Nagoya Grampus will fight to the last breath to defend their J. League title, but there can be little doubt now that the 2011 championship is Kashiwa Reysol’s to lose.
Reysol took a huge step toward their first-ever title on Sunday, coming from behind to beat Shimizu S-Pulse 2-1 and reopen the three-point gap at the top that Grampus had closed by beating Yokohama F. Marinos a day earlier. With only two games remaining, the finish line is tantalizingly close.
Gamba Osaka’s championship ambitions took a serious blow with a 2-2 draw with Albirex Niigata, but Nagoya’s superior goal difference means Kashiwa cannot afford to rest on its laurels. Defeat at home to Cerezo Osaka on Saturday coupled with a Grampus win over Montedio Yamagata would put Nagoya in pole position, but for now Kashiwa’s destiny remains very much in its own hands.
The Chiba side again had Brazilian midfield inspiration Leandro Domingues to thank as he scored an 85th-minute winner against S-Pulse, but another hard-working team performance laid the foundation for Reysol’s fifth successive victory. That represents an impressive vein of form for a team not used to playing in the first division let alone leading it at such a crucial stage, but last season’s second division champions have little margin for error with Grampus chasing them down with Terminator-like efficiency.
It is difficult to see Dragan Stojkovic’s side — currently on a four-game winning streak — being thrown off the scent in its remaining fixtures against Montedio and Albirex, meaning one slip from Kashiwa and it could all be over.
“Whether Nagoya or Gamba win or not, it doesn’t have any effect on us,” said Reysol manager Nelsinho on Sunday. “If we do our job right then the title will be ours. We’re just taking one game at a time.”
The big advantage in Kashiwa’s favor is that there are not many left to play.
A 0-0 home draw is not usually the type of result to send Urawa Reds fans into celebration, but Saturday’s stalemate against Vegalta Sendai could well turn out to be one of the most significant results of their season.
Ventforet Kofu’s 2-1 loss to Jubilo Iwata the same day moved Urawa three points clear of relegation with two matches to play, and with goal difference heavily stacked in the Saitama side’s favor, a win over Avispa Fukuoka this Saturday would as good as secure Reds’ safety at Kofu’s expense.
“This was a huge point for us,” said midfielder Yosuke Kashiwagi. “In some ways it feels like a win, but I suppose that has a lot to do with Kofu losing. Next time we have to settle things through our own efforts, regardless of what Kofu does. We have to play the next game like we did today.”
FC Tokyo’s relegation last season came as a huge shock for a team that was expected to compete for the title, but after one season in J2, the capital city club is back in the big time.
Saturday’s 5-1 win over Gainare Tottori took Tokyo up with two rounds to spare, but with teams spread far and wide over the division and four games more than in a J1 season, defender Yasuyuki Konno was keen to stress that life in J2 was no cakewalk.
“Going back to J1 was the minimum requirement this season, so rather than feeling happy it’s more a case of relief,” he said. “There are a lot of teams in J2, and it’s been a difficult year. The results weren’t good at first, but we talked it over and thankfully we were able to find some consistency. It’s been a long season with a lot of traveling.”
Avispa Fukuoka’s relegation after just one season back in the first division has long been a done deal, but the Kyushu side is determined to return to J2 with its head held high.
Fukuoka, which lost its opening nine games this season, had been bottom of the table for the entire campaign going into Sunday’s match against relegation bedfellows Montedio Yamagata. A stunning 5-0 win, however, lifted Tetsuya Asano’s side above Montedio with just two games to go.
“Our results have been disappointing this season, but we had the chance to move off the bottom of the table today and I sent the players out with that motivation,” Asano said. “I wish they could have had that in every game, but they really went for it today.
“We really kept our concentration after scoring, and even when they were coming at us we communicated well and were tenacious in defense. That all added up to give us the win.”
Quoteable: “Mission accomplished.” — Nagoya Grampus manager Dragan Stojkovic hails his team’s businesslike 2-1 win over Yokohama F. Marinos on Saturday.