Neither Shimizu S-Pulse nor Nagoya Grampus have ever won a J. League title, but both clubs are giving off serious signals that this could be their year.
S-Pulse and Grampus both went into the current campaign looking like they could challenge the established order, and with the season at its halfway point, those suspicions have been well and truly confirmed.
S-Pulse currently top the table one point ahead of Grampus, with defending champions Kashima Antlers one further behind in third. The two pretenders to Kashima’s throne have been playing well all season, but last weekend’s results were their most significant statements of intent yet.
S-Pulse, starting the day in second, hosted Antlers on Saturday knowing defeat would gift the champions a four-point gap at the top. Jungo Fujimoto gave the home side a first-half lead from the penalty spot, but when Shinzo Koroki equalized for Kashima in the 58th minute, Shimizu’s title credentials went on the line.
Many teams — including S-Pulse themselves in previous years — would have crumbled under the pressure, but this season’s crop is made of sterner stuff. Takuma Edamura’s 74th-minute winner may have had more than a hint of good fortune about it, but championship-chasing teams tend to make their own luck.
A day later, Grampus faced a crucial test of their own. Held to a goalless draw away to FC Tokyo with the match deep into injury time, manager Dragan Stojkovic would have been all too aware that titles are won and lost by failing to convert one point into three.
Before the final whistle could sound, however, Marcus Tulio Tanaka came up with the goods. A header from the talismanic defender gave Nagoya a 1-0 win, and Stojkovic could breathe a sigh of relief with games against Urawa Reds, Kawasaki Frontale and Gamba Osaka up next.
That daunting lineup proves just how difficult it is to win the J. League, and fixtures against Frontale and a much-improved Albirex Niigata will test S-Pulse’s mettle over the coming month as well.
For the time being, however, both teams continue to look the part.
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Kyoto Sanga’s Nishikyogoku Stadium offered a study in contrasting fortunes on Saturday, with the home side remaining anchored to the foot of the table after a 2-0 loss to high-flying Albirex Niigata.
The defeat was Sanga’s fifth in a row — all without scoring a goal — and the eighth in their last 10 games. Yutaka Akita’s recent appointment as manager has not provided an instant remedy, and the omens do not look good for a team that, along with Consadole Sapporo, has been relegated more times than any other in J. League history.
Albirex, meanwhile, are on fire. After a bad start, the Hokuriku side has put together an excellent 11-match unbeaten run to reach the heady heights of fifth. Midfielder Isao Homma, however, is taking nothing for granted.
“The fact that we’ve gone unbeaten isn’t something we’re thinking about — we’re just taking one game at a time,” he said. “Our confidence is building as the wins pile up, and that in turn allows us to bounce back when things are not going so well. If we can keep that going then the results will be good.”
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Kawasaki Frontale’s post-World Cup slump continues in the absence of departed goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima and striker Chong Tese, but Kawashima is learning that the grass is not always greener on the other side.
Making his home debut for new Belgian club Lierse, the national team No. 1 conceded four goals in last weekend’s 4-1 drubbing at the hands of Standard Liege.
Axel Witsel did what England’s Frank Lampard and Denmark’s Jon Dahl Tomasson could not do over the summer by beating Kawashima from the penalty spot, before Mehdi Carcela-Gonzalez added two more goals from outside the box.
Sebastien Pocognoli completed the rout in the 86th minute, leaving Kawashima to reflect on the difficulties of life at a new club.
“I have to assert myself more,” he said.
Quotable: “Being on the bench is stressful, make no mistake about that. I have to keep putting in the effort.”
— Fit-again Yokohama F. Marinos midfielder Naoki Matsuda declines to rest on his laurels after marking his return to the starting lineup with a goal in Marinos’ 1-0 win over Vegalta Sendai.