Though it may not exactly have enjoyed blanket coverage in the wake of the lesson in contemporary Cold War history that was the Japan national team’s landmark trip to Pyongyang 24 hours earlier, Wednesday’s programme of third round matches in the domestic Emperor’s Cup offered a curious, microcosmic insight into the physical and mental readiness of the three remaining J. League title contenders ahead of the final three weekends of the season.
Already shorn of international stars Yasuhito Endo and Lee Keun-Ho, Gamba Osaka also opted to give veterans like Satoshi Yamaguchi and irreplaceables like Rafinha a rare break in what has been a long season. They promptly lost 3-2 at home to Mito HollyHock, fifth from bottom of the second division. Defending J1 champions Nagoya Grampus also rested a few older players, but demonstrated the depth of their playing resources with what was still a relatively strong starting eleven – including an opportunity for the exciting attacking pairing of Mu Kanazaki and Kensuke Nagai – to overcome J2 surprise package Giravanz Kitakyushu by a single Yoshizumi Ogawa goal.
And then there was Kashiwa Reysol – the J2 title-holders whose thinner squad was supposed to have quietly slipped away and left the big boys to sort out the silverware several months ago. Still incredibly top of the league table and thus about to embark upon the most important trio of matches in their history, nobody would have batted an eyelid had Nelsinho Baptista made wholesale changes and willingly sacrificed their midweek cup distraction. Sod that. The Sun Kings rested absolutely nobody and went out and battered a beleaguered Ventforet Kofu 6-1.
Their persistence has been astonishing, not least given that the season rescheduling in the wake of the 11 March earthquake and tsunami left Kashiwa with a tough concentration of fixtures against other big sides during the summer months. A lead in the standings that had only been threatened on goal difference throughout the first half of the campaign was taken away at the end of July, before their 2-0 loss in a battle of the top two at Banpaku on 24 August saw them briefly fall to fourth position. But even then, Reysol’s deficit was never more than three points. The difficult run ended with narrow, but vital home wins over Kawasaki Frontale and Nagoya, and the team has come out the other side to collect maximum points from all bar one of their six, theoretically easier league matches since.
This has left them with a two-point advantage over the considerably more experienced Gamba, who have been there or thereabouts at the J. League high table for the past eight seasons. While Akira Nishino’s team has taken until autumn to settle down after a year of near-constant evolution, fans of glorious losers, black humour (as a Brit, that’s two ticks out of two for me so far), or downright schadenfreude will have been pleased to see that age and wisdom has yet to dilute that most endearing quality of bottling it when it really counts. The division’s overwhelming top scorers, Gamba failed to keep a single clean sheet in the first 18 games of the season but have shut their opponents out in seven of 13 since. Once they ascended to the summit, however, their credentials were soon questioned in a shock 2-0 home loss to Kofu, and the Kansai side slipped back to second place – where they somehow seem more comfortable – with a painful 4-1 loss at the Mizuho last month that revived the challenge of their hosts that day, Grampus.
Dragan Stojković will surely be hoping that the ruthlessness of that particular display and the maximum points collected from two league matches since are proof that Nagoya have recovered the characteristic consistency that deserted them through August and September. The reigning kings of Japanese football are just three points adrift of Kashiwa in third but have the best goal difference of the lot; deliciously – for the neutral, anyway – the leaders are at a disadvantage to either of their rivals should points tallies end up level. Just one slipup, therefore, is all it need take for the order to be shuffled again.
The eventual champions will finish with an average of only marginally more than two points per game, underlining – as if it were really necessary in this league – the difficulty that all candidates will face in achieving a 100% record over the final stretch. Kashiwa’s terrific ability to turn one point into three has been the cornerstone of their title charge, but equally, a record of just two draws but eight defeats will offer Grampus hope that any stumble will be of the variety that allows them to overcome the current deficit too. More to the point, most of the losses that Reysol have suffered already have come in unusual and unpredictable circumstances – including five-goal maulings at both Cerezo Osaka and Jubilo Iwata, an earlier 3-0 home reverse to the latter, and inexplicably poor displays against lowly Montedio Yamagata and Omiya Ardija.
As ever, the message therefore is ‘hard to predict’, but the forthcoming, antepenultimate weekend could easily be decisive as each of the contenders face differing challenges. Kashiwa embark upon arguably their hardest remaining fixture away to Shimizu S-Pulse, who have finally found some form of late with three home wins in a row and just one defeat – the derby with Iwata – in the last 11. Nagoya head to Yokohama for the biggest test left of their credentials, and while Marinos have seen both form and championship challenge evaporate over the past month or so, Stojković’s men simply have no margin for error. Finally, Gamba visit 13th-placed Albirex Niigata, which wouldn’t look so bad on paper were it not for the Osakans’ propensity to find banana skins where nobody else would look.
Indeed, such is the nature of the Gamba beast that one has long gotten the impression they would be best served going into the final day – like last season, away to Shimizu – still second and hoping for the right result from Kashiwa’s mouth-watering clash with relegation-threatened Urawa Reds. Should Nishino’s side find themselves top this Sunday evening, it would only add to the pressure ahead of their final home match with Vegalta Sendai on 26 November. All of which would suit Grampus, who face already-relegated Yamagata then Niigata in their last two fixtures, down to the ground.