Yokohama F. Marinos may have one of the oldest teams in the J. League, but the three-time champions are aiming to have a vintage year after winning their first four games of the season.
Marinos beat FC Tokyo 3-2 on Saturday to stand alone as the only side with a 100 percent record, with new striker Toshihito Fujita scoring twice including a 90th-minute decider in his first league start for the club.
Fujita’s first crack at playing for one of Japan’s big teams may have come as he prepares to celebrate his 30th birthday later this month, but then passing that milestone is hardly an exception in a team laden with experience. Shunsuke Nakamura, Yuji Nakazawa and Marquinhos have seen it all before at the ages of 34, 35 and 37 respectively, while left back Dutra will turn 40 before the season is out.
Rather than use his veterans sparingly, however, Marinos manager Yasuhiro Higuchi has built his team around them. And with Marquinhos scoring five goals in the opening two games and Nakamura pulling the midfield strings as imperiously as ever, the strategy appears to be working.
“If Nakamura gets injured or he can’t play because there are too many matches, we’ll have to play a different way,” Higuchi said after Saturday’s game. “We don’t have anyone else who can do the things he does, so we’ll have to use players who can up the tempo or go with two strikers. I’ve got several variations in mind.”
Fortunately for Higuchi, he can call on youthful vigor as well as veteran guile. Forward Jin Hanato, 22, has held his own in three league starts so far, while 23-year-old Manabu Saito is a constant handful even if injury troubles have restricted him to substitute appearances.
“I thought I could use him for 10 or 15 minutes, but we were 2-1 up so there was no need to take the risk,” Higuchi said of Saito, who came off the bench in the 89th minute on Saturday. “But when we needed a third goal, that was the time to bring him on.”
How far Marinos can go, however, is still too early to say. Old legs will feel heavier as the season moves into the summer, and the way the team blew its title challenge in 2011 by losing five of its final eight games will not have been forgotten.
But for the time being, Marinos are happy to keep rolling back the years.
Sagan Tosu were one of the success stories of last season after finishing fifth in their first-ever campaign in the top flight, and the Kyushu side is showing no signs of slowing down just yet.
Saturday’s 3-3 draw with Jubilo Iwata preserved Sagan’s unbeaten start to the season with six points from four matches, with last season’s leading scorer Yohei Toyoda hitting a hat trick to jump to the top of the goal charts on six.
“The best thing would have been to win, but we were away and we got one point to take home with us,” said Toyoda, who notched 19 goals last season to finish as the league’s second-highest scorer.
“I scored three today, but that was down to the power of the whole team. I have to thank my teammates for making the chances for me. But we also gave away three goals, and we need to defend better from the front.”
Things are going from bad to worse already for Shimizu S-Pulse.
The Shizuoka side suffered its latest heavy defeat of the young season on Saturday — 4-0 at home to Sanfrecce Hiroshima — following a 5-0 pounding by Yokohama F. Marinos and a 5-1 Nabisco Cup reverse to local rivals Jubilo Iwata.
S-Pulse went into the season with one of the youngest squads in the league, but midfielder Kota Sugiyama knows he and his teammates will have to grow up fast if they want to avoid a long and difficult campaign.
“This was a game where I felt we as players just didn’t have enough,” the 28-year-old said. “It seems that when something starts to go wrong just a little bit, it sets us off on a downward spiral. We have to make sure we are mentally strong enough to prevent that from happening.”
Quotable: “I didn’t know until my teammates told me. It’s an honor to be a part of this amazing club’s history.”
— Urawa Reds forward Marcio Richardes reacts to scoring the club’s 1000th J. League goal in Saturday’s 2-0 win over Albirex Niigata.