Nagoya Grampus won the J. League title a full 10 points ahead of second-place Gamba Osaka last season, but as the 2011 campaign enters the final stretch, the situation is anything but cut and dried.
Grampus and Gamba again form part of a select group with serious designs on the silverware, but this time the two heavy-hitters are joined by a joker in the pack.
Kashiwa Reysol lead the way in just their first season back after gaining promotion to the top flight, and the Chiba side will be hoping to achieve the remarkable feat of winning the second- and first-division titles in successive seasons.
But with four rounds to go, starting with a full slate of games on Thursday, no one can expect an easy ride.
Kashiwa Reysol (62 points, +16 goal difference): Albirex (h), S-Pulse (a), Cerezo (h), Reds (a).
Reysol have been nothing short of phenomenal this season, charging into an early lead and staying there — give or take a few wobbles — for the majority of the campaign.
Nelsinho’s team has proved itself to be blessed with quality rather than simple promotion momentum, and the likes of Leandro Domingues, Hiroki Sakai and Jorge Wagner have been among the stars of the season.
But do they have what it takes to go all the way? Time will tell, but form has been good, and the way they dug themselves out from a goal down to beat Sanfrecce Hiroshima 3-1 in the last round of games suggests Reysol are coping with the pressure better than might be expected.
That does not mean inexperience will not be a factor, however, and fixtures against the unpredictable Shimizu S-Pulse and Cerezo Osaka — not to mention a final-day assignment away to relegation-threatened Urawa Reds — will be tough.
But Reysol are not about to throw in the towel now. The Chiba side is top on merit, and Nelsinho has instilled a belief among his players that they are good enough to finish the job.
If they can hold their nerve, anything is possible.
Gamba Osaka (60 points, +23 goal difference): Antlers (h), Albirex (a), Vegalta (h), S-Pulse (a).
Gamba’s modus operandi has changed little since winning the title with 58 goals conceded in 2005, and, true to form, no team outside the relegation zone has let in more than the Kansai side’s 48 this season.
As always, though, compensation comes at the other end of the pitch. Gamba’s goals-for tally of 71 is 13 more than any other team has managed, and with attackers Rafinha and Lee Keun Ho in such rapier form, manager Akira Nishino can expect that total to grow significantly before the season is out.
Thursday’s game against newly crowned Nabisco Cup champions Kashima Antlers will be a difficult assignment, however, and Vegalta Sendai and Shimizu S-Pulse are also capable of putting a serious dent in Gamba’s title ambitions.
Of more comfort to Nishino will be his team’s noticeably improved defensive record. Only seven goals have been conceded in the last eight games, including five clean sheets, and experienced heads like Tomokazu Myojin will be doing all they can to make sure it stays that way.
If Gamba can keep the back door shut, the title could be theirs.
Nagoya Grampus (59 points, +24 goal difference): Cerezo (h), Marinos (a), Montedio (h), Albirex (a).
Grampus made a steady climb up the table after starting the season hampered by injuries, but the defending champions’ form since arriving among the leaders has not been entirely consistent.
Surprise losses to Vegalta Sendai and Shimizu S-Pulse have prevented Dragan Stojkovic’s men from taking a firmer hold on the title race, and it is telling that they have topped the table for only one round of the entire season.
As long as Grampus occupy first place when it really matters, however, no one is likely to care. And if recent results are anything to go by, everything may be falling into place at just the right time.
Vital wins over Gamba Osaka and Omiya Ardija said much about the champions’ determination and resolve, and big performances from the likes of Marcus Tulio Tanaka, Keiji Tamada and Josh Kennedy should give other teams plenty to fear.
The best goal difference of the leading three is another advantage in Nagoya’s favor, as is a run-in that looks marginally easier than that of its rivals.
But have Grampus left their title push too late? One slip from the others, and it could all be over.