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Marinos, Sanfrecce to play starring roles in season’s final act

by Andrew Mckirdy

The J. League title race has gone down to the wire in all but two seasons since the single-league format was introduced in 2005, so it should come as no surprise that the destination of the trophy is still undecided going into the final day of the 2013 campaign.

Yokohama F. Marinos are in pole position heading into Saturday’s fixtures, two points ahead of second-place Sanfrecce Hiroshima and knowing that a win away to Kawasaki Frontale will deliver the club its first title since 2004.

Sanfrecce will need little excuse to pounce should Marinos fail to get the job done, however, and the defending champions’ superior goal difference means they will retain the title with an away win over Kashima Antlers should Yokohama manage anything less than victory over Frontale.

Antlers’ own interest in winning a record eighth title remains alive in mathematical theory only, but there is still plenty of potential for final-day fireworks.

Three points for Marinos are by no means guaranteed against a Frontale side that has risen to fifth in the table on the back of six wins from seven games, with a place in next season’s Asian Champions League still within reach for Yahiro Kazama’s men.

Marinos looked certain to claim their fourth championship when they broke four points clear of the pack with two games remaining, but a 2-0 defeat to Albirex Niigata last weekend with the title there for the taking suggested nerves are settling in.

“With such big pressure on this one game, we knew there was a possibility things could turn out this way,” said Marinos midfielder Kosuke Nakamachi.

In Shunsuke Nakamura, Marinos have the league’s outstanding performer, but Sanfrecce have proved that last year’s championship was no fluke. Toshihiro Aoyama, Yojiro Takahagi and last season’s player of the year, Hisato Sato, have again been exceptional, and last Saturday’s 1-0 win over Shonan Bellmare was typical of a team that has consistently refused to throw in the towel.

“Marinos are still in the driving seat, but with this win we’ve given ourselves a chance,” said Sato after Saturday’s game. “If we don’t win our next game, then this means nothing.

“We’ve got less points now than we had last season, but I suppose this is the plus side to so many teams being in the title race.”

Indeed, with the J. League set to return to a two-stage system with postseason playoffs as of 2015, a dramatic end to this year’s title race would provide ample fuel for those who oppose the change. Marinos’ crowd of 62,632 for last Saturday’s game set a new regular-season record for J. League attendance, and the fact that so many teams have stayed in contention for so long has kept interest high in stadiums throughout the country.

On the other hand, should Marinos lose on Saturday but still clinch the title by virtue of Sanfrecce also losing, the sense of anticlimax will be palpable. Such a scenario is certainly conceivable, but it is unfair to judge a season’s value by one afternoon and the 2013 edition has surely been one of the better campaigns in recent years.

Having performed so well over the course of the entire season, both Marinos and Sanfrecce would be worthy champions.

Come 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, only one of them will be.