The J. League title race has gone down to the wire in every season since the single-league format was introduced in 2005, but Nagoya Grampus will be hoping for no such excitement this year.
Having led the way for most of the season, Dragan Stojkovic’s side now stands on the brink of a first-ever championship. A win at already-relegated Shonan Bellmare on Saturday, coupled with anything less than three points for nearest challenger Kashima Antlers against Vissel Kobe, will see Nagoya bag the title with three games to spare and end Kashima’s dominance after three years as champions.
Unquestionably, the cards are stacked in Nagoya’s favor. But if Stojkovic is to finally claim the prize that eluded him as a player with the Tokai club, he cannot expect Antlers to hand him it on a platter.
Oswaldo Oliveira’s men have taken 34 of 36 points available from the final four games of each of their last three title-winning seasons, and impressive wins over Grampus and Kawasaki Frontale in recent weeks suggest another strong finish is on the way.
Kashima’s final four opponents are all in the bottom half of the table, and even though relegation-threatened Kobe and Montedio Yamagata will be fighting for their lives, the possibility of a fourth consecutive title — no matter how distant — will give Antlers all the motivation they need.
Nagoya, then, can expect no favors, and the specter of Kashima hunting down Urawa Reds in 2007 and Frontale in 2009 must surely be lurking at the back of Stojkovic’s mind. Injuries to key players, with attacking midfielder Igor Burzanovic the latest to succumb, do not make things any easier.
Fortunately for Stojkovic, he can call on a deep squad packed with experience and big-game knowhow. Oliveira acknowledged at the weekend that the likes of Alessandro Santos and Marcus Tulio Tanaka have the title-winning credentials that Frontale lacked last season, and Nagoya’s run-in looks only marginally more difficult than Kashima’s.
An eight-point lead remains Grampus’ biggest advantage, however, and it would take a meltdown of monumental proportions to prevent the trophy ending up in Nagoya now. Surely the only suspense left is when it will arrive.
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After a long, hard season staving off the inevitable, there was little surprise when Shonan Bellmare and Kyoto Sanga’s relegation was confirmed at the weekend.
Sanga slipped through the trapdoor for a record fourth time after losing to Urawa Reds, while Bellmare’s reward for holding Shimizu S-Pulse scoreless for 45 minutes at Outsourcing Stadium was a five-goal blitz from the hosts in the second half.
“There are still games to play before the end of the season, but today it was spelled out clearly for us in black and white,” said Bellmare manager Yasuharu Sorimachi. “Our level was exposed, and this game sent us the message that we have to go away and start again.
“The players were positive today, but we lacked quality in the decisive areas. By the end the difference between the two teams was obvious.”
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While Kyoto is preparing for a return to the second division, one former player is heading in the opposite direction.
Nishikyogoku old boy Paulinho helped current side Ventforet Kofu clinch promotion with a goal in Sunday’s 2-0 win over Tochigi SC, achieving a feat he accomplished with his previous employer in both 2005 and 2007.
“This result makes me so happy, and now I have the experience of promotion again,” the Brazilian said. “I could feel the expectation, and at the start of the game I wasn’t sure if we would be able to cope with the responsibility.
“I wasn’t really fit, but everyone helped me out and also having the support of my family made this result possible. The fans have been coming here in droves since the start of the season, so it’s great to see them celebrating.”
Quotable: “The other teams are doing all they can to stay in the division, but it’s best to just focus on what we’re doing and pay the other results no mind.”
— FC Tokyo striker Sota Hirayama keeps his feet on the ground after scoring both goals for his relegation-threatened side in Sunday’s 2-1 win over Yokohama F. Marinos.