On the surface, Jubilo Iwata’s relegation to the second division may appear shocking, but in reality the former J. League powerhouse’s demotion has looked inevitable all season.
Jubilo, the club of Dunga, Masashi Nakayama, Toshiya Fujita and a host of other J. League greats, slipped through the trapdoor for the first time in their history on Sunday, losing 1-0 to Sagan Tosu to leave the club 14 points adrift of safety with three games remaining.
In truth, Jubilo’s form has been wretched all year. The Shizuoka side has spent only four weeks outside the relegation zone, registered three wins from 31 games, and rarely looked capable of mustering the fight to catch mediocre sides above them who have avoided demotion only because of the incompetence of the teams in the bottom three.
Jubilo seemed to have chosen wisely in appointing manager Takashi Sekizuka to replace Hitoshi Morishita when the latter resigned in early May, but the 53-year-old has been incapable of overseeing a change in fortunes.
“I think there are more than just one or two reasons (for us going down), but in my time here we haven’t been able to see wins through to the end,” said Sekizuka, Japan’s manager at last year’s London Olympics. “That means we haven’t been able to pile up the points. That’s the reality of it.
“Whether it was the tactics or the mental side of it, we just haven’t been able to get on a run.”
Nineteen of Jubilo’s 51 goals conceded have come in the final 15 minutes of games, with recent late defeats to Shimizu S-Pulse and Kawasaki Frontale typical of the team’s inability to see out a result.
But the team’s pallid performances have also been puzzling given the quality of the players at Sekizuka’s disposal. A good blend of youth and experience, including seasoned internationals Ryoichi Maeda and Yuichi Komano as well as promising youngsters like Hiroki Yamada, should have been capable of making an impact.
Instead, Jubilo find themselves joining FC Tokyo and Gamba Osaka in the recent annals of big clubs going down against the odds.
“We just have to accept the situation and move on,” said Yamada. “We have to make sure the humiliation and pain stay tattooed on our chests. Everyone connected with this club needs to sit down and think about the best way forward.”
Tokyo and Gamba both bounced back the following season. For Jubilo to do the same now depends on how they react.
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Yokohama F. Marinos’ 2-1 loss to Nagoya Grampus in the absence of Shunsuke Nakamura on Sunday suggests the league leaders can ill-afford to lose their star player for much longer.
Nakamura missed the game due to a gallbladder inflammation — his first absence of the season — and with the club one point clear at the top of the table with only three games to go, Marinos will be hoping their 35-year-old talisman returns as expected for their Emperor’s Cup tie against AC Nagano Parceiro on Nov. 20.
“I think the biggest regret from this game is that even though Shun wasn’t playing, we played the same way we do when he is there,” Marinos defender Yuji Nakazawa said after Sunday’s game.
“Machi (Kosuke Nakamachi) played behind the striker and we also had Ogu (Shohei Ogura), but even though the players had changed, we still played as if Shun was there. I think that’s what allowed Nagoya to dictate the pace of the game.”
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Kashima Antlers have remained on the fringes of the title race for most of the season, but the seven-time champions are now firmly in contention after a dramatic 2-1 win over Shonan Bellmare on Sunday.
Kashima’s challenge looked to be at an end when Bellmare’s Wataru Endo canceled out Mitsuo Ogasawara’s opener with an equalizer in the 91st minute, only for Yuya Osako to salvage all three points with the winner a minute later to put fourth-place Antlers three points behind league leaders Yokohama F. Marinos.
“We wanted to score a second goal quickly, but then our opponents went down to 10 men and I think we let our guard down slightly,” said Osako, who took his scoring tally to 18 league goals.
“We want to win the league, and we just have to keep working hard so that we can win the games we have left. It would be good if we can look back on this game after we’ve won the title and see how important these three points were.”
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Quotable: “I usually place my penalties, but I saw the goalkeeper move first so I had the confidence to blast it down the middle.”
— Kawasaki Frontale striker Yoshito Okubo takes his league-high goal-scoring tally to 24 with a brace in Sunday’s 2-0 win over Shimizu S-Pulse.