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Slow and steady rise gives Sanfrecce upper hand in title race


Staff Writer

There will be many more twists and turns before this season’s J. League title is won, but after opening up a four-point gap at the top of the table, the balance of power is steadily shifting Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s way.

A 2-0 win over Albirex Niigata coupled with a scoreless draw between nearest challengers Vegalta Sendai and Kashiwa Reysol on Saturday allowed Sanfrecce to seize the initiative in the championship race, consolidating a takeover bid that has slowly but surely been building since the start of the season.

Vegalta may have established themselves as the early frontrunners — grabbing top spot on the second weekend and holding it until the 18th round — but Sanfrecce have been on their shoulder every step of the way. Hajime Moriyasu’s side spent six weeks in second place before wresting control away from Vegalta on July 14, and although the lead has changed hands several times since then, the momentum is clearly with Sanfrecce.

Hiroshima’s rise has been sure-footed rather than flashy, but such consistency is a valuable commodity in a competiton as streaky and unpredictable as the J. League. Vegalta’s early progress has been checked by six draws in their last eight games, while Reysol’s recent form has also waned after climbing the table on the back of seven wins from nine matches.

If Sanfrecce have played the tortoise to their rivals’ hare, however, it is ironic that quicksilver striker Hisato Sato has been the key figure in their success. The 30-year-old’s 17 goals have put him six clear at the top of the scoring charts, and for a player who stayed loyal to the club upon relegation in 2007, the prospect of some long-awaited silverware must be a powerful incentive indeed.

It will take more than desire for Sanfrecce to land its first-ever title, however, and as things stand the champion could conceivably come from anywhere in the top half of the table, or maybe even beyond.

For the time being, though, Sanfrecce are in the driving seat.

Saturday’s matches saw the members of Japan’s Olympic squad make their return to J. League action, and after reaching the semifinals in London, Takashi Sekizuka’s players were clearly hungry for more.

Takahiro Ogihara, Hotaru Yamaguchi and Taisuke Muramatsu all got their names on the scoresheet after slotting straight back into their respective teams’ starting lineups, and although Ogihara and Yamaguchi ended up on the losing side for Cerezo Osaka against Jubilo Iwata, Muramatsu’s goal proved to be the winner as Shimizu S-Pulse beat Sagan Tosu 1-0.

“I knew as soon as I headed it that I had gotten good contact on it, and I thought it was going in,” said Muramatsu, who played in Japan’s first-round 0-0 draw with Honduras in Coventry. “I was determined to get a goal today. I was frustrated at missing a shot in the first half, so I’m glad I was able to score.”

Have Gamba Osaka finally woken from their slumber?

After spending all but three weeks of the season so far in the relegation zone, the 2005 champions recorded the shock result of the weekend on Saturday night with a 5-0 away win over Nagoya Grampus.

Five different players hit the back of the net as Gamba refound a glimpse of the form that propeled them to top-three finishes in seven of the past eight campaigns, with the 42nd-minute dismissal of Grampus defender Takahiro Masukawa helping Masanobu Matsunami’s side along the way.

“We were expecting a tough game away from home, and the players were very focused going into the match,” said Matsunami. “Grampus had players in attack who were more about speed than size, and I think we were able to deal with that. Then they had a man sent off, and we were able to take control.”

Quotable: “There’s only one ball, so I want to see us link up the play and score. It would be a different story if there were two or three.”

— Albirex Niigata manager Masaaki Yanagishita reflects on his side’s 2-0 loss to Sanfrecce Hiroshima on Saturday.