An impressive start from the less-fancied teams while the big guns struggled gave the early J. League table something of an upside-down appearance. Few expected it to last, but with almost a third of the season played, the underdogs continue to bark the loudest.
Kashiwa Reysol lead Vegalta Sendai by two points at the top of the table going into Saturday’s games, with Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Yokohama F. Marinos snapping at their heels.
Kashiwa’s 3-0 humbling at home to Jubilo Iwata on Wednesday could be read as evidence that the bubble has finally burst for last season’s second-division champions, but the impressive nature of its campaign so far suggests it may have been simply the exception rather than the rule.
Sendai also continues to confound the critics, maintaining the league’s last unbeaten record despite the disruptions caused by the March 11 disaster, and also the fact that the club finished last season just three points clear of relegation.
But although Reysol and Vegalta have led the way for most of the season, quality has been evident throughout the division. Jubilo’s demolition of Kashiwa on Wednesday night illustrated the depth of competition in what is already one of the world’s most even leagues, and this year’s championship is shaping up to be as unpredictable as ever.
“Our opponents did to us what we wanted to do to them,” said Kashiwa’s Hidekazu Otani after the Jubilo defeat, and that could be a familiar refrain around the league as teams continue to take points off each other and prevent a leader from breaking clear of the pack.
There are signs that the heavyweights are beginning to rouse themselves from their slumber, but for now, at least, the underdogs are having their day.
Kawasaki Frontale beat Omiya Ardija 5-0 to post the biggest win of the midweek fixtures, but then scoring has hardly been Frontale’s problem in recent weeks.
Ten goals in the four games leading up to Wednesday’s match were offset by a failure to keep a clean sheet since May 3, and manager Naoki Soma was as satisfied to be leaving Nack5 Stadium without conceding as he was with the goal rush at the other end.
“The players never eased up for 90 minutes and never lost their concentration, and because of that we got this result,” the former national team defender said. “But when you have a run of games it can be difficult after a big win like this. To play like this again would be difficult, but we’ll at least try to win the next one.”
Kashima Antlers returned to Kashima Stadium for the first time since it was damaged in the March 11 earthquake, but Ventforet Kofu’s 1-0 win courtesy of a Mike Havenaar injury-time goal ensured the former champions were hardly in the mood to celebrate.
For Ventforet forward Atsushi Katagiri, however, the occasion was a memorable one.
“Ten years ago, when I was playing for Nagoya, I came to Kashima Stadium twice,” Katagiri said. “At that time we were only allowed 16 players in the matchday squad and I was No. 17, so I had only ever watched games at Kashima Stadium from the VIP room. This was the first time I have ever stood on the pitch at Kashima Stadium, and it felt great.”
Nagoya Grampus’ season has been hampered by an injury list that has bordered on comical at times, but Wednesday’s 4-0 hiding of Albirex Niigata suggests Dragan Stokjovic’s fit-again side is returning to its fearsome best.
A run of three straight wins has seen the champions jump from 12th to seventh in the table — and triple their goal tally from five to 15 in the process -with Keiji Tamada moving into second in the goalscorer’s chart on seven behind Gamba Osaka’s Adriano.
“We’re playing well in attack and defense, and everyone is pulling their weight,” said Tamada, who has scored in each of those three wins. “I think we’re moving in the right direction. We’re not paying any attention to what the other teams are doing, we’re just focusing on what we’re doing ourselves.”
“We weren’t able to win today, but to get our first point means we have taken half a step forward.” — After losing the first nine games of the season, Avispa Fukuoka manager Yoshiyuki Shinoda savors Wednesday’s 0-0 draw with Vissel Kobe.