The World Cup was always going to cast a long shadow over this year’s J. League championship, and how teams now deal with the fallout will play a significant part in the destination of the title.
Japanese players generally wait until the end of the J. League season before moving to Europe, but the attention generated by playing on the world stage every four years makes the opportunity too good to miss. The debilitating effects on a championship-chasing side can, however, be severe.
Of all the clubs involved in this summer’s exodus, Kawasaki Frontale appear to be the hardest hit. Goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima and striker Chong Tese have left for Belgium and Germany, respectively, and they are serious pieces for a club with genuine title ambitions to lose. Quality in-house replacements look thin on the ground, and one point from two games since returning to action suggests Tsutomu Takahata’s side may need time to adapt.
The same goes for FC Tokyo, who lost left back Yuto Nagatomo to Italy and threw away a two-goal lead in his absence against Vissel Kobe. But the pinch has yet to hit Cerezo Osaka, who began life without star player Shinji Kagawa with a remarkable 5-0 thrashing of Sanfrecce Hiroshima before drawing 1-1 with Albirex Niigata.
Kashima Antlers have also lost a big name, but while other clubs have given off the faint whiff of being caught on the hop, Atsuto Uchida’s move to German side Schalke came safe in the knowledge that winter signing Gilton has been waiting all season to replace him.
The World Cup, however, leaves more than just departing players to deal with. The demands of the tournament can leave players feeling drained and empty when faced with a return to the weekly grind, and it will be interesting to see how those involved now respond.
Judging by Marcus Tulio Tanaka’s excellent performance in Nagoya’s 1-0 win over Omiya Ardija on Saturday, and Yasuhito Endo’s virtuoso display for Gamba Osaka against Urawa Reds a day later, it seems the South African party is not ready for the hangover just yet.
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One team with no need to worry about returning World Cup players is Shonan Bellmare.
Bellmare went into the monthlong break at the foot of the table, featuring a squad of grizzled veterans and raw youngsters unlikely to grace the world’s top international tournament any time soon.
Saturday’s 1-0 win over Kyoto Sanga did take Yasuharu Sorimachi’s side off the bottom — if not out of the relegation places — but the manager knows he has a fight on his hands to stay in the top flight after ending a 10-year absence with promotion last year.
“When you see the lack of microphones and cameras here, it’s easy to guess our position in the league,” he said at the news conference after the game. “It’s been so long since we won that I can’t remember what it’s like to talk about it.”
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Will the 2010 season turn out to be another bust for Urawa Reds?
Gamba Osaka’s last-gasp 3-2 win over Volker Finke’s side on Saturday certainly suggests the stars are not aligning over Saitama just yet.
One undoubted bright spot for Reds, however, was the return from injury of midfielder Naoki Yamada. A broken leg in January ended Yamada’s chances of a place in Japan’s World Cup squad, but the 20-year-old made his first appearance of the season on Saturday and lasted the full 90 minutes.
“In football the tide ebbs and flows for both teams, and although it looked like it was in our favor to start with, the momentum was with them for most of the match,” he said after the game. “It was a tough game to swallow.”
Quotable: “It was a very light foul so he got the yellow card and the red card at the same time. You have to think about the supporters and about the game.”
— Nagoya Grampus manager Dragan Stojkovic gives his take on Igor Burzanovic’s red card against Omiya Ardija on Saturday.