While Nagoya Grampus’ unblinking march toward the title has deprived the J. League of late drama, it has provided a testament to the quality and efficiency of the newly crowned champions.
Grampus wrapped up their first-ever title with a win over Shonan Bellmare last weekend, in doing so becoming the first team to clinch the trophy with games to spare since the single-league format was introduced in 2005.
For fans accustomed to the excitement of last-minute upsets, Nagoya’s generally smooth progress has not been met with universal approval. A series of narrow wins and a solid defensive foundation have done even less to enchant the neutral, but manager Dragan Stojkovic is unlikely to care.
Stojkovic has been chasing the title ever since coming to Grampus as a player in 1994, and only the coldest of hearts could begrudge such a fine servant of the Japanese game his moment of glory. Behind the smile lies an iron resolve, however, and that determination has been the cornerstone of his team’s success.
Grampus have responded to every league defeat by winning their next game, and never gave up first place after going top for the first time in mid-August. Stojkovic was quick to credit defender Marcus Tulio Tanaka for bringing a winning mentality to the dressing room after joining from Urawa Reds at the beginning of the year, and the 29-year-old’s bombastic passion has indeed played a crucial role.
But others have proved their worth too. Striker Josh Kennedy has weighed in with goals, Danilson Cordoba has provided thrust in midfield, Keiji Tamada, Mu Kanazaki and Magnum have supplied the attacking invention, and goalkeeper Seigo Narazaki has kept things tight at the back.
Danilson in particular has been a revelation since arriving on loan from Consadole Sapporo. The Colombian’s muscular dynamism embodies what Stojkovic’s team is all about, and with Kennedy, Tulio, Takahiro Masukawa and Narazaki all standing 185 cm or taller, there has been a physicality about Grampus this year that few opponents have been able to live with.
That is unlikely to sit well with the rest of the league given that Nagoya has been kicking sand in their faces off the pitch as well as on. Stojkovic has overseen an aggressive recruitment drive, and the likes of Tulio, Kennedy and Alex have not come cheap.
Throw in the fact that Nagoya was able to keep hold of its key men while rivals lost theirs after the World Cup, and the romance of the club’s rise takes on a more clinical light.
But as many have found to their peril, clout in the transfer market does not necessarily translate to success on the pitch. The right blend of players must still be found, and it is to Stojkovic’s credit that those who have not fit the mold, like the prolific but individualistic Davi, have been weeded out quickly.
So can Grampus take over from where Kashima Antlers left off and dominate the J. League for years to come? With the Club World Cup returning to Japan — and Toyota Stadium — next year, the demand for Asian Champions League success will test the manager’s ability to juggle his priorities.
But with a squad as talented and deep as this, who knows what he and his players are capable of achieving.