Nagoya Grampus finally managed to consolidate their position at the top of the J. League last weekend, but behind them the field is getting crowded.
Another round of unpredictable results has left Nagoya five points clear in first place, with title rivals Kashima Antlers, Shimizu S-Pulse and Kawasaki Frontale all losing ground with disappointing defeats.
But one team’s misfortune is another’s opportunity, and Cerezo Osaka and Albirex Niigata have not been slow to take advantage.
Cerezo — last season’s J2 runnerup — made a bold statement with a 1-0 win over Antlers on Saturday, inflicting the champions’ first home defeat of the season and overtaking them into second place. Albirex, meanwhile, lie two points further back after beating a Frontale side coming off the back of a 4-0 demolition of Grampus.
Both Cerezo and Albirex started the season poorly before clawing their way up the table, hinting at a growing belief that seems to be deserting their more illustrious counterparts.
So can Cerezo and Albirex be considered serious title candidates? Current evidence suggests that might not be such a fanciful notion.
Cerezo boast a player hitting a rich vein of form in playmaker Takashi Inui, who has shouldered much of the burden left by departed teammate Shinji Kagawa, now with Borussia Dortmund. Levir Culpi’s side is by no means a one-man band, however, and Martinez, Akihiro Ienaga and Taikai Uemoto have also played their part.
Marcio Richardes has been responsible for much of Albirex’s good work, but he too is ably backed by teammates, notably the ever-reliable Isao Homma, goal sensation Cho Young Cheul and born-again JEF United reject Michael.
But whether that will be enough for either side to claim the title remains to be seen. Grampus, S-Pulse and Frontale are not likely to give up their quest for a first title easily, while Marquinhos’ absence through injury can surely be blamed for much of Kashima’s current malaise.
After last weekend’s results, though, no one will be taking Cerezo or Albirex lightly.
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One team expecting to be involved in the title shakeup at the start of the season was FC Tokyo, but a terrible campaign for last year’s Nabisco Cup winner is slipping further into the mire with each passing week.
Saturday’s 2-0 home loss to Sanfrecce Hiroshima was Tokyo’s sixth straight game without a win, and while manager Hiroshi Jofuku reaped the benefits of outstanding individual performances last season, he is definitely seeing the flip side now.
“We are in need of points and I want to see the players get their confidence back,” he said. “Individually the players all need to produce their best form, and they need to sort their heads out and show what they are made of the pitch.
“Of course we can’t keep giving away goals, and to get three points we need to start scoring. But getting our confidence back is the most important thing for us at the moment.”
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The growing band of players who have scored 100 J. League goals welcomed another member on Saturday night, as Urawa Reds striker Edmilson hit two against Shonan Bellmare to reach triple figures.
Atsushi Yanagisawa and Marquinhos both reached the milestone earlier this season, but no one, including fellow centurions Masashi Nakayama, Kazu Miura, Ueslei and Toshiya Fujita, has done so as quickly as Edmilson.
The Brazilian needed only 200 games to rack up 100 goals for Reds and former club Albirex Niigata, and the significance was not lost on him after Saturday’s game.
“I have to thank my parents for giving me a strong body which has kept me free of big injuries, and I also want to say thanks to my wife, children and teammates,” he said. “Albirex Niigata was the club that opened the door for me to play in Japan so I want to say thanks to them too. It’s great to share this with the Urawa Reds fans tonight.”
Quotable: “I’ve reached my target to score 10 goals, but quite honestly I didn’t think I would do it so quickly. There are still a lot of games left, so I can’t be satisfied with what I’ve done. Now I’ll try to go out and score 10 more.”
Albirex Niigata’s Cho Young Cheul reassesses his targets after temporarily drawing level at the top of the scoring charts with two goals on Saturday.