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Marinos look to hold on after scratching five-year itch


Staff Writer

The J. League has a new leader, and after more than five years away from the summit, Yokohama F. Marinos are not likely to give up first place without a fight.

Kazushi Kimura’s side took advantage of previous pace-setters Kashiwa Reysol’s 3-2 defeat at Kawasaki Frontale on Saturday, drawing 1-1 with Omiya Ardija a day later to go top for the first time since March 21, 2006.

Marinos looked to have slipped off the pace slightly after a barnstorming start to the season, but a run of five straight runs put them right back in contention and not even a 74th-minute equalizer for Omiya could prevent a changing of the guard.

“I want us to keep this position until the end of the season,” said Kimura, but he will have to make sure his team shows more consistency than previous leader Kashiwa has in recent weeks. The Chiba side has found its impressive victories punctuated more and more frequently by heavy defeats, with four or five goals in the against column becoming an increasingly common sight.

But bumps along the road were inevitable for Kashiwa in its first season back in the top flight, and Marinos cannot expect to be thought of as the finished article either. Kimura’s side is in foreign territory leading the table at the halfway point of the season, and despite the presence of old heads like Shunsuke Nakamura and Yuji Nakazawa, title-winning experience is in very short supply.

The same cannot be said of champions Nagoya Grampus, now only four points off the top with a game in hand, or 2005 winners Gamba Osaka, who can jump into first place with two wins from their matches still to play. Reysol are unlikely to slink back down the table just because their leadership has ended, and Kawasaki Frontale can also consider themselves firmly in the mix level on 30 points with Grampus.

If Marinos want to win their first title since 2004, they will certainly have competition.

History is likely to remember Teruyoshi Ito as the player who scored Japan’s goal in the 1-0 win over Brazil at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, but there has been much more to the Ventforet Kofu midfielder’s career than that.

Ito became the first player to reach 500 J. League first-division appearances as Kofu beat Gamba Osaka 4-3 on Saturday, and the 36-year-old was quick to pay tribute to opposing manager — and former Olympic team boss — Akira Nishino.

“The supporters made it a really good atmosphere today,” said Ito. “It gave me more power to do well, and it’s nice that we were able to celebrate the occasion by winning.

“I had actually forgotten that the team I made my debut against was Gamba. It was Nishino who turned me into a defensive midfielder when he was manager of the Olympic team, and without him helping me to improve I don’t think I would still be around now.”

Also reaching a milestone at the weekend was Cerezo Osaka’s Brazilian manager Levir Culpi, who set a new J. League appearance record for foreign managers by taking charge of his 210th game against Vissel Kobe on Saturday.

Unfortunately for Culpi, a 4-1 defeat left him with little to celebrate come the end of the day.

“One minute before today’s game I was told that I had set a new record for foreign managers, and it really made my day,” said Culpi, who led Cerezo for one season in 1997 and has been in the dugout ever since returning to the club in 2007. “Unfortunately at the end of the game I am left with a lot of painful emotions. As far as the team’s performance is concerned, the score tells you everything you need to know.”

It is no surprise that Shimizu S-Pulse have taken time to hit their stride after undergoing wholesale personnel changes over the winter, but the Shizuoka side is certainly beginning to make up for lost time now.

S-Pulse moved into sixth after a 2-1 come-from-behind victory over Albirex Niigata on Saturday, with striker Naohiro Takahara predicting even better days ahead after his 90th-minute winner at Outsourcing Stadium.

“We weren’t in the best physical condition, but this was a home game that we had to win, so to be able to come from behind and do it was great,” said Takahara. “I think this is an important victory for the team. We’re improving all the time, so it’s important for our growth to win difficult games like this. I think the fact that we were able to do that proves how far we’ve come.”

Quotable: “I don’t think this result has anything to do with Usami not being here.”

Gamba Osaka midfielder Yasuhito Endo faces up to life without former teammate and new Bayern Munich signing Takashi Usami after Saturday’s 4-3 defeat to Ventforet Kofu.