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Ghosts of past mistakes return as bad moon rises in Chiba

by Andrew Mckirdy

Barring a sequence of results too far-fetched for even the J. League, Chiba will play host to no first-division teams next season.

After years of questionable decisions by JEF United and Kashiwa Reysol, it hardly comes as a surprise.

Defeat for both Chiba sides last weekend coupled with wins for the teams immediately above them has left JEF and Reysol finally on the brink of losing their top-flight status. JEF somehow managed to wriggle out of the noose on the final day of last season, but a similar reprieve this time is unthinkable.

The manager responsible for engineering last year’s escape, Alex Miller, was fired at the end of July, and his novice replacement, Atsuhiko Ejiri, has yet to win a game.

But Miller’s sacking was just the latest mis-step in a period in which the gilded legacy of former manager Ivica Osim — who left to take charge of the national team in 2006 — has been stripped bare.

First captain and talisman Yuki Abe was sold to Urawa Reds, before Osim’s replacement, son Amar, fell out with star defender Ilian Stoyanov. Stoyanov’s him-or-me ultimatum backfired when the club sided with the manager, but Osim Jr. followed the Bulgarian out the door just four months later when a 13th-place league finish proved too much for the club to bear.

Then came the decision for which JEF has arguably paid its highest price. Five international players were shipped off the books at the end of 2007, stripping the club of the core that went into the final day fighting for the title just two years earlier. Such an exodus would test any incoming manager, not least one as hapless as Josip Kuze, who lasted four months before Miller came in to clean up the mess.

Similarly, Reysol’s players have had the rug of familiarity pulled out from under their feet. Relegated in 2005, the club appointed Nobuhiro Ishizaki to oversee a rebuilding project based around young players, and was rewarded with promotion at the first time of asking.

Kashiwa went on to consolidate its place in J1, but after flirting with the drop last season, Ishizaki’s contract was not renewed. His job went instead to former assistant Shinichiro Takahashi, but when it became clear that the new man was out of his depth, old hand Nelsinho was brought in to fight the fire.

The upheaval, however, took its toll on a relatively inexperienced group of players, not least striker Tadanari Lee, who found himself out of favor under the latest manager and moved on to Sanfrecce Hiroshima. While relegation rivals grew stronger as a result of their summer transfer business, Kashiwa slipped further out of touch.

The unavoidable consequence is impending demotion for both JEF and Reysol. It is sad to see two clubs that have given so much color, wit and passion to the league in such a state, but there could paradoxically be a silver lining.

If the lessons of last season went unheeded, now there is no place to hide. Relegation gives both clubs a chance to put their house in order, and if that can be done sensibly and without panic, there is no reason why they cannot come back stronger.

This is, of course, easier said than done. JEF and Reysol may dream of a better tomorrow, but first they have to reap what they have sown.