Urawa Reds would have settled for a step in the right direction after escaping relegation by the skin of their teeth last season, but with a first J. League title since 2006 in sight with only nine games left to play, hopes of an unlikely triumph are gathering steam.
Reds, who finished one place above the drop zone last year having dispensed with manager Zeljko Petrovic before he had even completed a full season in charge, beat Yokohama F. Marinos 2-1 on Saturday to move two points off the top in third place, generating a swell of optimism at a club that has had little to celebrate since winning its solitary championship six years ago.
That triumph looked as if it would usher in an era of unprecedented J. League dominance, but instead it prefaced a steady decline that took in five managers and almost ended in ultimate indignity last year. The green shoots of recovery that have sprung since then are still fragile, but there is a quiet determination about Reds this season that has been markedly absent in recent times.
Previous Urawa sides would have likely crumbled after going a goal down after five minutes against Marinos on Saturday, but instead the players kept their composure and turned the game around before closing out the win in comfortable control.
Much of the credit for the revival must go to manager Mihailo Petrovic, whose J. League experience and level-headed attitude have proved the perfect antidote to the follies of the past, while the arrival of defender Tomoaki Makino and returning midfielder Yuki Abe has given the team the shot of quality it badly needed.
A marked improvement from previously underperforming key men such as Marcio Richardes and Keita Suzuki has been another important factor, but only time will tell if Urawa’s renaissance turns out to be the real deal or just another false dawn.
If things continue to improve, however, the rewards could come sooner than expected.
Jubilo Iwata kept themselves in the title race with a 2-1 win over Vissel Kobe on Saturday, coming back from a goal down at halftime to claim all three points and stay on the coat-tails of the front-running trio.
Goals from Ryohei Yamazaki and Hiroki Yamada kept fourth-place Jubilo six points behind leaders Sanfrecce Hiroshima, and manager Hitoshi Morishita liked what he saw in his team’s attitude when faced with adversity at Kobe Universiade Memorial Stadium.
“We were in a tight spot after the first half, but the players were very calm when they came back to the dressing room,” he said. “I could see that they had it in them to take hold of the situation. In the second half we proved what we are capable of.”
Few teams have had as much experience of fighting relegation battles in recent years as Omiya Ardija, and after finding themselves in the bottom three again going into Saturday’s fixtures, Zdenko Verdenik’s men had no choice but to roll their sleeves up for another scrap.
Kosuke Kikuchi’s 65th-minute goal against Sagan Tosu was enough to earn Ardija three precious points and a place above the drop zone, leaving midfielder Carlinhos anxious to make sure the reprieve is not just temporary.
“After winning tonight the feeling is half one of happiness, half one of relief,” the Brazilian said after Omiya leapfrogged Albirex Niigata and Gamba Osaka into 15th. “We’ve cleared one obstacle today, but now we have to make sure we get over the next one too.”
Quotable: “That was a first for me, but we can’t use it as an excuse.”
— Cerezo Osaka forward Yoichiro Kakitani refuses to shift the blame for his team’s 2-0 defeat to Nagoya Grampus on Saturday despite the game starting 75 minutes late due to a thunderstorm.