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The secret of Kashiwa’s success

6 Dec 2011(Tue)

The achievements of Nelsinho Baptista and his Kashiwa Reysol squad will fittingly live on in the annals of Japanese football history. Though each J. League season kicks off with half a dozen or more realistic title contenders and two previous sides – Sanfrecce Hiroshima in 2009 and Cerezo Osaka last term – had previously achieved AFC Champions League (ACL) qualification in their first year after promotion from the second division, nobody had ever before threatened to clinch a unique J2-J1 title double. Even when Kashiwa burst away from the rest with 22 points from a possible 27 in their first nine fixtures, virtually everyone still believed it was just a matter of time before they began to run out of breath and were overhauled by – among others – the reigning champions, Nagoya Grampus.


The first evidence of a wobble came with the 3-0 home defeat to Jubilo Iwata on 15 June, which was soon followed by further big losses to both Osaka clubs. The rescheduling necessitated by the 11 March disaster had left Kashiwa with a really tough three or four months bookended by a relatively easy season opening and run-in, while a small squad might understandably have been stretched by the need to play two games a week throughout the hot summer. But a look at their result patterns around this time reveals the real secret to their success. With uncanny similarity to the 2010 vintage at Nagoya, when things went badly for Reysol, they went really badly – either in the form of heavy losses or upsets against relegation strugglers – but the rest of the time, they just won.


Their tricky patch between that Iwata game and a second reverse at the hands of Gamba Osaka on 24 August brought six of Kashiwa’s eventual eight defeats, but the other eight matches in that 14-game spell yielded 22 of a possible 24 points. This ensured that they were able to come out the other side of that long summer still very much in the championship picture; dropping to fourth, but never more than three points behind the leaders. Exciting comeback victories against Kawasaki Frontale and Nagoya put them on track for a terrific autumn in which they showed few signs of blinking or inexperience at the very top. Indeed, a record of nine wins, one draw, and a solitary defeat in the final 11 matchdays was even more impressive than their explosive start to the season.


The qualities of Kashiwa’s well-balanced squad and highly intelligent manager were considered by this column in the final-day preview last Friday, but above all, this brilliant combination has once again proven the importance of turning one point into three (indeed, only three league matches were drawn all season). They will be highly popular representatives for Japanese fans to cheer on as the FIFA Club World Cup gets under way in Toyota this Thursday.


The other title challengers (and ACL qualifiers)

For Nagoya, it was a case of what might have been as a second consecutive championship was missed by the slender margin of a single point; with a better goal difference to boot. Like the other ACL competitors, they struggled as a result of having to play on in Asia through the domestic hiatus in March and April – in combination with the toll this competition usually takes on league form anyway – languishing down in 12th position after only six points were amassed from as many games by mid-May. But what convinced many – including, quite explicitly, this column – of their ability to recover and win the league regardless was that knack of drawing out three points that they had shown throughout the previous campaign, coupled with the all-round quality of a squad that remains unrivalled in J1. With that in mind, the trophy appeared theirs for the taking when they strung together a run of 16 matches unbeaten to hit the summit in August.


But when fans dissect the campaign to see where they could have found that one extra result to make all the difference, their eyes will naturally be drawn to a four-game spell in late summer/early autumn when eight points were dropped in just four matches – starting with a crucial 2-1 loss in Kashiwa where they had led with 25 minutes remaining. Such an uncharacteristic loss of consistency – perhaps the first, without real extenuating circumstances anyway, of Dragan Stojković’s reign – was ultimately decisive. Grampus were highly impressive in dismissing the theoretical difficulties of their run-in by winning their final six matches, but it mattered little as Reysol held their nerve.


