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Relegation battle heats up as title race cools down

by Andrew Mckirdy

An unexpected defeat for Nagoya Grampus has reined in the J. League’s one-horse title race — for now at least — but the competition at the other end of the table is just getting started.

While Nagoya enjoys an eight-point cushion at the top despite Sunday’s 4-1 loss to Albirex Niigata, the league’s whipping boys have no such room to maneuver. Shonan Bellmare and Kyoto Sanga both look doomed to occupy two of the three relegation spots on 16 points each, but who will join them in J2 next season is anyone’s guess.

With eight games left to play, Vissel Kobe currently sit third from bottom on 23 points, one behind FC Tokyo, four adrift of Omiya Ardija, seven away from Vegalta Sendai and nine from Montedio Yamagata. Montedio should logically be home and dry, but then logic tends to count for very little in a relegation dogfight.

Instead momentum is everything, and on current form the table provides a fairly accurate snapshot of the five teams’ recent fortunes. Kobe has taken one point from its last three games, Tokyo and Omiya three each over the same period, Sendai six and Yamagata four.

Hitting form at the right time is essential, but so is a willingness to dig in for a hard scrap. Tokyo’s collapse against Sendai on Saturday — throwing away a 2-1 lead with four minutes to go to lose 3-2 — suggests the capital city side had better learn that quickly.

The remaining fixture list must also be considered when assessing relegation candidates, and no one can expect to have it easy. Vissel and Tokyo have it harder than most, however, and both must take on top-half opposition five times before the season is out, with Vissel still to play the top three.

The omens, then, do not look good for a Tokyo side that had designs on the title at the start of the season, or a Vissel outfit that has long striven to establish itself among the upper echelons of the first division.

Come the end of the season, one of them could be facing a substantially different vision of the future.

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After stumbling through a fog of mediocrity for most of the season, could it be that Urawa Reds are emerging with a clear sight of the finish line?

Saturday’s 2-0 win over Cerezo Osaka was Reds’ fourth in their last five games, a run that has lifted the 2006 champions into seventh in the table and cut the gap on second-place Kashima Antlers to five points.

So is Urawa about to launch an unlikely bid for a berth in next season’s Asian Champions League? Midfielder Genki Haraguchi is not ruling anything out.

“We were playing against the third-place team, so we definitely wanted to win,” Haraguchi, who scored Urawa’s second goal, said. “Now we’ve got eight games left and we want to win them all.

“This was a crucial game as far as cutting the gap on the teams above us was concerned. Now each one that comes along will be very important.”

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If Saturday’s 1-1 draw between Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Jubilo Iwata was a dress rehearsal for the Nabisco Cup final, Sanfrecce’s Tadanari Lee has perfected his lines already.

The red-hot striker beat Jubilo goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi after only five minutes to give Sanfrecce the lead, notching his fifth goal in his last four league games.

The two teams meet again in the Nov. 3 Nabisco Cup final at National Stadium, and with form like Lee’s, who can blame him for being confident?

“I made up my mind to just go for it and shoot,” he said. “When it went in, I could see that everyone around me had stopped. Kawaguchi had stopped as well. It gives me confidence for the final, and I think I can score another.”

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Quotable: “When you’re top of the league, all the other teams want to beat you, so it’s vital that you maintain your concentration right until the end.”

— Nagoya Grampus midfielder Magnum issues a reminder after losing 4-1 to Albirex Niigata on Sunday.