One glance at Kashima Antlers’ eight-point lead might suggest JFA president Motoaki Inukai is right to label the J. League “boring.” But even if this season’s title race is shaping up to be more one-sided than in recent years, an improvement in quality among the leading teams is a worthwhile tradeoff.
Kashima has reached the halfway point with a commanding advantage over second-place Urawa Reds, racking up 42 points from 17 matches having drawn only three and lost just once.
That record includes an unbeaten run of 15 league games, and, worryingly for the chasing pack, Oswaldo Oliveira’s men have yet to really hit top gear.
Antlers have won only four games by a margin of more than one goal, but the team’s iron will and tactical nous have been more than enough to compensate. A top-of-the-table clash with Kawasaki Frontale earlier this month, where Kashima came back from a goal down and a man sent off to draw 1-1, was typical of the champions’ resilience.
But Antlers’ dominance has been more about their own strength than any weakness on the part of their rivals.
Urawa manager Volker Finke has done an exceptional job in transforming a ragtag bunch of underachieving individuals into a genuine team, but even that has not been enough to chase Antlers down.
Kawasaki has also been playing well of late, and although the club’s traditional slow start has blunted its challenge, Takashi Sekizuka’s side is gaining momentum.
Although Gamba Osaka and Nagoya Grampus have been disappointing, there has been a generally high standard of consistency among this season’s leading teams.
That has not always been the case in recent years, and the halfway mark last season was a case in point. Reds held top spot at that stage, but the Saitama club’s tally of 32 points was two less than it has this year in second place.
Nagoya was three points behind despite having lost six times, but this year seven defeats have left Dragan Stojkovic’s men a full 20 points off the pace.
Last season, as the lead changed hands almost every other week, the feeling was one of frustrating inconsistency rather than healthy competition. This year, mistakes are being punished.
That does not bode well for Kashima’s championship rivals, but that is not to say they should give up hope just yet. Urawa had to work hard to beat Sanfrecce Hiroshima on Saturday, but when only three points from every game can stop the leaders disappearing out of sight, motivation comes easily.
Ultimately, any team that wishes to overtake Kashima will have to raise its own game rather than wait for the leaders to slip up.
An argument could be made that this Antlers side is one of the best ever to play in the J. League. The championship is not a done deal just yet, but if no one can stop Kashima from marching toward a record third straight title, it should not be taken as an indictment of the competition.
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