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Another terrifically Japanese climax

2 Dec 2011(Fri)

Any European football fan disillusioned with the growing lack of competition and unpredictability at the Premier League or La Liga summit would be well advised to cast their eyes eastwards tomorrow morning. For the sixth time in seven years since its Latin American-inspired twin-stage calendar was abandoned in favour of a more conventional single league campaign, the J. League championship race is set for a thrilling climax on the final day of the season; with not two, but three teams duelling it out for the title of Japan’s finest.

 

Whatever happens after the last nine matches kick off simultaneously at 3.30pm local time (6.30am UK time), the real story of the 2011 Japanese season will undoubtedly be Kashiwa Reysol, who hold a precarious one-point advantage after 33 games of 34. Having spent most of the past decade languishing in the lower reaches of J1 or, latterly, yo-yoing between the two professional divisions, the Sun Kings won promotion as J2 champions twelve months ago and thus stand on the brink of a unique title double.

 

The brains behind this sudden rise to glory is the Brazilian Nelsinho Baptista, a man so tactically in tune that he frequently gets referenced by Jonathan Wilson. The former Corinthians and Sport Recife manager has largely remained faithful to the same core of players that cruised through the second division, moulding them into a side with such nous and – crucially – the tenacious ability to turn one point into three that Kashiwa have confounded just about everyone to remain top or thereabouts since the opening day. Astonishingly, not one member of the well-balanced squad can be considered a regular international, although exciting right-back Hiroki Sakai is a mainstay of the Japan Olympic side and fellow breakthrough star Junya Tanaka, a forward with 13 league strikes to his name this season, recently earned a first call-up to the full national team. Flair arrives in the form of two more Brazilians, 15-goal attacking midfielder Leandro Domingues and the veteran left-winger Jorge Wagner; this year’s one key acquisition from São Paulo and a master at set pieces.

 

Three things standing in the way of Reysol’s historic achievement are a tricky away trip to Urawa Reds, Japan’s most popular club but still needing a point to ensure survival after a rotten campaign; the weakest goal difference of the three contenders; and the fact that breathing down their necks are the reigning J1 champions, Nagoya Grampus. Perhaps still the best known J. League club to British fans thanks to spells at the club enjoyed by Arsène Wenger and endured by Gary Lineker in the mid-1990s, Grampus have been on a steady upward curve since 2008 following the return of another former star – legendary midfielder turned manager, Dragan Stojković.

 

Third place in the Serbian’s first season in charge was followed up by an Emperor’s Cup final and Asian Champions League semi-final appearance in 2010, before the long-awaited first league title was clinched by a trend-breaking ten points when the final pieces were fitted into the Nagoya jigsaw last term. Stojković’s canny ability to read a game has served him well both on the sidelines and in the transfer market where he has built up a squad with quality and depth in each position – from erstwhile Japan goalkeeper Seigo Narazaki and talismanic sweeper Marcus Tulio Tanaka at the back, to Jungo Fujimoto in midfield and the Australian Joshua Kennedy (top scorer in J1 with 19 goals so far) up front.

 

Injuries and a tough continental schedule robbed Grampus of their usual consistency in the first half of the season, but five wins on the bounce is testament to their steady hands over the closing weeks. A visit to Albirex Niigata represents an easier final day fixture than either of their two rivals on paper, but as supporters of the northern club on the Sea of Japan are quick to point out, Albirex do tend to raise their game in the colder months and against stronger opposition – which was indeed evidenced during their 2-2 draw with third-placed Gamba Osaka a fortnight ago.

 

Two points behind Kashiwa, Gamba require both of their fellow contenders to drop points and must themselves find a win at Shimizu S-Pulse – the latest destination in Fredrik Ljungberg’s nomadic late-career adventures. The Kansai side have just about stayed in contention throughout an up-and-down campaign that has seen them lose star forwards Adriano (to Qatari oil money) and Takashi Usami (to Bayern Munich) and neglect to rejuvenate an aging midfield and creaky defence – failings for which long-time manager Akira Nishino will pay with his job at the end of the year.

 

Their matches are usually entertaining, with 5-3 and 6-3 scorelines once again par for the course at a club that failed to keep a single clean sheet until after the halfway point of the season but boast the best goals-for column by a comfortable margin. A key factor in Gamba’s favour ahead of the final reckoning is the experience of Japan midfielder Yasuhito Endo and several other core players who were part of the side that pipped local rivals Cerezo Osaka to the J1 crown in the final minute of the 2005 season (one of eight previous Japanese title races detailed in the latest issue of The Blizzard) and have only once fallen out of the top three since.

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