There is still plenty of life left in the J. League title race, but after opening up a four-point gap at the top of the table last weekend, Yokohama F. Marinos have taken a bold step toward their first championship in nine years.
Marinos came through a bruising encounter to beat Shimizu S-Pulse 1-0 on Saturday, with Shunsuke Nakamura’s 4th-minute goal enough to put distance between the front-runners and nearest challengers Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Urawa Reds with eight games remaining.
Marinos have not always looked convincing leaders this season, with mistakes by the chasing pack often going unpunished. But there was no such mercy on Saturday, with Yasuhiro Higuchi’s men picking up their first win in three games to capitalize on Urawa dropping two points in a 1-1 draw with Ventforet Kofu earlier in the day.
“We went into this game with a clear target and the courage and absolute desire to win,” said Marinos striker Marquinhos. “Our collective desire to win is what brought us this result.”
Desire alone is not enough to win a championship, of course, but in Nakamura, Marinos have a player with the quality to make the difference. The former Celtic playmaker may be 35 years old, but his technique, vision and willingness to take responsibility show no signs of fading.
“I think Shunsuke covered more distance than anyone else on the team tonight,” said Higuchi. “Especially at the start of the first half, when he was harrying the defenders from the front.”
Nakamura equaled his J. League season-best scoring record with his ninth goal of the campaign, and the fact that the team has already scored one more than it managed over the whole of last season proves others are following his example. Marquinhos is riding high in the scoring chart with 16 goals, and even 40-year-old left back Dutra got in on the action in a recent 1-1 draw with Cerezo Osaka.
Much has been made of the advanced age of Marinos’ lineup, but with only eight games left to play, the finish line is almost in sight. A home clash with Sanfrecce awaits before then, however, and with the defending champions looking dangerous in a 2-0 win over Albirex Niigata on Saturday, the Oct. 19 showdown at Nissan Stadium will undoubtedly go a long way toward deciding the title.
For the time being, the advantage remains with Marinos.
FC Tokyo’s season looked to be heading in the wrong direction just a matter of weeks ago, but three consecutive wins have put the capital-city club right back in contention to end the campaign on a high.
Tokyo beat Nagoya Grampus 2-0 on Saturday to finish the weekend sixth in the table, and with Asian Champions League places up for grabs and even league leaders Yokohama F. Marinos not completely out of sight 10 points ahead, Ranko Popovic’s side still has plenty to play for.
“The team is moving well now,” said defender Masato Morishige after Saturday’s win, secured by goals from Ariajasuru Hasegawa and Nemanja Vucicevic. “We’re defending as a team and everyone is linking up well in attack, not just passing but dribbling as well.
“All the players are doing lots of things well individually, and when you put that together as a team, it’s very effective. I think we’re in a good situation right now.”
Top-flight survival was always going to be a tall order for Oita Trinita after coming up through the playoffs as the second division’s sixth-best team last season, and a 2-1 loss to Shonan Bellmare last Saturday means the Kyushu side’s return ticket to J2 could be punched this weekend.
A loss for Trinita away to Kashima Antlers on Saturday coupled with a win for fourth-from-bottom Ventforet Kofu at Shimizu S-Pulse would seal Oita’s fate, matching Consadole Sapporo’s unwanted record last season for the fastest-ever J. League relegation with seven games left to play.
“You can tell the players not to pay any attention to it, but I’m sure they will feel the pressure,” said Oita manager Kazuaki Tasaka after Saturday’s loss to third-from-bottom Bellmare. “But they still have to go out there and play the game.
“We’ll be looking to show what we can do on the pitch as always, but we have to be more conscious of getting the points than before. We have to focus and get the points we need.”
Quotable: “We conceded three goals and then got two back, but we switched the engine on too late.”
— Jubilo Iwata defender Yuichi Komano rues his team’s slow start to Saturday’s 3-2 defeat to Kashima Antlers.