racing into a 2-0 half-time lead away to current pacesetters Yokohama F Marinos (Avispa lost 3-2). Plenty of other good sides have suffered real frights – Kashima Antlers trailed 1-0 in Fukuoka before coming back in the second half to win 2-1; both Gamba Osaka and Jubilo Iwata were left hanging on for single-goal victories; while Kawasaki Frontale almost surrendered a 3-0 home lead earlier this month as Hideya Okamoto struck twice and just ran out of time to find a third. Only last week, Avispa missed out on a famous win away to Sanfrecce Hiroshima by the width of a goalpost in stoppage time.
Missed opportunities notwithstanding, a long-awaited draw away to Vissel Kobe in mid-June triggered a slightly better spell where eight points were collected in as many games ahead of yesterday evening’s meeting with second-from-bottom – and freefalling – Montedio Yamagata. Victory would have taken them off the foot of the table for the first time, and you just wondered if it mightn’t spark a wave of confidence on which the Kyushu club could stop flattering to deceive and finally make a real go at recovery. Alex Miller’s JEF United Chiba secured survival in the final minutes of the 2008 season with 37 points having only taken ten from the first 17 games; Yoshiyuki Shinoda had an even more unlikely task on his hands, but precedent at least suggested it was possible.
That is, until they (I don’t want to keep on saying ‘flattered to deceive’) lost. The 2-0 scoreline ended a run of five straight losses for Yamagata and takes them back to within seven points of Vissel Kobe in fifteenth. And given that they were a point – now four – ahead of Avispa in the first place, their prospects of mounting a resurgence are indeed statistically more likely. But then, Montedio are consistently mediocre. You can’t see them pulling them it off and you can’t imagine it being anything like as much fun if they did. I do hope I’m wrong but, with all due respect, the current bottom two will almost certainly still be last and second last come 3 December.
2) One or more ‘big’ clubs will stay up purely because there are too many even worse teams about
Almost certainly my most favourite thing about the whole J. League – partisan loyalties aside – is its sheer enduring competitiveness. We are used to there being a real hatful of title contenders; the identity of about half of which remaining quite unpredictable year on year. We know by now that the table’s inherent closeness means that ACL commitments can have a crippling effect on league form – especially while four teams are involved in the group stages through to mid-May. What we’ve not often seen before, however, is so many supposedly established clubs within sniffing distance of sixteenth place this late into proceedings.
The still very real danger of Urawa Reds seeing themselves as too big to go down has been covered here before. They did well to recover from an early red card for goalkeeper Nobuhiro Kato to beat Ventforet Kofu 2-0 on Saturday but are still only four points above the dotted line and defeat would have pushed them below. Zeljko Petrovic’s arrival as manager was supposed to herald some desperately-needed continuity; if it has, then only in terms of a continued downward spiral.
Vissel Kobe have probably even learned themselves by now that they’re not really a ‘big’ club, despite the ideas above their station, but the Kansai region’s third team are still just one place and two points above the drop zone – exactly where they finished last season. More alarmingly, Kashima Antlers are only ahead of them on goal difference (albeit with two games in hand); an aging squad having slumped horribly and now further weakened by the curious transfer of Japan defender Masahiko Inoha to Hajduk Split of Croatia. Cerezo Osaka have the very valid excuse of an ongoing ACL campaign – which only came about in the first place because a thin squad overachieved so brilliantly last year – but even a series of big wins in recent weeks has only taken them above Urawa on goal difference. Rodrigo Pimpão has already left, and with Asian football back on the calendar from September it could yet be 2006 revisited (Cerezo were relegated a year after nearly winning the title) if Takashi Inui soon follows him out of the door.
No club should ever be allowed to take their top flight place for granted and, as such, this is all another delicious source of entertainment for the J1 observer this year. Or, at least, it should be. The fact that two of the three relegation places are all but decided in late July means most of this lot will still be safe no matter how useless the fare they dish out over the next four-and-a-bit months. And, even acknowledging Mike Havenaar’s coming of age, deep down we probably all expect Kofu to end up sixteenth.
(More to follow soon)