If Nagoya Grampus’ and Kashima Antlers’ failure to win their opening fixtures constituted good news for the rest of the J. League, the manner in which both teams eventually salvaged a point did not.
Losing at home to less-fancied sides on the first day of action, both Kashima and defending champion Nagoya came roaring back to equalize at the death. Josh Kennedy held his nerve to put away a 95th-minute penalty in Grampus’ 1-1 draw with Yokohama F. Marinos on Saturday, while a day later an injury time own goal got Antlers out of jail with a 3-3 draw against Omiya Ardija.
Neither team will be satisfied at taking a solitary point when three were available, but in terms of sheer determination it sent a chilling reminder to those looking for chinks in the present and previous champions’ psychological armor.
Antlers trailed three times against Omiya only to claw back the deficit each time, while Kennedy’s spot kick against Marinos came with the knowledge that it would be the last chance of the game. Mental strength is a must for any team with designs on the title, and few possess a steelier resolve than Grampus or Antlers.
“Today we fought for 95 minutes to get one point,” said Nagoya manager Dragan Stojkovic. “This is football. With our mentality, with our play, with our sacrifice on the pitch, we deserved to not lose the game.”
Throw in the fact that both teams were coming off tough midweek Asian Champions League fixtures in China, and the achievement becomes all the more impressive.
“We don’t like to admit it (had an effect), but I think so,” said Kennedy. “We weren’t worse than the opposition but we lacked a little bit of the spark that we usually have at home. Obviously it takes its toll.”
At least now the other teams know what they are up against.
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After running away with the second division last season, Kashiwa Reysol made sure they enjoyed their return to the top flight on Saturday.
A 3-0 win at home to Shimizu S-Pulse served as confirmation that Nelsinho’s side intends to pick up where it left off last year, losing only two games en route to the J2 title and playing with a confidence that was wholly absent during the previous season’s losing battle with relegation.
“All week I’ve been telling the players that they need to show their determination straight from the start,” said Nelsinho, who took over too late to save Kashiwa from the drop in 2009.
“But it’s not just about determination. We need to be able to set the tempo and play at our rhythm. About 95 percent of our squad was here last year, and with all the work we got done in camp we went into this match with a lot of confidence.”
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Another team happy to begin the new campaign as it finished the last was Vissel Kobe, whose 1-0 win over Urawa Reds on Sunday neatly bookended a winter break that once looked certain to be spent preparing for life in the second division.
Vissel beat the same opponent 4-0 on the final day of last season to secure an unlikely escape from relegation, capping a seven-game unbeaten end to the campaign that manager Masahiro Wada was happy to see extend into 2011.
“We defended tight until the end, and that was a continuation of how we were playing at the end of last season,” Wada said. “That was very important for us. It’s only one game out of 34, but for us it was a huge win.”
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Winning the derby is as good a way as any to start the new season, but new Gamba Osaka striker Adriano had extra reason to celebrate his side’s 2-1 victory over local rival Cerezo on Saturday.
The Brazilian spent last season at Cerezo before switching to the blue and black half of the city, and rubbed salt in his old teammates’ wounds by opening the scoring at Expo Stadium.
“My family have just come to Japan, it was the first game of the season and I was playing against my old club, so to win was great and to score when there were so few chances and make a contribution makes me very happy,” he said. “Of course the Cerezo players know what I’m all about, so they were marking me tightly.”
Quotable: “Surely that’s a speeding offense.”
— Yokohama F. Marinos manager Kazushi Kimura seeks legal assistance to deal with spring-heeled Nagoya Grampus substitute Kensuke Nagai.