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Title-chasing pack slims down after weekend purge


Staff Writer

There is still much to sort out before the identity of the 2012 J. League champion becomes known, but for perhaps the first time in a season that has consistently refused to produce a clear front-runner, a definitive shape is beginning to crystallize at the top of the table.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima took a big step toward a first-ever title on Saturday by opening up a five-point gap at the top with a 4-1 win over Sagan Tosu, while results elsewhere left Vegalta Sendai and Urawa Reds tied for second on 48 points. Jubilo Iwata’s 2-1 defeat at FC Tokyo means six points now separate Vegalta and Reds from fourth place, and with only seven games remaining, time is running out.

Sanfrecce’s lead has been well earned after coming through a series of important tests in recent weeks with their championship credentials enhanced. Hajime Moriyasu’s side edged Vegalta 2-1 before seeing off Nagoya Grampus with a last-minute winner the following weekend, and Saturday’s emphatic victory over Tosu was no mean feat given the newly promoted Kyushu side’s current league position of fifth.

Vegalta and Urawa are unlikely to let Sanfrecce disappear unchecked over the horizon, however, and Reds’ last-ditch 2-1 win over Kashiwa Reysol on Saturday was a crucial statement of intent after capitulating 5-0 at home to Gamba Osaka the previous weekend.

Anything less would have surely sounded the death knell for Urawa’s championship ambitions, and that is the reality now facing several teams after falling even further behind with defeats on Saturday. Grampus, Sagan and defending champions Reysol may as well kiss goodbye to any lingering hopes they had of winning the title, while Jubilo also look too far out of range after squandering an early lead against Tokyo.

Kashima Antlers famously overcame a 10-point gap with five games to go to win the title in 2007, but this year’s field is surely too dense and congested for anyone to stage a repeat.

From now on, it looks like a three-horse race.

Consadole Sapporo’s relegation to the second division had long been a matter of when rather than if, but the Hokkaido club must still be wishing it could have held out longer after the inevitable became a reality on Saturday night.

Consadole’s demotion was made official with a 1-0 defeat to Kawasaki Frontale at Todoroki Stadium, marking the quickest relegation in J. League history and the first in September with seven rounds of the season still to play.

Consadole also tied Kyoto Sanga’s unwanted record of slipping through the trapdoor for a fourth time, but midfielder Ryuji Kawai is hoping to salvage some pride before the season is over.

“For the remaining seven games, even if only one supporter is behind us, as professionals we’ll continue to give everything we’ve got,” he said. “We’ll keep our heads up and try to win the games we have left.”

Albirex Niigata remain deep in relegation trouble second from bottom in the table, but if Saturday’s astonishing 5-0 win over Nagoya Grampus is a sign of things to come, the Hokuriku side will surely have nothing to worry about.

Albirex went into the game at Big Swan Stadium having scored only 17 goals in their previous 26 matches, but a second-half blitz against the 2010 champions has given Masaaki Yanagishita’s men a glimpse of survival with 15th-place Omiya Ardija only two points ahead.

“Nagoya’s players looked very heavy in their movement and their marking and pressing was very loose,” said Yanagishita. “So there was that, but we were also able to move the ball around calmly and well in the second half.

“We moved well and took our chances to get the three points. Now we have to keep it going.”

Quotable: “I’d like the J. League to make thinner posts and crossbars so that we might get some more goals.”

— FC Tokyo manager Ranko Popovic offers a novel solution after watching his side hit the woodwork twice in Saturday’s 2-1 win over Jubilo Iwata.