The 2009 J. League title race looked like it would turn into a cakewalk when Kashima Antlers stretched ahead of the pack earlier in the season, but history tells us nothing can ever be taken for granted.
The championship has gone down to the final day every year since the single-league format was introduced in 2005, and with Kawasaki Frontale now leading Antlers by a single point going into the last three games, it would take a brave man to bet against that happening again.
Gamba Osaka trail Antlers by a further three points, and while another five teams have at least a mathematical chance of winning the title, the top three are holding all the aces.
Kawasaki Frontale (58 points, +23 goal difference): Oita (a), Albirex (h), Reysol (a)
Kawasaki didn’t exactly pounce on Kashima’s mistakes when the top spot went up for grabs two months ago, but Takashi Sekizuka’s side has nonetheless managed to maneuver itself within striking distance of a first-ever title.
The deal is as good as done if Frontale can come anywhere near the kind of form they showed in the final three games of last season — three wins, 10 goals scored and none conceded — and the omens are looking good.
Kawasaki certainly has the firepower after putting seven past Sanfrecce Hiroshima, and an injury-time winner against JEF United Chiba in the last round of games suggests Sekizuka’s men are not afraid to get their hands dirty either.
That Renatinho scored a hat trick in that match shows the manager can rely on more than just Juninho and Chong Tese for goals, and playmaker Kengo Nakamura should be ready after skipping national team duty to recover from a thigh problem.
But Frontale are also stepping into uncharted territory. Leading the table at such a crucial stage brings its own particular pressure, and a string of cup final defeats suggests Kawasaki does not take well to the big occasion.
But a one-point lead, a significant goal difference and by far the easiest run-in stack all the chips in Frontale’s favor. They will never have a better chance.
Kashima Antlers (57, +15): Kyoto (a), Gamba (h), Reds (a)
Manager Oswaldo Oliveira cannot have imagined his side would find itself in this position having held a 10-point lead earlier in the season, but don’t expect Antlers to surrender their title without a fight.
Kashima looks to have steadied the ship after losing five in a row in the autumn, helped no doubt by the return from injury of influential midfielder Masashi Motoyama.
Strikers Marquinhos and Shinzo Koroki are also beginning to find the net again, while Oliveira’s canny selection policy could pay dividends over the coming weeks with bit-part players such as Yuya Osako fresh for the final push.
But perhaps Kashima’s biggest advantage is its experience in closing out a championship. Antlers took maximum points from their final three games en route to winning the title in 2007 and 2008, and know how to grind out victories when the stakes are high.
It will take more than that to make up an inferior goal difference, however, and games against Gamba and Reds will test Antlers’ mettle while Frontale close out their campaign with more gentle assignments.
Kashima faces a tough task to claim a record third straight title, but one slip from Kawasaki and it could all be over.
Gamba Osaka (54, +18): S-Pulse (a), Antlers (a), JEF (h)
Gamba have crept into the title race despite never really catching fire at any point of the season, but a big points gap and a brutal run-in suggest winning the championship could prove a step too far.
Gamba’s previous experience of losing Brazilian strikers to the Middle East meant Leandro’s summer departure to Qatar did not hurt too badly, and replacement Pedro Junior has kept things on track since arriving from Albirex Niigata.
Stalwarts Yasuhito Endo and Tomokazu Myojin have also played their part, and if Gamba maintain their momentum while rivals lose their heads, a first title since 2005 is not entirely out of the question.
But the remainder of the campaign is not quite the win-win situation it appears to be. Several teams have designs on the Asian Champions League-qualification spot Akira Nishino’s side currently occupies, and Saturday’s clash against fourth-place Shimizu S-Pulse will decide the priorities for the rest of the season.
Lose there and Gamba will be too busy trying to hold their ground to worry about the title. Win, however, and the Nov. 28 trip to Kashima Stadium could well decide the destination of the championship.