League leaders Sanfrecce Hiroshima went into last weekend’s game against Urawa Reds with a real chance to pull clear of the chasing pack, but after crashing to a 3-1 defeat at Saitama Stadium, the top of the table now looks more congested than ever.
A mixed sequence of results for the leading sides means Sanfrecce’s three-point cushion has now been reduced to one ahead of second-place Yokohama F. Marinos, with Urawa a point further behind in third. Omiya Ardija had the opportunity to reclaim first place with a big win over Kashima Antlers, but instead the struggling Saitama side slumped to a fourth straight defeat and now trails local rival Urawa by a point in fourth.
“If we had lost then we would have fallen eight points out of first place, but now the gap is only two,” said Urawa striker Shinzo Koroki, who scored twice in the win. “Now we have the chance to move top of the league.”
Of the four sides leading the way, Sanfrecce remain the team to beat. The defending champions went into Saturday’s game on the back of eight wins and one draw from their previous nine fixtures, and one defeat is unlikely to faze a team currently displaying all the confidence and maturity it gained from last year’s title-winning experience.
Marinos have also struck a rich vein of form, winning three of their last four games to confound the critics who expected the summer heat to take a heavy toll on one of the league’s oldest teams.
“The players don’t really feel their age because we keep them in top condition,” said manager Yasuhiro Higuchi after Saturday’s 2-1 win over Shonan Bellmare. “With the games coming so close together in this heat, you just have to keep a very close eye on their fitness.”
Reds seem to have recovered from a damaging July, but Ardija now find themselves in free-fall having set a new league record for consecutive unbeaten games at 21 earlier in the season.
“We’re just not getting the results at the moment,” said defender Kosuke Kikuchi after Omiya’s 1-0 defeat to Antlers. “You have ups and downs over a long season. Now we have to stay united and go forward.”
If Saturday’s results are anything to go by, Ardija’s chance will surely come again.
Nagoya Grampus looked set for a grim future when they headed into the May 29-July 6 league shutdown on the back of five straight defeats, but results since then suggest the 2010 champions used their time off wisely.
Saturday’s 3-2 victory over Jubilo Iwata made it four wins in a row for Dragan Stojkovic’s side, and although Nagoya’s current league position of 11th illustrates how much work still needs to be done, striker Keiji Tamada believes the team is heading in the right direction.
“My goal came as a result of good passing and teamwork,” said Tamada, who scored against Jubilo to take his tally for the season to seven. “I’m more interested in the fact that the team has won four in a row than the fact that I scored. Whether the team wins or not is the important thing.
“We’re defending well, and when you do that, inevitably you improve going forward too.”
Ventforet Kofu made a confident start to their first season back in the top flight after winning J2 last year, but a run of eight straight defeats heading into Saturday’s game against Cerezo Osaka saw the Yamanashi side in serious trouble.
Ventforet had slipped into the relegation zone for the first time this season having failed to pick up a single point since May 6, but a 1-0 win over Cerezo courtesy of Akito Kawamoto’s 66th-minute goal stopped the rot and allowed manager Hiroshi Jofuku some pause for thought.
“First I want to dedicate this win to the fans who sang our name after our previous game, which was our eighth defeat in a row,” said Jofuku. “We have been stuck in a long, dark tunnel, but looking at our performances and the way the players have worked together, I would say those results haven’t been fair.
“We still have a lot of things to work on, but for the time being, to play against an excellent attacking team like Cerezo, not concede any goals and come away with three points is something to celebrate.”
Quotable: “It’s still not enough.”
— Kashiwa Reysol striker Masato Kudo reflects on his goal tally of 12 for the season after scoring a brace in Saturday’s 2-1 win over Sagan Tosu.