The future remains bright for Nagoya, however, with experience and stability in the playing resources plus few obvious candidates likely to scarper to Europe any time soon. Not unlike Cerezo Osaka (who finished down in twelfth) this year, Kashiwa will have to face the combined challenges of second-season syndrome, a potential looting of their most outstanding players, and a first season of Asian competition; while a host of other potential title challengers face a winter of significant overhaul in both playing and coaching personnel. With Joshua Kennedy taking the top scorer’s accolade outright with 19 goals (having shared the honour with Ryoichi Maeda in 2010) and Keiji Tamada continuing to prove a valuable foil with 14 himself, Grampus will probably again begin the 2012 season as favourites.


One of the teams facing a hurried period of transition is Gamba Osaka, who overcame a number of ups and downs throughout a curious season of constant evolution to eventually finish third, remaining in the title picture until the final day. This goes down as a laudable achievement in light of the mid-season departures of both Adriano and Takashi Usami; as well as the failure to properly rejuvenate the midfield and defence which, in all likelihood, was a key factor behind the strangely-timed announcement (with two games remaining) that manager Akira Nishino would be allowed to leave after ten years at the helm. The winter presents much uncertainty, with a number of experienced players rumoured to be departing and former Japan international Wagner Lopes the surprise favourite to take over as manager. Gamba finished in the top three in all bar two of Nishino’s ten seasons – the next step could either push them on to further successes or undo all that hard work.


The relegated three, and a fourth who deserved to go down

At the bottom, Avispa Fukuoka looked in danger of breaking all sorts of J. League records upon their brief return to J1 as – in total contrast to Kashiwa – they lost each of their opening nine matches and mustered just one point from the first 39 available. But they, and their wonderful fans, deserve great credit for keeping their heads up and recovering some pride thereafter. Indeed, 21 points were recorded from the 21 games after that initial humiliation – a rate of achievement that would have brought them very close to survival had it been maintained all year – and a thumping 5-0 victory at a bad-and-steadily-getting-worse Montedio Yamagata last month ensured they would at least avoid finishing bottom.


Carried by the (largely aerial) goalscoring talents of Mike Havenaar – a Japan striker so unusual to the local media’s eyes that his name seemingly must always be quoted in full with mandatory accompanying reference to his 194cm stature – Ventforet Kofu fleetingly looked headed for safety with a late season run of 13 points from eight games; including hugely impressive wins over both Osaka clubs. They ran out of steam at the end, however, and this was ultimately the sole reason that the biggest flops of all were able to get of jail at the last.


Urawa Reds have, quite simply, been an embarrassment to themselves and their packed masses of followers ever since the opening whistle of the season. For a club that remains easily the best-supported and one of the most well-funded in the country, to remain on the cusp of relegation until the final weeks took a decline that was already unacceptable into new levels of shame and – for rival fans around the country – schadenfreude.


Despite apparently investing well last winter with the arrivals of Marcio Richardes and Mitsuru Nagata – plus manager Željko Petrović, who lasted until October – it soon became clear that there was no coherent strategy to bond the club together; for which the board must take responsibility. In the years since Urawa won the ACL in 2007, one has sensed an arrogant overbelief in the ‘We are Reds’ maxim which forms a natural bedfellow with the old, misplaced idea of being ‘too good to go down’. Like with Kashiwa in 2009 and the similarly underachieving FC Tokyo last year, relegation might have been the best thing ever to happen to the club. As it is, they must quickly take responsibility and realise that a decline which has taken them from sixth to tenth to fifteenth in the past three seasons is no fluke.



2011 J1 final standings


2) Nagoya Grampus 71

3) Gamba Osaka 70


4) Vegalta Sendai 56


5) Yokohama F Marinos 56

6) Kashima Antlers 50

7) Sanfrecce Hiroshima 50

8) Jubilo Iwata 47

9) Vissel Kobe 46

10) Shimizu S-Pulse 45

11) Kawasaki Frontale 44

12) Cerezo Osaka 43

13) Omiya Ardija 42

14) Albirex Niigata 39

15) Urawa Reds 36


16) Ventforet Kofu 33

17) Avispa Fukuoka 22

18) Montedio Yamagata 21

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