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Last season’s top four struggle to juggle commitments


Staff Writer

Asian Champions League commitments have undoubtedly played a big part, but last season’s top four J. League teams were surely expecting a better start to the domestic campaign.

While the rest of the league has played seven matches, involvement in the ACL means champions Nagoya Grampus and Cerezo Osaka have only six games under their belts while Gamba Osaka and Kashima Antlers have played five. Current league positions are misleading as a result, but the fact that Gamba is the only one of those four teams in the top half of the table is significant nevertheless.

Grampus, Antlers and Cerezo have managed just two wins between them from a combined 17 games, with only second-from-bottom Montedio Yamagata scoring fewer goals than Nagoya’s current tally of five.

Traveling around the continent for a tight ACL schedule has led to tiredness and injuries, with the way that Urawa Reds gave Antlers the runaround in the second half of Saturday’s 2-2 draw at Saitama Stadium a case in point.

“In the second half we didn’t intend to change anything, but we lost our momentum,” said Kashima midfielder Chikashi Masuda. But the ACL alone cannot be blamed for the big guns’ malaise.

Nagoya has looked flat and unimaginative, Antlers have struggled to compensate for the offseason departure of striker Marquinhos, and Cerezo’s five draws from six games are beginning to make last season’s third-place finish look nothing more than a flash in the pan. As a result, Gamba’s plain sailing — four wins and only one defeat so far — only highlights their rivals’ shortcomings further.

There is still time for Grampus, Antlers and Cerezo to put together a title challenge, but the rest of the league will not wait around forever.

The drunk-driving arrest and subsequent sacking of striker Lee Jae Min was hardly ideal preparation for Vissel Kobe’s game against Sanfrecce Hiroshima on Saturday, but the Kansai club’s impressive start to the season continued regardless.

A 1-0 win moved Masahiro Wada’s side up to fourth in the table, ending a difficult week and extending a remarkable turnaround for a team that escaped relegation by the skin of its teeth on the final day of last season.

“First of all I’d like to apologize for the trouble caused to the sponsors, fans and everyone else concerned as a result of Lee Jae Min’s drunk-driving offense,” Wada said. “With regards to this game, our week began with that, but coming off the back of two straight wins made us able to sharpen the focus in training.”

Urawa Reds attacker Mazzolla certainly had an eventful afternoon against Kashima Antlers on Saturday.

The Brazilian, who joined Reds on loan from Sao Paulo at the start of the season, entered the game as a halftime substitute with his team 1-0 down and scored Urawa’s equalizer as the hosts fought back to claim a 2-2 draw.

A red card in the dying minutes completed a whirlwind cameo by the 22-year-old, but with the misfiring Saitama side languishing in 16th place, Reds fans will have appreciated the effort.

“I really wanted to give everything I had for the team,” Mazzolla said. “I’m happy that we were giving it our all together. We have to prove that Urawa is a team that deserves to move up the table and challenge for the title, and we all have to work to get ourselves out of this situation.”

Coming back to earth with a bump last weekend was Ventforet Kofu, which followed up a 3-1 home win over champions Nagoya Grampus with a 4-0 away defeat to Yokohama F. Marinos.

Hiroyuki Taniguchi and Kazuma Watanabe set the tone with two goals for Kazushi Kimura’s high-flying Marinos inside the first 17 minutes, and Masashi Oguro compounded Kofu’s misery with two more to make it 4-0 by halftime.

“As you saw, the game was decided in the first half,” said Ventforet manager Toshiya Miura. “We let their strikers show their quality by allowing them into one-on-one situations.

“We kept the second half to 0-0, but they weren’t taking any risks and only went looking for more goals on the counter. We can’t really take any positives out of today.”

Quotable: “Everyone is on the same page, and I think that’s very important.” — Jubilo Iwata striker Ryoichi Maeda explains the secret of his team’s success after hitting 11 goals in its last three matches.