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Level playing field keeps Grampus’ feet on ground


Nagoya Grampus opened up a seven-point gap at the top of the J. League last weekend, but manager Dragan Stojkovic has been around the Japanese game far too long to start celebrating yet.

Grampus beat Montedio Yamagata 1-0 on Sunday to stretch their legs at the top with 12 games remaining, and having won their last three matches, the chances of a first title for the league’s great underachiever are looking good.

If only things were so simple. In the five full seasons since the J. League switched to the single league format, the title has been decided on the final day each year. Commanding leads have been squandered with shocking regularity, with Urawa Reds’ scarcely believable 2007 meltdown the most memorable — but not the only — example.

The leading teams’ failure to assert their authority can be a frustrating theme in the J. League, but it can also be its biggest selling point. At a time when the heavyweight leagues of England, Spain and Italy bemoan the lack of serious competition, the J. League continues to thrive on its open unpredictability.

That will be of little interest to Stojkovic as he attempts to steer his side to the title. Nagoya has spent big over the Serbian’s three years in charge, and the club is looking to reap its reward this December.

There is certainly enough evidence to suggest it could happen, with Grampus regularly negotiating the kind of tricky assignment thrown up by Sunday’s trip to Yamagata. Stojkovic is making good use of his extensive squad, and games are being won in an effective, if not necessarily flamboyant, fashion.

But just because Grampus beat FC Tokyo, Urawa Reds and Gamba Osaka last month, that is not to say the hard work has all been done. This weekend sees the arrival of in-form Yokohama F. Marinos, and Stojkovic’s side will again be tested by a team that has climbed into sixth after winning its last three games.

Grampus may yet claim the title, but the J. League’s level playing field means nothing can be taken for granted.

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The league’s schedulers obviously thought mid-September would be a safe enough time to return to afternoon kickoffs. The weather had other ideas.

Sweltering conditions made life tough for the unlucky teams drawn to play in the early matches last weekend after 1 1/2 months of exclusively night matches, with temperatures reaching almost 34 degrees at Omiya’s Nack5 Stadium.

Yokohama F. Marinos beat Kawasaki Frontale in a game that kicked off at 4 p.m., and Frontale found a sympathetic ear in Marinos manager Kazushi Kimura.

“We started by letting in an early goal, but as the game went on it became clear that Frontale were tired,” he said. “I felt sorry for them, but that’s what happens when you have consecutive games in heat like this.

“I don’t know why it was a 4 p.m. kickoff in this heat, but you just have to get on with it. I feel sorry for the players.”

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His team may be at the wrong end of the table, but there were few happier men on Saturday than Kyoto Sanga manager Yutaka Akita.

Sanga’s 3-0 demolition of Vissel Kobe gave Akita his first league win since replacing Hisashi Kato in late July, and lifted his side off the bottom for the first time since May.

Sanga’s slump started long before Akita took over — March 27 was the last time the club managed to pick up all three points — and the relief at Nishikyogoku Stadium was palpable.

“The thing that has saved me from negative thoughts is seeing the players give it their all in training even though we weren’t winning games,” Akita said. “If you plant a lot of seeds then flowers will bloom, even if it is only one at a time.

“It’s been a long and very painful road for the players, but the longer that feeling lasts the better it feels when you finally win. Everyone felt that today.”

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Quotable: “My goal is to become a player whose name goes down in the history of Omiya Ardija. Thanks to the Omiya shirt, I’m a bundle of excitement at the moment.”

— Brazilian striker Rafael savors his time on the pitch after missing the first half of the season through injury.