The J. League first division returns from its six-week international break this Saturday, but beneath the top flight the race for promotion is in full swing with the second division reaching its halfway point last Saturday.
Going into Wednesday night’s fixtures, Gamba Osaka led the way on 46 points with Vissel Kobe two further back in second, and the Kansai duo’s chances of returning to J1 after only a year’s absence look strong given the eight-point gap separating them from third-place V-Varen Nagasaki outside the automatic promotion spots.
Gamba began their first-ever season in the second tier with five draws from their opening seven matches, raising questions over their ability to adjust despite retaining national team regulars Yasuhito Endo and Yasyuki Konno from the team that suffered a shock relegation last year. The former Asian champions have since found their feet in style, however, shrugging off the temporary absence of Endo and Konno on international duty to top the table with — uncharacteristically for Gamba — the division’s best defensive record.
“That we have cleared our target of 45 points at the halfway stage is down to the efforts of the players,” said manager Kenta Hasegawa, who is in his first season in charge. “They have shown what they are made of in the time that our national team players have been away.”
Unfortunately for Gamba’s rivals, it is not just Endo and Konno who are returning. Former prodigy Takashi Usami is back at the club after a frustrating two-year spell in Germany with Bayern Munich and Hoffenheim, and with the 21-year-old cleared to play as of July 19, Vissel could be first in the firing line when the two teams meet a day later.
Vissel will fear no one after making a confident start to life in J2, however, with Ryo Adachi’s side winning eight of its first 10 games to stake an early lead. Kobe has a point to prove after imploding spectacularly with a star-studded squad in J1 last season, and Adachi is not about to let complacency creep in.
“We have to make sure we see wins through right to the end,” the manager said after Saturday’s 2-1 victory over Roasso Kumamoto. “From now on there will be a lot more tight games, so we have to get as many points on the board as we can.”
At the halfway point of the season, promotion is Gamba and Vissel’s to lose.
V-Varen Nagasaki have undoubtedly been the biggest story in J2 this season, coming up from the Japan Football League to take the division by storm and put themselves in with a real chance of back-to-back promotions.
V-Varen ended the first half of the season in third place, eight points behind second-place Vissel Kobe, and manager Takuya Takagi has had little time to pause for thought in his first season in charge.
“It feels like it’s all gone so quickly,” Takagi said after Saturday’s 0-0 draw with Avispa Fukuoka. “In preseason we had to get up to speed tactically and find players to fit this level, then the games started and we got to the positive position we are in now.
“Now we have to play against everyone for a second time, and there are a lot of teams who we will struggle against this time round. Of course we have to keep doing what we’ve been doing. But we also have to change a little too.”
One team hoping to go a step further this season will be JEF United Chiba, who came within four minutes of promotion last year before losing the playoff final to Oita Trinita.
JEF sat in fifth place in the table on 35 points at the halfway point after beating Tokyo Verdy 2-1 on Saturday, putting the Chiba side in contention for a return to the top flight for the first time since 2009.
Manager Jun Suzuki has prior J2 experience having led Montedio Yamagata in 2004 and 2005, and the 51-year-old has been impressed by what he has found on his return after stints in the first division with Albirex Niigata and Omiya Ardija.
“Japanese football has really developed,” Suzuki said after Saturday’s match. “Before there was a big gap between the top and the bottom teams (in J2), but even though the number of teams has increased, no team will let you win easily. You can’t afford to slack off against anyone.”
Quotable: “I’ve scored goals in injury time before, but never as late as this.”
— Yokohama FC forward Tetsuya Okubo reflects on his 96th-minute winner in Saturday’s 1-0 victory over Matsumoto Yamaga.