/ |

Front four jostle for position heading into final stretch


Staff Writer

It is all but certain that the 2011 J. League champion will come from the four-team breakaway group that has formed at the top of the table, but with a quarter of the season still to play, that is about as clear as the picture gets.

Gamba Osaka opened up a three-point gap over second- and third-place Yokohama F. Marinos and Kashiwa Reysol at the weekend, with defending champions Nagoya Grampus a point behind in fourth. There was a sense of ominous foreboding around the league when Grampus went top for the first time this season last month, but defeats to Vegalta Sendai and Reysol have dented their challenge while rivals have taken advantage.

For a team so wildly prone to defensive errors, Gamba have charted a remarkably steady path since taking over from Grampus in first place. The 2005 champions had kept only two clean sheets in 22 matches before going top on Aug. 20, but they have not conceded a single goal in their three outings since and seem to be getting their act together at just the right time.

Reysol and Marinos refuse to drop out of the title picture, and both continue to offer contrasting examples of how to mount a surprise championship challenge. Reysol’s come-from-behind 2-1 win over Grampus on Saturday was typical of the Chiba side’s tenacious attacking spirit, while Marinos’ tight 1-0 triumph over Avispa Fukuoka was their 11th victory by a single-goal margin.

With all four teams still firmly in the championship mix, then, the destination of this year’s title could well come down to who blinks first. With Marinos taking on Gamba, and Grampus visiting in-form Kashima Antlers this Sunday, something has to give.

All eyes were on former Arsenal star Freddie Ljungberg as he made his debut for Shimizu S-Pulse against Jubilo Iwata on Saturday, but once again it was Cerezo Osaka veteran Ryuji Bando who stole the weekend’s headlines.

The 32-year-old came off the bench with Cerezo 3-0 down at halftime against Sanfrecce Hiroshima on Saturday, and promptly bagged a hat trick as the Osaka side ran out 5-4 winners. Incredibly, Bando achieved the same feat just three weeks earlier, notching a treble inside 11 minutes after coming on as a substitute in Cerezo’s 3-3 draw with S-Pulse.

“At 3-0 down the dressing room was pretty flat at halftime, but the manager said something and all the players changed their frame of mind, and amid that I was thinking I should play my part by getting on the scoresheet,” Bando said.

“I’ve got a fair amount of experience but I’m still young at heart, and I love playing with young players. Coming from behind to win like this is a valuable experience for them.”

The first division’s bottom three has remained unchanged since June 22, but Montedio Yamagata are not throwing the towel in yet after a 1-0 win over Urawa Reds on Sunday.

Masato Yamazaki struck in the second minute to move Montedio within eight points of safety, and manager Shinji Kobayashi is hoping to use the win as a springboard to survival with nine games still to play.

“We’ve had no games in the past two weeks, and in August we had so many matches where we just couldn’t manage to win,” Kobayashi said. “We were conceding and then having to chase the game, but the results just wouldn’t come for us. This month we want to make sure we score first.”

Saturday’s game against Kashiwa Reysol could hardly have gone worse for Nagoya Grampus manager Dragan Stojkovic, who missed the end of his team’s 2-1 defeat after being sent from the dugout for kicking a pitchside microphone in frustration at Kashiwa’s equalizer.

As far as assistant Bosko Djurovski was concerned, however, his colleague meant no disrespect.

“I didn’t see well, but the referee said that Mr. Stojkovic kicked a microphone, but I’m not sure,” said Djurovski, who unexpectedly found himself taking over Stojkovic’s post-match press conference duties.

“He was angry because they got the goal, and I’m sure he didn’t kick the microphone. Maybe he kicked the water bottle, but it was nothing against the referee. He was angry with the team because it was 1-1.”

* * *

Quotable: “All we can do is forget about today’s game.”

Kawasaki Frontale manager Naoki Soma tries to put Sunday’s 3-0 defeat to Vissel Kobe — Frontale’s eighth in a row — firmly in the past.