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Return from shutdown helps to forget World Cup woes

by Andrew Mckirdy

Staff Writer

The return of J. League action is unlikely to ease the disappointment for soccer fans still sore from Japan’s dismal World Cup showing, but a glut of goals as the league resumed in full on Saturday at least provided a welcome distraction.

Urawa Reds carried on from where they left off when the J. League entered its two-month shutdown in mid-May, beating Albirex Niigata 1-0 on Saturday to stay one point clear of Sagan Tosu at the top of the table. Reds have now kept a clean sheet in each of their last six games, equaling the all-time J. League record set by Shimizu S-Pulse in 1993 and matched by Yokohama Flugels three years later.

“In the first half we played the kind of football that we have been aiming for,” Urawa manager Mihailo Petrovic said after a 16th-minute own goal had given his side its 10th win of the season. “We play the ball out calmly from the back and then work it forward with high quality. When we lose the ball, we switch immediately toward trying to win it back.

“We really showed that we can play that way today, and the way we played in the first half was exactly the direction we want to keep heading in.”

Surprise package Sagan showed they have no intention of letting their excellent start to the season fade after beating Vissel Kobe 1-0 to stay right on Urawa’s coat tails in second. The Kyushu side may not always be the most attractive team to watch, but a league equal-best goal difference of +12 proves that Tosu is doing things right at both ends of the pitch.

“In this run of three games coming up, we’re mostly playing against teams at the top of the table, so we can’t afford to lose any of them,” said Sagan striker Yohei Toyoda, who will now turn his attention toward Wednesday’s game against third-place Kawasaki Frontale. “We’re aiming for the top, so we all knew how important it was to get three points here today.”

Frontale did their own cause no harm with a 2-0 away win over Shimizu S-Pulse to add to last Tuesday’s 2-1 win over Cerezo Osaka, while Kashima Antlers moved up to fourth after Yuto Toyokawa’s 86th-minute equalizer gave them a 1-1 draw with FC Tokyo.

The arrival of the intense summer heat makes it difficult to predict how teams will cope from now on, but at least the World Cup shutdown has given each side plenty of time to work on physical conditioning.

With the games coming thick and fast over the next few weeks, they will need all the help they can get.

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Omiya Ardija fans have had little to shout about so far this season, but the halftime appearance of new signing Dragan Mrdja in Saturday’s 3-3 draw with Sanfrecce Hiroshima offers hope for the rest of the campaign.

Serbian striker Mrdja, who arrived from Red Star Belgrade at the start of the month, replaced Takamitsu Tomiyama at the interval with Omiya 3-0 down to defending champions Sanfrecce, and the 30-year-old’s impact was nothing short of game-changing. Mrdja scored twice as Ardija fought back to claim a 3-3 draw, and the debutant was delighted with his evening’s work.

“I came on when we were 3-0 down, and at that point there wasn’t much to talk about,” said Mrdja. “When you come on for only the second half with the team 3-0 down there is still a chance, and I have to praise the team for what we managed to do. The fans didn’t stop cheering until the end, and that gave us courage so I want to thank them for that.”

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Another player making his debut on Saturday was Nagoya Grampus’ new signing Leandro Domingues, whose transfer from Kashiwa Reysol got somewhat lost in the shuffle with the nation’s attention distracted by the World Cup.

Leandro, the 2011 J. League player of the year, started in midfield for Akira Nishino’s struggling Grampus in Saturday’s game against Tokushima Vortis, but the Brazilian could do little to turn the tide as Nagoya managed only a 1-1 draw against the division’s whipping boys.

“It was my first game for Grampus but I’ve had some solid training sessions with them,” said the 30-year-old Leandro, who led Reysol to their first-ever league title in 2011. “I combined well with my teammates so it’s disappointing that we couldn’t turn that into a result. We can’t be satisfied with taking just one point at home.”

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Quotable: “I got the feeling that my midfielders and forwards were trying to be too complicated in their play.”

— New Cerezo Osaka manager Marco Pezzaiuoli gets his first taste of the J. League in Saturday’s 2-2 draw with Yokohama F. Marinos.