There is no prize for heading into the J. League’s World Cup shutdown in first place, but Urawa Reds can at least savor the view from the top of the table for the next two months.
Urawa beat Cerezo Osaka 1-0 on Saturday to lead the way into the May 18-July 15 break, one point ahead of second-place Sagan Tosu and five clear of Vissel Kobe and Kashima Antlers.
A racism scandal that earned the club a one-game supporter ban in March has made this season a traumatic one for Urawa, and events on the pitch have not always been smooth either. The storm that surrounded the “Japanese only” banner in the game against Tosu obscured the fact that Reds lost 1-0, while further defeats to Vissel and Kashiwa Reysol highlighted the team’s weaknesses.
Over the past few weeks, however, a new resilience has been building. Saturday’s win over Cerezo was Urawa’s fifth straight game without conceding a goal, moving the club one short of the all-time J. League consecutive clean sheets record of six and chalking up a ninth in total this season.
“Our attack starts at the back with (goalkeeper) Shusaku (Nishikawa) and us defenders, and our defense starts at the front with the three forwards,” said defender Ryota Moriwaki. “If that functions well then the team plays well.
“When we are building the attack, (defensive midfielder Yuki) Abe drops in to make a back four, and when we’re defending, the front three work hard to make it easy for us to win the ball back and defend.”
But Urawa’s recent success has been built on more than just solid functionality. Midfielder Yosuke Kashiwagi has flourished in a more advanced attacking position in recent months, scoring one and setting up the other six of Urawa’s last seven goals.
“Being involved in all the goals has been huge for me,” said Kashiwagi. “It’s evidence that I’m playing well. When all your passes lead to goals, it’s a big deal.”
But while Reds are guaranteed to top the table until at least July 19, there is still a long way to go. The World Cup break comes with only 14 games of the 34 played, and Abe knows nothing has been achieved yet.
“It’s good that we’ve picked up the points so far, but we’ve only played 14 games,” he said. “Whether or not we can keep picking up points from here is what’s important.”
* * *
If Ventforet Kofu thought their scoring touch had gone for good heading into Saturday’s game against Kashiwa Reysol, a shock 3-0 win was just what the doctor ordered.
Ventforet took on Kashiwa having failed to score a single goal in their previous four matches, but strikes from Kohei Morita, Cristiano and Koki Mizuno ended the drought in emphatic fashion as the Yamanashi side picked up its fourth win of the season.
“Our position in the table right now is not so important, but the truth is we’re always standing on the brink wherever we play in J1,” said manager Hiroshi Jofuku.
“Even if we haven’t been playing badly and we’ve been shooting more than the other teams recently, we really wanted to make sure we overcame our problem of not being able to get the points. We really wanted to get a result today.”
* * *
Spectacular volleys are not really Yokohama F. Marinos defender Yuji Nakazawa’s usual style, but the 187-cm center back delivered a beauty in Sunday’s 3-0 win over Kawasaki Frontale.
With teammate Shunsuke Nakamura preparing to take a corner in the 88th minute, Nakazawa advanced to a position on the edge of the Frontale penalty area. What came next stunned the entire 19,668 crowd at Todoroki Stadium, as Nakazawa connected first time with Nakamura’s cross to drill the ball into the back of the net.
“(Frontale striker) Yoshito (Okubo) wasn’t in the right place to launch a counterattack, so I carefully took up my position” said Nakazawa. “Once I was in a place where I could get back to deal with a counterattack, the ball came to me and I hit it with everything I had.”
* * *
Quotable: “To be honest, I didn’t think we would start like that.”
— FC Tokyo manager Massimo Ficcadenti catches his breath after watching his team score two goals in the first three minutes of Saturday’s 3-0 win over Gamba Osaka.