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Usual suspects top the table early

by Andrew Mckirdy

Staff Writer

The new J. League season is just two weeks old, but already there is a familiar look about the top of the table.

Of the four teams that have taken maximum points from their opening two games, three finished in the top five last year. Champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima, runnerup Yokohama F. Marinos and fifth-place Kashima Antlers have picked up from where they left off last season, with surprise package Sagan Tosu joining their more celebrated colleagues on six points.

For the rest of the league, Sanfrecce’s two wins should sound an ominous warning shot. The champions could hardly have had a more difficult opening-day assignment than an away trip to a Cerezo Osaka side pumped up by Diego Forlan’s debut, but Sanfrecce handled the occasion with the minimum of fuss to run out 1-0 winners.

A 95th-minute Tsukasa Shiotani free kick then saw off Kawasaki Frontale for a second victory last Saturday, but Hiroshima’s impressive resolve has been matched so far by the team it pipped for the title last season.

Marinos could easily have let the hangover of blowing a four-point lead with two games to go last year carry over into the new campaign, but opening wins over Omiya Ardija and Shimizu S-Pulse suggest Yasuhiro Higuchi’s side is made of sterner stuff.

“We’ve built a strong base and we were able to show that today, especially in attack where we created a lot of chances,” said Higuchi after Saturday’s 1-0 win over S-Pulse.

Antlers have also started in fine attacking style, with six goals in two games suggesting the seven-time champions may not feel the offseason departure of striker Yuya Osako as keenly as first thought.

Davi and Yasushi Endo have filled the breach admirably with five goals between them, and Tosu also has a prolific scorer of its own in Yohei Toyoda, whose three goals so far included the winner in Saturday’s 1-0 victory over Urawa Reds.

“I always want to score in every game,” said Toyoda, who came on as a second-half substitute in Japan’s friendly against New Zealand last week. “We’re not a team that creates a lot of chances, so it’s my job to score when they come.”

Toyoda and his Tosu teammates are certainly doing a good job of that so far.

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Forlan is still waiting to score his first J. League goal since joining Cerezo Osaka, but the Uruguayan forward believes he is now ready to make his mark.

Forlan started on the bench for Cerezo’s 2-0 win over Tokushima Vortis on Saturday after playing the first half of Uruguay’s 1-1 draw away to Austria three days previously, coming on in the 64th minute in Tokushima after two first-half goals had all but wrapped up Cerezo’s victory.

Forlan also failed to find the net in Cerezo’s opening-day loss to Sanfrecce Hiroshima, but the 34-year-old is confident that the instincts that made him a two-time winner of the European Golden Shoe remain as sharp as ever.

“I played with the fact that we were leading in mind,” said Forlan. “I had had a long journey but I wasn’t tired, and I felt good on the pitch. It was important to shoot and play the kind of game that I’m known for. I’m combining with the other players better every day, and now I think I’m ready to show what I can do.”

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Gamba Osaka’s return to the top flight after a year’s absence did not get off to the best start with an opening-day loss to Urawa Reds, but the 2005 champions are now up and running after beating Albirex Niigata 2-0 on Saturday.

Second-half goals from Keisuke Iwashita and Kotaro Omori sealed the three points for Gamba at Niigata’s Big Swan Stadium, leaving midfielder Yasuhito Endo happy that his side’s defensive discipline had paid off.

“We expected them to come at us in the first half,” said Endo. “They have a lot of energy and this is always a difficult place to come to. The fact that we kept our concentration and saw out the first half without conceding paid off after the break.

“We all wanted to get our first win as quickly as we could, but that doesn’t mean we can now relax.”

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Quotable: “When you score first and then your opponent equalizes, your attitude at that moment is crucial.”

— New FC Tokyo manager Massimo Ficcadenti reflects on his side throwing away a lead for the second week in a row after Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Ventforet Kofu.