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Early leaders stake claim as J. League settles into stride


Staff Writer

It may be five weeks behind schedule, but finally the J. League season is beginning to hit its stride.

A flurry of action over Golden Week means every team barring those involved in the Asian Champions League has now played five games, with Kashiwa Reysol topping the table on 12 points ahead of Yokohama F. Marinos and Vegalta Sendai on 11.

The continental commitments of ACL quartet Nagoya Grampus, Gamba Osaka, Cerezo Osaka and Kashima Antlers have undoubtedly skewed the picture, but that should take nothing away from the leading trio’s impressive start to the campaign.

Kashiwa, last season’s second-division champion, is the only team currently in the top five to have tasted defeat, but the Chiba side has more than made up for that with four wins, the most recent a comprehensive 3-1 drubbing of Urawa Reds on Saturday.

“After about 70 minutes my legs were starting to go and I thought I would be substituted, but I stuck it out. Because of that I scored another one,” said two-goal striker Hideaki Kitajima after the game. But if that suggests a team simply riding the wave of last season’s promotion, there is more to Reysol than just momentum.

The same goes for Vegalta, who have responded to the March 11 earthquake and tsunami with three wins and a draw, but have shown enough quality through the likes of Yoshiaki Ota, Kunimitsu Sekiguchi and Ryang Yong Gi to suggest a genuinely talented team rather than a bubble about to burst.

Yokohama’s rise has been more about methodical defense than visceral attacking, but there was nothing restrained about Saturday’s come-from-behind 3-2 win over Avispa Fukuoka. Marinos have a long way to go before they can be considered title contenders, but snatching victory from a game they would probably have lost in recent seasons bodes well all the same.

It may be early days, but the top three are looking good value for their lead.

Jubilo Iwata striker Ryoichi Maeda had to wait until Saturday’s game against Montedio Yamagata to notch his first goal of the season, but last year’s joint-top scorer certainly made the most of it when it came.

Maeda needed just two minutes to get off the mark at Yamaha Stadium, opening the floodgates for a 4-0 rout in which the 29-year-old helped himself to a brace along with goals for strike partner Ryohei Yamazaki and midfielder Hiroki Yamada.

“The first goal took the legs out of the Yamagata players,” said Jubilo manager Masaaki Yanagishita. “It was good for our team and good for Maeda to get his first of the season, especially as he made it himself. I got the feeling that the first goal was very important today.”

Teenage striker Yuji Ono grabbed the spotlight with two goals to help Yokohama F. Marinos turn a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 win over Avispa Fukuoka on Saturday. Yoshiyuki Shinoda’s beaten side, on the other hand, is beginning to attract attention of a different kind.

The defeat was Avispa’s fifth in five games, and the second time the Kyushu side has thrown away a lead following an earlier 2-1 reverse at home to Kashima Antlers.

Teams promoted via third place in J2 have hardly covered themselves in glory in recent years, and Shinoda knows Avispa will not change that trend if they continue to let opponents off the hook.

“The first goal we conceded in the second half was everything,” he said. “At 2-0 up, the next goal is crucial. We had chances to score a third and if we had done that then we would have gone on to win. But this game is over now. We have to start preparing for the next one.”

Dark clouds looked to be gathering over Shimizu S-Pulse ahead of the new campaign, with the departure of practically the entire first team suggesting a struggle ahead for last season’s Emperor’s Cup runnerup.

But if a 3-0 opening-day thumping at Kashiwa Reysol appeared to confirm those suspicions, subsequent performances have offered cautious signs of a brighter future.

Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Nagoya Grampus gives S-Pulse one win, two draws and two defeats from their opening five fixtures, but although improvement has been steady, no one is getting ahead of themselves just yet.

“We are growing in confidence but if you don’t win then you can’t feel good, and no one here is satisfied at the moment,” said goalkeeper Kaito Yamamoto. “So with that in mind we’ve got our eyes forward and we’re looking for a win. You can feel the hunger for a win.”

Quotable: “It’s embarrassing that I couldn’t add a flower to the occasion.”

– Nagoya Grampus goalkeeper Seigo Narazaki rues the error that gifted Shimizu S-Pulse an equalizer on his 450th appearance in J1.