Shimizu S-Pulse’s momentum may have faded in recent weeks, but manager Kenta Hasegawa has plenty to smile about as his side heads into the two-month World Cup shutdown on top of the J. League.
S-Pulse have led the way for most of the campaign, and currently sit three points ahead of second-place Nagoya Grampus with Kashima Antlers one behind with a game in hand. After falling to pieces toward the end of last season, the signs are that Hasegawa’s team is far better equipped to handle the pressure this time round.
Last year, S-Pulse put together an astonishing run to go top for the first time in 10 years with only six games remaining. But with a first-ever title within reach, a measly one point from a possible 18 over the stretch not only cost them the championship, but a place in this year’s Asian Champions League as well.
S-Pulse finished a disappointing seventh, and striker Frode Johnsen identified a lack of experience and character as the reason for the team’s failure. With the mercurial Shinji Ono now pulling the strings in midfield, there is little chance of that happening again.
The 30-year-old’s form since joining from Bochum at the start of the year has been good enough to spark a clamor for his inclusion in Japan’s World Cup squad, while Australian center back Eddy Bosnar has also proved his worth since arriving from JEF United Chiba.
With Johnsen and Shinji Okazaki linking up well in attack, Akihiro Hyodo causing havoc on the wing and Jungo Fujimoto enjoying a return to form in midfield, S-Pulse certainly have the quality to pick up where they left off when the action resumes in July.
The hiatus might give the impression that the J. League has reached its halfway stage, but in fact only 12 of the 34 rounds have been played. S-Pulse have plenty of work to do if they want to stay on top for the rest of the season, but for the next two months at least, no one can deny them that privilege.
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Shinji Kagawa’s dreams of going to the World Cup may have been dashed, but the young striker still managed to sign off his J. League career in fairy tale fashion with the deciding goal in Cerezo Osaka’s 2-1 win over Vissel Kobe on Saturday.
Kagawa, who will now join Borussia Dortmund in Germany’s Bundesliga, bid the perfect farewell to fans at Nagai Stadium with a free kick in first-half injury time to leave the promoted club in eighth place over the summer break.
Rather than credit his trusty right foot, however, the 21-year-old suggested there was a higher power at work.
“I wasn’t supposed to be taking the free kick, but it felt like the strength of the supporters and the strength of Cerezo Osaka willed the ball over the line,” he said. “Everyone was urging me to take it so I did. Today was a really great result and performance, and for me to score the winner was just the best. I’m glad I could repay that favor.”
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Albirex Niigata’s revival continues apace.
The Hokuriku side began the season reeling from the loss of manager Jun Suzuki and key players Gilton and Mitsuru Chiyotanda, and fears of impending doom for the new campaign did not look too far wide of the mark after Albirex managed only five points — all draws — from their opening eight games.
How things have changed. Last weekend’s 3-1 victory over Montedio Yamagata was Niigata’s fourth win in a row, sending Hisashi Kurosaki’s team up to the heady heights of seventh.
“Today’s game was hugely significant for the team and for the club,” Kurosaki said. “It’s good that we got a fourth win in a row, but the most important thing is that we go into the break on the back of a win. This brings us closer together as a team.”
Quotable: “I think I handled him well and that’s given me a bit of confidence.”
— Kashima Antlers and Japan defender Daiki Iwamasa gears up for the World Cup after getting the better of 194-cm Nagoya Grampus striker Josh Kennedy in Kashima’s 4-1 win on Sunday.