The 2012 title race has been one of the most open in J. League history, but with only three games of the season left to play, the championship contenders have finally been whittled down to two.
Urawa Reds and Nagoya Grampus still maintain a mathematical interest in carrying off the silverware, but in reality the winner will come from Sanfrecce Hiroshima or Vegalta Sendai — two teams chasing their first-ever title with little to separate them heading into the final stretch.
Sanfrecce lead Vegalta by two points and a superior goal difference of six, but with numerous pitfalls still to be avoided before the season ends on Dec. 1, nothing has been decided yet.
Points: 58. Goal difference: +27. Remaining fixtures: Urawa Reds (a), Cerezo Osaka (h), Vissel Kobe (a).
Sanfrecce looked to have taken a decisive surge toward the title when they opened up a five-point gap at the top in late September, but a subsequent run of three games without a win squandered that momentum and allowed Vegalta back into a share of the lead.
A 3-0 win over already relegated Consadole Sapporo last Wednesday steered Sanfrecce back on course, but a visit to Saitama Stadium this weekend to take on third-place Urawa will provide an altogether sterner test. Reds’ home form has been nothing short of dreadful since the summer, but they will be desperate to keep the Asian Champions League-qualifying spot they currently occupy, and former Sanfrecce personnel Tomoaki Makino, Yosuke Kashiwagi and manager Mihailo Petrovic will be keen to make an impact against their old team.
Vissel will also be difficult opponents on the final day if their battle against relegation has not been resolved by then, but with a two-point lead at the top, Sanfrecce’s destiny remains in their own hands.
Conceding a last-minute goal to lose 2-1 to Kashiwa Reysol last month could be taken as a sign of mental weakness, but in truth Sanfrecce’s lack of championship-chasing experience makes it impossible to know how they will handle the pressure.
One thing is for sure — they will never have a better chance.
Points: 56. Goal difference +21. Remaining fixtures: Kashima Antlers (a), Albirex Niigata (h), FC Tokyo (a).
Few people expected Vegalta’s excellent early-season form to develop into a full-blown title challenge, but with three games remaining and only two points separating them from first place, no one has any doubts now.
Vegalta’s physical approach may not always be pretty, but there is skill as well as steel with playmaker Ryang Yong Gi pulling the strings and strikers Wilson and Shingo Akamine scoring the goals that were absent last season.
That could prove significant in their penultimate match against Albirex, who have one of the stingiest defensive records in the league despite sitting second from bottom in the table. Antlers and Tokyo will be no pushovers either, and Vegalta will need to get into the winning groove having drawn their previous two matches.
The Tohoku side had no such problems during the closing stages of last season, winning seven of their final 11 games to overtake Yokohama F. Marinos for fourth place. The prize of a first-ever title provides a far greater incentive this year, and Naoki Sugai’s last-gasp equalizer in last Wednesday’s 1-1 draw with Cerezo Osaka was ample evidence of Vegalta’s resolve.
Makoto Teguramori’s men have made a habit of scoring late goals, and only one other team has been able to match the 19 they have notched in the closing 15 minutes of games this season.
Unfortunately for Vegalta — and for those trying to predict a winner — that other team is Sanfrecce.
The J. League was hoping the introduction of promotion playoffs for teams finishing third to sixth would spice up the second division this season, but the real drama came with the race to go up automatically behind champions Ventforet Kofu.
Kyoto Sanga went into last Sunday’s final day in second place one point ahead of Shonan Bellmare with Oita Trinita and Yokohama FC also in contention, but when the dust had settled it was Bellmare clinching a ticket back to J1 after an absence of two years.
“The first J2 season with the playoff system has been a real free-for-all right until the end, and I told the players that to keep the possibility of us going up alive, we would need to keep winning games,” said Bellmare manager Cho Kwi Jae, whose team finished the season with three straight victories.
“But in order to do that we haven’t changed anything. I told the players to keep doing things as they had been doing all along, and they got us there in the end.”
Quotable: “It’s a relief.”
— V-Varen Nagasaki manager Toru Sano reacts to the J. League’s decision to admit his team to J2 after winning the Japan Football League and passing a league inspection.