As another round of J. League games passes, another title contender emerges.
Gamba Osaka threw their hat into an already crowded ring with a 2-1 win over Kawasaki Frontale on Saturday, jumping into third place just one point behind Kashima Antlers in second and eight behind leaders Nagoya Grampus.
The win was Gamba’s fourth in a row, and although it is hardly the first time a team has gathered momentum to climb the table this season, the pedigree of Akira Nishino’s side deserves special attention.
Nagoya and Kashima will certainly not be taking the 2008 Asian club champions lightly, with Antlers manager Oswaldo Oliveira regularly praising Gamba’s midfield as the best in the league. But while Yasuhito Endo, Hideo Hashimoto, Takahiro Futagawa and Tomokazu Myojin have played together so long their understanding is practically telepathic, a settled strike force has continued to elude Nishino over the years.
A rotating door of foreign strikers have passed through the club, with J. League veteran Lucas one of the few constants in an ever-shifting lineup. Homegrown youngsters Shoki Hirai and Takashi Usami have made an impact this season, however, and Nishino can expect them to stick around long enough to build on their potential.
But having moved within sight of the leaders, the manager now has a more pressing short-term target. Gamba have made something of a specialty of arriving late in the title race, and a repeat of last season’s autumn form would turn the heat up on a Nagoya side unfamiliar with the pressures of first place.
That is a distinct possibility given that Gamba’s next six opponents are all languishing in the bottom half of the table. Nagoya and Kashima have substantially harder assignments over the weeks to come, and a clash between the two on Nov. 7 could present the perfect opportunity for Gamba to exploit.
First, however, they must keep on winning.
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With a new national team manager running the rule over the country’s talent, Nagoya Grampus striker Keiji Tamada picked a good time to score his first hat trick in six years.
The 30-year-old notched three second-half goals in Nagoya’s 5-1 rout of Shimizu S-Pulse on Saturday, extending his side’s lead at the top of the table to seven points and taking his personal tally to 10 for the season.
Teammate Josh Kennedy also hit two to reclaim his position as the league’s leading scorer, but Tamada is not expecting the race to turn into a private, Grampus-only battle.
“That would be the best situation, but I don’t want to be selfish in chasing it,” he said. “Today I had chances to shoot, although if there is a better option available then I’ll take into account what’s happening around me.
“But scoring goals is what I look to do. Maybe that’s a contradiction in terms.”
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After enduring a 14-match winless streak earlier in the season, Vegalta Sendai’s revival continues apace.
Last season’s second-division champions looked destined for a quick return to J2 after hitting a dry patch spanning either side of the World Cup shutdown, but four wins from the last five games have lifted the Tohoku side out of the relegation places.
Manager Makoto Teguramori insists he never lost faith in his team.
“If I’d let the team fall apart when we weren’t winning then I’d have been as well quitting,” he said. “During that time we were all together. At that time I kept telling the players that even though we weren’t winning, we were still making progress. Even when we weren’t winning we were still managing to hold our own.”
Quotable: “I think that was the first time my parents have been at a game where I’ve scored a goal.”
— Kashima Antlers striker Yuya Osako finds extra reason to celebrate his last-minute equalizer in Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Sanfrecce Hiroshima.